The beloved Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods” – done at Augustana College this past weekend for very limited, campus-only audiences – was a cathartic, unprecedented experience for its young performers.

A scene from “Into the Woods” at Brunner Theatre.

The emotional 1987 musical, combining classic fairy tales and an original story about a baker and his wife, is full of longing, doubt, adventure, danger, hope, grief and perseverance in normal times. But of course, these aren’t normal times, and in the first partnership among Augie’s musical theater, opera and orchestral programs, the student actors found the fantastical tale freighted with even more meaning, weight and depth during a global pandemic.

Take this excerpt from “No More”:

How do you ignore
All the witches,
All the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies,
The false hopes, the goodbyes,
The reverses,
All the wondering what even worse is
Still in store?

Shelley Cooper, an Augie assistant professor of theatre arts, directed the production.

“Through our journey, I think we all can relate how the characters constantly ‘wish’ for something better and continue to go on adventures in the woods to seek what they really want,” Augie student Maria Coulter, who played Rapunzel, said recently.

“A line that strikes me during this pandemic is: ‘Into the woods, where nothing’s clear, where witches, ghosts and wolves appear. Into the woods and through the fear, you have to take the journey’,” she said. “But Sondheim couldn’t be more right. We do have to take on a new challenge even though it’s unknown and scary. But it’s all about the journey.

“Not necessarily the happy ending. There are things we know now that we would have never known before and because we decided to put on this show, we have the motivation and want to give the motivation to all artists to go out into the world and create,” Coulter said. “We might never know what’s at the end of the path but being there for each other and using the arts as a means to communicate is substantial during this unprecedented time in our world.”

Not only did the two dozen cast members perform in full costume and face masks, they rotated during the musical back and forth between Centennial Hall and Brunner Theatre, to comply with the college Covid protocols to limit singing indoors to 30 minutes at a time. And the audiences were limited to Augie students, faculty and staff — just 16 per performance, with a total run time of three and a half hours.

Before Saturday night’s final performance – directed by Shelley Cooper, music directed by Michelle Crouch and chamber orchestra led by Daniel Chetel – Coulter and three other students shared their thoughts on how this show had to go on.

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** Maria Coulter (Rapunzel), sophomore majoring in vocal performance and communication studies from Peoria, Ill.

“Into the Woods” was her first show at Augustana, and she’s been in the college choir since freshman year.

“One of the biggest challenges of this show has been not being able to perform it in front of the audience we had envisioned; however,

Maria Coulter, a sophomore, played Rapunzel.

performing in front of the smaller audiences that we are so blessed to have has made it a much more intimate experience in the sense that I can really feel the gravity of each scene we perform. It has also been rewarding because I have had to reach the audience in a way I have never connected with them before and now I know how to engross myself in the character and help them relate to the character like they are the only person in the room.

“I’ve tried to be positive and feel super blessed to even have an audience to begin with,” Coulter said. “I know there’s not very many live performances going on anywhere. I think the most challenging part about it, I don’t get to have my parents come see it. They’ve been great supporters and I know they really would have resonated with this show.”

“The wonderful thing about having an Augie-only audience is that I trust that they will take everything in that they learned from our performance and will not be afraid to discuss it with the world,” she said. “We are all ultimately here for our education and my favorite thing that Augie has given to us during this pandemic is unplanned interactions where we can build relationships over beautiful things like this show. They make us better performers because they exude the best energy a performer could ask for due to their passion for everything Augustana.”

Performing in masks required students to get creative and experiment with new ways of acting.

“It has challenged me to become a better actress because I am more deeply paying attention to detail in order to really commit to the story,” Coulter said. “At first, I was a little skeptical about rotating between halls, but now that we have become pros at it, I feel like each performance hall has a specific tone/vibe and it has allowed the audience to discover different parts of the character they might not have even

Sarah Walton, left as Little Red and Maria Coulter as Rapunzel.

seen before.

Being in the choir during Covid, “We’ve kind of been each other’s audience, which is so special,” Coulter said, noting they recorded pieces at St. Paul’s in Davenport that aired in December. “I’ve really enjoyed being part of the ensemble. We’re all just so happy to be able to sing together as a group again.”

In choir, they use larger singer’s masks (bought for all vocal ensembles from an anonymous donor), which allow room to breathe and project. Due to Covid, Augie canceled both last March’s planned East Coast tour and this spring’s regional tour; Coulter’s looking forward to a planned international choir tour in 2022.

Cooper told “Into the Woods” actors to use any masks they felt comfortable with.

Coulter said it was easiest to use a traditional cloth mask. “I feel like I don’t have as much room to breathe and I have to sing so high pretty frequently throughout the show,” she said. “When I’m watching the show, even though everybody has masks on, it is a little bit of a challenge, but at the same time I find myself getting emotional and tearing up.

