Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Bad Hats Theatre’s reimagined Peter Pan is flying out of breweries and into the Michael Young Theatre as a part of the annual Soulpepper Family Festival. This version, interpreted by Bad Hats Co-Artistic Director Fiona Sauder (who also plays the title role) and Reanne Spitzer, is captivating audiences of all ages.
From development to breweries to Soulpepper, the play’s journey is itself a story. Sauder begins, “Our take on Peter Pan all started in Port Perry, Ontario,” which is the hometown of the show’s composer Landon Doak. The Doak Family owns the Old Flame Brewery, where Doak himself had mounted a few productions in years past. In December of 2015, the family agreed to have Bad Hats bring Peter Pan to the brewery. “So we all caught a bus and had a full-cast slumber party for a week in this small town. When we closed, it was clear to everyone that the project had a larger life ahead of it.”
The following year, Bad Hats “took the reigns with the piece,” and produced a tour to five different breweries in Toronto, with a revised script, music, cast and structure. “To the surprise and delight of many, children and breweries were an excellent match,” quips Sauder. “The whole tour sold out.” During the Toronto tour, a few resident artists from Soulpepper saw the show and “gave Artistic Director Albert Schultz a nudge. In March, I got an email from Soulpepper (which I was certain was a prank), and things fell into place from there.”
Clearly, this was no joke, and participating in the Family Festival will increase Peter Pan’s growing fanbase. Critics love it, and audiences have clamoured to see it. And it has won 3 Dora Awards: for Outstanding Ensemble, Outstanding Production and Outstanding Direction by Severn Thompson. But what does the show mean to Sauder personally? It strikes a “tremendous chord,” and not just because she had a large hand in making it. “It asks these very large questions,” she muses, “and in a seemingly simple children’s story, manages to reveal a profound meditation on what it means to be a person alive and growing in the world.”
In Sauder’s estimation, the first chapter of our lives shapes us distinctly, but all-too-briefly: “It baffles me how quickly we forget the principles we held dear in a time of such important development. Part of why we’re able to change so much in our childhood is a result of our sense of freedom. I think our work in Peter Pan argues that, despite the necessary additions to our lives that come with adulthood, we can still be free to change, play and discover.”
This aspect of the story presents a poignant contrast to the Family Festival’s signature offering, A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge’s upbringing of neglect and indifference incites his need to grow up as quickly as possible. Any sense of freedom or play he had as a child is replaced by his stoic drive for the adult world of financial success and status – with the accompanying ruin of all companionship, compassion and curiosity. “It sounds simple,” Sauder notes, “but there is nothing simple about it. You really have to practise not growing up because everything in our world tells us to do the opposite.” In this context, Scrooge’s childlike declaration at the end of A Christmas Carol that he once again feels “as giddy as a schoolboy” is a cogent counterpoint to Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up. Peter symbolizes the precious value of retaining those childhood principles, so as not to become Scrooges. And Peter Pan underscores this idea through the addition of a “Scrooge-like narrator” who eventually becomes the loyal, benevolent pirate, Mr. Smee.
Sauder and Spitzer have updated Peter Pan to meet current sensibilities, in the process making its timeless themes also timely. For one thing, they have rid it of “all the dated garbage” typical of its pre-WW1-era publication, while maximizing the magic and play at the heart of the narrative. For another, the conflict in Neverland has been streamlined to be strictly Pirates vs. Lost Boys (Captain Hook vs. Peter Pan). She points out that because of its era of origin, “the misogyny is thick, and the racism is unrelenting.” They have dispensed with these and made key shifts in Wendy Darling’s character. In the original, Wendy is intent on becoming a stay-at-home mother and learning generic “lady” things like ironing and mending clothes. “In our version, while she’s still quite interested in domesticity as a concept and exudes a distinct motherly care for others, her primary qualities feature a taste for adventure, a clever sense of play and plenty of skill with a sword.”
The show’s aesthetic also contributes to its allure. The minimalist set is sufficiently “bare bones” to invite the audience’s imagination, while the costumes, designed by Amy Marie Wallace, look as if “they’ve fallen out of a storybook. Everything about the show is clean and specific. The staging is compact, intricate and artful, and every single moment is an ode to this company’s sense of play,” she enthuses, likening the piece to a complex, fast and joyful game that is “covered with the fingerprints of each artist who has touched [it].”
And this inclusive, hands-on approach extends to the audience. The show is an interactive experience which relies on genuine audience participation. Sauder avers that for the fantastical elements to work, the actors and audiences must buy into the conceits. And as the characters discover how to play the game, so, too, does the audience. Instead of simply fooling the audience with stagecraft and magic tricks, in this version, the audience members themselves are the magic trick.
“The flying is a pretty key element that speaks to the fantastical concept of the show,” Sauder explains. Yet unlike many versions of this story, this one is illusion-less. “We do everything with lifts and focused stage pictures. Jack Rennie, our fight/flight director, is the genius behind that work.” And Tinkerbell? She is staged with a tennis ball in a clever game of catch! “It’s integral to the piece that the company really cultivates the audience’s willingness to play along,” Sauder emphasizes. Oh! And they make a point of killing many of the children sitting in the front row. “What can I say?” she deadpans. “They seem to really enjoy it.”
Can adults so readily embrace being killed as a welcome sojourn into fantasy? “You know, I think kids get it,” she says. “We show them this world of play and imagination, and they recognize it.” And though she is interested in the wonderings of young audiences, she is more interested in what the elder generations are asking themselves when they leave the show: “Do I play? Am I having fun? Do I say ‘no’ too often?” Her hope “in a perfect world [is that] families can leave with the intention to continue playing after they’ve left the theatre, and, ideally, the adults are playing as much for themselves as for the children.”
As a performer, playing in the world of child logic is a “gift”. The regular anxieties of adult life – “like wondering whether or not you look alright, if people like you, if you’ll get hired for another job from this job or not” – don’t exist or apply there. “It’s quite lovely to let those things go, and, as the show tells us, we can afford to do that outside of being in a play that takes place in Neverland. We can just give ourselves that permission any old time of the day.”
Before the production ends on December 31, give yourself permission (and give your family permission) to shed the adult anxieties of your daily lives by taking in Peter Pan. It’s a gift that will outlast the performance.
News You Can Use
What: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie; Adapted by Fiona Sauder & Reanne Spitzer; Music by Landon Doak & Company; Directed by Severn Thompson
Featuring Jocelyn Adema (Tootles / Noodler), Graham Conway (Mr. Darling / Captain Hook), Landon Doak (Michael Darling), Matthew Finlan (Slightly / Barbecue), Richard Lam (Curly / Bill Jukes). Lena Maripuu (Wendy Darling), Matt Pilipiak (Mr. Smee), Victor Pokinko (John Darling), Fiona Sauder (Peter Pan), Tal Shulman (Nibs / Cherry), Reanne Spitzer as Mrs. Darling / Tinkerbell)
Creative Team: Amy Marie Wallace, Designer; Ken Mackenzie, Lighting Designer; Nathan Carroll, Music Director; Jack Rennie, Fight/Flight Director; Matt Pilipiak, Fight Captain; Reanne Spitzer, Movement Director, Lucia Corak, Stage Manager; Kathleen Jones, Apprentice Stage Manager
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: December 8 – 31, 2017; approximate running time: 1 hour & 15 minutes (no intermission) Following select performances of Peter Pan, join Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz and pianist Steve Hunter for a Young at Heart family concert featuring music, stories and sing-alongs. No additional ticket is required.
Where: Michael Young Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON M5A 3C4
Info and Tickets: Soulpepper.ca and 416.866.8666
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya