Frances Johnson graduated from the Department of Dramatic Arts in 2020 and was about to begin an internship at the Shaw Festival when the Covid-19 pandemic...
Adeline Huffman, Haley Labbé, Katelyn Lander, and Jessica Laurie-Robar write: “It feels like just yesterday I was looking at this set in a little shoe box!” exclaims Katelyn Lander while looking at the stage, as we prepare to watch the story unfold.
Curtains up on the first technical dress rehearsal for Shaw Festival’s Peter and the Starcatcher. This is the first time the actors will perform on stage with costumes, lights, and all the bits and pieces that make a play. The night starts with the full cast on stage for a fight call. This is something that occurs before every run for the safety of the actors and helps them warm up. It is especially important tonight because it is the actors’ first time in their costumes and they need to check for any malfunctions. We are able to see the big fight scenes played out in slow motion and then at full speed. It is interesting to see the scenes out of context, because we have not seen many of the fight scenes at all yet. Each is accompanied with music, which we hear for the first time coming from a tiny orchestra pit under the stage.
Before they can continue with the dress rehearsal, Beatrice Campbell has to take care of what she calls the “annoying stage manager-y stuff.” An issue had arisen with the upstage left entrance onstage the night before, when the company had noted that using that entrance revealed the bright, red exit sign. Since it’s illegal to cover up the sign, the actors are advised to avoid using that entrance whenever possible. End of annoying stage manager-y stuff as Campbell exits downstage right. Jackie Maxwell then gives a little pep talk to her actors. She begins by going around the circle and letting each actor list all the roles they play in the show. These are lengthy lists considering everyone plays at least three characters (mollusks, sailors, mermaids, etc.). After they all make eye contact and check in with each other they end with a “hands in!” show circle.
Jenny Wright ends the warmup by running through her choreography on the silks, which is mesmerizing as usual. This warmup proves to be only a little preview of what is to come. It is during Wright’s aerial performance that we notice other groups of people filing into the theatre; apparently we were not to be the only audience members. Maxwell explains to us that these are mostly the wardrobe department: cutters, dyers and seamstresses. They are all there to watch the first dress rehearsal and make sure, costume-wise, everything runs smoothly. Maxwell also explains that it’s time for her to step back from the show and let the actors carry it. The only reason she might step in tonight would be if there was, in her words, “a major train wreck on stage.” Finally, the show is ready to begin and we are all feeling very nervous for them — but also very excited.
The stage is set with a lone lantern and fog begins to fill the stage from the rafters, as if a lighthouse is guiding a ship toward the shore. Then, the lights go down and we enjoy a delightful first act. We are all stunned by the intense choreography, transitions, musical numbers, and use of shadows: this is an extremely dynamic show! When intermission comes, Maxwell checks in with us to ask if we noticed the lines they had skipped; we had not. Apparently, when Captain Scott (Kelly Wong) is tied up and captured by pirates, the reveal of this to Lord Aster (Patrick Galligan) was skipped, so Wong had to make muffled noises and struggle with his ropes to get them to come back to that bit of dialogue. It was a great recovery, considering the only thing that gave it away was the directors’ and stage manager’s hysterical laughter.
We get the opportunity to talk briefly to several people involved in the show. We speak to movement director Valerie Moore about the use of the aerial silks, which were not incorporated in the original production. Moore says that instead of having the ocean scenes just on a horizontal plane, her vision is to have it vertical as well to achieve the effect of drowning in the silks. She says she breathed a big sigh of relief hearing the audience laugh at various moments in the performance. She explains that after seeing the jokes and gags so many times in rehearsals, they stop being as funny, so it is relieving to hear that the show is entertaining.
We also are able to talk to one of the cutters, Ramona, who is watching the rehearsal. She explains that every person had certain actors to watch so that nothing is missed. She focuses on Molly (Kate Besworth) and Smee (Jonathan Tan) to keep an eye out for wardrobe malfunctions. She explains that most of the Shaw’s costumes are made from scratch each year and at times need to be aged in order to achieve the desired look. This particular show underwent a fair bit of aging, especially with the many pirates and lost boys. Ramona says, “It’s a lot of fun seeing the designer’s ideas become a reality,” as she wriggles in her seat, excitedly awaiting the mermaid scene.
