Months before the likes of Derek McLane and Howell Binkley started conceiving designs for the six new productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals for Washington's Kennedy Center's summer-long celebration of his work, the first design teams for the Sondheim Celebration were hard at work in classrooms at elementary and middle schools around DC. That was perfectly appropriate because the designers were students at those very schools, fourth through ninth graders who would come up with the design concepts for the first Sondheim Celebration show: Into the Woods, Jr.

Into the Woods, Jr. is one of a number of abridged versions of major Broadway musicals that have been prepared for performances by students through the ninth grade as part of the Broadway Junior Collection. Among the shows available are Guys and Dolls, Annie, The Music Man, and Once on This Island. Over 5,000 performances have been licensed since 1996, but this one was to be special. It was to be part of the largest celebration of a single composer's musical theatre output in memory at one of the nation's most important theatre centers.

By May 3 — a week before Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski wowed the audiences in the Center's Eisenhower Theatre as Sweeney Todd and his piemaker Mrs. Lovett — the abbreviated version of Sondheim's fairy tale musical hit the stage of the Center's AFI Theatre featuring the work of over 200 public-school children, who not only performed onstage but collaborated with set designer Cheryl Foster, costume designer Rosemary Pardee, and lighting designer Lynn Joslin. Indeed, the designs were really the product of the kids' minds as Foster, Pardee, and Joslin acted more as sponsors, mentors, and facilitators than designers themselves.

What appeared on the AFI stage, which hosts films as well as theatrical productions from such professional companies as Woolly Mammoth and the African Continuum Theatre, was the culmination of a project at seven schools, both public schools and charter schools, from all over the city. The children from all seven schools took special courses and worked on projects along with professionals from the Center.

Cheryl Foster, an artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center who has been involved in arts-related projects with the Washington schools for years, put the project in motion. Her credit in the final program was set design consultant, but she was involved in all aspects of the project from the beginning. She worked with the school faculties to develop work shops on fairy tales, the history of musical theatre, and the work of Stephen Sondheim. She developed materials on what a costume designer or a set designer does and the role of the director. She even put together a trip to a local farm to introduce inner-city kids to such things as a cow.

“The key feature was to get an understanding of what the collaborative process is all about,” she says, adding “being open to the ideas of others, being able to explain your own idea, and being responsible for the team's ability to meet deadlines and live up to agreements — these are life skills no matter what area you're going into.”

Some student sketches for The Baker, The Baker's Wife, and Little Red Riding Hood

Rosemary Pardee was the costume design consultant. She is also an artist-in-residence at the Center but she works at practically all the professional companies in the Potomac region, with over 500 productions to her credit.

Pardee remembers going into the first meeting at the first school thinking the project was an interesting experiment — but coming out completely sure that this experiment was going to work.

It was Stanton Elementary School, a 600 — student, all-black elementary school on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Capitol and the Kennedy Center. Pardee began the meeting with the students by explaining how she begins a design project, assigning symbols to each of the characters in order to begin jotting notes of ideas and requirements. She drew a triangle on the blackboard to represent Little Red Riding Hood, but one of the students said he thought a circle would be better. When she asked why, he said that Little Red Riding Hood would be “sort of even, always after the same thing.” Then she asked what shape would be good for her Granny. The response was an oval, “because when you get old, you sag.” Says Pardee, “They had it! Costume design is about relationships and telling stories subtly and right there, on the first day in the first school, these kids understood what they were about.”

Scenic and costume elements of design got the earliest attention while sound and lighting were taken up primarily when load-in began. Kevin Hill acted as sound design consultant, but the use of the pre-recorded material provided by the licensing house put more emphasis on sound reinforcement for this aspect of the production. Once they were in the theatre itself, lighting design consultant Lynn Joslin convened her student design committee — two students from each of the seven schools — to experiment with different effects using the theatre's existing stock of lighting equipment.

Even before costume and scenic designs were begun, director Rick Thompson met with the teams at the schools for preliminary discussions. “At first they seemed to be thinking in traditional, fairy-tale terms — I asked them to think in contemporary terms just to get them started. Wow, did they run with it! They came up with ideas for things like having the Prince driving a PT Cruiser while another kid said it should be a Corvette Stingray.”

Among the ideas the kids came up with was one that paralleled what was happening on Broadway at the same time, but they didn't know it. As the teams of professionals and kids were working on Into the Woods, Jr. at the Kennedy Center, a team of just professionals was remounting the full Into the Woods for a Broadway revival that would open just days before the junior version at the Kennedy Center. That revival went on to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical as well as for Best Lighting Design (Brian MacDevitt), and nominations for scenic designer Douglas W. Schmidt and costume designer Susan Hilferty.

Milky-White as costumed student performer

One of the innovations of that revival was the use of a costumed performer as the cow that Jack (of Beanstalk fame) sells for magic beans, rather than use a prop as had been the case in the original. Months before, the kids had proposed making the cow a costumed character in their production. In fact, they were so insistent on that point that Thompson added the cow to the cast roster and deleted it from the prop list.

The kids' designs were executed by some of the best local artisans under the supervision of Kathleen P. Farasy. Kathy Lyons and Kelle Vogel were stitchers, along with Emilie Swanson Long, resident costumer at the Round House in Maryland, who prepared squares for the quilt that would become the back of the cow. Long brought the squares to Seaton Elementary School in North West Washington to be assembled by the students before she stitched it. Suzie Ward, a freelance artist, did a wire mockup of the head for the cow and brought it to the school for some final input from the student designers before completing the mask. Mary Combs handled millinery while Suzie Ward worked on crafts.

Later, when the final production opened, Sondheim attended a performance at the Kennedy Center. The kids were blown away by his response to the question “Which was your favorite costume?” — “The cow,” he replied.