Episode 191: Production Case Study: Peter and the Starcatcher
Where do you start with a play? How do you come up with a vision that spans across character development, light, sound, set, costuming? How do you execute on that vision? If you’re one of the hundreds of schools putting on Peter and the Starcatcher this year, tune into this great production case study episode.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 191 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode191.
Okay. Where do you start with a play? How do you come up with a vision? How do you take that vision and turn it into character or light or sound or set or costuming? How do you execute on your vision?
If you are one of the hundreds of schools putting on Peter and the Starcatcher this year, sit back and relax. This podcast is for you.
I’m talking to the amazing Kerry Hishon – a Theatrefolk blogger extraordinaire. She’s going to talk about her experience directing the show from soup to nuts which – if Wikipedia is to be believed – is derived from the description of a full dinner – from the beginning, soup, to after dessert, nuts. Not bad, eh? Learn something new today.
Also, Wikipedia tells me that a similar Latin phrase is “from egg to apple” after a typical Roman meal. See, you didn’t think you were going to listen in and learn something about words. Have I ever mentioned I love words? Uh, enough about me.
Okay, let’s get to it.
LINDSAY: Hello everybody!
I am speaking with Kerry Hishon.
LINDSAY: Now, if you are a regular Theatrefolk follower – which you are, of course – Kerry is our blogger with the moistest. Our blog queen here at Theatrefolk recently and our blog is – I’m going to say it – it’s pretty awesome these days and it’s all thanks to Kerry. So, there you go, Kerry. I’m publicly giving you props.
KERRY: Amazing! Thank you so much! It’s so much fun! I love doing it and now you can all hear what I sound like, too.
LINDSAY: Oh, now there’s a voice! Now there’s a voice with the words which is really funny because I think that the way that you write is very much how you talk. I can totally hear your voice when I read your stuff.
KERRY: It really is. I very much write in my own voice so it’s a lot of stream of consciousness and I go back and read it and I’m like, “Wow! That’s a lot of run-on sentences!”
LINDSAY: I may cut out one or two exclamation points, too.
KERRY: I do that a lot! I write and I talk in exclamation points. We all have our crosses to bear – that’s mine.
LINDSAY: That’s right. If that’s yours – too many exclamation points – I think that’s a pretty good run.
KERRY: Yeah, I’ll take it.
LINDSAY: So, we are talking, we’re doing sort of a production case study again here today. I really enjoy these where we sort of get in depth with someone who has done a show and this one I know everyone’s going to be interested in and that is Peter and the Starcatcher.
KERRY: Woohoo! Oh, my gosh, it was crazy! Craziness – just craziness.
LINDSAY: All right. Well, let’s get into it!
LINDSAY: This is something that is the high school show – or going to be – for 2017. I’m really interested to sort of get into your approach and what you did with it. Was it part of your theatre season? Or did you have a hand in choosing it? Did you put your hand up and said, “I would like to direct this”?
KERRY: Yeah, it was the choice of our season. Just to go back for a second, give a bit of context, I work for Original Kids Theatre Company in London, Ontario which is a youth theatre company with a membership of over 300 kids and we produce over 20 shows a year. It’s absolutely crazy but it’s so much fun and we get to meet so many amazing kids and work with so many amazing students.
This season, our artistic director decided that he was going to divide up our spring season into four different sections. In March, our focus was on Peter Pan shows. It was called “Journey to Neverland” series. And so, we did our March break show was Peter Pan Jr. – the Broadway musical. Then, our spring intensive for our senior actors – grade 9 to 12 – was Peter and the Starcatcher. And then, we just closed our production of Peter/Wendy which was a play for our intermediate students.
Andrew, our artistic director, selected the shows and he knows that I am a huge Peter and the Starcatcher fan. I actually used the annotated script book in my first-year classes because it has so many wonderful pictures of really animated facial expressions on the actors and wonderful body language. And so, I used that as part of my mime and tableau class. So, all my first-year students have seen my book and hear me talking about it and how excited I get about it. He did offer it to me. I have a sneaking suspicion he would have liked to direct it himself because he loves that play, too. But he was generous enough to give it to me and I’m very glad he did.
