Behind the scenes of ‘Into the Woods’

By Nick Hawks 

Russell Borski’s office is not your typical office. Walking inside, it feels more like its own art exhibit,  covered from ceiling to floor in colorful paintings, artifacts and sculptures, some of which are of Borski’s own design.   Borski explains that every office he has ever had has felt this way.  

“I used to work at the University of Illinois, and someone, I didn’t find out who for two years, every morning when I walked into my office, there was a new piece of thrown pottery on my desk,” Borski said. “So as my desk got full, I started gluing these pots up on my wall and my ceiling. So when I left that place after four years…” Borski’s voice trailed off as he searched for the right descriptive words. “That was a strange office.”

In addition to his office being a shrine to the Cleveland art scene, Borski has dedicated his life to theater, including directing the upcoming Cleveland State University musical, “Into the Woods.” The musical will premiere at Playhouse Square on the Allen Theatre Mainstage, and will run from Oct. 24 through Nov. 3. Borski has been busy with auditions and callbacks, which ran from Sept. 3 to Sept. 5, with casting officially announced on Sept. 6.   

It wasn’t just the actors that had to be cast, but also the stage management, board runners, backstage crew and wardrobe crew. The cast is listed on a callboard, which students sign “like they’re signing a contract.” After signing the contract, it’s right to work on rehearsals, with the first read-through happening two days later on Sept. 8. It’s a quick turnaround with just six weeks until opening night. 

Although the play debuts in six weeks, this has been a work long in the process. Borski, along with trusted musical director Maria DiDonato, had been working on the play all summer, whether it be designing the set or getting the fabric together to design the costumes. Borski points to a miniature set in his office that he built, which stands about a foot tall.  Inside are three carefully crafted triangular pieces, their sides composed of white ladders, each representing a separate room. In the background, a dark blue night is opposed by a bright yellow moon. “Figuring out how to physicalize the show was part of that process,” Borski said, picking up one of the triangular rooms and turning it around to reveal another angle to the elaborate set. He has never directed this play, but is very familiar with it, he noted, having designed the play several times and studied numerous variations.  It’s a process he is comfortable with.    

For the auditioning process, students were asked to come prepared with 32 bars of a Sondheim-like song, a style of music common in theater, named after famous composer Stephen Sondheim.  With enrollment in the theater program higher than usual this year, something Borski attributes to the developing arts scene in Cleveland, the amount of students auditioning was high. Borski described the casting process as different for every student, noting that five minutes is more than enough time to determine if a student is right for a part or not.  For students auditioning for the first time, Borski recommended doing a song that is familiar, allowing instincts to take over, rather than having to think through the audition and potentially stumble.  

Stumbling is part of the world in theatre, however, as performances happen live and without the safety net of  the film industry’s blooper reel. A big part of acting in theater, according to Borski, is going with it.  

“Once you make a mistake, that becomes part of the show,” he said.  “I’ll give you an example. I was once directing ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ and on the night of the debut, one of the actors was so amped up that he smashed a glass in his hand!”  Borski laughs, pounding a fist on the desk, “And they did great and made it part of the show, but as the director, I’m going, ‘Why is there broken glass on the stage?’”  

Actors are not the only ones to get nerves before the first show, as Borski explained, noting that he still gets butterflies. Part of his process is handing over the keys to the car to his cast.  

“I vanish before a show,” he explained.  “I let them have their moment.”  

Borski has made Cleveland his home, migrating here in 1990 after following a relationship. He spent 19 years at Case Western Reserve University and the last 10 at Cleveland State. He gleefully goes through the images at his computer, browsing through the numerous images he’s saved as a reference for costumes that he will personally design. 

Although the musical “Into the Woods” has been around since 1986, Borski’s fingerprints will be all over this production, even having gone as far as to personally drive up to Chicago to buy the fabric. If the show is anything like his office, it will be sure to offer a unique taste of the Cleveland arts.