Young Thespians go ‘Into The Woods’ of Artistic Discovery with South Fork Performing Arts

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Tamara Salkin directs the cast during a rehearsal of the South Fork Performing Arts production of "Into the Woods" at LTV Studios on Saturday, October 30. Michael Heller photo.
When South Fork Performing Arts (SFPA) put on its debut performance — a production of “Antigone Now” in 2018 — Amaia Astorr was in the audience. She was there to support two of her friends, who were performing in the play, but it became a transformative experience for her. A year later, she was no longer content being a spectator.On Thursday, November 5, Astorr will be on stage along with the rest of the SFPA cast for opening night as they perform the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into The Woods,” at the LTV Studios in East Hampton. The musical centers around the stories of a baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child; Cinderella, who is trying to attend the king’s festival; Red Riding Hood, on her way to visit her grandma; and Jack (of beanstalk fame) who wishes his cow would give milk. The baker and his wife learn they cannot have a child because of a witch’s curse, and they then set off into the woods to try and break the curse. The stories of those main characters converge, wishes are granted, and the consequences of their actions return to haunt them with disastrous results.

“Into The Woods” will be Astorr’s third production with the youth theater company she was inspired to join back in 2018. Witnessing the unique way that the teens and middle school students stage their productions, under the tutelage and guidance of SFPA co-founders Amanda Jones and Tamara Salkin, left a big impression upon Astorr. While she admits she gravitates more toward straight plays than musicals, Astorr said the overarching philosophy of SFPA and the approach it takes to putting on a stage production is what has attracted her to the company and kept her coming back for more, no matter what type of show they’re working on.

“It blew me away,” Astorr, now a 16-year-old junior at East Hampton High School, said in an interview last week, speaking of her experience watching “Antigone Now.” “I had never seen a student production so raw and emotional, not to mention the powerful performances given by some of my closest friends.”

Being part of a stage production with SFPA is a big commitment, and varies greatly from what students might expect if they are cast in a school play or join another local theater group. In addition to preparing for a traditional acting role on stage, each cast member with SFPA also takes on an “internship” over the course of the weeks and months they are rehearsing, immersing themselves in a behind-the-scenes aspect of the production. That can be directing, set and costume design, marketing, and everything in between.

Theater director Salkin and music director Jones co-founded SFPA in 2017, initially just offering teaching workshops in various aspects of theater, such as delivering monologues or preparing for auditions. They began to stage their own productions a year later, when they discovered that students were more interested in the workshops if the “reward” of being able to put on a show was part of the equation as well.

Salkin said she and Jones had a specific kind of philosophy in mind when they set out to create their own workshops and theater company.

Emma Hand, Hope Hamilton and Silas Jones during rehearsals for “Into The Woods.” Courtesy South Fork Performing Arts.

“Amanda has a degree in music education, and I got my degree in theater education, and we both love performing and love the arts, and love arts for youth,” Salkin said. “We love how it’s not just an opportunity for kids to get on stage and have fun and perform but for them to really learn about empathy, and working together, and the reason characters are saying something, and trying to tie that into real life.”

The educational component is a big part of what SFPA does, and Salkin goes as far as to say it’s what separates them from other, more traditional theater troupes.

“Yes, they’re getting to perform and rehearse, but through the process of putting on the show, they’re learning about characterization, they’re learning about dialogue, they’re learning how to use their physical body to inform a character,” she said. “It’s all of the nuts and bolts and nitty-gritty pieces of theater that a lot of times youth aren’t as exposed to. We wanted to make sure that opportunity was available to them.”

The catchphrase that Salkin and Jones frequently reference to sum up their approach is “process over product.”

“At the end of the day, the show is the cherry on the cake, but you don’t get the cherry without the cake,” she said. “You have to do all the layered work.”

For the directors, the work is the “thing” that matters, but when it comes to the potential for parlaying that kind of effort into a paying job, the kind of diversification that SFPA emphasizes with its students is key.

“One of the things that we wanted to make sure the kids understood is that most people who want to perform [for a living] won’t get to do that,” Salkin said. “It’s a hard reality. But there are so many opportunities to work in theater if you’re willing to not always work on stage. And if you have other skills, you’re going to be more marketable as a performer. Especially if you’re working with an indie company, you can say, ‘I can act but I also know how to create a sound plot for you, or I also know how to make costumes or build props.’”

