This spring the theatre department is putting on a well-known piece, Into the Woods. However, before the lights go down and the actors take their positions, a lot of work needs to go into designing the costumes, scenery, lighting, etc. I was able to talk to Professor William Newcomb, Technical Director for Theatre, about the production process and his experience with preparing for this year’s mainstage musical.

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Into the Production with Prof. William Newcomb on “Into the Woods”

  • Prof. William Newcomb
    Prof. William Newcomb

By Madison Kobe ’18

February 13, 2018

This spring the theatre department is putting on a well-known piece, Into the Woods. However, before the lights go down and the actors take their positions, a lot of work needs to go into designing the costumes, scenery, lighting, etc. I was able to talk to Professor William Newcomb, Technical Director for Theatre, about the production process and his experience with preparing for this year’s mainstage musical.

How has this project been different from past productions?

Each project presents its own challenges with special production requirements. This show is no different from any other production. As a production team—which includes director, scenic designer, lighting designer, costume designer, stage manager, dramaturg—we select a design concept of the show and the message the director is trying to convey to the audience. We meet as a group and collaborate to identify and solve any issues that have come up. The collaboration is important because a single issue can affect all aspects of the production.

            This show in particular has interesting issues; there are some characters that aren’t played by actors, and there are a lot of different ways to approach these characters. We looked at our production and considered what would fit well with our design concept. I don’t want to give too much away, but I feel like we’ve come up with a really creative solution that will take us to another level of technologies and scenic practices that we haven’t really done before. We are working with some regional and national experts of these techniques, and we are excited to offer our students the opportunity to explore new scenic practices.

What approach did you take when considering the set for this show?

Martin McClendon is the scenic designer, but the entire production team looks at the requirements for the production; Neil Scharnick, the director, has looked at how much space he needs for actors to move, especially since this is a larger musical. Actors have to be able to dance and move safely in the larger numbers. We look at how different scenic components can be incorporated into filling those requirements. We initially look at the physical requirements, such as where the pit is going to go for the musicians, how do we incorporate the pit into the actual appearance of the show, how does that get woven into the experience, etc.

In general, how much time goes into creating a set for a production of this size?

This is an interesting question; it depends on what you mean by “creating the set.” The actual building of the set, once we get all the designs, only takes about four to six weeks. But the overall production experience can take up to a year. Before we select a show, the director and designers read and analyze the script to decide if it is an appropriate show for the season and if it is physically possible with the space and cast available. The designers meet with the director about once a week and brainstorm for the first two or three months while we build off ideas and establish a general direction we want to take. Then, once we land on a design concept and general direction, it takes another three to six months to hammer out designs, location of scenery, how the scenery will interact with different scenes, which pieces will move on and off stage, etc.

            We have a unique experience in the Wartburg. Since the scene shop is in the basement, we have to consider how much we can build downstairs and bring up through the physical doors, and we do quite a bit of building on stage. However, we have a pretty demanding production schedule and have to work around the other shows going on. We have a dance production in the spring, and Silent Sky before the opening of Into the Woods; so while we may have the show built, we may not have it assembled. It might take us another one or two weeks to assemble everything when we move into the space.

            After we have everything assembled we go into a week of technical rehearsals, which is when we bring the cast, crew, and set together to add technical components. We usually add scenery first, and then add lighting and props, and then finally we’ll add the costumes, and a few days adjusting things as needed.

What has been a highlight of working on Into the Woods?

A highlight is finding creative ways to solve the unique challenges we face. As I mentioned earlier, the approach we are taking with the animal characters is not like anything we have done before.

            The collaboration is always great, too. We have had to come together physically to make the show great. For instance the costume shop may have to dress something we build, even if it isn’t actually a person. Seeing how all that work gets incorporated will be really rewarding.

What challenge(s), if any, have you faced with this production?

Going back to the key components that make up the design decisions, one of the things we’ve faced in addition to the issues of the special characters, is always dealing with the work force in an educational setting. The students build all the scenery, they build the costumes, and are heavily involved in the lighting and props. It’s always a challenge to keep things moving in a forward motion while maintaining that educational environment. There is time for error and to go back and fix things, but at the same time there are deadlines; no matter what the show opens on a specific day and you have to stick with that date since there are already tickets sold and advertisements with that date. It’s always a race against time, and an effort to balance the high production values we strive for and making sure the students are having a good experience learning the process since that is what we are here to do.

What advice would you give someone considering a career in the performing arts?

The performing arts are great because there is a lot of intrinsic value that you may not see right away. It’s not only mastering a craft; it’s taking ownership of that mastery, and working together as a creative team. It’s a really rewarding field because of the collaboration; with all of the technology nowadays, you lose that face-to-face contact that is required for effective communication and strong work relationships. But in the performing arts, you have to come together and collaborate for everyone to be successful. Everyone has to contribute; even if they don’t have a lot to contribute, they are still a piece of the puzzle.

            I would tell someone considering pursuing the performing arts to get involved in as many facets of production as possible. One of the things we encourage here is getting out of your comfort zone, because everything you learn about the process will only benefit you. That way, when you go out to the post-graduate world, you will have a better understanding of what each individual needs and does. It leads to more mutual respect and makes you a better-rounded individual in the arts and in society.


Into the Woods

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by James Lapine

Directed by Neil Kristian Scharnick and Music Direction by Jeremy Ryan Mossman
Into the Woods, written by seven-time Tony-award winning composer Stephen Sondheim, reinvents beloved fairy tales to tell a new and captivating story. The show follows a handful of characters; The Baker and his wife, who wish to have a child; Cinderella, who wants to go to the ball; Jack, who wishes he could keep his beloved pet cow, Milky White; and Little Red Riding Hood, who wants to deliver bread and sweets to her ailing grandmother. The Baker and his wife are visited by the Witch who lives next door. She reveals to them that she has placed a curse on their family, which they must reverse the curse in order to have their child. Set upon their respective tasks, each character heads into the woods to achieve their goals and find their happily ever afters. Winning such awards as the Tony for “Best Original Score” and “Best Book of a Musical,” and the Drama Desk award for “Outstanding Musical,” Into the Woods is a spell-binding story full of heart and determination that is sure to enchant audiences from overture to final curtain.

April 27-28 and May 3-5 | 7:30 p.m.
April 29 | 3 p.m.
Get your tickets 24/7 at