“That means they’re delivering completely well, if I’m reacting that way,” Coulter said. With masks, they had to be more expressive with their eyes and physical movement.

“I’ve tried to just open my body up to the audience, which is something I’ve struggled with acting, growing up. I felt stiff on stage and

Maria Coulter dressed as Rapunzel at Augustana.

wouldn’t use my hands that often. This has made me very comfortable being vulnerable on stage, and really using my whole figure to help the audience understand what’s going on.

“That’s just so important in general, to see what people’s non-verbal communication is,” she said.

When they moved to the more intimate space of Brunner, it created a different atmosphere, Coulter said. “They see the fairy tales from a completely different perspective,” she said. “It’s been a challenge, but it’s helped us become better actors.”

Even though audiences had to get up and move to see the show, they were very appreciative to see live theater in person.

“I’ve been seeing posts like, ‘This is the first live performance I’ve been to in as long as I can remember’,” Coulter said. “The fact they get to see it in Centennial and Brunner, they’re just excited about. The transitions have been going very smoothly.”

“When we transition from Centennial to Brunner, it’s kind of like they get to go into the woods with us, rather than they just watch us on stage,” she said. “They travel between the two spaces, it represents now, we’re going into this part of the woods and we have to make sure we don’t lose part of the path. It makes them more a part of the show – they really get to become part of it, which is super special.”

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The inspiring message of the show truly resonates with people.

From left to right at Centennial Hall are Kaitlin Jacobson as Snow White, Abby Overmann as Sleeping Beauty, Amy Nicholson as Lucinda (kneeling, middle), Megan McLaughlin as Jack’s Mother, Sarah Walton as Little Red Riding Hood and Noel Huntley as the Witch.

“I’m always someone who loves to plan ahead, and it’s really hard to do that in this situation, because things change so quickly,” Coulter said. “We’re really in the dark and we have no idea what’s going on. But I think as Augustana students especially, we are doers. We’re on campus; we’ve been there for each other whether it’s in person or virtually.”

“It may not be easy, but I would not trade it for the world,” she said of the show. “I am so, so grateful I was able to stay on campus for the entire semester last fall, where many colleges, they ended up having to go home, sadly. I was able to become closer to people, I don’t know if I would be close to them normally.”

“Another emotional thing about ‘Into the Woods,’ is the overall theme of taking care of children,” Coulter said. “We’re in a situation literally no one in the world’s ever been in before.”

“We have to, like Sondheim says, go into the woods and next time you’ll be prepared, and it will get better,” she said. “I do think the journey is more important than the destination.”

** Noel Jean Huntley (The Witch), junior majoring in English and theatre performance, from Rock Island, Ill.

Huntley’s theater credits include playing Little Red Riding Hood in a 2016 production of “Into the Woods” at Quad City Music Guild, and was in the ensemble for Circa’s “Kinky Boots,” in early 2020.

“I wanted to do this show for several reasons, chief of which is that I simply love ‘Into The Woods,’” she said recently. “Auditions were held already a month into the pandemic, so this was an opportunity to get back into the theatre. Knowing Shelley Cooper, who I worked with in

Noel Huntley, a junior, played the Witch.

Mississippi Bend Players’ production of Big River, and Dr. Michelle Crouch, who is my voice professor here at Augie were at the helm of the production made my desire to be part of it even stronger.”

“Kinky Boots” was the last musical she was in, which ended in mid-March 2020. “In retrospect, we were extremely lucky we got to finish the run because the very next day, statewide lockdown began,” Huntley said. “This show is my first time performing since March 15th, 2020; the longest break from performing I’ve had since I was 13 years old.”

The many “Woods” challenges included only rehearsing in small groups for much of the process, going between locations for air purity purposes, logistics with the orchestra, not knowing whether they would have an audience, “the list goes on,” she said.

“But the reward is simple — we get to put on a show. And an incredible, important show at that,” Huntley said. “Every challenge was worth this reward, a thousand times over.”

Performing in masks “is not as difficult as one would think,” she said. “It’s a challenge because you have to use your body and voice to convey emotion more than your face, but it’s a challenge to which we’ve all risen. Rotating between halls is challenging because it’s a lot of stairs, and translating acting choices between spaces takes practice and awareness,

Huntley played Little Red Riding Hood in a 2016 Music Guild production of the show.

but once we got the rhythm of it, it’s been fine.

The small audiences “give us incredible energy and their love and support is tangible,” Huntley said. “It would have been great for our families and the community to be able to see it, but right now, we’re just grateful to have an audience at all. But Augie students make such a great audience, 10 of them feels like 100.”

