Thursday, April 26, 2012

Into the Woods--Scene Design

Into The Woods, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine was produced at Brigham Young University-Idaho on the Snow Drama Theatre stage, winter semester, 2004.

Act I interweaves the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstock and The Baker's Wife.  Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel are thrown in for good measure.  The play begins with the characters from the three main storylines singing about their problems and each decides the answer lies "Into the Woods".  At the end of the act, Cinderella has her prince, Jack has his fortune, the Baker and his wife have a child, Red Riding Hood has her grandmother back and Rapunzel has escaped with her prince.

Act II is what happens after they have "lived happily ever after".  Cinderella, Jack and the Baker and his wife once again decide the answer to their problems lies "Into the Woods".  Rapunzel loses her mind, her prince and Cinderella's prince run off with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the Baker's wife and many others are killed when the wife of the giant Jack killed comes down a second beanstalk and terrorizes the countryside.  By the end of the play, the few characters left are refugees trying to survive.

Act I is delightful and Act II is dark. 

Originally, the director, John Bidwell wanted to see the woods in the background and three flown rooflines of the three main storys.  When the characters went "Into the Woods" the rooflines would fly out and they'd be in the forest.  I thought we should have a bigger contrast between the characters in their homes and when they went "Into the Woods" during the song.  I suggested we start the show with three large storybooks onstage in front of the main rag.  I drew some sketches and convinced John to let me try.  I think the outcome was definitely worth it.

We already had a false proscenium in place from the previous show and I decided to utilize it and we repainted it with fairly cartoony, castle stone and cut three windows in it that we then covered with muslin and painted in a transluscent, stained glass style.  One of the windows had a hinge on it and would become Rapunzel's tower. 

Rapunzel's tower in false proscenium

I designed three storybooks, all between 6'-6" and 7'-6" tall.  The front covers were designed to open and reveal scenes on the inside for each of the main storys.  Since the Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood stories were more sub-plots than main storylines, they did not get their own books.

The storybooks all had gold "embossed" designs on the front covers and the title imprinted in gold on the spine.  This was done with gold paint pens.

Gold "embossing"

The pre-show look had the three books in front of the red curtain and we also built a couple of trees downstage of the proscenium.  The lighting designer requested a haze fog to be in place so there would be alot of ambience in the auditorium.

When the books opened the narrator's lines of introduction for that scene were lettered on the inside of the front covers.  I like illustrated stories, so I painted a few illuminations in the text of each of the books.  I thought they fit pretty well.

Cinderella's book--Act I

Jack's book--Act I
The Baker's book--Act I
When the characters sang the song, "Into the Woods", the red rag flew out and the books were wheeled out by hidden stagehands and the woods were revealed. When the books were offstage, they were re-dressed with an interior scene for Act II. 

Cinderella's book, Act II
Jack's book, Act II
The Baker's Wife book, Act II

As a designer, especially in a show like this I like to have a big reveal moment.  When the main rag flew out, the audience saw a large rock in the middle of the stage and fourteen large, shop built trees.  The teasers curtains had all been replaced with cut drops that had a foliage profile cut on the lower edge.  The effect was that we had entered a different world.

Shop built trees
I had camped near a glacial boulder field in Allegheny State Park back in the early nineties and had been intrigued by the trees that had beaten the odds and had grown anyway.  They had sent out roots over boulders to find any soil at all to grow in.  It was as if they were giant hands grasping the rock.  I remember thinking, "One day I'll use this".  That was the basis for the woods part of this design.

Ray Versluys, our technical director built a superstructure for the trees out of scrap lumber and sono tube.  He then covered the structure with chicken wire, shaped it and draped cheesecloth over that.  He arranged for a guy to come in and spray urethane foam on the trees to give them their final form.  It was really neat to see that in process.  It gave a great texture and really looked legitimate.

Rear view of shop built trees showing frame, chicken wire and urethane foam
Showing foliage cut teaser drops providing forest canopy.  Rock turntable with outriggers
The rock in the center of the stage was built very much like the trees, with a superstructure and then urethane foam.  It was built on an existing turntable, but I wanted it to be larger than the turntable and I wanted it to turn avista so Red could skip through the forest before she met the wolf.

We did this by building strange shaped outriggers with fixed casters underneath them that attached to the bigger rock.  The reality of the turntable was that it moved quite slowly so we really were only able to change the look of the stage during scene shifts rather than it being the dynamic moment I had wished for.  In addition to the turntable, I also designed the trees to be on wagons so stagehands could change the look of the space with new tree placements.

Jack and the Baker waiting to kill the giantess
This was a fun show to work on.  I'm glad I had the opportunity to do so.

More images Here

Production Details
Directed by John Bidwell
Scene Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Lighting Design by John Moran
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall


  1. I have so many fond memories of painting this set!

    1. Yeah, this was one of my favorites. Lotta paint