By profession, I search and share with you the different
ways in which stories are told. When I took the past few weeks off from writing
my Everyday Tips
blog, I began
thinking about different interpretations of the stories we seek. I was
pondering the ones that may feel fresh, yet are somehow rooted in oral history,
publishing, theatre, television, cinema and trends.
One of the stories that immediately came to my mind was the
Broadway play Peter and the Starcatcher
I set out to see how a popular children's novel series (and Peter Pan
prequel), Peter and the Starcatchers
, was adapted into a play that is
primarily geared for an adult audience.
I had no idea that this journey would find me talking with
playwright Rick Elice, himself. It was the chance of a lifetime and a rare privilege.
How the celebrated, creative powerhouse behind Jersey Boys
and The Addams
could spend the time speaking with a local blogger shows you the amazingly
generous person Mr. Elice is.
This story of Peter is also the story of how Elice takes us on a tour of the imagination,
touching on the traditions of J.M. Barrie and Charles Dickens with bits of
Shakespeare and Louisa May Alcott.
I am happy to share our recent phone conversation with you.
In the play, you
bridged Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's novel to who Peter Pan was going to
become and who Hook was going to become. What inspired you to adapt this
children's novel into a play that speaks largely to adults?
Well, it was really the opportunity that Roger (Rees)
and Alex Timbers, the two directors gave me, because the project really began
with them. Disney took the novel to them five years ago and said, "what do
you think?", specifically to Roger because of his background with the
Royal Shakespeare Company and (their production of Charles Dickens') The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickelby.
They needed to develop a play that didn't cost them anything except the time of
the Company. They needed to be really creative with very, very little. They
took a very rangy, picaresque, unwieldy novel and they adapted it to the stage,
very famously, but very lengthily. Here was a 500 page novel, Peter and the Starcatchers
, that Disney
said, "why don't you try something like that?" (but at two hours
As they needed things for actors
to say, they decided early on they wanted to have adult actors playing all
these roles, even the roles of children. They needed someone to give them text
for the actors to speak, and so, they came to me because I was friends with
both of them (Rees and Timbers). What I did was ask two questions of Roger and
Alex and of Dave and Ridley. The novel is written for a young reader, but I
don't know how to write children's theater, so could I, while not
disenfranchising young people, write the play with an adult sensibility for an
adult audience? And they said yes. That worked handily with the idea of having
adult actors playing all the parts anyway. My second question was could I be
free to change events and characters, even some of the story, in order to
manage the wide ranging plot of the novel and to provide practical staging
opportunities for the directors? And they agreed to that too. Dave and Ridley
just happened to be very generous and wildly enthusiastic supporters of this
theatrical enterprise, which made me and makes me very, very lucky.
Rick Elice continues with how he began to adapt the story...
With Roger and Alex, we established
our organizing principles of inclusion and exclusion~what we would not use from
the novel and what we would. Act I would take place on two ships, cramped
quarters, tiny cabins, claustrophobic, dark, wet, sinister. Act II would take
place on an island with bright sky and big, open spaces. And in the style of Nicholas Nickleby
, the actors would play
everyone and everything~be the sailors, the pirates, the orphans, the natives,
the fish, the mermaids, the birds. They would even play doors and passageways,
masks, storms, jungles. They would narrate the action of the story and they
would have memory of the story as a narrator, giving them each a privileged
relationship with the audience. And I think that that is a great device, a
long-standing centuries-old, or maybe millennia-old, theatrical device in order
to telescope events and in order to consolidate narrative. Characters can speak
a direct address to the audience. They narrate what their characters are doing
or feeling with the audience or narrate what other characters are thinking and
feeling. We use all of those tricks.
I saw my assignment as being to take
what Dave and Ridley did, which was essentially a "bedtime story run amok"
and find some way to use the contemporary, irreverent tone of their novel with
the style employed by J. M. Barrie 100 year earlier in the original Peter Pan
. Barrie used high comedy and
low, alliteration, puns, physical gags, songs, anachronisms, contemporary
references. Then he'd deliver sentiment. My challenge was to write the play so
it would merge and connect the dots between the, now mythic, characters that
J.M. Barrie created with Dave and Ridley's reboot. And that was great fun for
me. I also wanted to use all these stylistic techniques to create a play that
would also connect the plot of original...to where over the course of many (Dave
and Ridley) novels got to, and to where we get to by the end of our play.
