‘Going Into the Woods’ at George Mason University: Part One: Director Ken Elston by Joel Markowitz

Director Ken Elston talks about his vision and introduces us to the cast and designers of George Mason University’s Department of Theater and School of Music‘s collaborative production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.  Assisting Director Elston and providing the musical direction is Dennis M. Layendecker, director of the School of Music and University Heritage Chair of Music, who will conduct the Mason Symphony Orchestra.

Ken Elston, chair of Mason’s Department of Theater at George Mason University. Photo by Creative Services.

Joel: Please tell us about The Department of Theatre at GMU and your position.

Ken: Theater at Mason has one of the best undergraduate theater faculties in the country. We offer a BA – with concentrations in Performance, Playwriting and Dramaturgy, Design and Technology and Theater Education. We offer a BFA with similar concentrations with a focus on stage and screen. Theater has partnered with Arts Management to offer an accelerated BA/MA, with Education to offer a post-baccalaureate certification in Theater Education, and we are partnering with the School of Music to create a certificate in musical theater, and I have every confidence that we will have a degree in musical theater in the near future.

I am the Chair of this fine Department, and, besides the curricular advancements outlined above, I have been dedicated to solidifying the relationships between our program, top professionals, and our active and supportive community. Part of that success has been the exciting residency of our new Heritage Professor of Theater, Stacy Keach.

How long have you been at George Mason University?

I have been at Mason for ten years and Chair for 3.

Have you and Dr. Dennis Layendecker, who is the Musical Director of Into the Woods worked together before in productions at GMU?

Dr. Layendecker and I have worked together as colleagues in our capacities as directors within the College of Visual and Performing Arts. The coming musical theater degree will be a product of that successful collaboration. I have always held him in high regard. Into the Woods is the first opportunity we have had to work together as artists, and I could not be happier with that collaboration. He is wonderful, brilliant, supportive, and talented, and he brings a wealth of knowledge, professional experience, and- the most important ingredient – personal investment to the project. He and I are blessed with our entire team of designers, cast, and production staff. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Professor of Theater, Clayton Austin, who is our Production Manager, keeps the whole thing moving forward, and Dr. Lisa Billingham, Professor of Music, has been tireless in her vocal coaching and musical support for the project. We have a great team.

How many productions will the Department of Theater present this year and what are they?

We have a terrific season of magic and transformation, including some great guest artists. Check our season schedule.

You are now trying to build a musical theatre studies program at George Mason University? Tell me about that.

Besides the info I provided, we have a terrific Musical Theater teacher in James Gardiner, and he will be directing an all-Sondheim cabaret. Proceeds from that show will support the continuation of that program. Shows are off-campus in December: December 12 at the Northern Virginia Jewish Community Center and December 17 at Signature Theatre. We really value their support of the growth of this exciting program. We are combining the best of Theater at Mason, with the best of the School of Music and the best regional music theater professionals.

Why did you select Into the Woods?

It is one of the greatest musicals written. The masterwork of a master. It is the 200th anniversary of the Grimm Brothers’ Tales, on which the show is based. There is magic, there is transformation, as well as beautiful music and enthralling story.

Take us through the auditions. How many actors auditioned?

We had 180, I think, and called back 53 for 22 roles. Our auditioning pool included theater majors, music majors, and others from across the university.

Were only GMU students allowed to audition?


What were some of the surprises you saw in the auditions?

We were happy to find singers who could act and actors who could sing. This is a terrific cast who are also interested and eager for musical theater.”

The ‘Into the Woods’ cast: Rafael Medina (Jack), Alexandra Pool (Red Riding Hood), Kyle Imperatore (The Baker), and Kate Merryman (Cinderella). Photo by Stan Engebretson.

Introduce us to your leads and what roles they play.

