Seeing the Woods With No Trees

UM production of 'Into the Woods' delivers innovative take on popular musical

UM seniors Morgan Yhap (left), as Little Red Riding Hood, and Don Waller, as The Wolf, star in the Department of Theatre and Film’s production of ‘Into the Woods,’ which runs Nov. 4-6 in Fulton Chapel. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Have you ever imagined how much fun it might be if characters from your favorite stories came together to create a story of their own? With its latest production, the University of Mississippi Department of Theatre and Film is about to grant your wish.

“Into the Woods” opens Friday (Nov. 4) in Fulton Chapel and runs through Sunday (Nov. 6), with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday matinee performance will include ASL interpreting and live captioning. The Sunday performance is sold out.

Tickets are $20 for the general public and $15 for UM faculty, staff and students, available through the Ole Miss Box Office at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts. Call 662-915-7411 or click here to order.

The musical brings together well-known fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood and weaves them into a giant, tangled story – the ultimate fairy tale.

Dan Stearns

When asked to describe the musical, director Dan Stearns, UM assistant professor of acting, mused, “What is ‘Into the Woods’ about? What isn’t it about, I think might be the better question.

“I would say it’s something like an existential sensibility of how we have to find our way in the world.”

“Into the Woods,” which premiered on Broadway in 1987, is a Tony Award-winning musical and one of the most popular from the composing-writing team of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Thanks to a Broadway revival in 2002 and another underway this year, and a Disney film adaptation in 2014, it has touched generations.

Morgan Yhap, a senior from Dallas who plays Little Red Riding Hood, is among them.

“Little Red Riding Hood has been one of my dream roles since I saw ‘Into the Woods’ for the first time,” Yhap said. “This is very exciting for me.”

Despite doing theater in high school, Yhap started out as a business major. After meeting some students in the Department of Theatre and Film, she first decided to add a bachelor’s in theatre arts to her program for a dual degree, but later dropped the business major altogether.

In talking about her dream role of “Little Red,” as Yhap refers to her, whom she described as “a very sassy girl,” who “sometimes has larger-than-life tendencies because she’s so young,” Yhap said one of her favorite things is the way the character changes over the course of the show.

Theatre arts major Morgan Yhap (left), plays Little Red Riding Hood, and Reese Overstreet plays the Baker’s Wife in the upcoming production of ‘Into the Woods,’ which runs Nov. 4-6 in Fulton Chapel. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“In the first act, she’s more innocent, more naive,” Yhap said. “And then after she encounters the wolf, she becomes a lot more jaded, and a lot more fierce. But she’s a very honest character.

“I love how a lot of her lines are honest to the point of being funny because she doesn’t hold anything back. She always says what she’s thinking. I respect that about her.”

While the general plotlines of Little Red Riding Hood and the other characters in this show may be familiar, the setting – at least in Fulton Chapel – may not.

“In the text of the show, the woods mean any number of things,” Stearns explained. “They are a place of darkness and danger. They are a dream space. They are a metaphor for life.

“So my first thought was, ‘Maybe there don’t need to be any woods in the woods, and instead we really focus on the storytelling aspect of it.'”

Stearns worked with scenic designer Cody Stockstill to arrive at the concept of a “giant repository somewhere of all the human stories.”

“It is an archive of human wisdom, and it exists in no space, because the woods, even if we had woods, aren’t real; they exist in theatrical space,” Stearns said.

Cody Stockstill

Stockstill, an assistant professor of scenic design, took this concept and ran with it, mentally chopping down every potential onstage tree and replacing them with what he referred to as “an archive or repository” of icons and symbols from classic – and sometimes even modern – fairy tales.

The designer explained that instead of trees, “the woods” are a series of shelves – a little bit gnarled, a little bit off-kilter – that hold the items that the characters go into the woods in search of, because they believe they need them to be happy.

“The set is more inspired by the characters and creating a space that allows them to make choices,” Stockstill said. “We can make really difficult choices sometimes. It really comes from the characters and their actions rather than that this has to take place in the woods.” 

Stockstill said filling the archive was a challenge – but a fun one.

“We got to fill these shelves with fairy tale items not just from these stories but from all sorts of European-inspired stories, so you’ll see that there are little ‘Easter eggs’ all over the set. They’re just more options for the characters to make choices.” 

Junior Ava Greer, from Ocean Springs, is costume designer for the show. Though she did some designing for last season’s “Romeo and Juliet,” she said this was a different experience.

“This was my first time doing a really big musical, especially one that’s so conceptual like this,” Greer said. “It was really interesting, in the collaboration process, seeing all these different viewpoints of what this world could be.”

Ava Greer

Greer said her designs aimed to visually locate the characters in their individual stories while also bringing them into the same world.

“There are little pieces of symbolism in the patterns of their clothing, or in the colors,” Greer said. “They’re related to one another. They kind of have their own color series, but also they have to merge together as a unit because they all somehow live in this world together.”

Besides designing, Greer said the technical construction of the costumes was a highlight of this experience because she intends to have a career in costume design and technology, and knowing how to both design and fabricate large-scale period pieces will be a useful skill.

“We’re doing a lot of build projects, so any of the big dresses, I just love. I’m actually getting to work on Cinderella’s dress – her ballgown – myself, so I’m really excited for that. That’s probably my favorite piece.” 

Delivering an innovative take on a musical that’s been beloved for decades while maintaining the integrity of the original is a tricky prospect, but Stearns hopes audiences will be pleased.

“I want to make sure that the close of the production has the feeling of a very familiar Broadway-style production and that the moral lessons and the truly sensitive parts of this of this play get across,” Stearns said. “I think people can still enjoy it as they always have. I just hope that maybe they can see it in a new way.”