Florida Studio Theatre's 'Peter Pan' stands test of time with steampunk twist
FST adopted an industrial look and intimate cast for its version of "Peter Pan," but the story remains untouched.
| 11:10 a.m. October 23, 2018
Arts + Culture
Watching the scene of the tick tock croc from Walt Disney’s “Peter Pan” can be quite profound the second time around (a couple decades later).
The tick tock sound alerting Captain Hook of the animal’s arrival is alarming — but not just alarming in the obvious sense, seeing as the beast is hungry for a taste of the pirate.
Upon a second look, it seems like Hook might be running from more than the large mouth of a famished reptile. Maybe he’s running from time itself.
Florida Studio Theatre is exploring this theme of time in its own version of “Peter Pan.”
LESS IS MORE
Director Jason Cannon says choosing a take on “Peter Pan” is all about what rights a company can get its hands on. For this production, FST chose a storytelling approach by Douglas Irvine that is based directly on the original play “Peter and Wendy” by James Matthew Barrie. The decision was made slightly easier because there’s no copyright on the work in the U.S., unlike the permanent copyright that exists in the U.K.
Those familiar with the Disney version of the story probably don’t know how small of a cast Barrie intended to tell the story. Each of FST’s six “Peter Pan” actors plays two to three characters, and one of them plays up to six in a single show.
“We like doing that because it immediately and viscerally grabs the audience’s imagination,” the director says. “It forces the audience to engage.”
Cannon describes FST as a minimalist theater always looking to tell a story elegantly with as little as possible, so the version of the story calling for a small cast was a natural choice.
As for how this happens, he gives all the credit to the actors and the costume designers outfitting them.
“It’s amazing what an actor swapping a hat and changing their voice can do,” he adds.
The cast of “Peter Pan” are all members of FST’s apprentice program, which is a full-time, immersive opportunity for aspiring theater professionals who are transitioning from the academic to professional world.
Thus, because most of the performers in this show don’t have a long history of acting in professional shows, most have never played multiple roles.
Cannon says the secret to switching roles throughout a show — sometimes in a matter of seconds — is focusing on the relationship between actor and audience. Gaining the crowd’s trust by being as authentic as possible and feeding off their energy renders positive results, which is what’s happening in this show.
“They’re having a ball,” he says of the cast, which has embraced this challenge. “When they nail it they can feel how magical it is.”
A timeless version of a classic deserves a timeless set design — or at least one with several physical reminders of time.
Scenic designer Bruce Price says because this is a storytelling version of “Peter Pan” and at points it’s being recited rather than acted out, the set needed to be able to change to fit the needs of the story at any particular moment.
The story is set in Victorian-era England, which gave rise to a unique idea in a brainstorming session.
“What about a steampunk theme?” he recalls Costume Shop Manager Adrienne Webber proposing.
This fashion style and a literary genre was born out of a sub-genre of science fiction writing in the 1970s. The idea is to romanticize (and eternalize) the style of dress that became popular during the industrial revolution (the “steam” in “steampunk” is a reference to the recently invented steam-powered engine of the period) while giving it a bit of an edge.
If that’s hard to imagine, picture the Victorian clothes Robert Downey Jr. wore in the 2009 version of “Sherlock Holmes” and throw in more rusty gears, clocks and aviation goggles worn strictly for fashion purposes.
Now, imagine this aesthetic in theater set form.
Price and his team realized that clocks and time in general is a big theme of “Peter Pan,” and the insides of (analog) clocks contain the gears that are so vital to any steampunk design. This connection gave them the jumping off point they needed.
“Peter Pan” takes place in two settings: a childhood bedroom and in the various landscapes throughout Neverland, which Price points out could really be anywhere. Therefore, his set is an industrial-looking bedroom that utilizes projections to change environments throughout the Neverland portion of the story.
“There are a lot of clocks and watches that address the set ... there’s a sort of timeless aspect,” he says. “It’s sort of a void or nebula in the universe and has elements of the nursery — draperies, etc. — and has more concrete items that are kind of floating in this timeless environment.”
Rather than trying to replicate the period each of their productions is set in, Price says the FST team prefers to reference said period. And for this piece set in Victorian-era London, there’s no better stylistic nod to the era than steampunk.
As far as more specifics of the design, Price says he got a great deal of inspiration from a trip he took to New Orleans during the planning stages of the show.
“That’s how I design, I’m looking at the world,” he says. “For me it’s very organic. I go shopping, I look at pictures, I rummage through trash, and I incorporate interesting items I find.”
Cannon says one unusual question helped them decide what the set should look like: What would it look like if you stood inside Big Ben?
The core element of the design is the face of a large clock with different images projected onto it to help the actors transition from one scene to the next. It’s held up by steel structures that the actors can climb on, and on said structures are draperies that can be dropped in front of the projector for different effects.
One moment the curtains are down, the bed covers come off and the actors are in Neverland, Price says, and another the rock in the middle of the water goes back to being a bed.
“The elements move around but the structures stay the same,” he says.
BRINGING IT HOME
Asked why he chose “Peter Pan” for this year’s fall children’s production, Cannon says — funny enough — because it’s not just a children’s show.
“‘Peter Pan’ has this universal, never-ending appeal,” he says. “It keeps getting redone — it doesn’t go away — and it appeals to this sense of innocence and youth … how easy life used to be.”
It’s also a story that teaches people how malleable time really is, he adds.
“Peter Pan” reminds audiences that maybe they don’t have to totally grow up. Maybe a sense of youth can live within all of us if we stay adventurous (and with the help of a little pixie dust). Even during times like the present when mass shootings and political unrest continue to dominate headlines and force us to grow up.
“Are we even allowed to have fun in the current climate?” Cannon continues. “Yes, because playing is how kids learn to engage with the world at large.”
Look to child’s play for an example of how we still act as adults, he says. There’s a great power in pretending — it’s something adults do constantly to survive — and it’s something to be embraced rather than cast aside as an immature activity.
His goal for this production is for families to head to the theater together for an exploration of the human experience that’s intergenerational and thus ageless.
“I always want them to leave knowing that imagination is powerful,” he says. “I hope they see the world a little differently and are more open to the other. … Theater helps build empathy because it’s about walking in someone else’s shoes.”