This story is part of a series of articles previewing Thespian troupes and the shows they’ve been invited to present on the 2019 International Thespian Festival main stage.

TROUPE 8269 from Jemicy School in Owings Mills, Md., will make its International Thespian Festival main stage debut with Peter and the Starcatcher. The school previously attended the festival in 2017 as the recipient of a Send a Troupe grant.

Chloë Wendler portrays Molly Aster in Jemicy School's production of Peter and the Starcatcher.

Chloë Wendler portrays Molly Aster in Jemicy School’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by Leslie Furlong.

Story

Peter and the Starcatcher offers an inventive take on the origin story of the boy who famously never grew up. When did Peter become Pan? What gives him the power to fly? And how did he and the other Lost Boys end up on Neverland with Captain Hook and Tinker Bell?

A prequel to Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatcher begins, as many 19th century adventures do, with a daring sea voyage. Molly Aster, the insatiably curious daughter of a British lord, finds herself entangled in her father’s secret mission to the remote kingdom of Rundoon. Onboard the ship, Molly befriends a trio of orphan boys longing for families of their own.

The journey turns dangerous when Molly and the boys find themselves unexpectedly charged with protecting the mysterious “starstuff” her father has been assigned by Queen Victoria to destroy. To keep it from falling into the hands of those who would use its magic for nefarious purposes, they must overcome a crew of greedy sailors and band of not-so-swashbuckling pirates led by the ruthless Black Stache.

Background

The story of Peter and the Starcatcher begins in 1902, when J.M. Barrie introduced Peter Pan in the novel The Little White Bird. Peter is described as “always the same age,” having “escaped from being a human when he was seven days old.” Several iconic traits now essential to the character are introduced in the book, including Peter’s ability to fly (in this case, because all humans begin their lives as birds) and his complicated relationship with fairies. Barrie expanded Peter’s story in his 1904 play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up and subsequent book Peter and Wendy.

Fast forward to 2002, and novelist Ridley Pearson reads Peter Pan to his 5-year-old daughter Paige, who asked her father how Peter met Captain Hook. Pearson shared her question with his friend, the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry, launching the two on their own creative journey. They developed an elaborate backstory for the characters that answered not only Paige’s question but also many others. Peter and the Starcatchers was published in 2004, inaugurating a popular five-book children’s series. Adapted for the stage by Rick Elice, the play premiered at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 before making its Broadway debut in 2012, winning five Tony Awards.

The cast of Jemicy School's production of Peter and the Starcatcher.
The cast of Jemicy School’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo by Leslie Furlong.

TROUPE 8269’S PRODUCTION

Jemicy is the first Maryland school to appear on the International Thespian Festival main stage in 20 years. Sean Elias, the school’s troupe director and chair of the Upper School Performing Arts Department, chose the show because it embraces both community and theatricality. “As a school for students with language-based learning differences, we seek to offer new and exciting ways for students to experience our written cultural legacy,” Elias said. “This season, we’re producing works adapted from some of the most beloved fairy tales in history. This allows our students to experience these literary classics in the way they were intended — experientially and with wild imagination. Peter and the Starcatcher offers the unique opportunity for my students to bring their brilliant imaginations, idiosyncratic personalities, and childlike abandon to the work in a celebration of their artistic creativity and accomplishments.”

With its design, Peter and the Starcatcher harkens back to a time before sets were based in realism and controlled by computer automation. Told in the style of story theatre, the show’s minimal props are created by repurposing everyday objects, and special effects are limited to what the actors can reasonably make themselves. While the novel includes flying, a fantastic shipwreck, and an enchanted island, the play’s staging asks audiences to use their imaginations to create those worlds, employing stagecraft that would have been familiar to theatregoers of Barrie’s day.

“The show embraces the traditions in which theatre was founded, such as traveling troupes, puppetry, magic, and improvisation, as well as the elements of the stage that make theatre exciting to young, modern audiences — music, intelligent lighting, and dynamic sets and props,” Elias said. “While this production is an homage to the past, it is just as much a promise for the future.”

