She’s the hitch…she’s what no one believes…she’s the witch! Kristen Zwobot sits down in a TheatreBloom exclusive interview to discuss tackling a Sondheim Bucket-List role as she takes on The Witch in the Reisterstown Theatre Project production of Into the Woods.
If you could give us a brief introduction of who you are and what of your work the readers might recognize, we can get started.
Kristen Zwobot: So I’m Kristen Zwobot and I’m playing the witch. I’ve been performing in the area for 20 years now? I’ve been doing theatre in this area forever, Baltimore, DC, that whole area. Most recently I was Ms. Strict in Zombie Prom at Spotlighters Theatre. That was a fun one. I’ve gotten to play that part before, which is rare because no one ever does that show. That was actually eight years ago, so I was 23 playing a mom to a high schooler. It was a little awkward. I’m used to playing high school students, so it was a little weird but definitely fun. My favorites roles…I mean I always come back to Pickles in The Great American Trailer Park Musical at Spots because that was such a fun show. And my husband Brett (area actor Brett Rohrer) proposed to me on stage just after that show so that one will always have a special place in my heart. I loved Shovel in the Dirt, with Stillpointe. In DC I did the progressive metal version of Sweeney Todd with Landless. I kind of get around.
I more follow shows that I’m interested in or things that are different than company loyalty. Don’t get me wrong there are groups that I really love working with. I love working with Stillpointe Theatre. They’re a lot of fun to work with. This is actually my first time working with RTP, I’d never gone up that way before.
What was the draw to go up that way since you’d never worked with them before?
Kristen: Sondheim. I will chase Sondheim pretty much anywhere he goes. I’m a Sondheim chaser. I drove to DC to do Sweeney so I will drive to Reisterstown for Woods.
Does Sondheim comprise a lot of your bucket list?
Kristen: He does. This is actually the first bucket-list role Sondheim. Now I’d done Into the Woods before, but I was Little Red Riding Hood, which was a blast because Little Red is just so much fun. That was a while ago with Laurel Mill Playhouse. I can’t wait to play Lovett. That’s a role that I would hunt down pretty much anywhere it turns up.
What is it about the witch that really speaks to you and makes her a bucket list role for you?
Kristen: I saw a DVD of the original Broadway production with Bernadette (actress Bernadette Peters) when I was probably eight years old and I was just like “Oh. My. God. I want to be her.” It was one of those things that just clicked. I was always the overdramatic child. So the fact that she was larger than life in terms of the characterization was just one of those things that made me say “I cannot wait to play this.” She was so emotional! Although, as I grew up and looked more into the character I realized she was totally a Jewish mom and I loved it even more. She’s a Long Island Jewish mom, that’s what she is really in real life. You know, overprotective mother who hides her children away? I love it. The part is just so iconic. Anybody who love Sondheim is going to want to be the witch. I was super pumped to go out for the part. There were about ten of us called back for the witch so it was a marathon of a callback. It was definitely a long night.
What is it that you are bringing to the witch that makes her uniquely Kristen’s witch?
Kristen: I think I’m trying to make her as relatable as possible. I think a lot of people will make her so much more fantastical and so over the top that you can’t relate to the character. Whereas I want her to have those sympathetic moments from the audience where they really are relating to her and they realize, “Oh, she really is just trying to be a mom.” Or “oh she really does have feelings.” I want to give her a more human aspect. I feel like that’s missed in her in a lot of productions that I’ve seen. It’s very easy to write her off, “Oh, she’s the witch, she’s the bad guy.” So you don’t feel for her as much. But I want the witch to make me care really hard. I think that’s what I’m trying to do, bring out that humanness in her. At least I hope that’s how it comes across. Fingers crossed.
What would you say is the moment of the show that defines the show for you?
Kristen: I think the major turning point of the show for her is definitely— SPOILER ALERT— Rapunzel’s death. She obviously has a big turn when she becomes beautiful and loses her power, and that’s something that she has to come to grips with too. But losing her daughter makes her realize just how petty and ridiculous her whole purpose in the first act really is. It brings her down a level. It’s where she’s the most human and where she’s in her most vulnerable state. That’s when her attention totally shifts to “we need to save as many as we can.” This is no longer about saving one boy this is about saving everyone and she kind of goes on a mission at that point. I feel like that moment is her big turning point.
That doesn’t sound like it’s your favorite moment of the show, so what is your favorite moment of the show?
Kristen: Oh, no! I mean, I definitely love that moment. It’s one of those things where she really gets to break down. Being vulnerable on stage is so rewarding because I feel like the harder an actor works to have that cathartic moment without really breaking down, it means that the audience is going to go there and feel that build up with them. That’s why you do it. So that you get to see the audience go on that emotional journey with you and feel that emotional release with you. Now, I won’t lie, I really do enjoy singing “Last Midnight.” It’s a lot of fun.
Talk to us a little bit about “Last Midnight” and some of the other songs that the witch gets to sing and rap through.
