By Ryan Paul
In the preface of The Great Gatsby, Matthew Bruccoli writes, “A popular classroom fallacy holds that classics are universal and timeless. Literature has staying power, but it is subject to metamorphosis. Every reader’s response to a work of fiction is determined by his presuppositional bias, beliefs, experience, and knowledge.” That, of course, is academic jargon used to communicate the notion that as one matures, ages, or has more life experiences, one’s perspective changes. In other words, as we grow up, so do our ideas. In classrooms across the country, students are forced to read the works of Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, and Orwell without having experienced the worldliness to truly understand them.
One of my favorite quotes comes from British historian C. V. Wedgewood; “History is lived forward but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never recapture what it was to know the beginning only.” We all have the shared experience of reading or seeing something for the first time, thinking that we will never forget that moment of reading that last line or watching the final scene. When we, after later years, revisit the novels, films, and television of our youth, they often leave us wanting. After all, I remember being terrified of Fantasy Island and, now, not so much. It seems to be the great dichotomy of life that on one hand we cannot wait to grow up but when we do, we spend a good portion of our time trying to figure out how to be young again.
One thing is certain: answers often come from growing up, from replacing the bliss of youthful ignorance with the often challenging nature of adult knowledge. Playwright Rick Elice thoughtfully comments: “When I was a boy, I wished I could fly, and the notion of being a boy forever was pure delight. No homework, no chores, no responsibility, no sorrow. Now that I’m in the middle of my life, I understand what I’d have missed had I never grown up, or fallen in love, or stood my ground, or lost a battle—or written a play.” This brings us to Peter and the Starcatcher, a play, with music, about a boy we all thought we knew in our youth, created by J. M. Barrie, canonized by Walt Disney, and brought to vivid life this summer by the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
I think I am in good company; at least if you consider my cousin Trent, and Utah Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn good company, in saying that one of my favorite rides at Disneyland is the Peter Pan ride. The concept is genius. You climb into a pirate ship and fly through the night sky passing various vignettes of Walt Disney’s take on Barrie’s classic story. This ride is the genesis of Peter and the Starcatcher. While waiting in line, writers Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson were asked by their young daughters “Where did Peter Pan come from?” The authors decided that they would create their own tale answering the most asked questions: How did Peter become Peter Pan? How did Peter learn to fly? How did Peter get to Neverland? How did Peter meet Captain Hook and Tinkerbell? Most importantly, how did Peter become a boy forever? Their book Peter and the Starcatchers became an instant bestseller and launched a series of additional works fleshing out more of the story. Inspired by the novel, playwright Rick Elice and directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers teamed up to create a play based on the adventures of Peter, before he became the Pan.
The play, Peter and the Starcatchers, was first workshopped in 2007 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a staged reading, with a few props that helped the actors establish the varied locations presented by the script. It then moved to the Lo Jolla Playhouse, and then was further developed in a subsequent off-Broadway production. Now titled Peter and the Starcatcher, the play opened on Broadway in April of 2012. The play was nominated for nine Tony awards and brought home five. However, while all this was exciting, another important development in the play’s history was about to occur. In June of 2012 it was announced that the Utah Shakespeare Festival would celebrate the regional premiere of Peter and the Starcatcher in 2013.
According to director Brian Vaughn, Peter and the Starcatcher will be an “imaginative story-driven piece that forces the audience members to use their own imagination to help propel the story.” The play features twelve actors and two musicians playing a variety of roles, including sailors, seamen, pirates, orphans, and mollusks. Vaughn recalls: “When I first saw [Peter and the Starcatcher]I was completely mesmerized—not only at the sheer theatricality of it, but at the heart of what the story is all about . . . believing in oneself. I have seen many productions of the Peter Pan story; however, this one, to me, was fresh, theatrical, innovative, and most importantly . . . heartfelt.”
Above all, Peter and the Starcatcher is a story of adventure. The Randall L. Jones Theatre stage will be awash with pirates, sea captains, mermaids, savage natives, a very unusual island, and a strangely mysterious trunk. The plot of our story centers on this trunk and its magical treasure. “A treasure,” according to Vaughn, “that makes everybody believe they can become anything their true heart desires.”
Throughout the years, the story of Peter Pan has been adapted from the page to the stage many times. From puppet shows to popular musicals, from Japanese anime to straight up dramatic performances, from feature films to cable television, and, my personal favorite, a 1975 Kennedy Center rock opera which became the basis for one of the great rock albums of the 1970s: Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell. Barrie’s tale of the boy who can’t or won’t grow up has captivated our attention. The Utah Shakespeare Festival’s Peter and the Starcatcher is the culmination of all that is magic about Peter and his adventures. According to the Festival’s Media and Public Relations Manager Nikki Allen, “Our version of this award-winning play celebrates the enchanting and imaginative nature of theatre while remaining true to the source material about a boy who never grows up. It will enlighten and inspire our audiences to recapture the magic of their own childhood and treasure their memories.”
There are two things I know for certain: first Utah Shakespeare Festival’s regional premiere of Peter and the Starcatcher will be one for the history books. In fact I am confident that those people who miss this show will, as Shakespeare’s young Henry V eloquently stated, “think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap ” (Henry V, 4.3.65–66) The second thing I know is that listening to Bat Out of Hell as you travel to the show may enhance your experience; however, you better keep your windows rolled up as Meatloaf, like Captain Hook, likes his words to be heard.