Thespian senior Chloë Wendler, who says her personality is similar to that of spunky, strong-willed Molly Aster, found the show to be an exciting challenge for the cast. “Not only were we characters in the show, but we also were props, and we made the setting for each scene. You had to be very specific about your acting and your movement,” she said. “In other productions, that’s less dependent on the people and more dependent on the scenery, but we were the scenery.”

Ethan Lifson-Book, a Thespian sophomore who portrays Peter, tapped into the show’s sense of wonder and wishing. “The thing that truly resonates with me is that, when we’re younger, we always think we’ll get what we want and that everything will work out in the end,” he said. “Though the show has a happy ending, it wasn’t what I felt like my character truly wanted. That hit hard, because it shows that you don’t always get what you want but it’s not always as bad as it seems. When you wish for something, it may be what you want, but in the end, Peter receives what he needs.”

At just four years old, Jemicy School’s theatre program has grown quickly. Like Wendler, Andrew Spriggs, the junior Thespian playing Black Stache, was part of the first show produced at Jemicy, and he takes pride in the troupe’s accomplishments since then. “Everyone here has some sort of tick in which they learn differently from others,” Spriggs said. “We have a wide range of learning disabilities here. We prefer to call them differences, because we don’t believe it’s a disability at all. The kids here all have emotional and academic support not a lot of schools provide, and I think what’s special about theatre at Jemicy. It really is a learning and teaching experience.

“We learn how to speak publicly, and some of us can’t even read,” he continued. “To be able to get up onstage in front of 4,000 people, and for me particularly because I have severe dyslexia, to be able to recite lines in a correct order and for people to understand them, that’s a huge feat itself. For all of us to do it as one, to rely on one another not to mess up, and to carry one another despite our differences, it really is incredible.”

POST-SHOW DISCUSSION

  1. How is Peter and the Starcatcher enhanced by the knowledge many audience members bring with them about the original Peter Pan? What are questions the writers answer about Peter’s backstory? Do you think Peter and the Starcatcher works on its own without any knowledge of Peter Pan?
  2. Peter and the Starcatcher is written as story theatre, a style in which actors play multiple roles and themselves create the world of the play using simple props, costumes, and scenery. What are examples of story theatre conventions used in Peter and the Starcatcher? Why do you think the author and director chose this style?
  3. Molly’s character differs from the stereotypical image of Victorian girls. What do we learn about Molly’s views on the role of women in her society?
  4. The importance of social class in Victorian England is also a theme of the show. Provide examples how class differences are illustrated and how they affect the way Molly and the orphans see their world.
  5. At its heart, Peter and the Starcatcher explores the joys and sacrifices of growing up. What does the show have to say about the transitions from childhood to adolescence to adulthood? As a high school student, how did these ideas resonate for you?

ACTIVITIES

  1. Though written decades later, the events in Peter and the Starcatcher take place prior to the events described in Peter Pan. Choose one of your favorite books, movies, or television shows and write a short prequel for one of its characters.
  2. Adapt your favorite fairy tale into a 10-minute play using several of the story theatre conventions used in Peter and the Starcatcher.
  3. The reign of Queen Victoria marked a time of great change in England, particularly for children. Peter and the Starcatcher illustrates very different childhood experiences for children like Molly compared to the orphans she befriends on the ship. Explore one aspect of Victorian society (for example, gender, class, education, housing) in detail as it applies to the characters in the show.

RESOURCES

Read
The Little White Bird, by J.M. Barrie (full text available via Project Gutenberg)
Peter Pan (Peter and Wendy), by J.M. Barrie (full text available via Project Gutenberg)
Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Peter and the Starcatcher: The Annotated Script of the Broadway Play, by Rick Elice
MTI/Disney Theatrical Group production handbook

Listen
WNYC interview with Peter and the Starcatcher creators Rick Elice and Roger Rees

Watch
Peter and the Starcatcher Broadway YouTube channel
Theatre Talk interview with Rick Elice and Roger Rees

Learn more about the 2019 International Thespian Festival online.

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