Masters meet apprentices in the 25-member ensemble orchestra setting the stage for "Into the Woods," opening in June in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Masters meet apprentices in the 25-member ensemble orchestra setting the stage for "Into the Woods," opening in June in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Fourteen Rogue Valley master musicians and 19 local music students make up an orchestra that's as unique as the tangled fairy tales the play presents.

"The music is really at the heart of this play. It's something people can connect to," says Amanda Dehnert, director and music director for the play and orchestra conductor. "It's really smart music, it's very tuneful."

The play's music and lyrics were written in the 1980s by accomplished American composer Stephen Sondheim. The book was written by James Lapine.

The play centers around a baker and his wife who venture into the woods on a scavenger hunt that they hope will make their dreams come true. Along the way, their paths cross with other storybook fairy-tale characters, each brought into the forest in search of their own destinies.

About 85 percent of the play is scored, says Dehnert, and the need for a large orchestra inspired her to consider up-and-coming musicians along with veteran orchestral performers.

"I was really excited to take this piece that had this big, beautiful, amazing score, and figure out how we could play it," she says.

Dehnert worked on a professional orchestra as a student herself and says the supportive learning environment was life-changing.

So she put the word out to local schools and the community, and about 60 musicians auditioned for the 25-member ensemble, plus a few alternate positions and master musician coaches.

The students range from eighth grade through college and have been given a unique opportunity to be seen as professional, compensated theater musicians while still being under the safe wing of a seasoned pro.

"They're really inspiring to be around," Dehnert says about the students. "They're so motivated."

Violinist Sarah Klein, 17, says she had held small musical roles in theater productions before, but had never been in a production as serious as "Into the Woods."

"It's been very professional and very new to me," says Klein, who has played violin since she was 10. "I'm enjoying how the theater works and seeing it backstage."

Dehnert says she's worked to make sure that the time commitment for students is flexible and doesn't interfere with school or other musical opportunities they might be pursuing.

Klein is a junior who attends North Medford High School part-time but is otherwise home-schooled.

Before the show opens, Klein is putting in a four-hour rehearsal with Dehnert each week, plus occasional two-hour coaching rehearsals and independent practice.

The show runs two to three times each week from June 4 to Oct. 11.

"We wanted this to be an additional opportunity, so our schedule is accommodating," says Dehnert.

Seeing the students learn and grow has been enjoyable, Dehnert says. She and the other older musicians are experiencing flashbacks of the beginning of their careers.

"It's really cool getting to see them do it," she says. "We are all constantly hit with these moments where we remember what it was like."

Klein is the orchestra's concertmaster, leading the string section and acting as a secondary conductor.

"I'm playing the primary part, and it's a leadership role," says Klein, who plans to major in music after she graduates next year.

Klein says that having professional mentors available during rehearsals has been convenient and helped her navigate the unfamiliar world of a theater orchestra.

"It's been very helpful, just having the guidance," she says.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at