LINDSAY: Okay. So, before you even started it, you had a love for this show. What is it about Peter and the Starcatcher that catches you?
KERRY: Oh, my gosh. Well, it’s based on a book series. So, I had read the original book series called Peter and the Starcatchers. So, when it came to the off Broadway and Broadway, they took the S away. I just loved it so much because it was such a creative and interesting take on the story and it’s a prequel to Peter Pan and I love Peter Pan as well. I directed Disney’s Peter Pan Jr. a few years ago.
And so, I read the book series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. Loved it. Went to New York on a trip with my husband and a friend and, under the recommendation of a dear friend of mine went and saw it. She said, “Oh, my god, this show, you’re going to love it so much. You have to see it,” and I did. I was obsessed with it.
What I love the most about it is how they really created something out of nothing. They took a sort of poor theatre style of theatre approach to it. They did the whole show with twelve actors playing multitudes of parts and – having now read the annotated script with all these extra notes about it discovered that – they made the props out of garbage and they made the proscenium arch out of garbage and they just used theatre so creatively and brought it really back to basics, focusing on storytelling with voice and body and using, like, a rope to create a ship and then waves and doorways and making it so simple and forcing audiences to use their imaginations. That’s what really grabbed me, I think.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and when you talk about it in that way, it’s so clear why it’s a good show for high schools.
KERRY: It really is. It’s challenging for one because it’s got so much text. It’s a two-hour show. It’s very text-heavy. But they have these wonderful juicy parts that are just so much fun to sink your teeth into and it could be very, very simple and it could be very boring but it forces the students to really dig deep and to find the funny moments and to get the pacing going where it needs to be and try on these fun, fun characters. I just love them. Like, who doesn’t love pirates, really? You know, all these really just fun, interesting characters that are… it’s hard to describe! I’m trying to think of words to describe it here. I’m losing it just because it’s so engaging to me. I loved it so much.
LINDSAY: When you saw it, the whole notion of the imagination and having the audience use their imagination was what clicked with you, is that what stayed with you as you started to prepare to direct it? Was there a different vision you wanted to communicate to the audience and to your actors?
KERRY: Well, I did have to take a bit of a different approach with it primarily because of the size of my cast. My cast was 26 actors. When you’re doing a show primarily that was done with twelve actors, you have to get really creative in how you spread the love, so to speak. Also, I knew I didn’t have the budget that the Broadway show had to create these wonderful sets.
I did approach it in a slightly different way. How I approached the show was kind of the backstory we created was the actor who played Peter, it was set in his basement. The set was designed to look like a basement with a cement floor, unfinished walls, and just junk everywhere – old toys, boxes, clothing bits – anything that you could find in an unfinished basement. That’s kind of where we took it from there and kind of the backstory was that Peter was moving away and all of his friends were coming over to hang out and play with each other which was kind of a play within a play style that we were going for.
We were also kind of looking at that point in your life when you’re in your teens, your early teens, and you’re kind of in that middle stage of still liking little things – things that you do when you’re little like playing with dolls or playing G.I. Joes – but you’re getting to the point where you know you’re a little too old for it but you still play with it anyway and you still do it secretly in your basement. So, that was kind of the approach we took with it and that’s how we used props.
Rather than having a swordfight with swords, we would play with brooms and toilet plungers. Rather than full-on costumes, the kids wore their own clothes in a neutral palette and they would grab a hat or a jacket and just throw it on over top. It was still quite clear who they were trying to portray because of their performances and that’s kind of how we approached it. we wanted to look at the acting challenge of how can we portray these characters without all the excess stuff. So, yeah, really focusing on the acting performances.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and I think that’s really important to state and to hear particularly when there is a little bit of an issue of if someone is doing a Broadway show, that their goal is to replicate it.
