Jessica Harris’ Nimble Pivot Brings Classic Theater to Town

by Katrina Spencer

Stage play director Jessica Harris’ endless passion for empowering her community through theater arts has led her to stage Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning 1986 musical Into the Woods at Live Arts Theater this July. Just as Broadway has renewed its interest in the now classic work, our local theater house will host a modern rendition this season. In this new interpretation, Harris’ vision presents Into the Woods with some twists: What if, instead of the once-upon-a-time age of Grimm’s fairy tales, this version took place in the 21st century? What if, instead of seasoned, veteran actors, our local youth, aged 14 to 20, embodied the classic characters of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Prince Charming, Jack (of the Beanstalk), and Rapunzel? And what if the cast, for this work and those to come, were made up of a broad spectrum of people, featuring a body of actors that were not only white, but people of color, too? This modern reenvisioning takes a timeless tale, foregrounds local, diverse faces, and invites viewers to relate more personally to the play’s themes in a familiar and contemporary setting.

Born and raised in Fluvanna County, director Jessica Harris is one of the truest products of the local community. Her family descended from the enslaved community of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, she is a “double Hoo,” or two-time graduate of the University of Virginia (UVA), and she has established a local non-profit, Empowered Players, that feeds the theatrical appetites of local youth, especially those who reside in rural communities. Having established a formidable repertoire of directorial experience at UVA, through Empowered Players– which puts on more than a dozen shows a year– and associate directing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Harris is no novice when it comes to making the arts come alive. She was well prepared to heed Live Arts artistic director Susan Evans’ call to bring an original spin to Sondheim’s masterful work when she got it last fall, 2021. Now, following two rounds of auditions to build a cast of 17, two months’ of 3-hour long rehearsals, vocal training for the cast, tech prep for the crew, and bonding for the entire ensemble, all hands on deck will present 13 performances for theater-goers from July 15- July 31. 

While the result of these many efforts will no doubt provide an exhilarating experience for ticket holders, the path to return to live performances has been neither straight nor without hurdles in the dramatic arts. Together we continue to weather the stormy disruptions of COVID-19 and have been obligated to reimagine even the most basic of tasks and duties in living our lives, like grocery shopping and going to school. These same reconfigurations hit the world of theater hard when social distancing became the norm and masking, for some, became a matter of life and death. Some nimble pivoting, as Harris has described it, has aided the transition. With both Empowered Players and Live Arts, adjustments were made in consideration of the global health crisis, which meant “Zoomsicals”– musicals (and rehearsals) hosted over the teleconferencing software Zoom– and masked, in-person rehearsals in preparation for the stage. As we cautiously resume activities from “the before times,” discussion is underway about vaccine requirements and regular testing for actors, stagehands, and all the people who make theater possible.

As we all have bent and stretched in new ways to accommodate the age, Sondheim’s Into the Woods, mirrors this period in meaningful ways. Into the Woods is about nothing if it is not about exploring new worlds of possibilities. In this play, a motley crew of well known figures sing “I Wish” and reveal their hearts’ deepest desires. When given inroads to pursuing these dreams, they face risks, rise to challenges, resist antagonism, and inevitably plateau in emotionally unpredictable destinations. The baker and his wife want a child; Rapunzel wants out of her tower; and Cinderella must go to the royal ball. But what happens when you get everything you wish for? And “happily ever after,” as it turns out, isn’t quite so happy after all? The themes visited in Into the Woods, as shared by director Harris, are especially relevant for the youth that make up its cast this summer at Live Arts as they are preparing to go out and discover new worlds themselves. They will learn life lessons about shiny, glowing dreams just beyond the bend, the consequences of minimally thought out actions, and how to preserve their passions, not only when everyone is watching but also when the house lights go down and the curtain falls. The local debut promises both the entertainment of catchy tunes and lessons for reflection.

Director Harris welcomes you to the show and believes in access to theater for a broad variety of communities, including those on stage and those filling the theater house’s seats. With 300 tickets already sold, now is the time to get your own! The entire team has been enthusiastically supported by teachers, mentors, and family members, and an abundant turnout is expected. Standard pricing is $20.00 for adults, $15.00 for students, and $15.00 for seniors aged 65 and up. Of the 13 shows, including two Sunday matinees, the preview on Thursday, July 14 from 7:30- 9:30 PM is free, and on both Wednesdays, July 20th and 27th, attendees are invited to pay what they can. To find out more and to purchase your tickets online, visit https://livearts.org. To learn more about Empowered Players, visit https://www.empoweredplayers.com. And in the meanwhile, may we all break a leg!

 

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