As she prepared for “Into the Woods,” her very first theater production for Minneapolis-based Ten Thousand Things, director Marcela Lorca recalled the best advice she ever received. Two simple words that help whenever she feels overwhelmed.
They came from a longtime Guthrie Theater colleague, the late Ken Washington, who led the theater’s actor training program before Lorca took over in 2014.
“He was a very generous, kind man, a real noble person,” recalled the soft-spoken Lorca, over a latté at Minneapolis’ Birchwood Cafe. “Whenever I had a question, I would go to him because he was such a wise person. I’d ask my question and he would smile and say, ‘You know.’ And I’d think, ‘Of course I know.’ It would send me right back into searching for my own answers.”
The advice comes in handy these days. Lorca took over as artistic director of Ten Thousand Things last fall, a job she describes as “huge.” And now she’s in the midst of her first directing project for the tiny but ambitious theater, which also happens to be her first directing job since “Disgraced” at the Guthrie three years ago. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Into the Woods” features a complex plot and multiple lead characters. And it’s a meticulously composed musical that, true to TTT’s mission, will be traveling to prisons and senior centers in addition to having ticketed performances.
Actor Austene Van plays the Witch (Meryl Streep’s role in the 2014 movie version) in a show about fairy tale characters whose lives reach a simultaneous crossroads.
After a recent rehearsal, Van marveled at “the audacity of doing this big, big, big ol’ musical.” “It’s a big’un!” she said.
Lorca likes a challenge, though. In fact, she picked “Into the Woods” for her TTT debut precisely because of the work’s ambition.
“I’ve always been intrigued by the humor, the lightness, but also the depth and the darkness that it can take you to,” Lorca said. TTT founder Michelle Hensley often spoke about fairy tales as ideal for the theater’s nontraditional audiences, since the form gives audiences a way to distance themselves. With “Into the Woods,” Lorca said, “it’s not devastating because of the fairy tale frame you see it through. It’s removed enough from reality that you can afford to dive into people being killed, losing their children, sacrificing for each other.”
Longtime TTT production manager Nancy Waldoch joked that Lorca’s production puts “the grim in ‘Grimms’ Fairy Tales.’ ”
What Waldoch means, Lorca said, is that her “Into the Woods” takes special care with exploring the complicated humanity of oft-Disneyfied folks such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. “They’re stripped of their loved ones, of the world as they know it, and they have to think through what their choices will be. It’s like what you’re facing right after an earthquake or a hurricane and you’re in this lonely place of having to recognize what is important to you.
“And that’s love,” she continued, with a broad smile. “That’s caring for the person next to you. I find that very moving and very, very universal.”
Collaboration and joy
In the past, Ten Thousand Things didn’t always hold open auditions. But, because “Into the Woods” is so mammoth, Lorca opted against precasting any roles, even ones that ultimately went to TTT veterans such as Aimee K. Bryant (who plays the longing-for-a-child Baker’s Wife) and Tyson Forbes (who plays Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, among other roles).
“It’s so complex that we wanted to make sure we had all the right people,” Lorca said. “When Jim [Lichtscheidl, another TTT vet] auditioned, he told us at the very end that the Baker is his dream role. And he’s such an excellent actor that you could see that for him it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The main thing Lorca looks for in auditions? A generous, open quality that audiences can grab onto immediately, she said. By these standards, Lorca cast TTT newcomers Ben Lohrberg and Elizabeth Reese, who were Lorca’s students at the Guthrie. Lorca also brought Guthrie props artisan Nick Golfis into the fold. And she’s leaning on TTT veterans such as Waldoch and music director Peter Vitale to clarify this trip into the “Woods.”
“Marcela and Peter had never worked together, and it’s been really fun to watch them,” Waldoch said. Because so much of the story is told via Sondheim’s erudite lyrics, musical clarity is particularly important, Waldoch added. “Peter is really working his butt off.”
One other way Lorca is maintaining continuity for TTT regulars is rehearsing “Into the Woods” in the same room Hensley used in a south Minneapolis church.
Waldoch and Van both lauded Lorca’s ability to bring collaboration and joy into that room. That was also true with Hensley, Waldoch added, although her rehearsals tended to be a little looser.
“Michelle and Marcela are totally different people, but what is the same is the effort, the brilliance, the generosity,” said Van, who appeared in TTT’s 2013 production “A Streetcar Named Desire” and did “Disgraced” with Lorca at the Guthrie. “Marcela has put the right people in the room. She casts so that she knows she’ll have people with lots of ideas.”
‘All these different hats’
Ideas? Lorca can’t have too many.
“I tell my teams, ‘I ask for a lot of things, but you tell me what’s not possible and we will look for a solution,’ ” she said. “I like the ability to throw a lot of things at the canvas and then take off the things that are not useful. It opens your imagination to the possibilities.”
And she’s OK with hearing “no” sometimes.
“She does ask for a lot, but in a really beautiful way,” said Waldoch, who’s responsible for assessing how many sets and costumes TTT can haul from place to place. “She’s been fine when we have to say, ‘Maybe not this time,’ or ‘Let’s think in a different way.’ ”
As Lorca navigates her new role at TTT, Van is watching extra closely, trying to absorb as many lessons as she can. Van also is a director (she did “Annie” at the Ordway in 2017) and the artistic director of a fledgling company, New Dawn Theatre.
“Marcela and I talked about this,” Van said. “She’s gone from working at the Guthrie with staff and staff and more staff, but now there’s a staff of five. So she’s putting on all these different hats, some of which she has never worn before. And she’s wearing all of them at once.”
As Lorca puts on her fundraising hat — as well as hats for greeting audiences, staging shows and educating other theaters about the TTT model — she’s learning new skills. But she’s also relying on knowledge she developed over several decades of theater work, starting in street theater in her native Chile and later at the Guthrie, where she started as the movement coach in 1991.
“Sometimes, you forget. It’s in the back of your mind, but it goes away,” Lorca said.“But as soon as you start directing, being in that room, you think, ‘This is what I do best; this is where I have a ton of practice.’ ”
That’s precisely what Washington was getting at with his two words of wisdom. His advice serves to remind Lorca to look within herself.
So, the new artistic director of Ten Thousand Things has a lot to learn. But when she has questions and needs to figure out the answers? She knows.