Little Red Riding Hood, the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs—it’s a mixed-up fairytale world in “Uh-Oh!,” a musical written and composed by Diana Wooley, CEO of LAMB Arts Regional Theatre.
She joined me to talk about her latest production, set to take stage next weekend.
She also reminisced about taking charge of entertainment activities as a child, the early years of LAMB and empathy’s connection to the arts. Stay tuned. Like all good stories these days, this one isn’t complete without a couple Russians.
KARSYN: Once again, LAMB Arts Regional Theatre is a part of the Betty Ling Tsang Fine Arts Series at Morningside College. Tell me about “Uh-Oh.”
WOOLEY: I think this is our third or fourth summer of doing original musicals there, and “Uh-Oh” is a story about Little Red Riding Hood, who meets the wolf, of course, on her way to Granny’s. So people know that story. But she also runs into the Three Little Pigs, and the Three Little Pigs turn out to be very mean pigs. They’re mean girls. And hilarity ensues.
KARSYN: I always imagined the three little pigs as boys for some reason.
WOOLEY: Did you?
WOOLEY: Oh, no. These are cute little girls. They’re just adorable.
KARSYN: Last year, the play was “Oops.”
WOOLEY: “Oops.” Yeah, we’re trying to think of all possible… I don’t know what we could go with next time. Umm. Oh, no!
KARSYN: Yeah, we have “Uh-Oh!” I think “Oh, no!” is the next…
WOOLEY: It comes right after.
KARSYN: But, “Oops, that was based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” And you’ve also produced “Hansel and Gretel and the Looong Way Home” and “Snow White and the Missing Dwarfs.”
WOOLEY: That was the first one. I think we ended up doing 50-some performances of that one because that one toured with the LAMB Caravan. Plus, it went into different schools. That one really had a long life.
KARSYN: So is this one, is “Uh-Oh!” part of the LAMB Caravan?
WOOLEY: It is, and we are doing some traveling. We’re going to perform for the Siouxland Y (Summer) Camp and also for Camp Imagination before we do Betty Ling Tsang. Within weeks, we have five performances.
KARSYN: And who do you have as the actors in “Uh-Oh!”?
WOOLEY: They’re students from the LAMB School. One of them is a graduate. She’s at Northwestern University and one of our former students. She came back as one of our teachers this summer, and she also consented to be in the show. Now, the kids range in age from fifth grade all the way through a sophomore in college.
KARSYN: Well, what is it about these fairy tales that made you want to do more shows like it? You know, you started with “Snow White and the Missing Dwarfs,” and that was the first show you created for the Caravan, and now you’ve done done three more shows like that since then. So what is it about this storyline or type of story…
WOOLEY: I think kids are alway interested in stories and in fairytales. They know the original stories fairly well. And so they enjoy seeing the twists and turns. And I write a lot of adult humor into the shows, too. Not tons of it, but enough that I love it when somebody giggles because I use a word or two that they go, Oh, my gosh, that sounds funny coming out of a little kid, but it makes sense.
KARSYN: Like Disney.
WOOLEY: It’s like Disney, yeah.
KARSYN: What was the first musical you’ve ever written?
WOOLEY: Now, are you saying that because you know what it is?
KARSYN: I do know what it is. Because we’ve talked before.
WOOLEY: I did “The Land Where Everything’s Upside-Down” and “The Little Princess Who Couldn’t Smile.” Those were when I was just out of… Are those the two that I wrote and told you about?
KARSYN: Uh, huh. Yes.
WOOLEY: Those were when I was just out of high school. And I played all the music live and we were at Grace Methodist Church, and I had Diana’s School of Music and Theatre. I don’t know what in the world I was thinking, but I had 100 kids, two different summers. And it was just me and 100 kids, and we had classes and we did shows. It was fun.
KARSYN: See, now you’ve never told me that piece of the story.
WOOLEY: So that’s something new? Did I ever tell you when I was little… I have two sisters that are two years apart. I’m the oldest and then, two, two, two. We all played string instruments. I played the viola, and my younger sister played cello, and my baby sister was not yet old enough to play the violin.
My sister that played the cello and I got out on the parking on South Martha Street, and we played the only patriotic song we knew for two hours, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” on the Fourth of July, and my little sister was dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, just dripping wet. We grew up doing little shows. The neighborhood was always full of carnivals and circuses and track meets and silly things. So, creating a musical for kids just kind of came naturally.
KARSYN: That’s interesting to kind of see that progression. You know, you’re still doing that all these years later.
WOOLEY: All these years later. So I never grew up.
KARSYN: I like how you’re the oldest and it sounds like you’re always kind of, uh…
KARSYN: I wasn’t going to say that. That word. That gets directed at girls.
WOOLEY: Maybe my sisters would.
KARSYN: I was going to say you were showing executive leadership skills.
WOOLEY: Oh, oh, I like that better. I like that. I’ll go with that.
KARSYN: In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, that you were showing executive leadership skills at an early age, and now, I mean you are the CEO of…
WOOLEY: I just can’t imagine a life without the arts. I just cannot imagine it. And I can’t imagine a life without teaching. It just was a natural progression. Even though some people have said, “Well, aren’t you going to slow down a little bit?” There’s just not enough time, not enough hours in the day, not enough days in the week or months in the year.
