Director Sonya Suares journeys Into The Woods with Watch This

The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold…

Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical Into The Woods is possibly one of his best known works. It follows an eclectic mix of fairytale characters forced to work together to break a curse placed on The Baker’s family. All they need is four items, but they must put aside their folly and pride in order to do so.

In a funny way, it’s a fable that echoes the tumultuous few years we have endured living with COVID-19: individuals needing to band together for the greater good. Those who let their ego obscure the greater cause? Well, they face some unsavoury consequences.

Sonya Suares | Photo by Josie Hayden

It really feels like there is no better time for such an allegorical piece of work, one that examines the human condition at its core and casts a light on those darker parts we tend to hide away. And what better company to stage the show than Watch This, Australia’s first and only Sondheim repertory theatre company. They are an independent organisation dedicated to presenting the work of Sondheim, breathing new life and interpretations into the brilliantly written texts. Watch This founder Sonya Suares is directing the upcoming production of Into The Woods.

Sonya is a multidisciplinary performer, dramaturg, director, producer and arts activist who made her screen debut in Ocean Girl in the 90s. Feature films include Wil, Knowing, My Year Without Sex and The Last Ride; television highlights are Rush, Very Small Business, East West 101, Lowdown, It’s A Date, Legally Brown, Romper Stomper, Next Generation and Five Bedrooms. In 2012, she founded Watch This and as Artistic Director, has delivered seasons of AssassinsPacific OverturesCompanyMerrily We Roll AlongA Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George to critical acclaim and a total of 21 Green Room nominations/2 wins alongside multi-million dollar musicals. In 2019, she co-directed Sunday in the Park with George with Dean Drieberg for Watch This, sharing a GRA nomination for Best Direction of a Musical.

Are you excited to finally be staging Into The Woods after all these delays?

Sonya: Oh my gosh, so excited. It’s just been an odyssey, this one, as you can imagine. Four season shifts, we launched it back in 2019… and who knew we’d be heading into the woods and not be out for two years! [laughs]. It’s been quite the immersive experience this one, and we’ve come out with most of our creative team in tact, which is not always the case, so we feel very fortunate. Into The Woods is probably one of Sondheim’s best known and beloved works. Whenever I talk about having run a Sondheim repertory company to people who don’t know his body of work, I tend to use Into The Woods as sort of a ‘gateway’ conversation – and most have at least heard of it because of the Disney film. But it does get done a lot. And so our interest in doing it is to always to do it a little bit differently and try and find new meaning in the work. We’ve got the Meat Market, which is an incredible space, and when we when we programmed it we were interested in this idea of “what if a group of actors had found a theatre space that had been really like laying dormant for a long time?” You know? Almost as if, you know, there had been a sort of natural disaster or something, and and people haven’t been able to be into theatres for a while, and it’s become overgrown. It sounds like we manifested the shutdowns, it was strange and kind of zeitgeisty. [laughs] We could have just put the set in two years ago and left it to moulder organically!

How are you reimagining the show?

Sonya: It’s a piece of work about a community dealing with an existential crisis. And, you know, that has never felt more resonant. I guess it goes to my curiosity as a creative and a director. I’m not interested in putting on shows just because I like them or I feel like it would be fun. It’s always got to speak to the moment and a 21st century intersectional audience. And that angle drew us to Into The Woods in the first place; it informs the design of the work and how we wanted to interpret it. I think often the work is done in a bright, comic mode. But we have always been interested in that underbelly of the work. We tell fairy tales to each other because, historically and culturally, they are morality tales. That’s the purpose that they have served in society for millennia, going right back to the oral tradition of telling stories to instill common social values. Phrases like “don’t stray from the path” or “in the woods” appear in our language as kind of known, cultural reference points. So I think what is really interesting is exploring how these characters start out as a bunch of individuals pursuing their own wants and needs with really very little reference to each other, and come up against a force greater than than their own, what they use to overcome it, and how they pull back initially. Ultimately their individualism doesn’t get them as far as it as it needs to, and in fact, they have to deal with the consequences of “me, me, me” in the second act. So this story in the incarnation that we envisage presenting has never been more resonant.

Watch This have consistently been committed to inclusive casting practices, which I think set a really strong precedent for the rest of the industry.

Sonya: I’m a woman of colour, and I’m an activist in the sector in terms of who we represent on our stages and screens and behind our stages and screens. And people do ask me “Why did you dedicate a company to like an old white dude? That seems very unlike you.” The answer to that is that I find his works deeply humanist. They lend themselves to reexamination and reexploration, and can expand in ways that I need them to to include that kind of representation on that stage. So our leadership with respect to diversity and inclusion comes very much from having a POC lead our organisation. That’s the lens that I carry with me everywhere. It’s not an abstract value to me, it’s lived experience, so that’s always been part of how we realise this work and has been very front of mind, that process of decolonising our stages. Sondheim creates the show through character and context, and so, these songs are written in the idiom of character. The actor can just mine the text for the richness and the clues of character, and then they can bring their really authentic self to it, and revel in that richness.

Why should people come and see Into The Woods?

Sonya: Theatre is the domain of dreamscape and metaphor, it’s visceral. And I really believe at this time post-pandemic, what we want in our storytelling is epic. We want the ritual, the ritual of gathering in a space together where hearts beat together, where we breathe the same air, albeit through a mask. That kind of… primal gathering around the campfire that has happened on land for millennia. That is what we are aching for – that reconnection. And then once there, I think they will come on the journey with you wherever you want to take them, as long as you hold them well. I don’t think people just want that razzle dazzle when they go to a theatre. Don’t get me wrong, Into The Woods is freaking funny. It’s not like you come in and it’s all deathly serious. It’s a farce and we get a lot of mileage out of our reduced cast; I think having 12 actors create these 19-odd characters goes to that initial concept that I talking to you about, about a troupe of actors who decide to tell this story; and maybe there’s not enough of them but they just have to do it anyway. Which is again, a very ‘pandemic’ thing. It underlines the pain of survival, really. But there’s a lot of joy and the comedy too – light and shade, that complex interplay that Sondheim is so good at. We can’t wait to share this show with Melbourne audiences. We know Melbourne in particular will get this show on a very visceral, body-memory level. I think that there is healing that happens when we get together in spaces and we tell our stories together. So we’re incredibly excited and taking all of the COVID precautions so that we can welcome people into the space safely and joyously.

For tickets and more information, visit the Watch This website.

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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