NOAH BRODY is co-artistic director with Ben Steinfeld of Fiasco Theater – a US-based actor-run ensemble that until recently specialised in workshopping and presenting small-scale productions of Shakespeare. That changed in 2013 when the group tackled their first full-scale musical: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairytale mash-up Into the Woods.
Fiasco’s much-reduced production ran for a month at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, before enjoying a spell at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where the original production had its first tryouts 28 years earlier. From there, it transferred to Off-Broadway, to the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre, and found a larger audience to appreciate their quirky take on this much-loved musical. It also won the 2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival.
Now, Noah and Fiasco have brought Woods to London, for an 11-week stint at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The intimate Southwark venue has had nothing but success with its previous Sondheim shows, so the pressure is on for Noah and his team.
Craig Glenday spoke with the actor-director about the challenge of telling a story that is itself is about story-telling, and reducing one of Sondheim’s most extensive and diverse dramatis personae to an ensemble of just ten plus MD.
Welcome to London. Have any of the Fiasco team performed here?
No, this will be the first time that any of us have performed in London. Professionally, anyway. I studied at RADA for a summer and have been to London many times. Most of us will have visited London and parts of the UK, I’m sure, but I don’t think any of us have worked on the stage there.
What are you anticipating?
Well, it is interesting to see how the London audiences respond to the show. I think probably a couple of factors come into play. One is that Sondheim’s work is known worldwide. This show in particular is really well known by audiences and this brings a lot of expectations. That’s been our experience, at least in New York. Part of the impact of the experience of the show is the new way of looking at, conceptualising and performing, Into the Woods. That in itself is interesting.
The other thing is, what are the London response patterns like? What do they like? What do they dislike? What do they find funny? It’s always different from space to space. It is an interesting learning experience. We’re excited and scared!
What do you think of the Menier as a space?
We’re all very happy that it’s happening in the Chocolate Factory. It’s an intimate space, and our shows rely rather heavily on the audience-actor circuit of listening, using the imagination, and being able to respond to the audience.
How would you describe Fiasco’s style of theatre?
We’re an ensemble company. The core of Fiasco Theater has been together for at least 15 years. We met, many of us, at graduate school, and many members of the company have known each other since their bachelor/baccalaureate days. We’ve been together all that time and creating theatre since 2008/09, so we work like a family.
We’re an actor-driven company, so all of the conceptualisation and direction is done by actors – by the people performing in the show. In this case, it’s Ben [Steinfeld] and me, who are co-directors. This changes the values of the production, I think. We do things that actors love to do, and when we look for shows, we look for shows that are ensemble based… a text and a message that we can stand behind, and that we think’s rich, and [communicates the] value and importance of storytelling. As performers, this is a very important method for us.
And because we love theatre – and love theatre as actors – we take into consideration very seriously the audience’s experience. We’re often asking ourselves: what do we think the audience is meant to get from this particular moment or this particular event? How is it meant to land on them? We’re thinking of the completion of that circuit – that audience-actor circuit. And we’re thinking about what imaginative energy they’re bringing – and that we’re asking them to bring – to our productions. We have a tendency to provide the information that’s necessary – but only what’s necessary – to tell the story. What this means is that the audience has to engage its imagination to connect the dots and fill in the blanks.
It’s different from the standard model of theatre. Well, maybe it’s not so different in London, but it’s different at least from the model that we’re used to in the United States, where technically a show of this kind will be conceived by a director, maybe with his or her designers, months or even a year in advance. The costumes are finished, the set is finished, then they plug in a bunch of actors who don’t know each other – that they find in auditions – and who find out on the first day of rehearsal what the concept is and what the director believes the message of the piece is, its thematic structure. They’re told that information. The director builds the boat for them to get on, but the actors have to sail it.
So how is Fiasco different?
In the case of Fiasco, we do all of that work together months or a year in advance. We’re in the room together, unpacking the script and asking all of the questions that a director and a dramaturg will be asking each other. That’s quite unusual in the United States. By the time we get to a first rehearsal, we’ve built up a deep soil of understanding and values. The whole company knows what we’re after. Yet a lot of that won’t be finished because we’re an ensemble theatre, and we feel that a lot of the show is created in the rehearsal room.
We try to have enough information to provide a solid conceptual foundation, but the performances are built in the room. Our productions are built with flexibility. This often means that our sets are relatively minimal. We provide a rich environment and a rich kit – a set of tools, if you like – that we can use to build the show, even if we don’t know how we’re going to use those tools until we get into the rehearsal room.
Someone like Derek McLane, who designed this show, is in simpatico with this way of thinking. He brings an enormous amount to the table in terms of information and environment but he also brings the kinds of tools we like to play with in the room.
You’ve got plenty of material to work with in Into The Woods…
We hold the book in very high regard. Of course, the music is incredible, and infectious – the things that Stephen does with these moments is to take human experiences and put them into song in a way that nobody else can. We knew all this before we started working on the piece. But what we didn’t know was how brilliant James Lapine’s book was going to be, and how efficient. The thematic structure, and even the plot – people with different needs colliding with each other and asking “what happens ever after?” What does community mean? It’s rich, and Sondheim and Lapine have mined it for all it’s worth.
