Putting on a show is so much more than just memorizing lines and stage directions, while a director macro-manages the production from up on high, a fact which has never been more prevalent at the Encore Musical Theater than it has been during the company’s run of “Into the Woods.”
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods,” as directed by Encore Musical Theatre Company founder Daniel C. Cooney, began playing in Dexter on August 6 and ends its run this weekend on August 30. The show has garnered “incredible response from critics” more so than any other show that has been done in seven seasons and running, since the theater’s founding.
“Everyone’s been saying that this is the Encore’s best production yet and asking, ‘How are you going to top it?'” Cooney said. While he admits that the company can’t be certain what exactly worked to make its most current show such a runaway success, Cooney and his team do have some ideas about what made it so enjoyable.
“Dan has encouraged us to continue to play and discover,” said “Into the Woods” lead actress Jessica Grové. “He’s told us that opening night is not the end — we’re still creating this for each show and over the course of the four weeks. He’s told us to keep it alive.”
Cooney diverted much of the praise he’s received in the media back on his people: “We discovered what worked with this show as a group with everyone working together.”
The Encore folks were heavily influenced by New York-based Fiasco Theater’s take on “Into the Woods,” which they performed on a stage that emulated “grandma’s attic” dressed in costumes reminiscent of what children might cobble together from trunks of old clothing if they wanted to try “playing” the fairy-tales that meld together in “Woods.”
“It was abstract, actor driven and just unique in the choices they made,” Cooney reflected. “It’s like T.S. Elliot said, ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal.’ A lot of that translated into this production. A lot of it was setting pieces of what worked and what didn’t work, and framing what we were doing as something unique.”
The Encore folks set out to emulate the abstract and odd nature of Fiasco while still putting their own take on the show, and seem to have succeeded wildly, as their take starts out similar to Fiasco’s and then transitions into a full blown production.
“We had the gift of taking the best of it and then we stumbled upon our take during this process,” Cooney explained. “What I love about this show is that it morphs into a full blown production that takes place in the entire space. We don’t stay in the attic, and that transition is a lot of fun and people are asking themselves where the show is going to go at first and you build up from there.”
Grové frames it as being able to start from something more conceptual, like saying “Once Upon a Time” through the theater’s sound system and just being disembodied sound that starts as a seed that grows into the fully-fledged production that happens in the final act of “Woods,” with actors and set pieces all over the place and full blown stage choreography dictating where people and objects and lights and sounds are going and how all of those different aspects are playing off of and with each other to bring the show to its crescendo after the two-hour mark.
“It’s been satisfying as an actor to be able to say, ‘Once upon a time,’ to the audience and be in it as it becomes more of a play,” she said. “I think that by the time it becomes more of a play, it becomes better able to accommodate the emotional heaviness of it, whereas if you just kept it in the attic the whole time and everything was just sort of farcical it would lose a lot of the emotional strength.”
“Woods” is indeed a very emotional show that becomes real and gritty as the Lapine script moves further from the established stories of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Cinderella” and closer to his own original take on these tales’ convergence that has some truly unforeseen consequences.
It was a tough show for the Encore from the perspective of deriving an original take from their understanding of the work, the original script itself, individual cast and crew members impressions like those that came from exposure to the Fiasco version by Cooney, and what came of the creative process that happened during casting and rehearsals in the lead-up to Encore’s debut of this show earlier in the month.
It was more than a risk — it was a gamble.
“I think the fear of yours was when we were in rehearsals, you definitely asked yourself was it okay to be in a full blown production … would the audience get it?” Grové said to Cooney. “It was a risk because we hadn’t done anything quite like it before, but when the designers came to watch it, they all agreed that it worked.”
Audiences and critics carried the developer’s sentiment forward and took it to the next level, proving that the Encore Musical Theatre Company’s process for developing this show leading up to the seating of the first audience on opening night was a gamble that paid off.
“Rather than try to contain it and keep it up in this little circle with everybody watching, we lost that device 12 minutes in and it kind of becomes like ‘Upright Citizen’s Brigade,’ which was the first image I had when I saw this,” since Fiasco used 10 actors each playing more than one part, which only a couple of actors do in the Encore version of “Woods.”
There’s definitely a feeling of improvisation to the show, as several set pieces like the princes’ horses are toy stuffed horse-heads on sticks that they have between their legs while galloping along on their own feet, which leads to several self-aware moments where the actors make fun of some of those set pieces for their obvious silliness, which is one of many features that makes the Encore’s woods such a fun experience.
“I’ve watched this more than any other show I’ve watched here,” Cooney said. “I’ve really enjoyed watching it. I think that’s because we just allowed things to happen, rather than come in knowing exactly what it’s going to be, which is death (to a production).”
Cooney and Grové agree that this strategy will inform how the Encore operates going forward with a greater conscious focus on freedom and experimentation.
“It comes back to why this is so successful,”” Grové said, to which Cooney continued, “I want to embrace this way of doing things moving forward. Where you come in with a concept and some clear images and some clear ideas, but then you let it be what it begs to be through the process.
“I think (this show’s) given us permission to be more artful, whereas I felt locked in for a long time to ‘I need a big title, I need a lot of people on stage and it needs to be good,’ which at this point I think is unfair to the audience now, because they’re more than willing to come out and see a show like this, so it gives us permission, I think, to take more risks and do our Bonnie and Clyde’s (which is the next show that opens at the Encore).”
The Encore Musical Theatre Company hopes that the public will continue to follow them on the path towards that new direction with “In the Woods” as a first step along a long road towards greater creativity and more original work that involves more risks and more unique takes on stories both traditional and familiar, as well as non-traditional and obscure.
“Maybe this will be the production that will encourage people to come see something that they haven’t seen or heard of before,” Grové concluded.
For more information on the few remaining play times for “Into the Woods” at the Encore Musical Theater, visit their website for showtimes, tickets and other details.
Thank you to local professional photographer Michelle Anliker for the beautiful photos of “Into the Woods,” provided on behalf of the Encore Musical Theatre Company.