This article originally appeared in the fall 2015 Harker Quarterly. Read the full, multimedia version, including two video reports, at http://longform.harker.org/?p=6!
It’s opening night of the spring musical, and director Laura Lang-Ree already has her cast dreaming of Scotland, four months away. “You can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like,”she imparts to the students, who are probably trying anyway as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, humming in unison. She circles the cast, filling their heads with visions of the weeks leading up to the premiere, of traveling up and down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, of the spectacle of Festival Fringe, the humming growing in volume.
“1! 2! 3!” The room erupts, and the members of the cast take their places. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the oldest festival of its kind, a city-wide event with thousands of shows taking place in hundreds of venues. It began in 1947 when eight alternative theater companies arrived at the Edinburgh International Festival to perform for the large crowds that had assembled in the city. Several decades later, it is now the world’s largest arts festival, spanning weeks and offering space for nearly every kind of performer. “It’s just mindblowing, the innovation and the quality of work that happens at the Fringe,” said Lang-Ree.
Harker’s participation in Fringe dates back to 2007, when the now-defunct American Musical Theatre of San Jose saw the Harker Conservatory production of “Urinetown” and nominated it for consideration by the American High School Theater Festival. After a lengthy adjudication process and a memorable first year at Fringe, Lang-Ree decided to try to attend every four years, provided Harker was one of the selected schools. The Conservatory took “Pippin” to the festival in 2011.
Attending the Fringe is like no other experience for our students, Lang-Ree said. There’s “a big part of being an artist that people underestimate: observation. One of the main ways that we grow [as artists] is by observing and learning and then trying it for ourselves.”
Putting on a show at Fringe can be tricky. To make room for the thousands of performances at the festival, each group has a total of two hours to set up, do the show and tear down to make room for the next performer. In anticipation, veteran set designer Paul Vallerga worked tirelessly to prepare sets and props that were ready for travel and easy to put in place, while also selling the atmosphere of the production.
“It’s all going to be in such a whirlwind,” Caroline Howells ’15, who played Cinderella, predicted when rehearsals began. “I imagine that we’ll get on stage and before we know it, it will be over.”
“Into the Woods” inspired extraordinary excitement in this cast and crew. Stephen Sondheim’s famously rich and challenging score and thematic complexity has achieved legendary status in the nearly 30 years since the musical premiered. “Musically, it’s very sophisticated,” said music director Catherine Snider. “So there’s always a little bit of extra-special care that needs to go into preparing a musical when the music is simply so difficult to learn.”
Sondheim devised subtle musical motifs for each of the story’s rich assortment of fairy tale characters, all searching for their own happily-ever-afters.
Sondheim’s music is couched in a story that puts fairy tale characters into situations that contort their (and “the audience’s) preconceptions about supposedly happy endings, daring to ask what happens when people get what they think they want. Act 1 concludes with what most would deem a happy ending, but things change in Act 2.
“‘Into the Woods’ explores what happens after the happily-ever-after, when our wishes aren’t quite what we thought and what we wanted kind of falls apart,” Snider said.
It’s a lot for actors to learn and digest, but it makes for a musical that is rewarding to perform, as well as witness. “Usually in a musical, maybe the music will be harder or the dance might be harder, one element might be more difficult than the others, but for ‘Into the Woods’ it was the combination of the acting and the singing that was at a really, really high level,” said Lang-Ree. “So that’s what made it unique.”
More about Harker’s appearance at Fringe – including the street performances, the lightning-quick setup and teardown, the exciting adventures in Scotland – can be found in the full media-rich feature story, now online at news.harker.org; search on “Into the Fringe.”