KERRY: Yeah, it’s so easy to get into that! It’s like, “Oh, this is how they did it on Broadway so this is how I must do it.”
LINDSAY: Yeah, and I like to hear that, yes, you were inspired by the production that you saw, but that did not inform – well, it informed but it didn’t overshadow – there’s the word I’m looking for. It didn’t overshadow your vision.
KERRY: Yeah, we definitely were inspired by the Broadway and I will fully admit that there were a few moments that I remember from the show that we put into our production. For example, when Molly floats, demonstrating her star stuff powers, we did exactly what they did on the Broadway – on the Broadway, sure – where she sat on a ladder that had – actually, we used a tree stump – a tree stump underneath and used it like a seesaw and that’s how she floated, but with a little change, it still was pretty awesome.
The thing with Peter and the Starcatcher is that it may have been just where I live in London but it wasn’t a well-known title. Most people didn’t know what they were getting into so, even though I had seen the show and I knew what I was expecting, many of our audience didn’t. And so, they were surprised and pleased with what they saw.
LINDSAY: Oh, well, then that’s the best reaction you could ever ask for, you know? If somebody goes into something that they don’t know what they’re getting into and being pleased.
Did your actors know the show?
KERRY: Most of them did not. It was new to most of them. When they found out what show they were in, they were kind of like, “Oh, okay, interesting.” The ones that did know the show though were over the moon excited because they were like, “Oh, my gosh! This is a real Broadway show! It’s a real play that’s won Tony Awards and Christian Borle was in it and this is going to be amazing!”
So, yeah, the ones that did know it were super, super excited because, so often, I find youth theatre so focused on musicals. While this is technically a play with music – it does have a couple of songs in it – you know, sometimes, the play kids feel overshadowed by the musical kids who are doing the big-named shows. You know, they’re doing the Music Mans and the Pippens and the Phantoms and all that really famous stuff. So, them getting to do a show that was on Broadway was very exciting to them.
LINDSAY: And then, you get into exactly what your focus was and that is character development and character building – you know, acting! As that came out of my mouth, I went, “No, musical theatre is acting! That’s not what I mean!” But this is different and I think you’re right; it takes a different tack and it takes a different approach to preparing a show.
KERRY: It really does. Actually, it’s interesting that you bring that up because quite a number of my cast members that were in my show this season had only ever done musicals. So, doing a play was very much a new tack and a new challenge for them. I told them right off the bat.
First thing is we had a very short rehearsal time. We started rehearing in January and we performed the week after March break – the week of the 23rd to the 26th of March. So, we had I think 85 rehearsal hours outside of tech and dress.
And so, I said, “Number one, we have a very short amount of time to do this show so we’ve got to work really hard. Number two, so many of you are used to doing musicals that working on a play is going to be a challenge for you.” Number three, with my particular production, I decided to have the majority of the cast onstage the whole show which is, again, what the show entails, but we used all the actors for things like walls and we used them for extra townspeople and pirates and sailors and they created doorways and all sorts of different ways of using the whole cast onstage for most of the show which takes a lot of focus and a lot of energy for kids who don’t always have a lot of focus.
It’s hard to stay focused for an hour at a time and remembering, “Who am I? What am I doing? What am I supposed to be focusing on at this moment?” It took a lot of energy and a lot of focus and they did brilliantly in that regard.
LINDSAY: So, this leads to you’ve got an ensemble that needs to be put together and you have to spend a lot of time with your ensemble because we want to make the pictures and the stage pictures very specific and, also, you want them to be very focused. And then, you also have the lead story that’s running through the play.
How did you orchestrate your rehearsals?
KERRY: Again, that was a challenge for me as a director. Like you said, making the stage pictures work, making sure everyone was included, but also making sure everyone felt important and was being used. So, before we got to rehearsals with casting, I had to ensure that everyone had a little special feature. Any of the doubling that was suggested in the show, we took out. Everyone was doing something – all the little bits, there was one person doing each of those ones.