The backdrop for intermission had come down to reveal a nautical dreamscape and has us all very excited for the upcoming second act. We had all seen the costume sketches for the mermaids during our last visit and were very eager to see how they turned out. We are not disappointed by the costumes or the delightful mermaids shaking their tails on stage. The storytelling element of the show becomes more evident as it continued, and by final curtain we do not want to leave the world the company had created.
As we wait for the cast to come onstage for notes, the technical director, Craig Putt, gives us a tour of the onstage area and points out some details we may have missed. The set is extremely detailed, down to barnacles on the ship posts. He discusses with us the intricacies of a repertory theatre. After rehearsals, the crew will change the sets over to those of You Never Can Tell, another production in the repertory in this theatre, the Royal George. The crew who changes the sets over is made up of only four people, so you can imagine how hectic that can be! Praise to the unsung heroes of the Shaw Festival — the stage crews. Bravo! Stage left is packed with giant set pieces for You Never Can Tell, but Putt says they would just prepare for the switch that night. He will come in early the next day to finish moving the set on and changing the floors. Peter and the Starcatcher’s floor is painted on, but they have floor pieces to set down for the other productions.
Next we sit down and watch Maxwell give her notes to the actors. Relief comes to us when we find out that all directors have that moment where they can’t read their own writing. Moore then immediately steps in with a note, and Maxwell says, “That’s what it was too!” The shared mind between Moore and Maxwell is unfathomable at times as they give their notes, at times finishing each others’ thoughts. A great moment is the scaling down of an obscene gesture by Black Stache (Martin Happer). “Think of me,” Maxwell says, “Dear Ms. Maxwell, I took my young grandchildren to see your show…” The company laughs. However funny, Happer’s gesture is just a bit too adult for this particular production. (But if your show is too funny for its own good, then you must be doing something right!)
If you’re ready to find your inner Pirate, Lost Boy, or Starcatcher, check out Peter and the Starcatcher at the Royal George Theatre, playing from April 8th to November 1st. Tickets available at http://www.shawfest.com/buy-tickets/
“Never before have I been able to literally feel the mutual respect between every individual in a room, until I had the pleasure of sitting in on a three-hour rehearsal for Peter and the Starcatcher.” — Katelyn Lander
Adeline Huffman, Haley Labbé, Katelyn Lander, and Jessica Laurie-Robar write: We made our first visit to the Peter and the Starcatcher rehearsal room a few weeks into the company’s process. They were so far into the process, in fact that they were already rehearsing and polishing on the Royal George Theatre’s stage, but because, the day we visited another show was working on that stage, the Starcatcher company were back in the smaller rehearsal space.
Jackie Maxwell, director of the show, held the attention of her cast at all times. The presence of every single actor was astonishing to see; they were always on the same page with Maxwell and ready to jump in at any moment.
The first major interruption in the rehearsal happened when Maxwell stopped a scene between Black Stache (Martin Happer) and Smee (Jonathan Tan) to workshop it a little bit. As we listened to Happer justify how he was delivering his lines, it was clear he had done his research and knew exactly what his plan of action was. As he and Maxwell discussed the scene, the rest of the company did not take this as a break or an opportunity to chat. Some were quietly running lines to themselves and even doing push-ups to stay warmed up. Later a movement problem with Boy/Peter (Charlie Gallant) came up; some of Gallant’sblocking had been changed, which made his subsequent action of rolling down a ladder much more difficult. Movement director Valerie Moore was on her feet immediately to help with the problem and make sure it was resolved safely. The collaboration between Gallant, Moore, and Maxwell was excellent as they smoothed over the trouble spot within a few minutes.
As rehearsal continued, we came to realize one thing for certain: Jenny Wright is magical. Two of us (Katelyn and Haley) had previously worked with Wright — Haley was Assistant Stage Manager for a production ofThe Wizard of Oz in which Wright played the Wicked Witch of the West; and Katelyn has taken several of her monologue workshops. Based on these experiences, we knew we would be in for something special — but didn’t realize how special until this rehearsal. Before the rehearsal, Maxwell had told us that she had cast Wright before she and Moore had decided to incorporate aerial silks (acrobatics performed while suspended from silk fabric) into the production. Wright, who plays Teacher and Mrs. Bumbrake (the latter a role traditionally played by a man), embraced the idea with open arms and immediately began silks classes, and we witnessed the results in this rehearsal. We don’t want to give too much away for those who will see the show, so we’ll just say: It. Is. Magical.
