Saturday, November 22, 2014

Family Business

"Peter Pan" has beguiled children for over a hundred years, but the play holds a special place for those of us who grew up in the theatre.  It is a magical spectacle that features kids as the stars, and many an actor has fallen in love with theatre by performing in it as one of the Darling children, or lost boys.  My first exposure to "Peter Pan" was at Boston University where my Dad designed a student production.  I got to sit in out in the house in wide-eyed wonder as I watched pirate ships glide on stage, a dancer in a crocodile costume with glowing eyes slither about, and best of all, kids only a little older than I soaring through the air in flying harnesses.  Oh, how I wanted to be one of them.

Jenn Thompson, my director on "Peter and the Starcatcher," was.  And several other members of the cast have also shared their stories of the thrill of being a child actor and entering the magic world of make believe that J.M. Barrie created.  The childhood of a 'theatre brat' is something truly special because we get to see behind the curtain and learn how the magic is made... you might think this would spoil our illusions, but on the contrary--those experiences as a young actor instill the dreamer in us, and we are propelled into our careers by them.  My parents met in theatre school and I grew up with my father in scene shops and theaters, while my Mom created her own company and training facility where I had all my early training and experience as a performer.

Jenn Thompson with husband Stephen Kunken
Jenn Thompson had a similar growing up.  Her father, Evan Thompson, is a veteran actor and director and her brother Owen is also a performer.  Jenn grew up performing children's theatre with her family, in plays her Dad wrote.  She is married to respected New York actor Stephen Kunken, whose work I greatly admire.  Jenn's life has been steeped in the traditions of theatre.  I feel a real kinship with her; there is something about being 'born in a trunk' as my Mom calls it.  We share the same references, we know the legends and lore of the theatre.  This makes Jenn an ideal director for "Peter and the Starcatcher."  It is a piece that seeks to get to the root of the theatre tradition--pure storytelling-- with a minimum of stagecraft, where the actors create the world, becoming pirates, mermaids, birds, corridors, doors... whatever is required to bring the story to life.  Jenn brings incredible detail and imagination to this process, as well as the special wonder of an artist who saw the magic of theatre through a child's eyes... and still does.

Karen Azenberg on stage at Pioneer Theatre Company
Our producer, Artistic Director Karen Azenberg, is also a child of the theatre, and part of what I would consider a legacy of Broadway royalty.  Her father, Emanuel Azenberg, a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame, has produced theatre on Broadway for decades, and his association with Neil Simon has brought most of that prolific writer's most successful plays to the stage.  Karen grew up in the Broadway theatre, and has worn many hats--director, choreographer, stage manager, and now she brings that wealth of experience to her role as producer with taste, sense, and a love of the family business she came up in.  She related to some of us during a break in rehearsals the story of her bat mitzvah, and the reception after at--where else?--Sardi's!  Now, that's a theatre kid!  I feel blessed to work under Karen's leadership and to observe the way theatre is done here at Pioneer due to her vision.

Performing as a young 'ham' of thirteen!
You don't have to have grown up a 'theatre brat' to cherish its traditions, but I speak from experience when I say that having that childhood makes it impossible for you not to!  Theatre artists like me, and Jenn, and Karen absorbed all things theatre at that vulnerable time when we were 'sponges,' our senses alive and our imaginations boundless.  I feel like "Peter and the Starcatcher" calls on that childhood wonder, those memories tinged with the smell of sawdust and greasepaint, the dreams of kids who wanted to fly--not just in fairy tales, but in real life, suspended from a wire, soaring over a stage with colored lights in our eyes, seeing the wide eyed wonder of other kids from their seats in the audience. 

As of this writing we are well into our second week of demanding, exhausting, but thrilling staging rehearsals for the show and it is coming together, thanks to Jenn and our brilliant choreographer Patti Wilcox, as well as all the creative forces at work behind the scenes at Pioneer Theatre Company.  I look forward to stepping out onto that stage in a couple weeks and bringing the magic to a new generation of dreamers.