From there, it was kind of a combination of herding cats and planning it very specifically in advance what I wanted. Because of the limited rehearsal time that we had, I had to have a very clear picture of what I wanted and being sure to first explain to them what’s going on, give them an opportunity to read through it, and also give them input because I think that’s so important for young actors – to be able to have their voices heard. Otherwise, they’re not really acting; they’re just doing what I’m telling them to – they’re just mimicking me, I suppose.
I wanted them to be heard as well and give their own flair to it but just knowing in advance where I wanted the scene to go and doing that advance preparation was really, really important. So, every minute of rehearsal was used effectively,
LINDSAY: What did you do to keep your ensemble focused, not talking, and while they were onstage? I know for a lot of teachers, this could be the bane of their existence – that getting particularly an ensemble to stay still or to be focused on the scene. What did you do?
KERRY: Well, sometimes, I succeeded; sometimes, I didn’t. There were definitely days were I was pulling my own hair out going, “Why won’t you stop talking?” I think that’s kind of the nature of theatre in a way – just knowing going in that you’ve got a bunch of students or kids that are really, really excited to be there and excited to see their friends and want to socialize and then you’re telling them to be quiet and focus. It’s kind of an oxymoron that way and I find it kind of amusing.
But the first thing was phones had to be away. Absolutely no phones.
Giving them a few minutes at the start of rehearsal to get their talking out and just allowing that three minutes for them to talk and hang out and get out what they needed to do. Every day, we started with kind of a chat, a breakdown of what we were going to achieve that day or what we wanted to achieve that day and our goals for that day which really helped. I’d be like, “My goal is to get this scene blocked and explain to you what you’re doing in the scene and your goal is to learn from that.” And taking breaks too for your own sanity as well as the kids’.
I know that’s really general but that’s just kind of what we did. I’m trying to think what else really helped.
I know explaining to them exactly what they were doing, where their focus was to be, even if it was their eye focus, knowing what am I supposed to be looking at, what should I be thinking about at this point was really helpful.
One thing we worked a lot on too was actually posture and this was an interesting thing that I haven’t had to work on with a lot of other shows but because they were doing things like being walls or being doorways and things, I noticed that they were all slouching so much and that was something that was so strange to notice but I was like, “Okay, what are the properties of a wall? They are sturdy, they are straight. What’s their purpose? They hold up your building. As an actor, being a wall, I have to think of being straight and firm and focused, I guess, but still and trusting in that stillness and training my body to not wiggle around which is the antithesis of what our bodies do. They want to move. They want to breathe. They want to just keep moving.”
Figuring out exactly what you’re doing and, even if it’s something like a wall, what does a wall do? What is the purpose of a wall? It sounds really funny when I say it out loud but we worked on that.
LINDSAY: Yeah, but it’s the conversations that you never expect to have and why would you?
KERRY: Yeah, exactly. You know, I don’t generally walk around in my day-to-day life thinking, “Hmm… what is it like to be a wall?” but there we go.
LINDSAY: And there it is. Welcome to theatre!
KERRY: Exactly. But you know what? It makes sense and there’s tons of plays out there where personification is a big factor of it so it makes sense.
LINDSAY: Adding on to that – because you talked about doing a lot of physicality work – what kind of exercises did you do with your students to work on having expressive bodies?
KERRY: Oh, I love physicality so much! That’s one of my favorite things! I think part of it is just because I do stage combat so often. That’s one of the reasons why I love physicality.
One thing I actually do, one exercise I do a lot with my students – because I use this myself as an actor when I’m doing shows – is I think of an animal that my character is similar to. From there, using mannerisms of an animal as a person, that helps me figure out – How does my character move? How do they look around? How do they speak?
Thinking specifically about the characters of Peter and Prentiss and Ted – those are the three orphan boys in the show – and we were focusing on the scene where they’re introduced and they’re down in a Bilge Dungeon. They’re in this really small cramped area in the brig of a ship and they’re in the dark and they’re scared.