How challenging is it taking fairytales – material that’s usually read to you as a child – and bringing them to life on stage?
If you hear these stories read aloud and hear about characters like Cinderella or the Big Bad Wolf, your imagination is free to roam and you create a whole universe for yourself. In the case of Little Red, for example, she’s having an experience with a wolf! An actual wolf! So, what is the experience that Little Red says that she’s having? Can we give that experience both to Little Red and to the audience? Can we let them draw their own conclusions about allusions to contemporary society? The answer is yes. If you think of it as a thing that takes place in the imagination first and not taking on the freight of the cultural baggage of Disney movies or preceding productions of the show, then you’re free to ask larger questions and invent storytelling on the stage in a new way.
Into The Woods speaks to all of us in different ways, and changes as you get older…
You’re right. It’s very Shakespearean that way. It’s talking to everyone at the same time in general but also to each of us specifically.
The number of conversations we’ve had about what this show is about is fascinating. “You know, it’s really about the AIDS crisis.” Or “It’s about nuclear annihilation.” Or, as you’ve said, people will say: “You know what, when I first saw it, I thought it was about this thing, then I saw it again five or ten years later and it changed for me.” If you’re talking about primary human experience, then what you take away changes as your experience changes, as you go through life.
Did you have much contact with Sondheim during preparations?
We did, subsequent to the first production. James came to one of our earliest previews when we first did the show, then Steve came along just before or shortly after we opened in 2013 in Princeton, New Jersey. He became a great champion of the production and of our work, and we had the good fortune to sit down with him for conversations about his work. He came in to hear sing-throughs of the show to give us notes, and he’s been very generous with his time and his thoughts. We feel privileged to have a relationship with him and to have him as a champion of our work.
How was the show received by audiences?
Thankfully, it was received to great acclaim. For us it was a big endeavour. We’re a small ensemble that mostly does classical theatre, or had up until that point. Shakespeare shows with six or eight actors, for example. So, taking on a musical of this size with 11 people and lots of moving pieces, we didn’t know if we’d even get off the ground. And, in fact, it seemed for a little while that the whole thing might collapse in on itself. But one of the miracles of theatre is that it just sorta happens! It has to open, no matter what! And it did.
The work we put in to really unpack what we thought was contained within the piece, and how we might tell the story, resonated with the audience and met with great critical acclaim. Thanks to that and the richness of the piece that Sondheim and Lapine created – and probably Stephen Sondheim’s championing of it – it went on to multiple productions in New Jersey, San Diego, and New York at the Roundabout Theater. Along the way, it got more acclaim and picked up new fans for Fiasco and for the show.
How did the London production come about?
I don’t know how the initial connection happened other than because they do a lot of Sondheim there. [Menier artistic director] David Babani would be a better person to ask that question. I think they’d been interested in doing Into The Woods, and when they reached out to Steve and James and their representatives, they were told to check out this New York production. David got in contact with us, and the three of us that run the company sat down and talked about how we might do this kind of thing. For us, it’s been a dream to be able to perform in London, and to do it with this show is the cherry on top.
And the entire original cast has come over from New York?
Correct. Well, one of the actors [Jennifer Mudge] isn’t able to come over. She’s just finished a long run in London with the Matthew Perry play [The End of Longing] and after about five months away from her husband and family, she felt she just couldn’t do another long run. So we’re very sorry that she isn’t with us, but one of our understudies from New York is taking her part, which we’re thrilled about, and the rest of the original company members are over.
How do you condense 19 parts down to 11 actors?
Primarily, it’s just condensing and doubling and tripling. And trying to find some performative and thematic resonance in that. So for instance, I play Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, which is not uncommon, but in our production, Rapunzel’s Prince also plays Milky White the cow, and the two of us play the two wicked stepsisters.
So we end up being a double act, playing princes, animals and sisters! The actress who plays Little Red also plays Rapunzel, so you can play different sides and different characters. We think that this adds to the experience for the audience.
What did you think of the Disney movie version of Into The Woods?
What they did was to take Stephen and James’ stage show and make it into a movie. They have very different values. One is a live medium that’s about words and sounds and a communal experience, and the other is a visual medium. There’s also no intermission so you’ve only got one big arc. This means that you have to make rather significant changes. Although the primary material is the same, they’re completely different experiences. So basically, my opinion is that as a movie, I thought it was terrific, but it’s very very different to a staged version of the show.
Are you planning on doing any more Sondheim?
We are but it hasn’t been announced yet, unfortunately, so I probably shouldn’t share the title with you. But we’re looking at another one of his pieces and he’s very graciously granted us a lot of material for a show that we hope to announce soon for autumn next year.
* Fiasco’s production of Into The Woods continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 1 September 2016.
Tickets for Into the Woods are available HERE.
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Into the Woods – Menier Chocolate Factory – Review