What the SFPA students learn through that process is that the work they put into those behind-the-scenes roles can be just as enjoyable and rewarding as the stage roles they take on.

Astorr, who has taken on a directing internship for “Into the Woods,” said she has come to learn that directing is “just as important, if not more important than acting in the overall production of the show.”

“I was surprised to find how much joy I got from directing my peers,” she said. “It’s great to give direction, watch my cast members take it and run with it, and see the satisfied smile on their faces when they are proud of their adjustments.”

Like Astorr, 15-year-old Nicole Seitz was also inspired to join SFPA after watching two friends — one of whom was Astorr — perform in a production. “Into the Woods” will be Seitz’s acting debut with SFPA. The East Hampton sophomore took on a marketing internship and has been writing press releases and doing other promotional work for the show.

When she was in the audience for SFPA’s production of “Freaky Friday” in 2019, she was particularly impressed by the company’s stripped down approach to putting on the show, with its frequently employed “black box” method of production, intended to put more emphasis and greater requirement on the acting skills as opposed to creating more distraction or propping them up with elaborate costume and set design.

Seitz has had to overcome what she described as “horrible stage fright” to be part of the production, but said that Jones, Salkin and the rest of the cast have been supportive, welcoming, and kind. Pushing the limits of what she thought was possible for herself has been transformative, she said, and the internship has only enriched her experience.

“I have learned so much these past few weeks, like how to write a formal press release and contact publishers,” she said. “These internships have opened my eyes to the crazy amount of work it takes to put on a production.”

Those are exactly the kinds of takeaways Jones and Salkin want to hear about. Salkin said they’re also happy to see the older, more seasoned members of the cast move into mentorship roles for the newer and younger members. “Into the Woods” has been a particularly good production to allow for that kind of collaboration, both because of the number of performers involved — with 22 members, this show represents the largest cast SFPA has ever had for a single show — and the wide range of ages involved. There are also a large number of main character roles in the musical, which gives the students a chance to sink their teeth into a role for the first time, as opposed to having a small handful of main roles and needing to relegate the rest of the cast to chorus or background performing jobs.

“We don’t want the kids to feel like puppets,” Salkin said. “We want them to feel like contributors to the entire process, not just performing.”

Salkin is excited to see what the students will bring to the stage this weekend, and said that “Into the Woods” has been a great choice for the theater company at a time when it has experienced increased popularity and there are plenty of actors at different levels of experience, ready for the kinds of challenges and opportunities for growth that the musical provides.

Between the size of the cast and the length of the show — it runs more than two hours — putting it together has been a gargantuan effort, Salkin said, but she is confident the fruits of those efforts will be obvious when the performers take the stage this weekend.

“I think they’re going to do great,” Salkin said. “It’s been a challenge, but I think what they’re learning is that there are no small parts, and that you’re part and your presence informs the entire story.”

Watching what they’ve already accomplished before the lights go up with an audience in house has been rewarding for Salkin and Jones as well, whether it’s seeing one student work hard at alterations on donated medieval costumes, making sure they fit the cast members properly, to seeing other students go through the script to find moments where sound effects are necessary.

“It’s wonderful to watch that other side of their creativity come out,” Salkin said. “You can love theater and not be a natural performer. I want them to know there’s always a place for them in theater.”

To extrapolate that point out even further, Salkin said she’s let her students know that if they’re struggling to find that place for themselves, they can create it. It’s a lesson Astorr has taken to heart recently. She’s intent on making a career in the future surrounding acting and theater, and wants to learn as much as she can about that process while she’s still in high school. Typically, East Hampton High School only puts on one student performance per year, a musical, and Astorr said she recognized that could be a disadvantage for the “less musically inclined” students, a struggle she said she relates to. She’s now in the process of spearheading the effort to bring a straight play to East Hampton, something she says she’d never have had the courage to do on her own if it weren’t for her experience with SFPA.

“Their relatively hands-off philosophy opened my eyes to what middle and high school students can accomplish,” she said. “I am incredibly grateful to Tamara and Amanda for allowing me the opportunity to grow not only as a performer but a director and, more importantly, a person.”

South Fork Performing Arts’ rendition of “Into the Woods,” with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and story by James Lapine, will feature actors from ages 11 to 18, representing six schools from Springs to Southampton. Performances are Friday, November 5, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, November 6, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at LTV Studios, 75 Industrial Road, Wainscott. Tickets are $20 at southforkperformingarts.com. More information including COVID-19 safety protocols can be found on the website.

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