I reveled in the freedom that Dave
and Ridley gave me, to rethink some of the mythology, and that was the joy for
me (how Captain Hook lost is hand; the alligator's ticking; where Wendy's
brother's top hat comes from; the different use of buzzwords from the original~thimble,
shadow; the relationship between Wendy and Peter in the original is
foreshadowed here with Peter and Molly; and the origin of Tinker Bell). The fun
of fracturing this fairy tale. It was fun to deconstruct and reassemble it in a
way that seems very appropriate for 2012. And the fact that J.M. Barrie also did
that in 1904, which, I felt gave me the license to employ all of those things
It's fantastic. And I love the fact that it's such a fresh adaptation
but it's a throwback to Barrie and also Nicholas
. So, things that have always been there, things that were popular
in the mainstream, that have not been visited lately, are being revisited in
the production today.
that's exactly right. You know there is nothing that's seen by the audience,
nothing that appears to be done on stage in Peter
and the Starcatcher
that hadn't been seen 500 years ago when Shakespeare
was writing. And that to me, is where my passion is. It is in theatrical
traditions and theatrical literature. What the theater can do that no one else
can do is that they can't give you an entirely live event, performed entirely
by living people in front of you, where you still don't want to believe your
eyes at what you are seeing and can actually be happening.
You know, we have a moment in Peter and the Starcatcher
where a boy actually flies as Peter Pan.
And that's never happened before. There is no wire, no harness. Yes, it only
lasts for a moment. But we see a human body in flight. You don't do that
loosely or frivolously. The only way is that you know other people are going to
catch you. In that beautiful moment, we see a boy who flies because he's a boy
who trusts. That moment overlaps exactly what I wanted to write as a playwright
and what Roger and Alex wanted to present as a production: a sense of company,
a corporate sense of protection, literally having someone's back, where
everyone is looking out for the least strong member of the group and they save
him in order for the story to continue, and to, therefore, make a larger human
statement. And that, in a nutshell, is what our play is about.
It really is an awesome
experience. The whole creative team has given the audience the ability to delve
into their own imagination. To see the different items on stage and how the
people have actually become the set itself. You are actually there. You are
seeing it unfold before you and you are involved.
great. Instead of just being passive spectators, the audience get to actively be
involved. Everybody knows now what "interactive" is, but theater has
always been interactive. And theater is thousands and thousands of years old.
It's not a new idea. It's just a new word. But the ultimate interactivity is
what you just described, where we, sitting in the audience, work along with the
cast to see what it is that they want us to see and more importantly, to see
our version of it. My image in my head, using my imagination, which is
different from what's in your head, which is different from the person sitting
next to you. And that's great! Now, I can see my island, my Peter and Molly, my
ship, and you can see yours. And I think that makes it a much more vivid
experience for the people who are willing to play along. Plays are transporting
events for whomever the audience happens to be.
Mr. Elice shares how
he changed the title to
Peter and the Starcatcher, singular.
asked Dave and Ridley if I could make a slight change to their title, Peter and the Starcatchers
. Because we
were making an adult play. We were looking at other types of titles and Disney
said no, because we have this novel and we don't want people to not make the
association. So, I asked, could I drop the S from "Starcatchers"? Naturally,
they asked why. It's about how this
boy and this
girl find their destiny,
but only because of the impossibly difficult thing that they accomplish
together. At the start the title could be "A Boy and Molly". By the
end, they become "Peter and the Starcatcher". So, dropping the S is a small change with a very
big difference. The Starcatchers in the novel are a group of people. But in our
story, the Starcatcher really is the girl who becomes the
Starcatcher at the end because of the friendship that evolves between
her and the boy who becomes Peter. And I think that is really significant. It
tells the audience really before they even see it, exactly what they play is
I very much wanted to write a strong female character in the
tradition of Jo March, Scout Finch, Anne of Green Gables. The super curious,
hyper-articulate, very bright, often lonely, isolated, young female characters,
who inspired women of my age and I've known all my life. And I wanted to be a
man who could write like that. Because all of the roles I just mentioned are
wonderfully written by women for female readers. I wanted to take a crack at that as a guy, to
see if I could pull it off.
And you achieve it. I love her.
And those were heroines of mine growing up as well. I hope that, as time goes
on, she will become that for future generations.
would be a great triumph for our play.
Peter and the
is playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. For tickets and more
information, visit peterandthestarcatcher.com.
A very special thank you to playwright Rick Elice.