Into the Woods (Again) & More Great Moments in Theatre

Back in 1994 I did a production of Into the Woods at Signature Theatre’s old garage space. Currently I’m hard at work on Into the Woods at Signature Theatre once again, this time in the company’s sparking new facility in Shirlington. We began teching the show yesterday – always a tedious process – and one finds all kinds of things to do to entertain oneself while waiting for a tech cue to be built.

I have the good fortune to be playing Jack’s Mother against Stephen Gregory Smith‘s Jack. As those of you who’ve been keeping up with this blog know, Stephen is a great friend and we get up to all kinds of silly behavior when we’re together. Yesterday we passed the time by acting out great movie scenes together; when that palled, I began telling backstage stories about the ’94 production of Woods.

You must remember that Signature was still in its infancy at that point – only four years old. I was still managing the company and would put in a full day in the office before getting into makeup and costume to play The Witch. I had a complicated makeup design involving spirit gum and a prosthetic nose and chin, as well as a big poofy gray wig and thin gloves that were covered in hot-glue warts and tipped with long clawlike nails (I made the gloves myself). The warty hands looked great but they cut down on my sense of touch and the warts were always getting hung up on something.

I also had a long, heavy staff that shot fireballs. It was a spiffy item created by one of the theatre’s longtime friends; if I’m remembering correctly, it was capable of shooting up to four fireballs and the trajectory was something like twelve feet. One night the crew person in charge of loading it had forgotten to do so (he was also running the light board, so I cut him some slack), which resulted in me futilely trying every button on the damn thing in my first scene without so much as a puff of smoke. The next performance, I was waiting backstage to make my entrance and thought I’d check to see if the staff was loaded. Like a dummy, I did this by looking down the barrel of the staff. At the same time my clumsy warty-gloved hand accidentally brushed one of the trigger buttons. A fireball shot past my face and ricocheted up the wall before dissipating. I stood in shock, realizing that I’d literally come within a hair of setting my face on fire. A crew member came galloping down to see if I was all right; the stage manager had seen the sudden glow backstage and realized my staff had gone off.

I was more careful about my warty hands after that, but they got me in trouble once again. There is a scene late in the second act wherein The Witch punishes Rapunzel by cutting off her hair. Since we had no easy way for me to carry on scissors for the scene, it was decided that at the climax of the scene, I would simply tear off the long part of Rapunzel’s hair and chase her offstage. Rapunzel was played by Mary Gresock, and her wig came in two parts: a shoulder-length wig on a fabric cap which was hairpinned to her head, and about eight feet of loose tresses that were secured together at one end. A “D” ring was sewn into the nape of the neck of the short wig, and where the long locks were fastened together, a snap-hook (like the ones you see on dog leashes) was sewn. The idea was that the snap hook would be fastened to the “D” ring at the top of the show (voila! long hair!) and when the moment came for me to rip off Rapunzel’s hair, I’d slide my hand under the hair at the nape of her neck, unfasten the snap hook, lift it clear of the “D” ring and then act like I was yanking the hair away. Rapunzel would then be left with a shoulder-length bob for her escape from the scene.

In theory, it should have worked fine. In practice, it was a dodgy system, since I couldn’t see what I was doing with the ring-and-hook arrangement was buried under all that hair. And remember, I had warty gloves on, so my sense of touch was not all it should have been. One night I unfastened the snap hook and thought I’d cleared the “D” ring – but I hadn’t. The big moment came, I gave a mighty yank – and Mary’s entire wig came away in my hand, leaving her with only her flesh-colored nylon wig cap covering her hair. The effect was as if I’d snatched Rapunzel bald-headed. She shrieked, threw her arms across her head and fled the stage (which was what she’d have done in any case, but there was extra horror in her exit this time). I followed her off and met her in the dressing room, apologizing like mad but fighting hysterical laughter because the whole thing was so ludicrous. For the balance of the run I spent the entire scene focussed not on the music or the dialogue, but on whether I’d successfully released the snap hook from the “D” ring.

Ah, the magic of the theatre.

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