We looked at Peter who, at this point in the show is called “Boy” and he doesn’t have a name. Nobody loves him; he has no friends. He’s very feral so we looked at him kind of almost like a feral wolf cub. If he was spooked, he’d run away and he’s stare at you with these really, really intense eyes.
Prentiss who is an orphan boy who claims to be a leader – he always wants to be a leader, he always is very proud and boastful – we thought about him, he’s more like a cat. He kind of slinks into conversations and he puffs up when he gets mad and he just kind of shoves himself in there and when he’s upset he walks away.
Teddy who is the youngest orphan and he’s obsessed with food, he’s just so adorable and wants to be loved, he was clearly a brand-new puppy. He just wanted to be loved, he wanted to be cuddled. He’d come up to you with these sad puppy eyes and he always looked like he wanted to be touched and loved and held.
And so, that’s kind of where we started there because animals are something that you can really grasp onto. You know, kids, students, anyone, actors, myself – you can look at an animal and see how it moves and see how it interacts with other animals and people. So, using that as a starting point for figuring out your physicality really works for me and I’ve found that works for my students, I think, just because it works so well for me, I can explain it a little better.
LINDSAY: That’s always good, eh? When you know you’ve got something you can fully explain. There’s so many things, I talk and I’m like, “Does that make sense? I don’t know. I’m not sure it does.”
KERRY: And then, I get down right there with them too and I will walk around on the floor with them and roll around and crawl and just get down on the floor and get there with them because I think that helps too. If they see their director is willing to try different things and experiment with different movements and physicalities and ways of speaking, you know, it kind of gets them out of their shells and helps them from feeling silly trying something like, “Okay! You’re going to say your line but you’re going to growl it like a wolf cub!” “Okay, sure.” But, now, Kerry will also do it with you so we don’t feel so silly.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s part of it, eh? Particularly with physicality. With teens, it’s hard to get them out of their bodies and away from themselves and it’s that looking silly, that is a heavy weight that they carry around with them.
KERRY: It really is, yeah. They always want to look cool, particularly girls always want to look pretty. They don’t want to be ugly. They don’t want to be weird. I know I’m throwing a gross generalization over teens and kids in general and I’m sorry because they’re wonderful but it’s just kind of part of the growing up – you know, figuring out who you are and wanting to fit in and look cool.
LINDSAY: That’s why we should be the ones who are crawling around on the floor and growling like wolf cubs. We have to be the silly ones!
What was the most challenging part of Peter and the Starcatcher for you?
KERRY: I think the first most challenging thing was initially figuring out how I was going to serve 26 actors in a show written for 12 actors. Initially, that was the biggest challenge. With that, I started with the script, went through the script. Any time it said “Narrator Stache” or “Narrator Peter” or “Narrator Molly,” I took a white out to that, all that went. So, all the narrator lines got split up.
In the end, all 26 of them got speaking lines which was pretty cool and a feature somehow.
I think the second challenge for me was, again, getting the buy-in from students who weren’t necessarily interested in doing a play because they were used to doing musicals. That was a challenge just to try and, again, get them to understand the value of what they were working on and the benefits to them because that’s a big thing. What’s in it for them? What are they going to learn from this?
So, I tried to really express how excited I was about the show and how passionate I was about the show and talk about what are the benefits – you know, you’re going to work on your acting skills, you’re going to meet new people, you’re going to work on this Tony award-winning play, and you’re going to have a new experience doing something that you’re not used to. I think those are all really fantastic benefits of doing a show of this nature. I think that was probably my second-biggest challenge working on this show.
LINDSAY: It sounds like it all worked out in the end.
KERRY: I think so.
LINDSAY: Sometimes, English is not my first language!
So, how did you grow as a director doing this show?
