Photography by Cameron Wittig
Peter Pan at the Children's Theatre Company
Tyler Michaels practices flying as Peter Pan during rehearsals.
Childhood memories are fragile, shimmering things. I can barely remember seeing Dr. Seuss’ The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins at the Children’s Theatre as a 6-year-old. I don’t really remember the play at all, just a snippet of a scene: a stack of surrealist Seussian hats floating in the pitch of the proscenium darkness. In the same way Nabokov remembers looking up at his father’s shiny cavalry uniform in the opening essay of Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, I recall that bit of theater magic like I’m seeing it from underwater. Submerged, as if, to borrow Nabokov’s elegant concept, I had been “plunged abruptly into a radiant and mobile medium that was none other than the pure element of time.”
This is the ephemeral nature of theater—you see something once, years ago, and unlike Toy Story 3 or an old episode of The Muppet Show, or I guess for younger kids Dora the Explorer, you will never see that same thing again, not in the same way, not on a loop. An image produced in a theater has to be powerful enough to stick on its own, without the mnemonic assistance of one of our ubiquitous screens.
This spring I returned to the Children’s Theatre—celebrating its 50th anniversary—to see its newest production of Peter Pan. The CTC is now in its own beautiful Michael Graves–designed theater, but it’s still on Third Avenue in south Minneapolis, still connected to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and, from all accounts, still producing images potent enough to attach themselves to that amphibious lobe of the brain, images with the potential to stay with you for decades.
When arriving on opening night at the Children’s Theatre, the first thing you notice is the scene in the lobby: In a theater town, this is easily our youngest theater audience, and it looks like it might be the hippest. I’m not even talking about the children—so many cool parents with Warby Parker glasses and well-constructed blazers looking like extras in a Noah Baumbach movie. If it weren’t for all the little people, you would think everybody had tickets to a Bon Iver concert. But it is 50/50 adult/kids, or something thereabouts, of course. And since my girlfriend Maggie and I don’t have any of our own, we accessorized with my buddy’s daughters, Lucy, 6, and Elena, 4.
After Maggie took the girls to the requisite preventative pre-show bathroom break, we went to our seats. And then, well, like something right out of a children’s story, just before the curtain went up, a giant brass birdcage dropped from the rigging and crashed on the front of the stage. The crowd gasped and stagehands scrambled. The first thing I did was look down at Lucy and Elena to gauge their reaction, instantly realizing that there is another layer to watching a play at the Children’s Theatre as an adult—now you watch your children (or borrowed children) watch the play. Earlier in the week, CTC stage manager Kathryn Sam Houkum told me that little kids are the harshest critics. And sure enough, Elena, the 4-year-old, asked skeptical questions throughout, like, “How does that guy get the hook to stay on his hand?” Or, “Why can I see the wires?”
I thought kids were supposed to more easily suspend disbelief, but it turns out the opposite is true. This realization changed my perspective. If these are the stakes, this production would have to be as technically proficient as the most serious Kushner play at the Guthrie. This justified the CTC’s $11 million budget for me—it needs to draw the best talent in the region or its audience would go into open revolt. This time, Peter Pan is played by Tyler Michaels, the actor of the moment in the Twin Cities theater scene. After hearing Elena’s questions, somehow the stakes were raised for Michaels in my mind. It brought home how huge of a gig this must be for him.
Michaels is a 26-year-old with almost elfin features and a sort of incandescent androgyny that’s been a perfect match for the starring roles he’s recently landed, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Guthrie or the emcee in Cabaret at Theater Latté Da. I’d interviewed him at the Pan rehearsal earlier in the week, and he’s a genial drama kid from Bloomington with a bachelor of arts from Minnesota State University Moorhead. Recently engaged, he’s boyish, but he has an ebullient confidence, maybe because of his athletic talent—he’s the kind of guy who looks natural swinging on a harness and breaking into song. He never got mad on the first day of wire work, when the belayers slammed him into a giant armoire numerous times. And he slips into that impish Peter Pan fists-on-his-hips power pose naturally, just resting between setups. During rehearsal, I watched the child actors playing the Lost Boys literally look up to Michaels, taking in his wire work with the sort of admiration I reserve for a particularly graceful basketball player. This kid clearly has the goods. But on opening night, I kept glancing at the faces of Lucy and Elena, trying to determine if they bought this guy in emerald tights with the ginger hairspray mohawk as an ageless boy who can fly.