KARSYN: Why are they saying, “Are you going to slow down?”
WOOLEY: I don’t know. Maybe because they want to slow down. I’m not slowing down. I mean, I love writing children’s plays. I did write the music for when we did “Death of a Salesman.” Really enjoyed that. So I’m working on the music for “Crucible.” And that’s totally not children’s theatre. I think my biggest wish is that I could hear it with live instruments. That would be a dream come true to hear something that I wrote with live instruments. Because I’m just sitting with my computer making music.
KARSYN: How do you do that?
WOOLEY: Well, there’s programs. There is a program. It took me a long time to figure it out because I’m not very technical. But I hear an instrument in my head, and I can hear what I want it to sound like, and then I just have to lay down a track. And I’m hearing the other instruments that I want, and I stick ‘em in on top of each other. It’s so fulfilling. I get to the point where I could just sit in a corner and just do that forever.
And I had fun when we did “Jungle Book.” I studied Indian music, East Indian music, trying to figure out, okay, how can I give it that right kind of flavor. So I had a ball doing that. I’ve learned more about music theory and more about history of music by doing all this stuff. It almost feels like I can kind of reverse my brain a little bit and think younger. I wish I would have started this years and years ago.
KARSYN: So you didn’t have much history in composing or…
WOOLEY: Well, I did, but I didn’t pay any attention. I was so busy. I was taking like 22 and 23 hours of college credits at a time, thinking, oh, isn’t that cool? I can do that. And I was getting through everything. I was always thinking, I’ll take this class again, or I’ll spend more time on that particular subject, and I’ll really learn it later. I just wanted to keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. And that was a mistake. I think maybe it would have been a lot easier than what I’m doing. I’m learning a lot about theory, though, and it’s fun because now I have a reason to try figure it out, where before it was for a grade.
KARSYN: And you have that freedom, that creative freedom.
WOOLEY: And the creative frustration. I love that part, don’t you? When you get frustrated about something, but you know that if you keep working on it, that something will all of a sudden click and you go, “Man, that was cool.” That is a feeling of accomplishment. If it came easy, if I understood theory totally and knew exactly what I was doing, I don’t think I would feel as fulfilled.
KARSYN: I’ve never heard somebody say that. We always talk about creative freedom and isn’t that great. But the creative frustration that goes along with it—we don’t talk about that as much.
WOOLEY: I mean, I hate it when I’m going through it, but I love the end of it. Because if you’re a fighter, you just keep fighting your way through it, and all of a sudden you’re at the other end, and you go, “I did it! I made this work.”
KARSYN: And you and your husband, Russ, have definitely shown that you are fighters with…
WOOLEY: Not together. We don’t fight against each other.
KARSYN: But with starting LAMB and entering your 38th season this fall.
WOOLEY: Isn’t that something? And I’m only 29, which is amazing.
KARSYN: Right? Well, I was going to ask if you have reached a certain age and that is why people are asking you if you’re going to slow down.
WOOLEY: I have a lot of friends that are my age that have decided to retire. And I’m finding myself just revving myself up, probably more than I was in my 40s. I want to write another mainstage musical, and I want to write a play, a drama. I really want to do that. I don’t know when I’ll have time, but I’ll figure it out.
KARSYN: Because you’ve mostly done children’s musicals as far as writing and composing, but you did do…
WOOLEY: “They Called Her Beautiful.” And I do have an idea of redoing that one, but making it more of an opera than what it was.
KARSYN: You’re writing the music. You’re writing the storyline. What’s it like to see all of those pieces come together on stage and actually see actors perform what you’ve created?
WOOLEY: It’s always been exciting with the children’s stuff. When I saw Michael Rohlena create a set for “They Called Her Beautiful” and such gorgeous lighting and then Karen Sowienski’s costumes and all that, that was just exciting. And then Donny Short coming up with this choreography that had never done before because the music hadn’t been written before. There were several times I just sobbed and though, “I cannot believe all these people are so invested.” How blessed am I to able to write something and then actually see it. How many people don’t get that opportunity.
KARSYN: In the lineup for Season 38, you have a youth theatre production, called “What If,” based on the folktale “Stone Soup.”
WOOLEY: Yes, and over vacation time this summer, I’m going to decide what country we’re going to place that in and what musical style we’re going to be doing it in. I know kind of the direction I want to go, but I want to explore a different musical style, I think. And then I’m also going to be doing the music for “Crucible” and directing.
KARSYN: So you have that in the lineup, but it’s not actually finished yet.
WOOLEY: Oh, I have a habit of doing this. When we were doing the Caravan shows, which were advertised all over—it was seven different states—I mean, I don’t know if I should even say this. I would have a title. I’d have a wonderful description, but I hadn’t written one word. I hadn’t written one note. And then I’d just kind of follow along that way. And it all worked out.
KARSYN: Well, you’re teaching all of these students, and you have been for many, many years.
WOOLEY: Many years. Yeah, 40-some.
