The first song of the Broadway musical “Into the Woods” speaks of wishes: characters wish for milk, for children, to go to the festival. Each character wishes for adventure, for sustenance and for better lives.
As the cast of IU’s student-run production sings the prologue, they aren’t just singing empty words. They’re wishing, too.
The cast of “Into the Woods,” expected to run Feb. 12-13, 2021, wishes to continue rehearsing and perform a show during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those involved in the show have followed extensive precautions to ensure their safety and ability to perform on stage, which for many will be their first opportunity in nearly a year.
The group has yet to confirm a venue for the show, but only 15 to 20 audience members will be allowed to attend each performance to avoid the risks of a large gathering. Although the show isn’t an official IU theater department production, the venue will be on campus.
Musical theater major and senior Kyle Mason is directing the show, a project he said he’s aspired to put on since his sophomore year.
“It was always going to be ‘Into the Woods,’” he said. “I came about it when I was in my early teen years and just beginning to love musical theater, and it had such an impression on me as a person and an artist. It seemed like a perfect thing to do as my own senior thesis project.”
Although student-led work is encouraged within and often funded by the theater department, money was low this year due to the pandemic, which meant in order to get the project on its feet, Mason had to raise the money himself. With a combination of GoFundMe, help from friends and family and a grant from the Hutton Honors College, he eventually raised enough money to meet his goal.
The original 1987 Broadway cast of “Into the Woods” had 23 members, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring safety of this production meant downsizing the cast to 15, plus a creative team of six people. But even with the potential health risks putting on a show brings, getting enough actors wasn’t as big an issue as expected.
Stage manager Spencer Lawson, a junior majoring in theater, said because opportunities to perform are so low right now, actors were willing to pour extra time and energy into the production.
“I was actually pleasantly surprised with how excited everyone was,” Lawson said. “I expected there to be a lot of people like, ‘Hey, this show sounds interesting, I just don’t feel comfortable doing it,’ but rather we had people saying, ‘I will comfortably self-quarantine just to be part of a show.'”
Musical theater is an art form that relies on human contact. Actors must play off one another both emotionally and physically, dancers are often in close proximity and audiences sit nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. In a pandemic where close contact is dangerous, the cast of “Into the Woods” had to adapt to put on their show.
During the first few rehearsals, which were over Zoom, Lawson drafted a “COVID Comfortability Contract,” an agreement requiring actors to adhere to strict health and safety guidelines and to constantly monitor themselves and those around them for symptoms of COVID-19. This contract had to be signed and a negative COVID-19 test had to be sent to the creative team before actors could attend the first in-person rehearsal.
“The biggest thing is keeping transparency for the cast to make sure that everyone feels as comfortable as possible,” Mason said.
Actors also declared social circles within the cast, small groups of people who would only hang out with each other while in Bloomington. When coming back to Bloomington after a trip home or a school break, actors quarantined until they received negative test results back. Props and supplies are sanitized after use and sharing is discouraged. Everyone is gloved and masked at all times during rehearsal.
Rehearsals take place in the basement of an off-campus house, where fans blow and a door is kept open for better air circulation. Shows typically rehearse in theaters or professional spaces, but concerns around COVID-19 and budgeting made these spaces difficult to access this year.
Senior musical theater major Larkin Reilly, who plays Little Red Riding Hood, said it is a challenge to be working unconventionally, but she’s hoping for an easy move to the stage where they will perform.
“When we’re rehearsing, Kyle will often say, ‘OK, we’re doing it this way first but when we’re actually in the space this will look different,’” she said. “So it’s definitely been hard to imagine being in a regular space, but it’s mapped out so well in the basement and we have a lot of the set pieces we’re already using, so I hope the transition will be relatively seamless.”
But the heart of musical theater — singing, dancing and acting — is facing major adjustments. The goal is to have as few people as possible onstage at the same time. With the exception of a few numbers featuring all 15 cast members, actors who are not in each other’s social pods will not make close contact during the show. Actors will also be masked for the entire show — even while singing — leaving them to express the complexities of human emotion with half-hidden faces.
While Mason described masked theater as “jarring” at first, he also said it creates an opportunity to try new things.
“There’s something interesting to be found with just acting from your eyes up, because you can’t use the lower half of your face to emote at all, so I’m finding that as we’re working with the actors it’s interesting to see how each of them approach that,” Mason said.
It’s all different from how theater normally operates. But despite the restrictions, Reilly said she’s grateful to be rehearsing at all.
“Every night after rehearsal I feel like the luckiest girl in the world because so many people aren’t getting that experience,” Reilly said. “I feel very lucky to be where I am right now in my life while this is occurring.”
Senior musical theater major Ethan Germain, who plays Jack, said scene work was his favorite part of rehearsal because he gets to work on a team.
“It’s really fun to act with other people and look at my colleagues and say these lines to them even if we’re in masks,” he said. “The discovery in that is a lot of fun for me.”
Because close contact between actors is generally limited, senior Carly Liegel, the choreographer, has had to work around barriers. Rather than having flashy ensemble dance numbers, the choreography is simple. Liegel described many of the movements as “just taking a normal human gesture and making it a little bit more.”
“What I think I love that dance can bring to the table is that it allows the actors to portray things in a way where they don’t necessarily have to be super close to each other or touching,” Liegel said. “I think the body can tell so much about a person without even having words there at all.”
The aesthetic of the show is modernized, to fit the contemporary style and a student budget. Scene design is stripped down. Huge set pieces aren’t feasible, so instead the set consists of eight blocks that create different structures depending on how they’re used.
The actors themselves form certain aspects of the set, swaying to mimic the movement of trees or using green parasols to imitate the beanstalk Jack climbs. Costumes consist largely of regular street clothes that fit with each character’s theme. Little Red, for instance, trades her cape as red as blood for a red hoodie, and moves across the stage in a pair of Heelys. Jack wears overalls and a flannel.
Lawson said while the show is a huge undertaking especially in the middle of a pandemic, it’s worth it to see the work come together.
“It’s a notoriously difficult musical,” he said. “It’s incredibly fast-paced and diverse in style. We’re taking on this Goliath-size show and we’re still trying to make it work, and that’s just so exciting for me to see the talent that’s coming out to make it happen.”
“It may all be in vain, I know / into the woods but even so / I have to take the journey,” says a line in the prologue. Of course, because of the unpredictability of the virus, the threat of being shut down looms over the production. Even with safety measures in place, further lockdowns or regulations in the future could equal closure.
“There could be a circumstance where it gets shut down any day,” Mason said. “There could be a chance when the new administration takes office in January, more strict shutdowns get put into place. That is a real possibility for us and something that I am conscious of.”
It may not be the traditional theater experience, but the cast still hopes audiences will go home inspired, especially since the themes of "Into the Woods" can be applied to today’s circumstances.
“Thematically, in Act 2 there is a plot point that kind of eerily reflects COVID in terms of something that greatly affects a group of people,” Mason said. “It’s a lot about individualism versus thinking in a community sense, which I think is so relevant to COVID times.”
Germain said his character in particular has helped him realize meaningful life lessons that he wants the audience to take home with them as well. Toward the end of Act 2, his character Jack suffers a major loss and sings a song called “No One Is Alone,” which makes him realize the family he’s found along his journey.
“It’s just made me realize, if it’s not OK, it’s not the end, and you’re not alone,” Germain said. “I just hope people will appreciate the people in their life that are there for them, but even more than that, just escapism for two hours. You can just come and watch a show and pretend things are a little bit normal, and hopefully laugh a little bit.”