There is a famous moment in Peter Pan that works as an impromptu focus group. At the play’s climax, a desperate Peter turns to the audience and breaks the fourth wall. (Spoiler alert.) Hook has poisoned Tinker Bell, and as her light is fading (in the CTC version she’s literally a flashlight), Peter Pan tells us that the only way to save her is with our collective belief. He implores the crowd, “Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!” It’s a very pro-wrestling moment—it reminded me of cheering for Hulk Hogan or Kirby Puckett, a desperate childlike wishing. Peter is just as desperate—he needs the crowd to will Tinker Bell back to life. I clocked the two girls one more time. Lucy’s knees were drawn up and pressed against her face, and she tentatively clapped her hands in between her legs. Elena was refusing to follow her older sister’s lead, steadfastly scrutinizing the dying flashlight. I tried to get a sense of the rest of the crowd, tried to figure out if we’d reached a quorum yet. Then Tinker Bell flashed over the entire audience. She is risen! The children were delighted. Would this be the submerged memory they will recall 30 years from now?
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After the show, right next to the 37-year-old philodendron in the lobby (there’s a little plaque splicing the overgrown houseplant’s origin to the CTC’s early years), my temporary brood ran into Peter Brosius, CTC’s artistic director. I shook his hand and congratulated him on opening night, and he insisted on giving the girls a backstage tour. Now in his 18th year as artistic director, Brosius is an energetic 63-year-old with an enthusiasm born from a career of working with children. You can tell he loves this job. And he’s good at it: Under his watch, the theater has continued its seemingly inexorable expansion—in its 50th year, it’s now the largest children’s theater in the country, as quantified by the size of its budget and audience.
We followed him back into the now empty theater, the girls bounding down the stairs and clambering after him up onto the side of the stage. Stagehands were swarming, sweeping up fairy dust and breaking down Neverland, getting everything back to zero state for the next day’s two shows. Brosius is a sprightly guy, and he didn’t have to stoop much to bring his full attention onto the two girls. The first thing he pointed out was the rigging and the counterweights, guiding their attention to the labels. “DS means downstage,” he says, “and US means upstage.” He framed everything with a question, like, “Do you remember the part where Peter Pan was flying back and forth behind the nursery?” And invariably followed it up with, “How do you think that works?” Lucy really loved this—she quickly figured out concepts, like when Brosius told her there were four dressing rooms downstairs, she confidently concluded, “two are for girls and two are for boys.” This wasn’t (just) cute kid stuff. Brosius was sparking her curiosity and getting her young mind to make connections. Lucy is smart, and she gets things fast, and while you could tell Brosius was impressed, he wasn’t pandering, he was building up.
While we were walking around with Brosius, he voiced concern to me about that fallen birdcage. “You hate to see that,” he said. “Somebody could’ve been seriously hurt. Can you imagine?”
Amid the post-performance buzz, Adriane Heflin, the CTC’s accomplished technical director (and one of only a handful of female technical directors in the country), came out to the lip of the stage, cradling a big bouquet of red roses. “I never get flowers!” she beamed.
Minutes later, Heflin and Brosius were showing the girls the netting over the orchestra pit (“What do you think that’s for?”) when word got to Brosius that it wasn’t a solely mechanical failure that caused the fallen birdcage—it had gotten caught on the rigging and the person responsible for holding it up lost her grip. “She must feel so terrible,” Brosius says. “That’s so scary.”
Whether you clapped for the fairies along with Lucy or not, the fallen birdcage was a bright shining psychological reminder (at least for the parents and the pros) that this is a real working theater. The Children’s Theatre is a union shop with all the attendant safety and time specifications—the full-time company members are in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. And during most shows, there are non-unionized kids working alongside adults (some for credit, not salary) and adhering to their own union strictures on time. This means there are overt, contractual expectations for professional excellence—there are people out there, big full-sized people, who paid hundreds of dollars to take their families to this show. This is an ambitious, multimillion-dollar, nonprofit enterprise, and it’s an enterprise with a mission. “Our mission is to create extraordinary theater experiences [that] educate, challenge, and inspire young people and their communities,” Brosius told me when I interviewed him in his CTC office earlier that week. “We were cognizant of being a leadership company, so how are we a leader in this community? How are we a leader in this state? How are we a leader in this nation? We gave ourselves three key words: educate, challenge, inspire.”