The collaborative nature of this rehearsal process is well suited to the play. At some points there were three members of the creative team leading three rehearsals at once. Maxwell worked with Kate Besworth (Molly) on her “Norse” code (essentially Morse code, except created by Vikings), while Moore worked with Wright on her silks technique, and musical director Ryan deSouza helped Jonathan Tan (Smee) with his ukelele. It was an overwhelming theatrical experience to watch this rehearsaland admire the ability that each creative leader had to share focus without distracting from others’ work.
Through it all though there was still a sense of fun and playfulness as two of the leads demonstrated. “You gonna give me a line or am I gonna keep running?” Kate Besworth (Molly) asked her real-life fiancé Gallant as they start a scene. The company laughs, and Gallant quips back with “well, if you’re already on stage, I’ve given my line” to more laughter. This playfulness continued throughout and reflected the play’s lightheartedness. Performers swinging off scaffolding, debates about pineapple motivation, and a rousing chorus of “Butterfly and Deep Fat Fry!” were just some random highlights we experienced when immersed in the world of Neverland. Being present in the room gave us the true sense of being kids all over again.
One of the most striking elements of the rehearsal was the live sound mixing. There will be no recorded sound in the show; it is fully scored by deSouza’s piano and plethora of effects. In this rehearsal he added beats for the actors to chant with and light lilting music to indicate water — and spent a good deal of the rehearsal crafting the perfect crocodile roar. He rubbed rosin (a resin used to make violin strings have more friction) along a string attached to a bass drum. The result was a resonant blast of sound that could be ship creaks or farting or roars, depending on the context. DeSouza used the offstage cast such as Tan and Happer to his advantage, getting them to help make a thunderstorm with only a bucket, sheet metal, and a tin of small metal beads. If the scene we saw was just in progress, we can’t wait to see the rest. DeSouza also unveiled his brand new theremin, an instrument we are familiar with since it was featured in our department’s own mainstage production, R.U.R.
Haley had the pleasure of sitting beside stage manager Beatrice Campbell throughout the rehearsal. Intimidated at first, it didn’t take long for Haley to open up and start asking the million questions running through her head. Throughout she was able to follow along in the script, reading the notes about blocking, costumes and props. During rehearsal Wright was working on the silks and Campbell was up immediately making sure mats were in place, protecting her actor. This team is so in tune with each other that it is truly remarkable.Campbell had also given us a tour around the rehearsal set before the actors arrived, including the small-scale model of what the set will look like on stage(see picture). Campbell showed us rehearsal props and the evolution of the prop design. It was very interesting to see the different pieces that had been created, brought in to use, or discarded throughout the process.
We all felt honoured to be able to converse with Maxwell, Moore, and Campbell. We sat in a room filled with many talented people, from actors and musicians to a talented directorial team. Being able to witness this process is truly inspiring for us as theatre students. We look forward to continuing this embedding process to continue to learn from these amazing people.
“Possibilities, that is what all of this is. The possibility of fun, of what tomorrow could bring. It brings back the hope and joy you had as a child and reminds you that it is still possible.” — Adeline Huffman
“The entire experience was one that not only made me excited to see the finished production, but reminded me of why I fell in love the theatre.” — Katelyn Lander
“What an amazing experience! The way all sides of this production come together to create a wonderful piece of theatre is outstanding, and the professionalism is refreshing.” — Haley Labbé
“I got to be in Neverland, watching the Lost Boys play make-believe as actors. It was funny and joyful and made me believe in theatre, let alone the fairies.” — Jessica Laurie-Robar
Adeline Huffman, Haley Labbé, Katelyn Lander, and Jessica Laurie-Robar write:
“A Company walks on Stage” — First line of Peter and the Starcatcher
Jackie Maxwell, the Shaw Festival’s artistic director, has assembled a dream team of cast and crew of her upcoming production of Peter and the Starcatcher. Movement director Valerie Moore and designer Judith Bowden join her in forming a power trio of strong female creators for the immensely collaborative process of putting on this play.
As lucky behind-the-scenes reporters, we recently sat down with Maxwell and Moore for lunch to discuss their process and the lure of fairy wings that drew them to the play.