We follow several stories that weave together so cleverly:

Cinderella (Kate Merryman), Jack – of beanstalk fame – (Rafael Medina), the childless Baker and his wife (Kyle Imperatore and Cara Pellegrino), the Witch and her stolen Rapunzel (Brittany Martz and Miranda Carver), and Little Red Riding Hood (Alexandra Pool)… and charming princes, evil step-sisters, giants, grannies, and, my own invention, magic makers, to help tell the story.

When you selected  them, why did you think they were perfect for their roles?

The musical theater actor is a hybrid powerhouse, and we have some great ones. Besides acting “chops” and musical talent, these students show real vulnerability in thee challenging roles.

What is your vision for this production and what is unique about it?

So many of us remember the beautifully illustrated storybooks of our youth and the happy surprises of a pop-up book, and we are working to capture that in all aspects of our design. The magic makers, who help the narrator tell the story, bring a unique theatricality to the piece, and I think audiences will enjoy seeing the characters go into the woods-literally as well as figuratively.

Introduce your designers and describe the design and how your designers’ work has brought your vision to life.

Howard Vincent Kurtz – Costumer and Professor of Theater and Head of Design brought a world of research and experience of working on the original Broadway show.

Dana Maier – Set Designer and Adjunct Professor of Set Design and Painting brought her style and talent- audiences enjoyed her designs in last season’s Galileo.

Liz Replogle – Lights, is a graduate of our program and she has gone on to be a lighting professional and professor in her own right, and she helped us find the cinematic parallels in style

Nerissa Hart – props – is one of our talented students.

Talk about George Mason University’s Center for the Arts’ space and some of the challenges you are facing in that space and some benefits of performing there.

Center for the Arts is a BIG space, and we are looking forward to filling it onstage and in the house. Our first show is for Fairfax County schools, and the space allows us to invite 2000 people. For me, providing an opportunity for Mason students to perform in each of our stellar venues – from black boxes, to mid-sized proscenium spaces, to this big road house, is important to their professional development and makes our program unique.

What do you want your students to have learned while performing in this production?

That it is all music. That it is all acting. That good storytelling takes specific commitment and a universal artistry.

What is your favorite song and scene from Into the Woods and why?

“Agony” is the comic showpiece, “No One is Alone” is the tear-jerker, but so many of the numbers speak to me, and every character gets a lovely, evocative number. This show gets better and better, the more you know it.

What scene and song were the hardest to direct and why?

I am a movement professional, and a colleague said, “That’s a stand and sing show, isn’t it?” Ours won’t be.

Why do you think Into the Woods is still so popular with modern audiences?

For the same reasons that folktales are timeless, and because a masterpiece never gets stale.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing your production of Into the Woods?

Thoughtfulness about love, family, maturity, and I want audiences to fall in love with musical theater at Mason.

Into the Woods plays at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts Concert Hall – located on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University at the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 123, in Fairfax, VA. Performances are on Friday, October 26, 2012 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012 at 4 p.m. For tickets, purchase your tickets online. Here are directions.

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Joel Markowitz
Joel Markowitz is the Publisher and Editor of DCMetroTheaterArts. He founded the site with his brother Bruce to help promote the vast riches of theatre and the arts in the DC Metro area that includes Maryland, Virginia, and DC theater and music venues, universities, schools, Children's theaters, professional, and community theatres. Joel is an advocate for promoting the 'stars of the future' in his popular 'Scene Stealers' articles. He wrote a column for 5 years called ‘Theatre Schmooze’ and recorded podcast interviews for DC Theatre Scene. His work can also be seen and read on BroadwayStars. Joel also wrote a monthly preview of what was about to open in DC area theatres for BroadwayWorld. He is an avid film and theater goer, and a suffering Buffalo Bills and Sabres fan. Joel was a regular guest on 'The Lunch and Judy Show' radio program starring Judy Stadt in NYC. Joel founded The Ushers Theatre Going Group in the DC area in 1990, which had a 25-year run when it took its final curtain call last year. Joel is a proud member of The American Critics Association.


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