An interview with Kayla Coleman on her history with the character she plays in INTO THE WOODS and what she brings to the role by Caitlyn Halvorsen.
A Google image search quickly reveals the mainstays of typical depictions of Little Red Riding Hood: a petite figure with extremely delicate features and long hair, usually wearing a dress with a full, poof-y skirt. Kayla Coleman, who aptly describes this depiction as “cute doll-baby,” hopes to subvert these hyper-feminine, infantilized expectations of Little Red. “I want to bring a really playful, curious person to the stage,” says Coleman, who portrays Little Red in HVSF’s current production of INTO THE WOODS. “I’m a Sagittarius,” she adds with a laugh. “I can be pretty blunt, so the whole sugar-coating thing, that’s not who I am.”
Coleman’s Little Red, who dons a bright red bomber jacket, is an exciting deviation from traditional expectations, and avoiding Little Red’s “doll-baby” qualities certainly doesn’t detract from the character’s childlike charm.
“Being a doll-baby isn’t the only way to be adorable,” Coleman explains, citing Little Red’s boldness as another source of endearment:
“She’s like, ‘Ooh I want this! That looks good! I’m gonna take that!’…I think that’s really adorable because there’s no second guessing herself in those first moments that we see her.”
Little Red’s boldness, while endearing and adorable, is also partly the result of a forced coming-of-age. As Coleman puts it, “She’s nothing but confident because she has no choice but to be confident.” Throughout the musical, Little Red is expected to endure enormous responsibilities as a child, not least among them her initial task of journeying through the woods unaccompanied by an adult. Coleman provides a variety of possible reasons for how Little Red ends up with these responsibilities: “There’s a lot of trust an adult has in [her]. Or, what are the circumstances of her home? Is her mom working? Is dad working? She has to go alone because no one else can.”
Coleman suggests that Little Red may also be viewed as an adult due to the societal norm that misperceives young Black girls as never needing help or guidance. In the book Pushout, a recommendation from Coleman that chronicles the criminalization of Black girls in school systems, Monique W. Morris writes, “As children or adults, Black girls are treated as if they are supposed to ‘know better,’ or at least ‘act like’ they know… Black girls are likened more to adults than to children.”1 This perception can extend to Little Red, who is continually asked to take on responsibilities that may seem tremendously overwhelming, even for an adult. Her willingness to take on these responsibilities is rarely, if ever, questioned or considered by the other characters in the play. “[Little Red’s story] is not about race,” Coleman adds, “but it’s me doing this role, so I have to create the circumstances for myself, of how I got here and what that means.”
Coleman believes that she was first introduced to Little Red through the Grimm iteration, though she did not rely on traditional versions of the character for her research, focusing instead on Lapine and Sondheim’s text and music as a source for character development. “Many folks will know the story, and that’s why I go back to what is written with this version of it,” she says. Beyond the text, Coleman looks for inspiration in the people around her, asking herself, “What children do I know that have this bite, have this sense of humor, have this quick wit, who are super clever, who are buoyantly confident?” For Coleman, this thought process helps propel Little Red beyond the realm of fairy tales and into a more relatable setting for audiences, making her not just a character, but someone they may actually know.
Making Little Red more relatable may also help in combating the potential dismissal of her character as overtly naïve, as Coleman fears such an infantilization of Little Red can lead to the idea that “it only happens to the most innocent of folks.”
“The things that happen to Red in the story, they can happen to the most clever, the most intelligent kid, and it can happen to the most naïve children as well,”
she says, while also emphasizing the importance of acknowledging that Little Red’s loss of innocence is not a result of her actions. “You can be smart, you can follow your mom’s directions, or even if you don’t follow your mom’s directions, you can grapple with all your emotions and all these bad things can still happen. And it’s not your fault.”
The warning at the heart of Little Red’s story, commonly considered to be “Don’t talk to strangers,” is often directed to children listening to the tale. Coleman disagrees, believing it to be a wake-up call for adults. “This story shows you need to protect kids at all costs,” she says. “Protect all the marginalized, disenfranchised kids at all costs.” While this message is universally relevant, it also holds a particularly heavy weight in today’s world. “There are children everywhere that are being thrown into the trials and tribulations of life,” says Coleman. “You can see that across the border. You can see that with Black kids who don’t get enough attention in our school systems. You see that with Black queer children, you see that with Black young girls who are taken advantage of by men, by celebrities at early ages. There are plenty of those themes around us, and I think, for me, this story speaks volumes right now.”
1Morris, Monique W. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. New York, NY: The New Press.