Behind the Scenes of Peter Pan with Producer Robert Butters

We had the good fortune to attend Peter Pan in Boston last Wednesday. (Please see our review for details about the show.) The next afternoon, Mommy Poppins Boston talked with one of the show’s producers, Robert Butters, for some insights about the production.

Read on for excerpts from our interview.

Mommy Poppins Boston: First of all, my family loved the show. We felt it was true to JM Barrie’s original story, and yet was modern and fun and technically advanced.

Robert Butters: Yes, it’s a good story and we stay close to the original storyline. In our production, we are using the tools available to us to tell the story, combining live performance acting with state-of-the-art technology.

MP: Why Peter Pan?

RB: Peter Pan is all about growing up, which is something we all face and which brings feelings from anxiety to joy. We are telling this story to a wide ranging audience, which can present some interesting challenges. But we’ve found that both kids and adults are able to take something away from the show.

MP: Seeing the blue glow of the tent rising from City Hall Plaza as we headed to the show, we felt that something special was about to happen, even before we stepped through the door. What can you tell me about the tent?

RB: The tent is 100 feet tall and built with the supporting frame on the outside. There’s a cupola inside, which houses the rigging, lighting and sound equipment, as well as the tracks for guiding the actors during the flying scenes. In each new city, it takes us a good 10 days to set up the tent, stage, cameras and lighting and make any adjustments for the location.

MP: Can you talk a bit about the “360 experience”?

RB: All the projected images you see are computer generated. We start by creating the original image, and then take a virtual camera to create the 360-degree views, which we cut into 12 pieces. These are displayed on 12 projectors rimming the stage to create the 360-degree “movie screen.” The tent’s external frame means we can present a totally unobstructed, 360 degree view.

MP: Were there any challenges to bringing Peter Pan to Boston?

RB: Peter Pan is a traveling production - we opened in London, and have performed in places like Orange County, San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta. Our goal is to present theater right in the heart of the community, as it has been done for hundreds of years. Locating an appropriate site can present a challenge. In Boston, City Hall Plaza was a good, downtown location, and we knew it could work. Our biggest challenges here were that it is a smaller locale than we had in the other cities, and it was also right above the MBTA. But we have a good, smart production team, and they easily made the adaptations we needed.

MP: I just have to ask, with winter only a few weeks away, can the tent pass the Boston winter test?

RB: It has been through rain and snow in Orange County, and a snow storm in Atlanta, and came through the Halloween storm just fine, so we don’t expect any problems.

MP: The theater has a very intimate feel to it, and it seems that no matter where you sit, you can see what was going on. For the audience, that’s great. But what kind of challenges does theater-in-the-round present?

RB: The biggest challenge is that there are no wings or backstage area, so all our behind-the-scenes activity takes place underneath the stage (a six-foot high space) and in the cupola. We have a crew of 19 - the sound, video and lights crew; those who work below the stage; and the aerial crew, which works in the cupola.

MP: We love the computer-generated images and the special effects are great, but the heart of this production is the cast. What can you tell me about the actors?

RB: The cast is made up of 26 actors, many of whom travel with the show. I know some kids have asked, but none of the actors knew how to “fly” before they got the parts. We did select those who we thought were agile enough and had the capacity to learn at least some simple aerialist skills.

MP: And what about the decision to cast the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook?

RB: This was part of the story back when J.M. Barrie wrote the play and performed it with family members. It still made sense to us, as quite often kids see adults as pirates, or bad guys. It’s one of the bittersweet parts of the piece.

MP: The “people-powered” puppets added another element that is in stark contrast to the high-tech video effects. Where did the idea for creating Nana and the Crocodile puppets come from?

RB: Kids can relate to the puppets - they are tactile and simple, all made from items that would be found in a nursery. This was another way to take the production back to the roots of what theater was meant to be.

MP: Any final words?

RB: The show is all about family. We hope it is about people coming as a family and taking away the feeling that they have shared more than a show, but an experience.