In addition to the performances during the school year—70,000 students will come see highly subsidized matinees—this is also a teaching institution. This summer, 1,300 students will attend classes in the CTC’s Theatre Arts Training program. Another 1,400 will attend after-school programs during the academic year.
Brosius has a true pedagogical approach to play development. “How does this work enlighten and develop curiosity? How does it wrestle with an audience and create teachable moments? The word challenge is really important: How are we pushing the agenda? How are we pushing conversations? How are we creating community conversations that inspire? We certainly deepened our work in the community. I mean, there was no program for preschool, there was no ongoing program for teens, there was no ongoing formalized play development program.”
A lot of Brosius’s belief in community outreach and focus on nurturing a constant dialogue with kids and parents comes from his training—he grew up in Riverside, California, a son to a single mother, before going off to study political theory and drama in college. He earned his MFA at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He was highly influenced by the Grips Theater for young people in Berlin.
“That theater changed the world,” Brosius says. “Their leader, Volker Ludwig, was a very important figure. What he was doing was talking about the real issues of kids’ lives. So he was talking about class issues, he was talking about gender issues, and he was spending a lot of time listening to kids. The actors would do endless amounts of research, you know, like if you were going to play a teenager or something, you would be researching for months, talking to kids and going to community centers and interviewing them and hanging with them and working with them. So the work was both imaginative but also kind of scrupulously realistic.”
The CTC’s latest version of Peter Pan is a product of this slightly Germanic, socially sensitive community outreach process. Last fall, Brosius wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune calling Peter Pan’s Scottish author J.M. Barrie’s treatment of the Indians on Neverland “racist.” In the column he argued, “Although Barrie may have considered his portrayal of Native Americans to be positive, he lived in a time dominated by British colonialist ideals that were rife with racial stereotypes.” Brosius and Peter Pan’s director (coincidentally another Peter), Peter Rothstein, conducted a long investigative process to figure out what to do with the Indians in the script. The script they are using is from the 1954 musical version, itself an adaptation of Barrie’s original 1904 play. Last December, NBC produced a version of Peter Pan with Allison Williams in the lead role that preserved the Indians, transforming them into Pacific Islanders. The CTC wanted to find the most sensitive, most inclusive approach. “So we rolled out and went into schools and talked to artists and did workshops about this in Native schools and we were very blessed,” Brosius says. “This one artist said, ‘The Native people are associated with a land where mermaids and fairies exist, so we have no truth. We have no history; we are not a real people.’ That landed for us in a deep way.”
Rothstein came up with the idea to call the new band of indigenous Neverlanders the “Pounce” and to make them a tribe of females, like their leader Tiger Lily, who keeps her name. The creation of the Pounce solves another progressive concern: This version of Peter Pan finally passes the Bechdel Test. No longer are the three main female characters—Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily—mere rivals for Peter Pan’s affection. Sure, both Wendy and Tinker Bell are still strange surrogate mother figures, but the Pounce capitalizes on Tiger Lily’s Diana of the Amazons warrior vibe. “Watching those women unite and form an alliance and defeat the pirates also helps you understand that the Lost Boys can’t do it alone,” Brosius says. “They need the power of women to overturn this evil force.”
Like most people who live in the Twin Cities, I’m provincial enough to get excited when an out-of-towner puts together a list naming us as number one at anything. Which is why I was stoked a couple years ago when The Chicago Tribune’s theater critic Chris Jones wrote an open letter to his city asking, “Why don’t we have a children’s theater as great as Minneapolis’?” He pointed out that there is too much terrible acting and directing in typical children’s theater. He criticized children’s theaters that offer “children’s programming” but leave the production to their second stringers. We make a lot of great art in this town, but from all accounts, in the Children’s Theatre we have something we know is the best. I don’t even have kids, but I’m proud to know the Children’s Theatre Company is the best children’s theater in the country.