“I think a lot of us, myself included, are still processing what it means to live through a pandemic,” she said. “And we can’t really start to heal yet because we’re still in the process of being wounded. Stephen Sondheim managed to take some of the hardest, most pervasive,

Huntley, right, as the Witch singing “Stay With Me” to Rapunzel.

perennial truths of life and feed them to us through fairy tales, to make it all easier to digest.

“That’s why this is an important show to do right now. I need Cinderella to sing to me and remind me that I’m not alone. If one person can breathe easier because of our production, it was worth every second.”

“It was rough not doing theatre last year. I had a job lined up with the Myers Dinner Theatre in Indiana last April but that got cancelled because of the pandemic, and I was supposed to play Sophie in ‘Mamma Mia’ at Guild last summer, but that got postponed to this summer,” Huntley said. “So there was a lot of disappointment. But getting cast as the Witch last May gave me something to work toward and something to look forward to, and I’m just so grateful it came to fruition.”

** Amy Nicholson, junior majoring in environmental studies and theatre arts, from Schiller Park, Ill.

Nicholson has done a lot of theater at Augustana — including Mary Warren in “The Crucible,” The Why in “The Why,” Daisy in “Biloxi Blues” (Mississippi Bend Players), and Dotty in “Noises Off,” as well as playing a Dreamer in “The Secret Garden” (Music Guild), which was originally scheduled for spring 2020 and has been canceled twice.

Amy Nicholson, a junior, played Lucinda, an evil stepsister.

For “Into the Woods,” Nicholson played one of Cinderella’s white-wigged, evil stepsisters, which was fun. Rehearsals started back in September, in small groups, and they hoped to perform it in November. Then, the Covid spike in cases pushed some rehearsals online, and then the holiday break and January term delayed rehearsals until the second week of February.

Nicholson said students were used to wearing masks, such as choir members. In one scene, her character had to wear a blindfold, so you couldn’t really see any of her face.

“We tried to use clear masks and they didn’t really work, so we really have whatever masks we’re comfortable with,” she said. Nicholson hadn’t done any theater since “Secret Garden” was canceled last March.

Augustana’s restriction on singing in one space for 30 minutes at a time was frustrating for her, since she’s also a swimmer. “But I can work out with the entire team for an hour, hour and a half and not have to move – it’s a little frustrating but it is what it is, and we have to follow the guidelines.”

The show shifted back and forth between Centennial Hall and Brunner Theatre over three and a half hours.

“I understand how singing is much different than heavy breathing,” Nicholson said. She had to do a swim conference at Carthage College on Saturday, getting up at 5 a.m., go to Kenosha, Wis., compete and come back to campus by 3 p.m. to perform that night.

She’s missed performing on stage the past year. “To create art and collaborate with others was something I missed so dearly,” Nicholson said. “A musical was a good one to do, since it was a big cast and I got to know a lot of people.”

“It was so nice to be on a stage and see the audience,” she said. “It’s huge privilege and you know the audience is just as grateful as we are, which is a nice feeling.”

“You know everyone – audience and cast and crew – is so grateful to be there,” Nicholson said. “As tired as we are and as frustrated as can get with some of the restrictions and obstacles we’ve had, it feels very nice to be able to create something again.”

This was the perfect show to do now, because it delivers hope.

“To have hope going into this unknown thing. The show follows going into the woods, where no one really knows what’s going to happen – and that’s what all of us felt going into the pandemic,” Nicholson said. “Having a show that is funny, but also dramatic, but just delivers this message of hope – is so important for the cast, for anyone watching, for the crew, because we’ve all been there. We’ve all gone into a type of woods where we have no idea what’s going to happen. I think it’s a really good show right now.”

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“People want to go see theater right now and they want to have fun,” she said. “It’s this all-encompassing show that leaves the audience

“Into the Woods” opened on Broadway in 1987.

feeling hopeful in a time when there isn’t much hope.”

“It’s comforting to know that the people who will be there are extra grateful to be there in person,” she said. “I think any audience is better than no audience.”

Nicholson doesn’t enjoy doing musicals as much as straight plays, but loves working with Cooper, who directed a production of “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” she was in, in 2019.

“She makes the musicals fun, and especially with this show, she lets me do my thing,” Nicholson said. “Shelley and I have developed a relationship where she has a lot of faith in what I can do as an actress.”

She prefers plays because singing is harder. “It’s a learning curve every time I do a musical because I only do one a year,” Nicholson said. “Straight plays, I’m so much more familiar with. I’ve been acting since I was 5, but I’ve only done choir since middle school.”

