To get into his role as the narrator in "Into the Woods," Carter Skull is trying to summon a younger version of himself. He's 13 years old, but he doesn't consider himself to be a "kid at heart."
"I don't know if my parents would agree, but I like to think of myself as mature," Skull said.
It makes for a fun and interesting challenge in the musical that will run from Feb. 13 to March 8 at the Lyric Arts Main Street Stage in Anoka. Usually, the narrator is conceived as someone who is older and wiser, says director Matt McNabb.
Casting a young person isn't unheard of, but it puts a different twist on the role. It suggests that Skull is making up the story as he goes along, not merely recounting it, McNabb said.
That's an idea that the theater is playing up as the story unfolds in a woodsy back-yard setting. It could be the narrator's back yard, wherein his imagination is running wild, McNabb said.
Skull, the youngest of the 17-member all-ages cast, is "very intelligent and thoughtful and he wants to be perfect." In his directions to Skull, who McNabb jokes is a "40-year-old in a 13-year-old's body," he has mostly talked about relaxing and having fun while creating the story.
About the play
"Into the Woods," a hit on Broadway and elsewhere, is prominent these days, with the film version of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical having landed three Academy Award nominations.
The story, a fairy tale mash-up, brings together Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from "Jack and the Beanstalk," along with other assorted characters, as they traipse into the woods seeking to make their dreams come true. The treacherous woods "are an analogy for the larger world," McNabb said.
By the end of the first act, the characters arrive at "happily ever after" places. However, the second act offers more of a reality check as the characters are faced with the consequences of their actions in pursuit of their dreams, McNabb said. The play has plenty of "insightful things to say about growing up."
It's about "what children learn, the relationships between children and adults and the fact that the world can be a scary place for a kid," said McNabb, who was probably Skull's age when he saw the play for the first time. "There are morals about how parents raise children. By having the story told through a young person's lens, it brings that theme to the forefront."
Creating the story
McNabb recruited Skull to audition for the show after seeing him in several leading roles in productions at Coon Rapids Middle School, where he's in eighth grade. Even earlier in the school's production of "Annie," in which Skull only had two lines, "he was hilarious and charming," and he nailed a New York-sounding accent, McNabb said.
Skull wasn't familiar with "Into the Woods," but he has immersed himself in the play, watching the movie and a bunch of YouTube clips.
Already, it's become his favorite acting gig. For starters, he loves how characters from different fairy tales are hanging out together in this "giant magical fairy tale adventure," he said.
When rehearsals began on Jan. 1, Skull felt overwhelmed by the sheer heft of the script. Besides having more material to learn, he is involved in the action from beginning to end. In addition to advancing the story, he makes off-the-cuff remarks here and there and he often meddles in the affairs of the characters.
Sometimes he even steps in as a puppeteer. Whatever the situation, Skull has to be "on" the whole time.
Thus far, the hardest part to get down is the opening, Skull said. He's supposed to exaggerate his childlike persona by smiling big, running fast and so forth. It's a major shift from other versions of the play, with much older narrators, and the movie, which has no narrator.
To skew younger than his models, Skull is looking back on his younger years. For example, in one part of the play, the baker's wife is looking for a special ingredient for a magic potion. Skull tries to flag her down to let her know that it's right behind her. That moment reminds him of times that he's tried to get his parents' attention, to show them a picture he drew or a funny face he can do.
Later, when the other characters become aware of his involvement in their lives, including the bad, they lunge toward him. He taps into memories of "hiding under a blanket, hiding from a shadow or something that I don't know what it is but I feel like it's going to hurt me."
Also, he tries to channel the expressiveness of the young children in his mom's home day care. Every afternoon, youngsters can be found scampering around the dining room table, often with their little trucks in tow. "If you look at their faces, they're laughing and giggling at everything they do," he said, adding that he tries to tweak it some, bringing it up to his character's age.
Skull hopes his part makes "people say to themselves, 'oh, I can imagine a kid telling this or doing that' " or recall their own childhood memories.
'Wishes are like children'
Some parts resonate with Skull on a personal level. The song "Children Will Listen" contains the lyric "wishes are like children," which makes him think about how "You have to work, you can't just get what you want. You have to work for it," he said.
As someone who aspires to be a professional actor someday, "I think to myself, 'it's just like a wish. I can't just wish, though. It may be hard, but I can't just have it.' "
"I have to keep practicing, try my best. I can't just stop once I'm there. I keep caring for my wish or my "child," he said.
Skull's dad, Jason Skull, said his son has "always been an entertaining child, singing and dancing, reciting lines from movies. He's been doing that since he could talk."
"It's fun to watch. It's rewarding to see your child doing something he loves. We're proud of him, too. In a short time, he's really taken off in this," Jason Skull said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.