This article was originally published on BU Today.
The trunk looks promising.
It’s battered and old-fashioned but sturdy, and its leather straps, domed lid, and embossed metal panels bespeak the possibility of adventure, journeys, even magic. And that’s exactly what Danielle “Dani” Taylor conjures from its depths.
Taylor (CFA’17) is completing an MFA in production management at the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre. It’s a somewhat rarefied specialty, with only two students in each year of the three-year program. But they are trained in the most pragmatic, concrete aspects of making theater: keeping a production on track and on budget and making sure all the invisible wheels turn smoothly. For her thesis project, Taylor took on an undertaking whose very simplicity posed far greater challenges than an elaborate production might have: she made a play using only items that can fit inside that trunk—a “trunk show” in the most literal sense of the phrase.
Taylor has dubbed the project Bringing Neverland, and its source material is the beloved classic Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. But don’t expect actors flying above the stage or a pirate ship to rival a Disney ride. The average Broadway musical costs about $10 million to stage—this Neverland was put together on a budget of $2,000, funded by a grant from the BU Arts Initiative. Both by intention and by necessity, the show is a meditation on how to engage children in theater by tapping their own creativity. As Taylor, who worked in children’s theater for years before enrolling at BU, puts it, “How can we pare it down, to focus on imagination?”
The answers that she and her team have come up with are often ingenious. With the exception of Alicia Piemme Nelson (CFA’17), who plays Peter Pan, the young cast members take on multiple roles. A light, flexible frame (which fits in the trunk disassembled) supports a white bedsheet that serves as backdrop, and when the actors stand behind it, a bright light casts shadows for the audience to see. It’s effective both as theater and as a nod to the plot point concerning Peter Pan’s lost shadow. Wooden spoons stand in for dueling swords, and the Lost Boys are played by a gang of stuffed animals. The plinking of a toy piano provides an oddly haunting soundtrack.
It’s low-tech, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it all came together quickly or easily. Taylor has been working on the production for the better part of a year. The script, a 30-minute adaptation written by a friend of a friend, Molly Saunders, fell into Taylor’s lap, and it struck her, she says, as “a cool project to do.” Tim Spears (CFA’06,’16), who had worked with Taylor in the past, caught wind of the project last fall. “I loved the idea and the challenge of a four-person trunk show,” he says, and signed on as director.
Spears and Taylor understood that given the size of the cast and the constraints of the production, the chemistry of the group would be crucial. Taylor knew it wouldn’t be easy putting together an all-volunteer company that could make the necessary time commitment, but the casting gods seemed to smile on Neverland. Rachel Smith (CFA’17) plays Captain Hook, Mrs. Darling, and Wendy’s brother John, Tyler Prendergast (CFA’20) plays brother Michael and Smee and is the Tinkerbell operator, and Emerson College alum Katie Grindeland plays Wendy and is the narrator. Spears describes the close-knit cast as “four of the most joyful people I have ever met.”
“One of our requirements for casting, because of the voluntary nature and scrappiness of the project, was enthusiasm for creating theater for educational outreach purposes,” says Spears. “If you couldn’t come into the room and be totally creative and playful, even after a long day of classes and studying, it wasn’t going to work.” But work it did—occasionally almost too well. “Sometimes, we had to rein it in to get the rehearsal done,” he says.
And from Nelson: “The tomfoolery began on day one.”
So, too, did contending with the production’s self-imposed limitations. When creating any piece of theater, Spears says, the first step is writing a rule book that governs the world presented on the stage. “By limiting ourselves to a nine-by-nine-foot space, four actors, and a trunkful of props, those rules become very clear. Within those rules, actors find inspiration.” Ultimately, he says, “I found the limitations very freeing. It forces the company to make bold decisions and to fail gracefully, to immediately recognize what doesn’t work and scrap it.”
Still, the true test comes when the show is performed before the most demanding of audiences: children. “I love child audiences,” says Taylor, who worked as a company manager for Sesame Street Live and as a stage manager for the Rose Theater, a children’s theater in Omaha, Nebr., before enrolling at BU. “They are so honest.”
That honesty can be both boon and bane to performers, Nelson says. “I’ve had audiences of children who don’t respond at all. And audiences of children who respond too much.”
As production management advisor and Taylor’s thesis advisor, Roger Meeker says that when Taylor proposed doing a touring children’s play, he “was delighted. It was the perfect combination of creating a production from scratch and then presenting it to groups of children who do not often see live theater.” The CFA assistant professor of lighting design says the production “had a few bumps and many successes, and in the process, it entertained and educated. What better outcome could there be?”
In regard to the outcome, the troupe isn’t sure what to expect at their first performance, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon last month at the BU Children’s Center. The space is a bit smaller and more crowded than anticipated, and the trunk, which serves as prop, seat, and scenery as well as luggage, doesn’t slide easily on the carpeted floor. But they are determined to improvise solutions and make it work. The audience of four and five year-olds wriggles and squirms in anticipation as they wait for the show to start. “When you’re watching a play, you watch quietly,” their teacher reminds them.
That reminder proves unnecessary. From the moment Nelson crouches before them and asks, “Do you know the story of Peter Pan?” (“I saw the movie,” one girl volunteers), they watch with rapt and solemn faces as the action unfolds. They laugh when Peter Pan first appears, and laugh again as Peter finds his shadow. Some mimic Peter’s arms-akimbo stance, others squeal at the swordfight. And when asked to clap if they believe in fairies, as generations of children have done, they clap with all their might.
The show over, the children disperse and the players are left to hastily strike the modest set and stow it all in the trusty trunk. They have another performance scheduled that day, at a YMCA in Roxbury, and there is no time to waste. “I’m so happy,” Taylor says as she helps pack up the production. “I’ve waited so long to see this in front of an audience.”
Outside, the four actors and their production manager—no longer a fantastical band of Neverland denizens, but simply five people wrestling with an old trunk in a pelting rain—hurry to their car. But the portability of the production ensures that the spell can be readily cast again, wherever an audience of children might be gathered.
Taylor says that one of the many rewarding aspects of creating Bringing Neverland is the opportunity it’s afforded her to bring theater to venues such as the Y and Boston Children’s Hospital, where the troupe performed on Sunday. “Just giving back to the Boston community has been great,” she says.
The show’s simplicity, Nelson says, points to a truth that’s sometimes lost in the appetite for spectacle: “It’s easy to forget the power of the human imagination. We just take this trunk and make something magic.”
For his part, Spears is willing to go even further: “Even if the trunk were lost, those four could do the show. Why not? It doesn’t need it. Children don’t care where you are or what you’re sitting on.”