Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A conversation with Dwayne Hartford, author of PETE, OR THE RETURN OF PETER PAN, opening this weekend at Childsplay

Dwayne Hartford
by Gil Benbrook

With the current and recent Broadway productions of Finding Neverland and Peter and the Starcatcher, the recent film Pan, and the live TV broadcast of the Peter Pan musical a little over a year ago, it seems audiences are still enamored with J. M. Barrie’s story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Opening this Saturday at Childsplay is the world premiere production of Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan. This modern day sequel to Barrie's tale is written by Dwayne Hartford and stars Gavin Brown as Peter and also features Childsplay favorites Debra K. Stevens, Katie McFadzen and Jon Gentry. 

Besides writing Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan and other original works at Childsplay as a Playwright-in-Residence, Hartford has appeared in and directed numerous productions as an Associate Artist, going back to 1990. But he is soon to assume the title of the role of Artistic Director, replacing David Saar who is retiring after almost 40 years with the company. 

Hartford sat down to answer some question about his play and his new job, exclusively for PHX Stages.

What do you think is the on-going appeal of Barrie’s story?

"The story is a celebration of the innocence and freedom of childhood.  The childhood wish for a place where the rules of the adult world have no power, is pretty universal and powerful."

Gavin Brown as Peter
photo: Tim Trumble
What made you decide to write Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan?

"When David Saar, Childsplay's founding artistic director announced his plans to retire, it was decided that his last season as artistic director would be a celebration of him.  The Peter Pan story is very personal to him.  Childsplay has never produced the play, for various reasons, including its size and some of its messages that are not so appropriate for today's audiences.  David asked me to write a new Childsplay Peter Pan story.  I happily accepted the challenge."

What can you tell us about the play, and how long have you been working on it?

"Pete or the Return of Peter Pan is a modern day story.  The children in the play are the great-great grandchildren of the original Wendy.  Peter Pan takes them to Neverland, where they encounter fairies, pirates, Ninja-like warriors, and pterodactyls.  It's a Neverland and Peter Pan for 21st century children.  I've worked on the play for over two years."

How much has the play changed over the two years that you’ve been writing it? And have you made any major changes to it during the rehearsal process?

"The play has evolved quite a bit over the two years.  From the start I was interested in how Peter Pan can adjust to the present time without growing up, without maturing.  I became intrigued with the role of memory in growing up, and in growing old.  The first draft of the play was very much an homage to the original J.M. Barrie play and novel.  Over time, the play grew into it's own story, with its own structure.  There are still tips of the hat to the original, but it can now stand alone.

I continued to make changes to the script throughout the rehearsal process. I re-wrote much of the second act during rehearsals, as we figured out the story.  I re-wrote the big climactic scene two days before tech began.  I am very very fortunate that the wonderful actors were up for the challenge."

Did you encounter any difficulties in writing the play?

"I would say the biggest difficulty was finishing the play!"

the cast of Pete, or the Return of Peter Pan
photo: Tim Trumble
What type of message do you think your play offers for modern audiences? 

"I hope the play encourages young people to play, have fun, be a good friend, and honor the uniqueness of everyone."

Well, those are all very good messages to encourage. Let's talk now about your new title. You will soon be assuming the title of Artistic Director, taking over from David Saar. What was the most important words of advice that David gave you in assuming these duties? 

"David encourages me to dream big and let it be someone else's job to worry about limitations at first."

What do you believe your biggest challenge will be in taking over as Artistic Director?

Live theatre everywhere is challenged to prove its value and need in the 21st century. My challenge will be to produce strikingly original theatre that continues to speak to and for our audiences - theatre that helps them to make sense of our ever-changing world."

What do you see as the future of Childsplay under your leadership and how do you plan to expand upon David’s mission when he founded the company?

"Childsplay is very much a mission driven ensemble.  I see Childsplay seeking new and exciting ways of bringing the power of live theatre to young audiences.  I see a theatre that is a reflection of the communities we serve, telling stories that resonate with these communities in ways that make these communities feel that they are welcome participants in the live theatre experience."

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