How much do you really know about Peter Pan? Sure, you know he lives in Neverland and refuses to grow up, but if you try to picture this much analyzed (and Disney-fied) figure, you most likely imagine a defiant boy in green, portrayed by an adult actress in tights. What you probably don’t know is that J.M. Barrie’s “boy who will never grow up” is considered by many to be the catalyst for what we now call theater for young audiences.
Rewinding roughly 110 years, popular writer and playwright of his time, J.M. Barrie, premieres a play about lost boys, pirates and pixie dust that takes a generation of theatergoers by surprise. Prior to this, performances for young people primarily took the form of pantomime, fairy tale plays, stage adaptations of child-centered novels and vaudeville matinees featuring child performers. There is much debate as to whether Peter Pan, which debuted in 1904, was originally intended for young audiences or if it was made for adults as a reflection on childhood. Regardless of intention, it became a huge hit for adults and kids alike, many of whom flocked to see it multiple times. The successful London premiere led to a run on Broadway at the Empire Theater and suddenly, the professional theater was a place where kids belonged.
Fast forward to today but on the same block as the Empire Theater, The New Victory carries on that legacy with work from around the world that respects, challenges and delights audiences of all ages. How fitting, then, that the 2013-14 season kicks off with a trip to Neverland. But why, over a century later, does this work still have the power to speak to audiences of kids and adults? I believe it’s because the world of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan exemplifies many of the elements of high-quality theater for kids:
1. Boldly Original: Peter Pan wasn’t based on a movie, book or any existing story. In a field dominated by adaptations and reworkings of classic fare, J.M. Barrie offered a story for the stage that was totally original and took us on a new adventure. While hearing old stories again can be great, sometimes the biggest journeys (and the best pieces of theater) are the ones in which we don’t know the destination.
2. Subversive and Challenging: Barrie gave us a fresh and provocative look at growing up with his complex representation of kids and adults. We get to watch adults behaving badly (The Darlings fussing at each other like children and Captain Hook throwing tantrums) and children taking care of themselves and the world around them (Peter writing his own destiny and Wendy becoming ‘mother’ to the Lost Boys). Similarly, the most refreshing theater for young people mischievously challenges the systems we take for granted rather than reinforcing stereotypes.
3. Uniquely Theatrical: Peter Pan was meant to be told on stage! The magic of the play was intended to be created in front of an audience. In the original production, the actors certainly didn't fly over the audience like they do nowadays and not every detail of Neverland was depicted, and that is the whole point -- the play asks the audience to imagine and conjure the magic for ourselves. Barrie wanted the audience to understand that imagination is something we have as children that can be lost when we grow up. He was so invested in this idea that he resisted the creation of a film version for many years, preferring that the world of the play only exist in the imaginations of its audience.
4. For Kids AND Adults: J.M. Barrie found the perfect balance in speaking to audiences of all ages. For young people, he provided an exciting tale driven by a feisty young protagonist who defies the world by refusing to become an adult. In turn, kids get to think about what it means to become an adult, and question when and how that happens. For adults, Barrie infused humor, wit and complexity of language, while forcing us to question what we’ve lost since leaving our own childhood behind (and reminding us that our inner child may still exist).
5. Developed in Collaboration with Young People: Some of the best theater for young audiences is created by getting feedback from kids and even involving young people in the development process of the work. Barrie developed Peter Pan through storytelling and play-acting with the Llewelyn Davies brothers, close family friends. (It is rumored that the most famous line of the play, “To die will be an awfully big adventure!” was first said by George Llewelyn Davies during one of these games!). These young people helped generate the stories, characters and places of Peter Pan, which is perhaps why the play is so successful in accessing the imagination of young audiences.
Even though he may never grow up, Peter Pan has lived many lives since his debut in 1904. At the least, most adults I know can recall Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby from the musical version, Robin Williams from Hook and animated imagery from Disney’s film adaptation. More recently, there was a production that used digital projection and automated rigging to immerse the audience in Neverland. Belvoir’s production (opening October 4th) is a refreshing return to the low-tech magic that made Barrie’s original so special. Fueled by imagination, this production uses only the stuff of a nursery to create the landscape of the play: shadows, blankets, bunk beds and toys become a lagoon, a pirate ship, and much more. And while many know this story quite well, there will certainly be audience members experiencing Peter Pan for the very first time. 113 years later, the play still offers the very same experience it did at its debut: the lights will go down, and the young audience will fearlessly take flight for a journey into the unknown.
This blog was written by Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, Associate Director of Artistic Programming