Since its founding in 1965, the CTC has been imbued with an ambitious sense of artistry and professionalism that had never been available to young people before, at least in the United States. Founder John Clark Donahue was responsible for innovations like age-appropriate casting—an MO that is still in practice at the CTC, and that Brosius says is rare among the 110 professional theaters for young people in the U.S. (the vast majority are adults-only companies). Donahue produced startlingly original work and amassed a collection of talent that still impacts the broader Twin Cities theater community: Bain Boehlke went on to found the Jungle Theater, child actor Myron Johnson became a director at the CTC and went on to found Ballet of the Dolls, Wendy Lehr and Gerald Drake both became local legends and they’re both still doing work onstage. Lehr is in this spring’s The Crucible at the Guthrie, and Drake is still at the CTC and has been for 43 years now—he plays a pirate in Peter Pan.
What would become the CTC evolved from a tiny company called The Moppet Players in 1961. Donahue was a former art teacher, painting and designing sets for Moppet director Beth Linnerson. By 1965, Donahue found his own theater space in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and split from Linnerson, calling his new organization the Children’s Theatre Company. His first play was Sleeping Beauty that fall. “He had an artistic vision for what was possible even in that tiny space with very limited resources,” Lehr says. The original company was small enough that all the players had to rotate production responsibilities, each taking a shift at the box office on their only day off. Performances were initially limited to weekends. “It was definitely a family and still is,” Myron Johnson says. “We’re all still a family because we practically lived together. We worked until two in the morning or later. We worked until it was done.”
In 1969, the CTC opened a school on the Institute’s premises. By 1974, the CTC had expanded and started to organize itself more professionally—it incorporated a board and renovated the theater.
But Donahue’s legacy is impossibly complicated, and if you are going to acknowledge his immense contributions, you are forced to acknowledge the regrettable circumstances of his departure. In 1984, Donahue pled guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct involving inappropriate relations with three teenage boys between 1981 and 1983. He was sentenced to a year at the workhouse and subsequently served a 15-year probation. He never had anything more to do with the CTC again. And while it is a painful memory, erasing it would mean not only erasing the brilliant first two decades of the theater’s legacy under Donahue, but erasing the contributions of the artists in the original company, and erasing the contributions of the people who saved the theater from collapsing under the weight of his scandal.
Ann Barkelew was the PR director for the Dayton-Hudson Corporation and she was only on the board for two weeks when Donahue was arrested. “I got the phone call,” she says, “and I immediately thought, Oh my gosh, we have to deal with this.”
Under Barkelew’s crisis management, board members from the Walker, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the MIA formed an emergency executive committee that named a new executive director, the well-respected former superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools John B. Davis. They also asked producing director Jon Cranney, who had come to the CTC from the Guthrie two years prior, to serve as the new acting artistic director.
“My job was to sort out what was exemplary about that theater,” Cranney says. “We decided to close the school and focus on the work. The work is how we would save ourselves.” “You could say, oh yeah, just close the theater, close the theater for young people and just give that all up,” says Gerald Drake, who had been overseas with Bain Boehlke making a documentary about the German Christian mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer but returned when the news broke. “That could’ve happened. But the community also knew that the idea was right. If it’s a good idea, you want to support it, even if that guy’s not there.”
The local arts community rallied to the CTC cause. Boehlke directed the CTC’s first show back the following fall, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Cranney would eventually be named permanent artistic director, serving for the next 12 years.
Less of a visionary than Donahue, Cranney was more of a literary classicist, but he was steady and respected. In the spring of 1986, the CTC mounted its first production of Peter Pan, working off an original adaptation of the novel commissioned by Cranney. The play was inevitably a success. “Peter Pan and Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland are really popular titles,” he says. “And if you really want to print money, you do How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” In 1997, he gave up his post, deciding to return to acting and directing, but not before helping the CTC find Brosius.
In 2003, in its sixth year under Brosius, the CTC won the Regional Theatre Tony Award. “When they got word that they won the Tony, [managing director] Teresa Eyring called Jon Cranney and she called me,” remembers Barkelew, “and she said, ‘I want to tell you that we won this, and to thank you for making sure that the theater was still here.’”
Puer aeternus is Latin for “eternal boy,” one of the great Jungian archetypes found throughout literature, from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses to Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince to Barrie’s Peter Pan. In our time, the eternal boy has morphed into a sort of caustic pop psychological concept: the boorish, immature bro who wears his hat backward and is fun, but ultimately impossible to date. He aspires to Peter’s existential mission statement: “I don’t want ever to be a man. I want always to be a boy and to have fun.” It’s easy to see Peter Pan as entitled frat boy, every Wendy’s nightmare, basically.
