Jeffrey Binder is the Associate Artistic Director at Gulfshore Playhouse and directed the STAR Academy Teen Conservatory production of Into the Woods.
If you didn’t get a chance to see Into the Woods as presented by our newly created Teen Conservatory program this past summer – well, not to rub it in but you missed something pretty spectacular. Teens ranging from the ages of 13-17 came together one rainy morning in mid-July and over the course of two and a half weeks created a moving, complex, funny, musically satisfying piece that captured what was quirky, unique, and phenomenal about each one of the 15 students who were cast to be in it. I had the opportunity to direct the production at the behest of our fantastic Director of Education, Hester Kamin. We knew how complex the show was and that it would be hugely demanding on all of us – but who doesn’t like a challenge? Go big or go home.
We didn’t pull any punches with them. The music and lyrics for Into the Woods are Stephen Sondheim at his best — dizzying and complicated. The book by James Lapine rises to the challenge of Sondheim’s music by weaving a tapestry of several fairy tales into one coherent, quick-moving story. And on top of that, the entire second act is emotionally daunting, dealing with these characters after each has found his or her ‘happily ever after’ but who find out that ‘happily ever after’ isn’t always everything they expected it to be. Heady, demanding stuff – dramatically and comically and musically. They needed to bring their A-game. They needed focus and commitment… not only to themselves, but to their fellow actors and to the incredible team (the design team of Alex K, Kaique DeSouza, Graham Zellers and Jennifer Bronsted as well as our Music Director Austin were vital to the success of the show) that was creating the world that they would play in. And in just over two weeks, these kids crafted something extraordinary.
I’m always amazed to work with talented teens and younger actors, like the group who joined us this July. We create a space for them to foster development and depth as an actor and they have a capacity to grow quickly to fill that space. They have an eagerness to make a mark and step into that world in their own way.
It can be a challenge, they scatter in all sorts of directions both physically and emotionally over the rehearsal process. However, when they’re committed to the goal, which in this case is tackling a beautifully complex musical written by a beautifully complex artist, they come back together over and over again stronger, more focused, and deeper than when they left. And it all happens so quickly! They’re learning and growing at a pace that I can barely keep up with as I try to keep us all heading in the same direction artistically.
To watch a young performer realize a moment on stage honestly, or to tap into their own complicated experience as a teenager living in 2017 and try something or allow themselves to transfer something unique about that experience into a scene or a song or a character– sometimes it just takes your breath away. And when they can find it again in performance after they’ve discovered it in rehearsal? Well, that’s craft. That’s the lie of the actor! To discover something in a rehearsal and then recreate it for an audience in performance as if it is happening again for the first time. These Teen Conservatory students brought craft to the Gulfshore Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods – and to see the way the experience bonded them to one another as much as to the production… it’s hard to describe how profound of an experience it is to witness, and how proud I was to see the fruits of their hard earned and hard fought labor of love. As with any exceptional education program like the one Hester Kamin and Kristen Coury are working to create – we are watching young homegrown talent tackle difficult material with grace, honesty, artistic integrity, and craft. Our theatre and the community is all the richer for it.