Fourth-year Batten and College student Lawrence Simon will be directing the fall production of “Into the Woods” for the student-run theater organization First Year Players. FYP features a cast made up entirely of first-years and first-year transfer students, making FYP not only a place for performance, but for forging friendships in what is, for many, an entirely new environment. Simon discussed the significance of this show and the organization as a whole, as well as his role as director.
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Arts and Entertainment: Why this musical now?
Lawrence Simon: I chose to propose “Into the Woods” in September of last year for a number of reasons. First, for me the show is all about community, both the stories that build communities as they are passed down from parents to children, as well as the story of the show itself, which is about a group of characters who start out with self-serving desires but over the course of the show learn to empathize with those around them and form a strong community. So I want this show to provide incoming first-years at U.Va. with the chance to build a community of friends like the one FYP gave me when I first joined in the fall of 2015.
Second, this show is about the transition from childhood and adolescence to adulthood that so many of the students entering U.Va. in the fall are going to be experiencing. I hope that this show can offer those involved and those who see the show with lessons on how to navigate a world full of opportunities and dangers like those offered to the characters in the show, as well as teach them that as long as they have friends who love and support them, that they can make it through anything — which is also a major theme of the show.
I am also a fan of the fact that every character in “Into the Woods” has a name, and so each character can feel like the protagonist of their own story. This makes this show unique compared to musicals with a traditional ensemble, while also providing every actor involved in the show with plenty of moments to shine, regardless of their role.
AE: Do you have a personal connection with “Into the Woods?”
LS: I am a huge fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim and like a lot of his work. I first got interested in “Into the Woods” in 2012 and 2013. I watched a lot of productions of it online, especially a video of the Original Broadway Cast, saw a community theatre production of it in 2014 and even saw the movie adaptation four times in theaters. Although I've always been a fan of this show, it wasn't until I began listening to it frequently last autumn that I really began to fall in love with the show and realized that it would be the perfect show for FYP.
AE: Have you directed before — this show or others? What are some of the biggest challenges and rewards to the task in general?
LS: I directed a production of another Sondheim show, “Company,” for Spectrum Theatre in the fall of 2017. That was an amazing experience because that show provided both the Artistic Staff, including myself, and the cast of the show, which was formed from students from all four years at U.Va., to build a strong sense of community and friendship, as well as putting on a show that all of us, including myself, were proud of. I hope that we can recapture that magic with this production.
The biggest challenges that we faced with that show, and that a lot of student theatre productions face, both come from the fact that we're involved in student theatre. Shows are sometimes limited because people have classes and other extracurricular commitments at times, and because we are limited by budget and technical feasibility. But because everyone involved in a show is a student, whether “Company” or any other student theatre production, the reward of being able to put on a show with all of your friends and getting to see your friends shine on stage makes the final product incredibly rewarding when everything comes together at the end of the semester.
AE: What twists, if any, are being put on the script? Will it bear any similarities to other adaptations, like the recent Disney film?
LS: Because we've licensed the rights for “Into the Woods” from Music Theatre International, we'll be following the libretto as written for us. The fun of being involved in a theatrical production of “Into the Woods,” though, is that you get to bring your own set of ideas, experiences and opinions to a show like this, which invites a lot of imagination from the Artistic Staff and the cast, as well as from myself.
As for other productions, I am a huge fan of the Fiasco Theater's 2015 revival of the show which had a very minimalist take on the show that invited the audience's imagination to fill in the gaps, something that I would like to emulate with this production. I am a big fan of the movie version of “Into the Woods,” especially Meryl Streep's portrayal of The Witch, but I think that this show will be very different because the movie can show you everything that a theatrical production usually implies.
AE: How do you foster chemistry between members of cast and crew? How important is this chemistry to the production?
LS: One way that we try to foster chemistry within the cast is by casting actors who work well together in callbacks. We also hold rehearsals five days a week, so there is plenty of time for members of the cast to get to know one another before, during and after rehearsals. We as an artistic staff also put together events to get members of the cast well acquainted with one another, and we try to foster an atmosphere in rehearsal that is fun and inviting so that friendships can flourish.
Also, one of the things that I love most about FYP is that the organization has a very vibrant social scene led by our social chairs who organize events outside of rehearsal where cast members get to know one another as well as getting to know other first-years in the organization and members of all years, who stay active through the Technical Staff, Pit Orchestra and Production Staff — all of whom also help make the show possible and help make the organization very inviting and an amazing experience for incoming first-years.
Chemistry is very important to any production because it really makes a show fun to watch and makes the characters come alive, which is important for “Into the Woods” because it has such a lively cast of characters. Also, FYP's mission is to foster friendship and bonding experiences between first-years who share a similar set of interests and passions, and so the need to build friendship and community within a cast is as important a part of the FYP experience as putting on a show.
AE: What are you most looking forward to with directing this musical?
LS: The part of directing “Into the Woods” that I'm most looking forward to is the building of a community around the show. Going from auditions, when very few people involved in the show's cast know each other, to the end of the show, when everyone has formed a second family over the course of a semester of rehearsals, is just an amazing process. This is especially true of FYP productions where everyone involved is entering the University for the first time just before auditions, and by the end of the semester, everyone has come together to create a truly magical experience. I believe that “Into the Woods” will be an amazing show for building this community because everyone involved gets their chance to highlight their talents while connecting over shared experiences — both through the stories that the show draws on and through common first-year experiences.
For those interested in auditioning who would like more information about getting involved, including audition times, or if anyone still has questions about auditioning, Lawrence Simon can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.