I’m at the warehouse of Maui Academy of Performing Arts, in the wardrobe sewing room where a lot of costume magic is going down in a warm dusty corner of this old Wailuku building. Fans are humming from all corners of the space, and an electric saw screeches nearby as wood, fabric, and paint are coming together in stunning fashion to create the ambiance of this production of “Into the Woods.” This is Jojo Siu’s domain for the next few weeks as she designs and orchestrates the costumes for the Stephen Sondheim musical show that kicks off at Castle Theater on August 24.
“It’s funny, I did a job search online and I did not expect to get the job,” says Siu. “But I thought I might as well apply ‘cause it’s there and it’s available. I ended up interviewing and it worked out fantastically. We got along really well, and we both felt it was a good fit. It was great talking to Director David Johnston and seeing what he had in mind for the show. David likes to do really different things, and that is what I love to do, especially for musicals that are done quite often. This is one of my dream shows.”
Johnston says he wasn’t sure where they were going to go conceptually with the costumes. But the idea to do a period piece that mixed timetables appealed to him, and Siu brought that to life.
“I saw a sentence or two about a show that had done different costumes from different periods all within,” says Johnston. “I thought that would be a cool concept… How do we express the timelessness of these fairy tales and the fact that they are used generation after generation? The fairy tales are from different time periods. We add to that library of these fables that we tell ourselves and our kids that keeps growing and growing. Maybe we can visualize that in a way. When I talked to Jojo about doing that she just grabbed onto it really quickly and ran with it.”
Siu’s petite frame is dwarfed by a giant pile of black sequined fabric that she is hand sewing. She says she likes to play with texture, and nearly everything on the rack for these characters has a botanical aspect whether it be in flowers, embroidery, or texture.
“The witch is what we are working on,” says Siu. “She has the most costume changes right now. One thing that David and I talked a lot about when we were discussing the concept of this play was that everyone transforms and goes through a process of change when they go into the woods.”
“This is the only character that I feel stays pretty true to herself from the first act to the second act because she is supposed to start off as this hag that is disguised and unrecognizable, then she goes into her glamour look for her second act.”
“[But] we decided to take that in a different direction because we didn’t necessarily want her to be ugly in the beginning. David really wanted to emphasize the fact that she comes from the wood and that she belongs to the wood. When we looked at designs and sketches, my first thought process was, ‘How do we make her blend into the wood and disappear and reappear when she needs to?’ So a lot of the fabrics I found have a certain 3D technology or element to them.”
By 3D she means giant feathery sequins that glitter down the witch’s cape. On the inside of the cape is a fabric that has hundreds of tiny leaves coming up out of it. Kirsten Otterson plays the role of the witch, and the cape flips both ways depending on the scene.
“It gives the idea of her being created from feathers, or birds, or leaves,” says Siu. “When we first see her, it’s got the leaves on the outside and this is the dead version of her. Rather than ‘ugly’ we decided to create a massive cape of leaves to make it like she is appearing from the woods. When she goes into her glamour look she flips the cape around. We had to figure out these mechanics of transformation. We wanted minimal, crazy-quick changes from start to finish. A lot of these pieces transform on her as opposed to being a full change.”
A skirt and corset complete the look, but the skirt is full of tiny lights, lace, and embroidery.
“We liked the idea of her doing fireflies,” says Siu. “When you think about the woods it’s something that comes naturally. She is a magical being. She has these lights that she can turn on and off in the costume.”
“She is inspired by a certain period with the panniers of the Rococo period,” Siu adds. “She is a little more ageless than some of the characters, but I wanted to give her a silhouette that mimicked the direction we were going with everyone else. It gives her more presence and power.”
The witch is not the only gown with padding and panniers. These different fairy tale characters span from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
“Our original concept is that we wanted all of the different Grimm fairy tales to kind of come from the period that they were originally written in,” says Siu. “It ranges from late 16th century to late 18th century. With Cinderella and her stepsisters we are looking at the late 17th century – a little bit of the Baroque and Rococo period.”
“That kind of over-the-top styling is present in the wigs for the stepsisters and stepmother. They have quite a lot of fabric. Cinderella has a huge dress. We are giving them the bum roll instead for their volume. That was one challenge, differentiating the looks enough so you can tell they are from different periods, and that comes in with silhouette.”
Laarnie Barcelon came with Siu from California to design the hair, and create wigs for the costumes. Her stepsister wigs are breathtaking wonders of voluminous hair, curls, and braids, sitting on styrofoam in the workroom. She keeps curling and pinning as we talk.
“Usually I do assisting or wardrobe, but mostly hair,” says Barcelon. “I think initially when I got added on to Into the Woods it was hair and wigs, but that has also morphed into costume assistant.”