KARSYN: What do students gain from being involved in theatre? Even if they have no intention of pursuing an acting career, what would you say are the benefits?
WOOLEY: Just yesterday we had Girls Inc. coming over. We had a workshop with the fourth graders, and I always get emotional when I watch kids on stage. But to see how they were acting out—it was a movement piece that they were doing about the beginning of their day. And then here we have 30-some kids on the stage, and their eyes are all lit up. The confidence that I see and they’re sharing their thoughts and their ideas and movement. The confidence is incredible. And to get in touch with who we are as human beings, and to know that other human beings have the same feelings. That we’re not just an isolated little thing. Everything’s connected. That’s really exciting, and you really get that with the arts.
KARSYN: And you’ve told me in the past that you’ve had students who do enter acting, but you’ve also had teachers, lawyers...
WOOLEY: Doctors. We’re getting a lot of people in the medical field right now.
WOOLEY: Yes, and they’re getting praised because they have such empathy for their patients when they do those little kind of practicum things, where a student has to act like a patient. They’re able to do those things or they’re able to relate to their patients. It’s hard to say, “I’m going to teach you empathy.” But if you’re doing creative theatre and great dramatics and that sort of thing, you’re teaching empathy.
KARSYN: And then, looking back, all those years, when you first started LAMB—was it even called LAMB at first?
WOOLEY: It was always called LAMB. I remember sitting with my husband in a restaurant, trying to come up with a name. And we thought of Bear Productions, but we thought, nah.
KARSYN: Why Bear?
WOOLEY: Woolly bear, woolly lamb. I remember doing that, but I also remember—our kids were babies. We would do a show, and I’d have the bills laid out all over the living room floor. They were bed because, otherwise, I’d have a mess. The receipts from the shows would be laid on to figure out, okay, this bill is paid by this, and that’s going to be paid by that. And then, uh-oh, I guess we got to use a credit card for the rest. I remember those days very clearly. So glad those days are over. But we were determined that we wanted to offer something that we didn’t see happening here. We’ve stayed really clear and direct in that approach.
KARSYN: What did you think LAMB would be, and then what did it actually become?
WOOLEY: That’s a good question. We always wanted it to be a place where there would be not only growth for the audience to see production values increasing but also a place where actors would feel safe enough to grow themselves, so that we could prove to ourselves that we weren’t making a mistake staying here. That we would be able to create a community of actors and technicians that would have the same high standards and keep growing together and create this wonderful community, family, whatever you want to call it—and be able to do things that we knew we could do somewhere else, but we wanted to know we could do it here.
KARSYN: Why was it so important to know that you could do it here?
WOOLEY: It’s one of those things where my grandmother always said, “Bloom where you’re planted.” And I remember going, but I don’t want to be (here). Why do I want to stay just because I was planted here? Why can’t I be transplanted? But I did take that to heart, and I thought I would try it for a while and see where it would go. Then, it got to the point where I thought, you know, we’re on the right path. If we weren’t on the right path, we would have been gone long ago.
KARSYN: You could have transplanted yourself into a bigger market. We’ll stick with this metaphor—into a bigger pot, a bigger garden where, in the plant world, you would grow.
WOOLEY: You kind of gave yourself a time, and you kind of see what you’ve accomplished within that time limit. You go, okay, this is what we were able to do up to this point. Now, can we move it any further? Can we move that bar any higher? Or are we stuck? There were two definite time when we felt stuck, but it’s just one of those things where somebody says something, somebody does something, and it’s unstuck. It became unstuck, so we didn’t have to leave.
KARSYN: What’s one of the most exciting things that you’ve done in all the years of LAMB? One might be hard to pick out. Or a couple things.
WOOLEY: Okay, one time when we were doing “Evita”—this is kind of exciting—I don’t know why these Russian guys were in the audience. They were like—I don’t know, important people from Russia—why they were in our audience, I have no idea. They waited after the show for me to come down the steps and they kissed my hand. I thought I was going to die. I thought I was really something. And then, of course, I blushed terribly. I don’t know a lick of Russian, so that was the end of the story. That’s it.
In “Evita,” I remember clearly—now, it doesn’t reflect very well on me—we had this balcony, and I was singing, “Don’t cry for me Argentina…” Everybody knows that. That’s the only song people really, really know in that show. And I forgot the words. Now the whole chorus is facing me. Somebody could have fed me the words, but no, they are bursting out laughing, trying to hide the fact that they’re laughing, watching me make up Spanish-sounding (words) and syllables.
KARSYN: Oh, no.
WOOLEY: I don’t think that was the production that the Russians came to.
KARSYN: That wasn’t that one.
KARSYN: Who knows, maybe you were speaking Russian.
WOOLEY: I could have been.
Diana Wooley is the CEO of LAMB Arts Regional Theatre and Siouxland Public Media’s Artist of the Month. She is the writer, composer and director of “Uh-Oh!,” a children’s musical that explores what happens when Little Red Riding Hood wanders far off the beaten path.
The LAMB Caravan production is part of the Betty Ling Tsang Fine Arts Series at Morningside College. Showtimes are 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. Friday, July 14 and 10 a.m. Saturday, July 15. For more information, visit lambtheatre.com.