Ironically, the kids who act at the CTC sounded like the most mature, serious, ambitious children I’ve ever met. After a Sunday matinee of Peter Pan, I sat with the actors who play John and Michael Darling and two of the Lost Boys, respectively, ranging in age from 10 to 15, and each of them dropped the word “career” on me at a different juncture in our conversation. These kids were obviously well taken care of by their parents, attending prestigious public or art schools, and they were performing in a mild professional environment that values education more than fame. These weren’t little showbiz monsters—they were Minnesota kids actually focused on developing their craft. Yet, each time one of them said “career,” I cringed internally. But why? I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 10 years old, and by the time I was 12, at Catholic school, I had a special nun who came in and worked with me on a weekly basis. Young athletes and young ballerinas and young piano players all have to start early or they won’t be able to physically develop in time to be great. They need ambitious, serious places to practice, and they need people pushing them even when they don’t want to be pushed. But there is something about our culture that makes us queasy when we detect this kind of seriousness of purpose in a child.
Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell on Mad Men) is the consensus most successful former CTC actor—probably measured by a couple of different metrics. He was a child actor during the Cranney era, and even though Cranney himself told me that Vinny is an exception, that Cranney is as proud of “the two doctors at Mayo” and “all the lawyers downtown [that the CTC has produced]” as he is of Vinny, I wanted to talk to Kartheiser about what acting alongside adults at the CTC did for his, ahem, career.
Kartheiser says young actors are learning about acting, but it’s more about getting indoctrinated into the real world. “Learning to be dedicated, learning to be trusting of other people, learning to be on time, to be respectful,” he says. “I think with kid actors what it really is about is: Are you believable? Are you believable as the person in this situation? You’re not asked to come up with a character or to develop a singular perception for the character. You’re just kind of asked to, like, not screw up. Show up, do the best you can, listen to the director, try to follow direction.”
But, Kartheiser told me, when he was 12, he did a play called The Troubles: Children of Belfast about growing up during the Troubles in Ireland. “And that was when I really realized, OK, there’s something else going on here, there’s something else more powerful,” he says. “And I really started bringing things to the table and coming up with ideas and having thoughts about it and spending time thinking about it when I wasn’t doing that. And then when you become an adult actor it’s pretty much all about that.”
That sounds like it started out as a job and then became a passion. Like something he couldn’t stop thinking about—basically, he learned to trust his imagination, to be confident in himself.
“Mostly it made me really happy,” Kartheiser adds. “I had a home there. I had friends. And I had adults that respected me as a person, not as a little kid. They didn’t treat me like, ‘Oh you don’t do that. Or you do this.’ I wasn’t lesser than. I was equal to.”
W atching the CTC’s new Peter Pan inspired me to go back to the novel, and to think about how Neverland is actually a rejection of society—sure, a rejection of society by a shadowless, mischief-maker with mother issues—but neverlandtheless, it’s a rejection of our rules and regulations and our judgmental culture. And maybe that’s what makes us uncomfortable when we hear kids say the word “career,” because we realize that they’re playing at losing the very thing that makes them confident and sure of themselves. The thing that gives them the ability to fly.
Even in the Children’s Theatre’s new PC musical version, you can find evidence of Barrie’s original early 20th-century skepticism regarding the civic institutions that still shape most of us—things like mothers and schools. Peter, just like the pirates and the feral girls and boys he’s running around with, believes that he doesn’t need them, doesn’t need their rules nor their reading, writing, and arithmetic.
And come on, we’re not so old to have forgotten a time when we all thought like that. All of us still have lingering memories of childhood obstinacy floating around in our heads. And there may be some shrapnel of truth in these memories—maybe we were capable of more than we thought we were. Maybe it’s not just old age that keeps us from flying. Maybe it was an ability we could’ve mastered if we would’ve just started earlier, if we would’ve had a safe place to practice, with expert flight instructors.
And at its frequent best, that’s what the Children’s Theatre is trying to be. It grew up as an unlikely upstart, it overcame an ugly obstacle in the middle of its development, and it has endured to become a cherished institution. It gave kids like Vincent Kartheiser the opportunity and the space and the instruction to become great someday. It’s giving the children acting in Peter Pan an opportunity to imagine careers on the stage. It gave my friends Lucy and Elena a place to contemplate the verisimilitude of fairies. It’s still making memories.