Peter and the Starcatcher, written by Rick Elice and based on the young adult book series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It was nominated for eight Tony awards (and won five) and is known for its minimalist set and contemporary storytelling — about as antithetical to Shaw’s highly realist parlour plays as you can get. Maxwell assured us that it still fits into the Shaw’s mandate, though, as J.M. Barrie wrote in the same era as George Bernard Shaw. The Shaw Festival is also putting on Barrie’s The Twelve-Pound Look this season, and they produced his Half an Hour in 2010. This play is also an excellent choice for diversifying Shaw’s audience. Shaw’s plays, which can be long and talky, are not exactly kid-friendly, but Peter and the Starcatcher is — as Maxwell says in the Shaw’s promotional material for the season—a “theatrical adventure for adults and children alike. A true family piece.”
Maxwell told us how she and Moore went to New York City to see the play, and afterwards turned to each other and said it “would be perfect for our company.” Thus the call of Neverland took hold. One of the perks of being artistic director is that you can make statements like that come true.
Cut to hours and hours of our Power Trio — Maxwell, Moore, and Bowden — meeting in Maxwell’s kitchen, mapping out the play and its design. The three have worked together before, and were asking the all-important question: “How are we going to tell this story?” Moore describes the play as a container, and says the hard part is filling the container. The play moves in between two ships, the sea, and a tropical island — “All done with ladders, ropes, lights, music, and live sound effects. A true workout for the performers,” says Maxwell. The actors move between multiple roles to tell Peter’s story, using ropes to represent boxing rings, mirrors, and anything else required. A play like this, with barely a set and highly focused on the audiences’ imaginations, requires detailed planning and teamwork. Maxwell shows us her master script, full of set layouts. During their meetings they storyboarded the blocking for every scene and transition. It was like looking at a blueprint for the entire play. Moore told us that the challenge with this play has been discovering the movements between storyboards.
This collaborative nature of blocking between Moore and Maxwell is essential to the success of the play, and casting is of course also a key element. Maxwell said she looked for physical dexterity in the actors, and the ability to work together as “a company.” When asked about the casting of Jenny Wright as Mrs. Bumbrake (a role previously played by a man pretending to be a woman), she said she felt this original approach was too “English Pantomime”. The character of Mrs. Bumbrake is in the original a caricature of a woman — which is not necessarily welcome in a play written for eleven male actors and one female. Wright helps balance out the cast, and avoids the problem of pantomime.
The design of the play helps the company work together — and allows for them to play as well. The first act takes place inside two ships, while the second is set in the jungle of Mollusk Island (the Neverland equivalent). The set is a giant jungle gym of scaffolding, and the actors get to climb and swing and play with ropes and ladders. Bowden took inspiration from old-style theatre rigging and flys — which in turn were modeled on ships’ rigging. “That’s why you can’t whistle in the theatre,” Maxwell explains: “the sailors [who worked the theatres in off-season] thought whistling would bring bad weather.” Bowden plays with the denotative flexibility of ropes (how they change what they are based on how you use them). In Act One the many ropes are the ships’ rigging, and the stage is dark and prison-like. The ropes make Peter feel trapped. In Act Two, Maxwell explained, Peter “sees the sun.” The stage becomes bright and the ropes change into jungle vines. They wanted the play to not be representational, and that is certainly how it feels to us as we observe this rehearsal.
Being the aspiring young critics we are, we then turned the conversation away from Neverland to the state of criticism in Ontario today.
“Shameful,” says Maxwell.
She then qualifies her gut reaction a bit. She remarks on the “Dear Diary”-esque trap that current critics have fallen into; in her view criticism in Ontario right now lacks context and is entirely too opinion-based. “That’s why we’re doing this [behind-the-scenes project], to provide context,” Maxwell says. She hopes that our experiences with Peter and the Starcatcher will help inform us about the amount of work and choices made in the production, and that we can recognize the “series of different processes” that go into creating theatre. She said that if a critic was ever unsure of a choice made in a show, she would gladly talk to them if they asked. Short deadlines sometimes prevent this — and so goes the ever-present complaint from the critic of not having enough time. Sometimes context is lost in the effort to be the first with an opinion. Going behind the scenes allows us to “understand the parameters” of the production, in Maxwell’s words, and therefore be more informed on the play.Hopefully, these blog posts will be useful in explaining the parameters of Peter and the Starcatcherto you,our readers.
We are really excited to be behind the scenes in this production. Next we will be writing about a rehearsal for this complex show, and then a technical dress rehearsal. Keep checking back, or in this case: Look for the second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning!
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