Kristen: Oh yes! Garden rapping is tons of fun. I absolutely enjoy rapping. I was a major Salt N Pepa fan back in the day so I definitely like getting to play with that. The rap is so much fun. That’s her storytelling moment. The alliteration and the enunciation is always a pleasure. But singing “Last Midnight” is one of those iconic songs where you just have to say “Oh, all the feels!” We just had our first Sitzprobe. Everything just came together and it just felt lovely. You never know when you go into a Sitzprobe but it just felt so great. Everything rose and fell and was fabulously where it was supposed to be.
What has been the biggest challenge in taking on the witch?
Kristen: I think the biggest challenge has been the fact that she is so definable by so many other people. Making her even remotely my own is so very challenging. I’m second guessing myself every time I make a choice. I’m asking myself, “Am I doing this because I’ve seen someone else do it? Or am I doing this because I think this is the best thing to do?” And that’s not to say that I don’t pay homage to them in certain spots? And there are some spots where you simply can’t avoid it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So you can’t help but have a few moments where you go there, but trying to make this character somewhat mine has definitely been— I don’t want to say a battle, but a struggle. It’s definitely been a challenge for sure.
How does taking on the witch compare to other roles you’ve taken on in the past?
Kristen: In terms of other shows? I think the last time I got to have a range like this was probably Shovel in the Dirt. And that’s going back four or five years. While Delilah Strict was a lot of fun, she’s all camp and bravado and not exactly on the same page as the witch. She’s very much a character-actor’s character whereas the witch is definitely more of a leading-lady status, which is new for me. I don’t really play leading-lady very often. I’m typically your character actress and that’s typically where I stay and that’s where my roots are. The only time I’ve ever played an ingénue was Shovel in the Dirt and that’s because Ryan (Stillpointe Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Haase) wrote it with my voice specifically in mind.
You had mentioned this is your first time with RTP. Is there anyone in the cast or creative team that you have worked with before?
Kristen: I have worked with the Choreographer (Melissa McGinley.) She and I did Six Dead Queens & an Inflatable Henry together. It was a US premiere. It was a lot of fun. We got to play the six wives of Henry VIII and we were stuck in purgatory together for all of eternity. At the end of the show we got to destroy and decimate an inflatable Henry doll with knitting needles. It was kind of entertaining. Full blown corsets, in a massive bed with six women. It was pretty fun. This was back in 2008 at Mobtown Players. So I’ve worked with her…and I’ve worked with Barbara Hartzell, who’s playing The Baker’s Wife, we did Spelling Bee together and that was a blast. She played Rona Lisa Peretti and I played Olive.
Now there are plenty of people in the cast who I’ve worked around but never actually with before. Like Ryan Geiger and Jim Gerhardt, who are playing The Baker and Cinderella’s Prince respectively. I’ve literally done theatre circles around them for eight years but we’ve never actually worked together. And now here we are. We finally get to do something together! That’s been lots of fun and I hope to do it again sometime.
What would you say taking on this particular role has taught you about yourself?
Kristen: That’s a really good question. To never— I don’t want to say “to never give up” but I guess to never think that it’s not possible to get cast in these types of roles. I know that probably sounds a little bit cliché but in theatre we all fall into our certain types. I’ve always lived in that character-actress zone. Landing this role is kind of opening up another door for me. It’s building the confidence for me to say, “Okay, I can play that role one day.” We all have our list of roles we want to play. Obviously I won’t get to play Effie, but I don’t feel like I’m as pigeon-holed into character work as I did before.
What’s your favorite fairytale?
Kristen: I have to say I always come back to Little Red, probably because she’s so feisty and purely because I’ve played her before. She was my girl. She’s so independent and spunky. And I always went off and did my own thing, even as a kid, so I always identified with her. I never really identified with the fairytale princesses that wasn’t really my cup of tea. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my fairytale princesses because pretty dresses and all, but Red was always my girl.
Speaking of pretty dresses, what’s your costume shaping up to be like?
Kristen: I have a really pretty dress. It’s a really beautiful purple dress, well it’s a skirt and a top but it has a lot of beading. I get this really awesome cloak for the first act, though it’s a little slippery. I’m working on that. Then I have this lovely cape that’s lots of fun to play with for the second act. I’m very excited about getting to rock a purple dress and I’m not playing a mom so I get to wear the fancy stuff. I have a big wig, a la Bernadette because that’s one of my homage moments. I have to pay homage to her hair. You can’t be the witch and not have Bernadette hair, that’s just not right. I had to go that route.
Why do you want people to come and see RTP’s production of Into the Woods?
Kristen: Into the Woods is just such a great story. It basically shows you another side of all of these characters that people know and love and relate to. While you’re used to seeing all of these stories in a certain light, they might not be all they’re cracked up to be. You get to see what life is really like after “happily ever after.” Not everything does go your way but at the end of the day you still have that heart and soul of the show, you see it in the Baker as he’s telling the story to his son. It’s a beautiful story and the end is really emotional. I love that. Actually, most of Sondheim’s shows are really beautiful at the end. He always has some sort of cathartic moment at the end, “ding” there’s a moment. Come see it for that moment.
Into The Woods plays through April 17, 2016 at Reisterstown Theatre Project in residence at Franklin Middle School— 10 Cockeys Mill Road in Reisterstown, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door (cash or check only) or in advance online.