by Heidi L. Everett
Against a lush backdrop of trees, four levels of scaffolding provide students of St. John’s Preparatory School the outdoor stage for an epic fairytale about wishes, family and the choices we make.
The Tony-award winning story “Into the Woods” is James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s take on favorite storybook characters brought together for a timeless, yet relevant, piece and includes 23 cast members and a 19-piece orchestra.
It follows a baker and his wife, who wish to have a child; Cinderella, who wishes to attend the King’s Festival; and Jack, who wishes his cow would give milk. When the baker and his wife learn they cannot have a child because of a witch’s curse, the two set off on a journey to break the curse. Everyone’s wish is granted, but the consequences of their actions return to haunt them later with disastrous results.
Brandon Anderson, theater director at SJP, said the pandemic really helped set the stage for “Into the Woods” and other performances this past year.
“Last year with COVID, we tried to think about how we could still do a theater season and still have a place to perform. I wanted students to know theater was alive and well and can still thrive,” Anderson said. “After walking around campus, we thought ‘why can’t we do this in our own backyard?’”
In the fall, students performed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the woods of the prep school. The character Puck entered the performance area on a zip line.
Anderson and the rest of the crew learned a lot from that performance about acoustics and lighting outdoors, which they carried to the performances of “Into the Woods.”
“Lighting was a really big challenge, and it’s such an important part of a performance,” Anderson said. “As days are getting brighter and brighter, we needed to figure out where the sun was going to be. We use it as the main light source at the start of the play.”
Anderson is particularly proud of the students’ spatial awareness on the scaffolding of “Into the Woods,” which they didn’t practice on until a few weeks before opening night June 3.
“The actors can be uncomfortable because they don’t understand what the audience is seeing,” he said. “You might be on one level of the stage, and someone else is on the fourth level, and you don’t see each other.”
As for the heat of early June?
“In the evening, it cools off substantially,” Anderson said. “We are surrounded by trees, and have the lake breeze. With shows starting at 7:30 (p.m.), it turns into a beautiful night.”
Anderson is no stranger to the woods and water surrounding the prep school. He earned his undergraduate degree in theater at St. John’s University before obtaining a master’s degree with distinction in acting from The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in England. He has worked between Los Angeles and New York City participating in student films, commercial work, and performing in summer Shakespeare festivals. Before joining the prep school, he worked in South Korea.
He has high hopes for outdoor theater in the community.
“We have huge potential for outdoor theater,” he said. “What better place with lake and woods as a backdrop to do that?”
“Into the Woods” runs through Saturday, June 12. Tickets can be purchased at https://sjprep.net/event/into-the-woods/