Unlocking the Mystery

DEC 12, 1997

An interview with Marcus Stern.

Marcus Stern’s work evokes many opinions. One may think, “avant-garde director,” “peculiar interpreter,” or “sharp, jarring pictures.” In a recent article on Stern in American Theatre, John Istel defines Stern’s technique. “[Stern] takes the most complex, fog-bound texts and rocks them with a stormy, over-the-edge tempest of theatricality, navigating even the most unchartable script’s nuances.” In light of these statements, one ventures to ask, what could Mr. Stern intend by directing J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan, a play associated with simple truths and youthful innocence, a play that is a charming valentine to childhood?

Something from the Past:

In October, Mr. Stern–one of four resident directors at the American Repertory Theater–will begin the final stage of a project that he first hoped to direct ten years ago. Written by Elizabeth Egloff, the new version of Barrie’s beloved Peter Pan promises to be a jaunt into a familiar but unexpected world. Stern recalls the first time he thought of directing Pan: “When I was at the Yale School of Drama, I was asked for proposals for my graduate thesis production. I suggested Peter Pan with no idea of how I was going to direct it. In the end, the project was rejected for financial reasons. The mechanical effects and insurance costs for the flying scenes would be unmanageable. After that, I hadn’t given the script much more thought until the possibility came up at the A.R.T. last year. ”

Inside rehearsals:

Watching Stern work is fascinating; it is a curious journey through a kaleidoscope of images that first mutate and then emerge, transformed. One of Stern’s gifts is his ability to translate a script’s themes into striking visual images. As he did with A.R.T. productions of Carol K. Mack’s The Accident, Büchner’s Woyzeck, and Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, Stern will offer audiences an unexpected delight that they have never encountered in his rendering of Peter Pan. Part of his astuteness comes from his keen intuitiveness; his ability to predict an audience’s reaction before it occurs and work against that expectation sets him apart from many others in his field. Stern assembles stage-visions that leave his viewer with a disturbing feeling about what they saw. Whether grotesque or happy, frightening or beautiful, Stern delivers compelling messages to those who are daring enough to enter into the world he creates.

When asked why he, a postmodern director associated with the avant-garde, wants to direct Peter Pan, a marvelous discussion ensued. Stern claims that if Barrie’s classic is a “valentine to childhood,” it is an “ode to not knowing who you are [and] the danger of losing something precious if an adventure of the self does not take place.”

For Stern, Peter Pan illustrates some fundamental human struggles that “are too large to fit inside one directing technique. . . . ” Since it is a modern fairy tale, “the distinction between real and unreal or real and surreal becomes blurred.”

Peter Pan, with its supernatural story-line, provides Stern with the breadth of material necessary to drive his imagination. For Stern, Barrie’s wonderland “is imagistic, romantic, and goofy.” Peter is a fanciful, stubborn kid.”

A Bunch of Flying Peters:

“I wanted to find the antithesis of the Cathy Rigby and Mary Martin versions of Peter’s character because it occurred to me that by casting a woman in the role, the story was robbed of something. . . . it was missing one of its most primal energies, that of the exploration of the relationship between Peter and Wendy as boy and girl–I knew I wanted to feel the romantic urge, the yearning and the uncertainty between them. [They] should be confused, needing to explore and heal this deep pain and longing for one another. At the same time, more than just their youth and naiveté complicates their dependence on each other. While dealing with their feelings, they are going through a marvelous fantasy, an unpredictable adventure, a heat and heights as it were.”

Wendy at the Open Window:

For Stern, the most compelling images in Pan are linked to Peter and Wendy. In particular, he says, one image stands out in his mind: a sweet, yet forlorn, picture of a boy standing outside a girl’s window and the girl staring back at him. “It is romantic, wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time.” Stern says, “The question for me is, what will happen next. [We] wonder if Wendy will meet Peter out on the ledge, or if Peter will come into her room? Will he convince her to fly away with him? What promises will he make and how does he really feel underneath all of his spectacular courage, yes his courage is spectacular, but it is only a boy’s courage; his core is vulnerable and very inexperienced. It is precisely this vulnerability that makes the encounter between this boy and girl enormously frightening for both of them. They are confused and need to explore and heal the deep pain and longing they are experiencing.

While Stern carefully points out that for another director there might be other climactic moments in Peter Pan, for him, the all-important themes of the play are revealed through Peter and Wendy’s relationship and “in the responsibility to seek out what they want from one another. This is at the core of the Never Never Land adventure for me.” Stern refines his point by remarking that for another director, for example, perhaps the play’s attraction is the Hook-Peter relationship–a simple power struggle between good and evil. ” For me,” says Stern, “the Peter-Wendy relationship embodies the play’s most important themes. Don’t be mistaken, I am delighted by great characters like Hook or Tinkerbell or young Michael. I love the crazy energy that these personalities provide. But one must be careful when directing to focus where focus is necessary, and in this case, these other characters are wonderful elements that need to be hung carefully around Peter and Wendy, the two entwining loves.

Surprisingly, Stern points to Wendy, not Peter, as being the key to unlocking the Never Never Land fantasy. “Wendy visits both worlds,” says Stern. “She is the one who is capable of handling the pressure of living out her fantasies. Peter, on the other hand, does not deal well with responsibilities in the real world. Peter’s test is, how can he be responsible to Wendy if he is unable to deal with his own responsibilities? Wendy sits in a position of decision, of problem solving, standing at the window staring with longing. But humans have to walk through the front door. Flying away through the window is not the answer. Peter is unable to see that.”

Michelle Powell is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training.

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