Alan Paul likes to go big. Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC)’s associate artistic director has made a name for himself directing musicals and operas notable for their grand scale and lush scope. That experience will come in handy this December as Paul tackles his biggest project yet: a re-envisioning of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, at Sidney Harman Hall through January 12.
Peter Pan and Wendy will feature a fresh new script by playwright Lauren Gunderson, a cast of 20, and a creative team of 66 that will bring the Peter Pan story to life through special effects, flying and ambitious sets. It is bigger than anything STC has produced before, and it’s all in Paul’s hands.
“I don’t feel like the director of this show,” Paul said during a recent interview at STC’s rehearsal space. “I feel like the captain of the ship, like I’m orchestrating 50 people doing a million things, which I am.”
Paul envisions a show that is grand in both ideas and design. His team includes a roster of A-list artists like Gunderson, currently the most frequently produced playwright in America according to American Theatre magazine, and Emmy Award-winning scenic designer Jason Sherwood (Fox’s Rent: Live), who is tasked with creating the worlds of the Darling family nursery, Neverland and more.
Gunderson’s script calls for dazzling effects: flying bunk beds, midair fight sequences and pirates tumbling from their ship while a giant crocodile lurks below, to name but a few. The playwright first saw her work come to life during tech rehearsals last week.
“Oh my gosh,” she said of the experience. “The incredible caliber of the design on this project is magic. It’s all the things you want in a great spectacle.”
Peter Pan and Wendy includes the familiar Peter Pan storyline – with some twists.
“Peter Pan already has his story,” Paul said. “The pull of it for me was Wendy and what happens to her. This is Wendy’s story from start to finish.”
Paul felt that Gunderson, known for her plays that put women – often neglected historical figures – center stage, was the perfect person to develop a “robust, swashbuckling adventure” led by a smart, inquisitive heroine.
“There were a lot of people out there who could have written a post-modern riff on Peter Pan, but not in a big, crowd-pleasing, robust way. And that was the charge I had for her. It had to be robust.”
And it had to put the ladies in charge. Paul hopes Peter Pan and Wendy will do for theatre what Frozen did for movies: rewrite the rules and prove that female-driven adventure stories can attract large audiences.
Rewriting the rules “is the whole point, actually,” Paul said. “In the original Peter Pan, Peter wants to bring Wendy to Neverland to sew their socks and mend their buttons. That feels very different in 2019.” Gunderson agrees.
“We wanted to save what is worth saving about this beautiful, timeless story but also confront what is deeply problematic about it,” she said. “In the original, Wendy, a 12- or 13-year-old girl, is referenced only by whether or not she will be a mother. And she is boy crazy as soon as she sees Peter Pan. I said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
In Gunderson’s version, Wendy is a budding scientist whose role model is Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and chemist.
“Peter Pan was written in 1904, and I realized that was the year after Marie Curie won her first Nobel Prize,” Gunderson said. “There are not that many other female scientists that were recognized at that level at that time, so it aligned nicely.”
Wendy is joined by Tiger Lily, the Native American character that many productions of the still-popular 1954 Peter Pan musical cut because it’s widely considered offensive and even racist. In approaching the Tiger Lily character, Paul felt his and Gunderson’s job “was not to be apologetic, but to actively flip the script.” Rather than eliminating the Tiger Lily character, they wanted to make her voice powerful and real.
“Tiger Lily is brave and courageous, and a warrior,” Gunderson said. “It was just a matter of actually treating her like a fully fleshed out person and acknowledging the indigenous perspective on situations as opposed to reveling in the stereotypes.”
Tiger Lily is now a driving force in Peter Pan and Wendy, a vocal sparring partner with Pan and a leader in Neverland. Paul enjoys mining the deep psychological undercurrents in the script.
“This is a play that is obsessed with time,” he observed, noting that Peter Pan and Captain Hook are both trying to stop the clock and avoid the inevitability of aging. “It’s not a subtle play. It’s about good and evil, and the stakes are really high. These kids go to Neverland to discover who they are and see the worst of the world. They come back having learned big things.”
The story plays out on five separate sets, each of them designed to dazzle by Jason Sherwood.
“When you do Peter Pan, you can either do Peter and the Starcatcher, which is a very slimmed down version, or you just go ‘Boom!” Paul said. “And I was like ‘Jason, it’s time for big scenery. People want an adventure.’”
In his approach to scenic design, Paul draws from his experiences directing opera. He recalls advice he once received from Sir Nicholas Hytner, the former artistic director of London’s National Theatre.
“The secret to opera is that you have to create five images that the audience will find spectacular,” Paul recalled Hytner saying.
That can be a set piece, like the pirate ship that makes an entrance in Peter Pan and Wendy’s fifth act.
“We played around with simple designs for the ship, but then I thought, ‘People are waiting for that pirate ship to show up. It needs to be great.’”
Or it can be a scene. Paul thinks the opening sequence in which Pan reunites with his shadow will be spectacular. He hopes that one scene featuring an aerialist mermaid in a sea cave will be a beautifully stark and memorable contrast to the rest of the show.
STC commissioned Peter Pan and Wendy as the first offering in new artistic director Simon Godwin’s holiday family-friendly initiative. But Gunderson and Paul believe Peter Pan and Wendy will speak to adults and children equally.
“I think we ended up with something that is going to be a lot of fun, and powerful and thought-provoking too,” Gunderson observed.
Paul knows it is the visual splendor that will wow young audiences, but he also thinks back to the opening night of J.M. Barrie’s original 1904 play.
“The audience that night was full of adults. Adults keep coming back to this old play from 1904 because there is really something to it. We had to find a way to honor that and make it about really contemporary things.”
Don’t miss Peter Pan and Wendy at Sidney Harman Hall through January 12. Times vary. Tickets are $35-$120. Learn more and purchase tickets at www.shakespearetheatre.org.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org