Middle-school minstrels

Billinghurst students create their own version of Into the Woods

Billinghurst students rehearse for their peformance of <i>Into the Woods Jr.</i>

Billinghurst students rehearse for their peformance of Into the Woods Jr.

By David Robert

Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood walked into Pizza Plus. No, it’s not a joke—just another day of rehearsal for Billinghurst Middle School’s Into the Woods Jr.

For the 21 seventh- and eighth-graders in the cast, preparing for performances has been an all-encompassing experience. Since beginning rehearsals in January, the young actors have not just learned lines but have taken on the challenge of becoming their characters. This included a recent post-rehearsal pizza party in which the actors were told to move and speak as their characters would.

Into the Woods Jr. is a family-friendly, abridged version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. The story follows a baker and his wife on a scavenger hunt of sorts through a fairytale forest, where the stories of “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” are retold in humorous ways. The plot is tied together by a spunky narrator and punctuated by musical numbers.

Although the play is lighthearted, the rehearsals have at times been intense. Director Androo Allen, bringing professional theater experience from his native Australia, has ensured that Into the Woods Jr. is not just another extracurricular activity. At rehearsals, the actors gather in a circle and speak candidly about successes, challenges and their feelings.

“Theater is about knowing yourself, about finding your passion,” Allen said. “It’s also a tremendous individual commitment.”

The fairytale characters may be familiar to actors and audiences, but each cast member has been asked to develop his or her own role.

In addition to considering their characters’ motivations, a few of the actors rewrote problematic portions of the script to make it more their own. Allen was delighted and incorporated the revisions into the performance.

In addition to developing their roles, the actors have demonstrated a powerful camaraderie and an understanding of the play as a whole. At the dress rehearsal I attended, two lead actors were at home, sick. Without missing a beat, two of their cast mates stepped in as capable understudies, no scripts required.

So, what has all this dedication and teamwork amounted to? This week, Into the Woods Jr. hits the big time. The students will perform for local schools, including Billinghurst’s feeder schools, this week. They will also hold three public performances March 14-15.

Six days before opening curtain, the enthusiasm in the Billinghurst theater/gymnasium was palpable. Narrator Mitch Bottoset, in his first leading role, had the wearily excited look of someone who was about to see his hard work pay off.

“I’ve learned a lot about theater,” he said, “especially how much dedication it takes.”

Those in the audience this weekend, on the other hand, are in for a light, whimsical treat. When asked to describe the show’s best attributes, Bottoset immediately provided a succinct response.

“It’s lots and lots of fun."