Whenever beloved Danish author Hans Christian Andersen sat down to tell one of his favorite stories, he’d usually pull out a piece of paper and a pair of scissors.
“He’d create these really intricate cut-outs,” director Philip Valle said, snipping silhouettes of people, flowers and fanciful beasts.
Cuesta College strives for a similar effect with its ambitious new production, “The Snow Queen,” based on Andersen’s icy tale of love, courage and the magic of friendship. The play opens Friday at Cuesta’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center.
What sets “The Snow Queen” aside from other productions, Valle said, is that the winter wonderland seen onstage wasn’t created using cloth, wood and metal. It’s a play of light and shadow — as delicate as one of Andersen’s cutouts, as ephemeral as a flurry of snowflakes.
To the rescue
Narrated by Andersen (Chris Kamas), this updated version of “The Snow Queen” centers on the relationship between Greta (Cassidy Sargeant) and Kai (Molly Smith), her orphaned best friend.
Greta may be older and more grounded than Kai, Sargeant explained, but they’re still both kids.
When Kai is kidnapped by the Snow Queen (Clara Fulks), she added, “The older sister instinct kicks in: ‘I need to save her. ... I need to rescue her.’ ”
Greta must travel across the frozen realm of the Snow Queen to find her friend, encountering a witch (Mary Kerrigan), a robber girl (Sarah Harwood), a talking crow (Omar Mora) and an enchanted reindeer (Conner Milam-Walker) along the way.
Two Viking newscasters (Janine Fastenau and Stephen Winteroth) provide a running commentary on Greta’s journey while offering updates about the Snow Queen’s doings.
At one point in the production, the frosty femme fatale sets her sights on the San Luis Obispo Farmers Market, Valle said. “The Snow Queen decides that if she’s going to destroy a place on the globe, she’s going to start with the happiest place on Earth.”
The rest of the 17-member cast includes Tallon Burger, Heather Deaton-Brown, Allison Doody, Grace Lewis, Katherine Moore, Kasady Riley and Nina Unger.
Although Valle made a few tweaks when adapting Andersen’s story — Kai is a boy in the original tale, and his friend is named Gerda, not Greta — he said the gist of the story remains the same.
“In the stories I tend to gravitate toward, there are moments that are terrifying and beautiful and heartwarming, and this story has all of those elements,” Valle said, describing “The Snow Queen” as a “hero’s journey” with heart.
To create the unique look of “The Snow Queen,” Valle and his design team sought inspiration from a Vimeo.com video about “The Icebook,” described by creators Davy and Kristin McGuire as “the world’s first projection mapped pop-up book.” The miniature theater production, which combines paper cutouts and backlit video projections, evokes the feeling of an old-fashioned magic lantern show.
“The Snow Queen” features videos and other images projected on large muslin screens hung on movable steel frames.
Elements of characters’ costumes, such as the fan-shaped, silver-tipped headdress worn by the Snow Queen, also serve as projection surfaces. The Cuesta drama department’s artistic director, bree valle, used recycled materials to create the outfits.
Although “The Snow Queen” is far from the first Cuesta theater production to use multimedia elements, “This is the furthest we’ve been able to push it,” Philip Valle said. “We’re learning an immense amount about the process, and it’s opened a whole new world for us.”
Technical director and lighting designer Richard Jackson agreed that “The Snow Queen” presents some exciting challenges for crew members, which include sound designer Justin Doty, video engineer Alex Woolum and videographers Joseph Ian Saletta and Jeff McIlveen.
“We’ve always used technology in different ways,” he said, whether the purpose is setting a scene or adding texture, color and mood.
Here, video projection comes to play in ways both stunning and subtle.
Actors interact with prerecorded performers and walk through imaginary worlds seen only onscreen.
Kyle Doust’s elaborate cardboard-and-paper sets stand just a foot tall, Valle said, but seen onscreen, even the tiniest structure seems grand and imposing.
According to Jackson, there’s an added advantage to using a paper set: It’s much more economical than building the traditional kind.
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.
IF YOU GO
"The Snow Queen"
7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 9
Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College, Highway 1, San Luis Obispo
$15, $10 students, $5 children under 12
546-3198 or www.cpactickets.cuesta.edu