Preparing for ‘Into the Woods’ with SPARC

Huddled inside the November Educational Theatre at SPARC are 23 students in various costumes with an assortment of props. It’s Halloween night, but these students aren’t here to Trick or Treat. Instead, they’ve come to rehearse Into the Woods, the musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, that they’ve been working on for the past 5 weeks.  Joining them for the first time tonight are the 5 technical theatre students who will be helping them backstage during the show. As the director and music director file in, the students begin their warmups and the next two hours are filled with laughter, dancing, sword fights, and fun.

Into the Woods, the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical, follows fairy tale characters as they step out of their comfort zones and into the mysterious, and possibly dangerous, forest to get their wishes granted. The musical is a huge task for any producing theatre to take on but the students at SPARC step up to the challenge.

Director Brendan Kennedy says the students asked to do the show and knowing that it would be a growing opportunity, he agreed to it. With that in mind the concept for the show is minimalism. “Into the Woods is such a fantastic piece of theatre to work on. It is an imaginative story with incredible heart behind it. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to emphasize the characters- to find ways where the actors have a bigger responsibility in the story-telling elements. So we decided to strip down the production elements and make it as much about them as possible.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to do backstage! Students who signed up for the technical theatre aspect of the show will be helping with costume changes including wigs and makeup prosthetics, rigging set pieces for special effects, and running the lights and sound of the entire show. In addition, actors and crew members will be working in “the round,” meaning the audience will sit on each side of the stage and crew members will be doing double time, working at all four corners of the room. “The round allows for the audience to be engulfed in our story. With actors entering and exiting every which way I feel as though you get a better feel of how lost they are sometimes, and how much they are in constant search of the next thing. We hope that the audience feels as if they too are in these woods and are right alongside them in this journey.”

So what does it take to put on a production like Into the Woods? According to Kennedy, it’s “patience and trust. It’s a massive process and you have to be able to rely on a ton of people.” Beyond what is happening in the rehearsal room each night, there are a dozen people with different artistic specialties working around the clock to put the pieces of the show together. This includes the set, costumes, music, programs, lights, and even ticket sales. Production team members for Into the Woods have theatre credits from all over the nation.

Some were even working on the show before auditions were scheduled. “If I’m not doing my job or the actors aren’t, or the production manager isn’t, the show suffers. It takes an abnormal amount of people and their talents and time to make a stellar production,” Kennedy says. For actors, this means committing to rehearsing three times a week for a couple of hours. Along with working on their own roles, a handful of the students are understudying their fellow castmates. Many of them have even enjoyed stepping in for roles that they were not originally assigned to when students were ill or had conflicts. Thankfully it is fun work that they are doing and they have the opportunity to socialize with their peers while expanding their personal growth. Students are encouraged to make big choices and be undaunted at the prospect of making mistakes. “It takes trust from all that not every choice we make is going to be right or perfect, but every choice we make hopefully guides us closer to the answer. And the answer can change from day to day. Learning to have that flexibility and ownership of your work is what the rehearsal room is all about.”

Performance Details & More About SPARC

‘Into the Woods’ opens November 10th and runs weekends through November 19th. SPARC provides performing arts classes, camps, productions, and outreach programs for ages 4-18 in Richmond, Va. Auditions for SPARC’s next show, Legally Blonde The Musical JR., will be held December 2 from 1 – 4:30pm & Tuesday December 5 from 4:30 – 8:30pm at SPARC and Spring classes begin January 15,2018. Visit for more information.

Article by Amy Almond and Photos by Tom Topinka