KERRY: I grow with every show I work on, really. This is my 13th show working with this particular theatre company and this show just challenged me so much as a director – both relating to students who I hadn’t necessarily worked with before and getting to know them and how they work and what they were expecting out of a show. It challenged me artistically to be able to serve the actors, be able to serve the story, help them to understand what they were doing and present it in a way that made sense. Also, to get my passion for this show and my excitement for this show to my kids and to explain it in a way that they can understand and make those connections with them.
There’s a scene in the show where a bird comes onstage and – spoiler alert, if anybody doesn’t know Peter and Starcatcher, this is your spoiler alert – this bird eventually turns into Tinkerbell. We were about two-thirds of the way through the process and one of my actors came up to me and said, “What’s the deal with the bird?” I was like, “What? It’s Tinkerbell. How do you not know this?”
But, you know, I have to remember that not everybody has read Peter Pan or is familiar with Peter Pan despite the fact that we think it’s so universal. Not everybody knows it and, no, not everyone is as close to the subject matter as I am because I read the book frequently and I’ve seen the show and I’ve watched the YouTube videos. Just because it’s special to me doesn’t mean it’s special to everyone. So, it was my job to present that and help my kids present that to audiences, especially audiences who also, like I said before, didn’t know what it was and having to get that story out so people were excited about the show and would come see it.
The cool thing was people actually came and saw it more than once so that’s awesome, too!
LINDSAY: I think you’re making a really excellent point that, sometimes, and this happens to me all the time too. I think everybody is in love with theatre as much as I am and I think everybody has the same level of knowledge of things that I have. And then, when you’re working with a show that has a very specific world, particularly as a director, before the show starts, before you have your auditions, you’ve immersed yourself in the world and that means you’re ahead of your students. Just because you know the whole thing and you love it doesn’t mean that. And to pay attention and to actually spend time getting buy-in and explaining and communicating.
KERRY: It’s so true. It’s so true. This show in particular really opened my eyes to that – you know, doing a show that’s, again, I think everybody knows it. “I saw it. Why doesn’t everybody else know this brilliant play? You’re missing out on this!” But, yeah, I have to check myself – check my own ego – and bring it back a few steps and be like, “Okay, let’s go back to basics. Let’s talk about the story, figure out the story,” because that’s essentially what theatre is. You are telling a story. If it’s not clear, your audience is going to go to sleep or they’re going to leave.
All right, wrapping up, what’s the one piece of advice you would give to another director who is directing Peter and the Starcatcher with high school students?
KERRY: Oh, I think with this show in particular, it’s so easy to get caught up in the craziness and the story and the text. What really worked well for this show, you know, taking away your concept, taking away all that stuff, focus on the basics. Focus on the basics – focus on diction, enunciation, volume. Knowing your characters – What are you doing? Why am I here in this scene?
And knowing that, every single step of the way, your actors will be able to convey the story the way it’s meant to be told because it is a fast-paced show. The jokes come by like crazy. They just fly by you. In order to keep it funny and to keep it moving forward, you have to focus on the simple stuff which isn’t always so simple
LINDSAY: Excellent! Excellent!
Well, the time has just – speaking of things that fly – the time has just flown by here.
Thank you so much, Kerry, for talking to me!
KERRY: Thank you for having me!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Kerry!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
Any links to today’s episode can be found in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode191.
So, I’ve got to say, not only is Kerry a great director, a wonderful blogger, she has a fantastic course in our Drama Teacher Academy on Theatre Etiquette.
When you’re teaching students who are brand new to theatre, it’s important to discuss and apply the expectations – not only of the drama classroom but also the theatrical world.
In this course, she starts at soup! She starts right at the beginning with “what is theatre etiquette?” and moves through every step in the production process – from audition to post-show recovery – nuts!
Every module has tips for both you and your students, classroom exercises, rehearsal exercises, and reflections. There’s posters that you can print in your classroom and also backstage.
I love this course and you can learn more about the DTA at DramaTeacherAcademy.com – that’s all one word – or in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode191.
Where can you find this podcast? I know! It’s a burning question! But let me tell you…
We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. Just search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.