Research and collaboration set the stage for Once Upon A Mattress 

A scene from Once Upon a Mattress | Photo by Sara Stathas

The Peck School of the Arts Department of Theatre is putting the finishing touches on their next production Once Upon A Mattress, a comedic and musical retelling of “The Princess and the Pea.” Through creative collaboration and dramaturgical research, students are achieving great heights as they fully immerse themselves in their roles. Here’s what several actors shared about their process. 

A Tale of Two Princesses 

Once Upon A Mattress follows Princess Winnifred as she fights for the hand of Prince Dauntless, who must marry a princess per the rules of his mother, Queen Aggravain. 

For UWM’s production, the role has been double-cast by students Jacqueline Siedenburg and Grace Ritcher. The process of double-casting can be challenging for actors, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. 

“The most complicated parts have been technical, such as making sure our blocking is similar enough to give our lighting designers clear cues,” said Siedenburg, when asked about the process of working alongside Ritcher. “Even with similar blocking, however, we’ve managed to create two unique Winnifreds.” 

Both Siedenburg and Ritcher have taken their own life experiences to flourish as Princess Winnifred, harnessing unique and individual interpretations of the character. 

“I found that I felt best about my performances when I stopped trying to act and was most true to myself, which I think is exactly the premise of Fred’s character: being unapologetically yourself,” said Siedenburg. 

The Community of Wizarding 

Eugene Strei plays the Wizard, the Queen’s assistant who serves to help her maintain her power. Strei has also fostered his character based on personal experience, as Strei has been heavily involved in the community of wizarding, running his own wizard blog 

To Strei, wizard blogs act as “an online renaissance festival,” a place to gather and roleplay as wizards, taking mundane activities and making them feel more mystical. 

As dramaturgy was underway for Once Upon A Mattress, Strei used this part of his personal life to fill the void of available information regarding wizarding habits and behaviors. 

“One of the benefits of being in the wizard blog community is that I got a lot of examples of what different wizards looked like, either people posting about wizard characters in media or characters they made themselves,” said Strei. “[The blog] helped me understand more of the physicality I wanted my character to have. I found pictures of wizards to observe how they carried themselves and how dynamic their movement can be.” 

A Silent King 

The dynamism of movement on stage is especially important when a character has minimal, or no dialogue. Such is the case for Mason Shefchik, who portrays King Sextimus the Silent. 

King Sextimus was cursed with silence by the Queen, leaving him unable to verbally assert his authority. He has had to find new ways of exhibiting emotions and feelings to others. 

For Shefchik, this limitation did not drastically change his preparations as he still had to complete his research and do a rich analysis of the objectives of his character. Shefchik’s time as a theatre student provided him with useful courses and topics that made this an easier fit. 

“I’m fortunate to have taken the full BFA Acting track at UWM in addition to my declared Musical Theatre degree,” said Shefchik. “Through this, I was able to take courses that specialized in clowning and contemporary comedy. I’m able to draw upon what I learned in those classes to create moments of extended character.” 

Shefchik, like the rest of his castmates, understands that this is by no means a solo effort: collaboration among the cast and director Sheri Williams Pannell (Assistant Professor, Theatre; Area Head, Musical Theatre) is what makes King Sextimus a vibrant character and Once Upon A Mattress an enjoyable show. 

“Creating a dialogue between Sextimus and the other characters also comes down to the incredible work of my cast mates and our director, Sheri Williams Pannell,” said Shefchik. “Throughout the rehearsal process, all of us have committed to making sure that the characters feel and react to Sextimus’ presence. It’s the reaction of other characters that gives meaning to Sextimus’ actions after all.” 

Once Upon A Mattress opens Wednesday, April 24 at the Theatre Building’s Mainstage Theatre and will run through Sunday, April 28. More information and tickets are available on the PSOA Events Calendar.

Story by Jason McCullum ’25