Going Deeper Into the Woods | University of Northwestern, St. Paul
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Going Deeper Into the Woods

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Into the Woods graphics
Wes Muilenburg holding a prop her made for Into the Woods

Follow a twisty tale through the woods, with a stop at Grandmother's house, an escape in Cinderella's slippers, and a climb up to Rapunzel's tower. Northwestern's theater production of Into the Woods entreats us to go deeper into these familiar characters' adventures.

Stephen Sondheim deftly weaves together storylines from multiple fairy tales into a tapestry of contrasts. Rich songs range from haunting ("Stay with Me") to absurd ("Agony") to hopeful ("No One is Alone"). Stories that we think we already know are turned upside down and inside out, then sent careening into one another, to great effect. This lyrical musical promises much more than just a fairy tale mash-up.

Like our surprisingly complex characters traveling into the woods, the Props Master for the production has unexpectedly diverse interests. Wes Muilenburg (sophomore, Computer Science major) navigates rooms filled with wigs, costumes, surprisingly heavy swords and delicate hanging birds. He carefully tracks all these items to get them in the hands of the actors exactly when they are needed onstage. As a Computer Science major, he demonstrates attention for detail and perseverance, sometimes spending hours meticulously coding a program. This mindfulness is perfect for a props manager who needs to deliver, retrieve, and maintain dozens of set pieces for each performance.

Wes Muilenburg playing the saxophone

But on the flip side, Wes engages his creative talents in making new props for productions, and in performing on the alto saxophone UNW's Jazz Ensemble and Symphonic Band. Along with his Computer Science major, he is earning a Music minor, which allows him to continue his passion for playing music and earn additional credits. Beyond graduation, he hopes to continue using his musical talents in saxophone and piano to minister in worship or community bands.

His Northwestern theater experience has ranged from house manager to props, where he's gained leadership experience managing ushers. As house manager, he enjoys talking with a wide variety of people. As props master, he appreciates how kind and grateful the actors are when he’s created a prop for them, and then he enjoys seeing it "come to life" when they use it onstage.

There's a wide spectrum of students that participate in theater productions at Northwestern, where computer science or engineering majors connect with theater and music majors to pull off a production. Overall, more than 50% of UNW students participate in extra-curricular activities, which provides balance for the academic rigor, as well as connection and community.

For Wes, it's a treat to do something fun like theater or playing saxophone. He's able to pursue a STEM degree with great career potential, while minoring in music that feeds his soul. "I go from learning a computer language to writing a Bible paper to scanning a prop list for the 200th time to make sure everything is in place. It’s fun to have the chance to shift gears."

Wes, time for the Lightning Round:

  • Most challenging prop for Into the Woods? "Probably making nylon intestines."
  • Favorite prop you’ve made at UNW: "A box that held a skull and a pistol for Phantom last year."
  • Best part of working in theater? "Hearing the audience respond and learning about their perspectives on the show afterward."
  • What can we expect? "Expect excellence, and your expectations will be exceeded."
the Theatre's shelf of wigs

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