Barcelon is constructing a 6-foot length of braid for Rapunzel, and decking it out with silk flowers and leaves to accompany the theme of the forest.
“Laarnie is actually in one of my classes, but she has a lot of professional experience as well,” says Siu. “I knew she was really good at hair. I brought her on board when I knew we needed a hair and wig person. It just worked out that I knew I also needed an assistant on the island.”
Costume design isn’t the only unique touch on this production of Into the Woods. Johnston added a chorus to the show, something that was not in Stephen Sondheim’s original.
“With the chorus we are taking the show in a totally different way,” says Johnston. “When the characters go into the woods we have these – we call them different things: The forest fairies, the druids.”
“There are all these other people on a journey at the same time. They are in the forest. I wanted to take it a step further. [The chorus] is more of the forest. They are magical.”
“These people are here to help the main characters on their journey,” he adds. “They are there to help you on your journey. You may not see them, you may not notice them, [but] you sense them in the forest. You know how you walk through a forest and the trees will blow and you will look real fast and get an image of something, and you think is somebody there? It’s that kind of thing. There are these presences, these people watching.”
“Even in this forest on your journey you are not alone. You have all these people who have gone before you and souls and energies that are still there.”
Siu takes me through her costumes for the druid tree people chorus.
“The other part of this play, outside of the characters, is this huge ensemble of tree people,” says Siu. “They are of the world of the witch, and they also belong to the woods. A big part of designing their looks was collaborating with Jaime Tait, our set designer, and figuring out how to match the fabrics to the trees. We make them disappear and reappear. They move a lot of set pieces and handle a lot of the mechanics during the play. We are looking at very flowy fabrics, I took this gauze for them, so it would be really light but also give a kind of rippled texture that made me think of bark. We are going to go over this with a ton of paint and texturing. That is the other fun part. I get to be artistic and creative and do lots of fun things.”
Siu says Into the Woods is one of her dream shows to design for.
“I love the fairy tales and the stories that are in this play. I think Stephen Sondheim’s words and his lyrics, his content, the way that he writes his musicals are really in depth. I love the different perspective he puts on the kinds of thing we normally see. I like that he used the Grimm fairy tales rather than the Disney-fied versions. I have always been into storytelling, but this is just one of those combinations of the best story telling all in one with great music. There is something dark about this musical but there is also something so witty and so lighthearted in the music.”
She also finds the challenge of the storytelling in the play satisfying.
“A lot of the plays I do in L.A. are gut-wrenching work, a lot of pieces that deal with diversity and the political climate. It is really fun for me to be able to take a step back from that and come here and do something more lighthearted. But that isn’t to say this is a fluff musical,” she says.
“There is some depth here too. That was the draw. This is my first time on Maui. I love being able to travel for my work. Getting to work on the island, and seeing how different states do things; how they come at theater depending on what resources they have available. This work in theater has been a great experience. I have been learning a lot about that. Especially as an Asian American, being in this place in such diversity is really important to me.”
Johnston finds that Sondheim was giving us a bit of a Hero’s Journey with a twist in this story.
“There is an invitation for all of us to go into the woods,” says Johnston. “We sing ‘Into the Woods’ about 80 times, it seems like, in the show. Why is that there? Why is that invitation there? Face your fears.”
Johnston explains, “It’s people who are wanting to change who they are. Explore who they are. This is what we all do. We have to face the fears, face your dragons. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It is scary. It can be life threatening. If you come out of it then you have a responsibility to bring your learning back to society. It’s a learning process, and it becomes a learning process and evolution for humanity. I really like that concept.”
In act one you see the characters, Cinderella, Jack, The Baker and His Wife, and Rapunzel all talking about what they want in life. In scene two it gets real.
“Everybody’s talking about ‘I wish, I want, it’s about I,’” says Johnston. “They get what they want but they discover that’s not enough. That it doesn’t bring them happiness or what they thought it was. So they have to go back into the woods in the second half where it’s a little iffy, it’s a little darker. A little more challenging. But they come through that, and the way they come through that is they bond as a community.”
“That is their salvation. That is how they save their society. I love that sense that there is more in this life than just getting what we want. It’s how we work together to get what is best for all of us.”
MAPA LIVE PRESENTS INTO THE WOODS – Fri. Aug 24 – Sun. Sept. 2. Showtimes: Friday and Saturday, 7:30pm; Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $22-$66, Opening Night Special available. Maui Arts and Cultural Center, (1 Cameron Way, Kahului); 808-242-SHOW; Mauiarts.org
For more information or to buy tickets to the show go to Mauiacademy.org/into-the-woods.