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High School Spring Musical Cast Goes on Theater Retreat to Brescia

Over the weekend of February 18–20, the cast of this year’s High School Spring Musical, Into the Woods JR., traveled to Brescia, Italy, and rehearsed at the Villa Fenaroli Palace Hotel. Director Julie Frazier-Smith and Music Director Eugene Villanueva organized and led the retreat to help the actors prepare for the three upcoming performances of the musical production in the Palmer Cultural Center: Friday, March 18, at 19:00; Saturday, March 19, at 19:00; and Sunday, March 20, at 14:00.

By Julie Frazier-Smith 

The retreat location, Villa Fenaroli Palace Hotel in the province of Brescia, Italy, could not have been more ideal or idyllic for the student actors to deepen their connection to their roles from the cast of lively characters conceived by the late Stephen Sondheim and inspired by the Brothers Grimm Fairy tales. During the actors’ stay at the hotel, the more palace-type characters found their inspiration in the villa and fine rehearsal rooms while the wood-type characters drew inspiration in the woods just behind the “palace.”

We arrived on Friday evening and had a delicious meal prepared by the hotel. Following dinner, we had our first meeting in one of the rehearsal rooms reserved for the cast, where we shared our “hopes and dreams” for the retreat and set our goals. One of the main goals shared amongst the cast members was to build community.

The following morning, I led several students through an optional morning practice of Meridian Exercises (a practice created by Shizuto Masunaga founded on the principles of Chinese medicine and Shiatsu therapy for health and wholeness). Following this practice, the entire group enjoyed a plentiful breakfast and then gathered in the hotel lobby to begin their first character development activity in the woods. They walked out the back doors of the palace and up a hill to a wooded area. 

On the walk, I asked students to speak to one another in their character’s voice (as Rapunzel, the Wolf, Cinderella, or Little Red Ridinghood, for example). On this walk, they were beginning to explore how their characters related to one another and how some characters might feel uncomfortable going into the woods and would much prefer to stay in the charms of the palace while others might feel more comfortable in nature and less comfortable in the palace.

Once the cast arrived in the woods, I asked them to de-role and invited them (just as themselves, not as their characters) to pay attention to nature. I introduced a very simple prompt: “Just listen to nature. What do you hear? What do you sense? What do you notice?” Mr. Villanueva added to the prompt, “How can you breathe with this environment? What do you notice about your breath?” Before setting off for this 8-minute meditation of listening to nature’s sounds, the group discussed how many different ways we can listen—not just auditorily but with the full body’s senses, noticing as their feet touched the soil or their hands touched the bark of a tree, and even noticing the smell of the misty morning at the beginning of spring. 

Following the meditation, the group came together to share what they heard. There were many profound teachings that the students shared, such as learning the importance of slowing down, being with nature, and just noticing; they were shocked that this rich and deep practice was only 8-minutes long, as many of us are perhaps used to using our time, energy, and attention differently. One student commented on the noise heard from the highway and how this was the most prominent sound at first, but then the birdsong became more apparent. This exercise was helpful in realizing the complexity, layeredness, and aliveness of the wood that the actors can translate and bring to the stage. It also seemed as though this activity helped the students find deeper meaning to apply to their everyday lives. 

Following the morning activity, the cast returned to the palace to engage in their first rehearsal. Mr. Villanueva, our Music Director, worked with students on their breath support and their understanding of their vocal mechanism and how to project and support the voice for the stage. During scene-work, I kept calling attention to the relationships shared between the characters and the environment on stage, helping the actors bring the spirit of attention and listening to the rehearsal room (utilizing Viewpoints and Alexander Technique exercises).

Following lunch on Saturday afternoon, the cast continued their rehearsals. Two actors that are sharing the role of the Witch were able to work on finding a similar movement vocabulary and voice. Each cast member was supported by Mr. Villanueva to better understand when their dialogue happened within Sondheim’s exciting score. 

All meal times proved to be a wonderful time for the students to become more acquainted with one another. The cast had their separate dining room that yielded great conversation and games shared by the group. 

On Sunday morning, following the optional meridian stretches class and breakfast, the weekend culminated into a complete show run in which the cast members could apply all of their learning from the weekend’s workshops and rehearsals to the show. It was exciting to experience the shift of aliveness brought to the rehearsal room after the weekend workshops and shared time between the cast members.

We had a celebratory lunch before the cast departed the Villa Fenaroli Palace Hotel and began the journey back to TASIS. We are all grateful for this experience, which would not have been possible without the assistance of Academic Travel Director Natalie Philpot.

The cast, Mr. Villanueva, and I warmly invite you to the upcoming productions of Into the Woods JR. so that you can have your own sensorial experience in the “woods.” The show premieres in the Palmer Cultural Center at 19:00 on Friday, March 18, and will also be performed at 19:00 on March 19 and at 14:00 on March 20. We hope to see you there!

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