“I just like having a more real character,” she said of straight plays. But Lucinda in “Into the Woods” was fun to play because “even the bad things that happen to her are hilarious,” Nicholson said.

** Sarah Walton (Little Red Riding Hood), sophomore majoring in multimedia journalism and mass communications, with theatre arts minor, from New Lenox, Ill.

Hope and perseverance in the face of the unknown is a hugely relevant topic now, Walton agreed.

Sarah Walton, a sophomore, acted in the drama “Speaking in Tongues,” which showed online in February.

“It’s scary at times and you feel isolated, that you don’t have people there that feel the same way that you do, but this show is really a beacon of light and hope, and hopefully it portrays the message that no one is alone – everyone has people to help them,” she said. “There is always someone there for you and things will get better, and hopefully we’ll be able to move on in a much more positive way.”

“I really enjoyed being part of the production; every aspect was so meaningful,” Walton said. “It was such a special experience that I’ll never have again and I cherished it. I’m so fortunate we were even able to put it on. I wouldn’t change it.”

As for the small audiences, she said: “Sixteen people in the audience is better than none; I’ll take it. I know that families and family friends back home were really hoping to see it, considering that we auditioned for the show last May, so this has been a very long-time coming process.”

“Personally, my parents were really hoping the world would allow for them to be able to come see the show,” Walton said. “The safety and well-being of the student body is more important at this point.”

Sarah Walton, left, with Jessa Simon as Cinderella

“It made a lot more sense to postpone the production to the spring,” she said. “While we were able to have audiences, I’m very happy they were able to postpone it. If we kept it in the fall, we would have had no audience. It would have been very strange.”

“I love being involved in the theater program here,” Walton said, noting this semester she’s very involved – co-starring in February’s “Speaking in Tongues” (which rehearsed in January and streamed Feb. 19), and will start rehearsals March 1 for a contemporary version of the 1879 operetta “Pirates of Penzance.”

Her freshman year, she was in “She Kills Monsters” in fall 2019, at Brunner Theatre. “It was very technically spectacular,” Walton said of the use of costumes, puppets and stage combat. In high school, she played Elle in “Legally Blonde” and Fiona in “Shrek the Musical.”

“I’ve always loved that I can step into the shoes of another person for a couple hours,” she said. “I really wanted to do ‘Into the Woods’ because it’s been one of my favorite shows for a very long time.”

Walton also has dreamed of playing Little Red since 8th grade. “I knew theater in a pandemic was going to be different,” she said. “There was a big part of me that just wanted to be involved and I really wanted to know what they were gonna do with it and how they were gonna make it different.”

“No One is Alone” is the moving final message of the show, so relevant now “because people feel isolated and alone in this pandemic,” Walton said. “It’s really awesome that we’re able to pass along that message in such a creative way and people have really been missing theater.

Walton, left, with Kaitlin Jacobson as Snow White, Cinderella’s Birds and the Hen.

“I’ve been hearing that left and right,” she said. “People are really lapping up the chance to see theater live.”

Of Little Red, Walton loves her sass and her song “I Know Things Now.” Walton enjoyed going from such a mature role in “Speaking in Tongues” to a childhood classic in “Woods.”

“I love the challenge, really, and the people I’m performing with have really pushed me to take it even farther,” she said. Little Red’s song could apply to students learning a lot doing this show.

“I learned so, so much,” Walton said. “Our director Shelley has done such a great job in characterization rehearsals, where we would spend just an hour with her, talking about our motives, why we were acting the way that we did.”

When she wasn’t singing, she used a clear plastic mask. Moving between the spaces at first was odd, every half hour, but they got used to it.

“A big challenge of mine – we practiced all fall,” Walton said. She had to shift to a completely different show in January, so coming back for a

Walton, left as Little Red and Maria Coulter as Rapunzel.

hard two and a half weeks of “Into the Woods” was a quick turnaround, which she called a little terrifying.

The large Centennial size gave the cast more comfort in being more socially distanced than usual, she said. “It doesn’t really require you to be close,” she said of this show.

Walton portrayed two roles in the four-actor “Speaking in Tongues,” which was filmed at the Brunner Black Box with a very small audience and shown online Feb. 19.

“It was one of the most breakthrough experiences I’ve had, because I was able to dive into a certain depth I’ve not been able to do before,” she said. “I grew from it so much.”

Walton will play the gender-bended role of Edward, a police sergeant, in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates,” which will be outdoors April 8-11 at the Anderson Pavilion, in a wacky ‘60s reimagining of the show.

“I’m playing a pretty fun role that’s in a lot of dance numbers,” she said. “I’m excited to be able to dance again because I miss being able to do that.”

“Pirates” will be directed by senior Noah Hill, who was an assistant director for “Into the Woods.”

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.