Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Peter and the Starcatcher Take Up Recycling (just like Roger Corman)

As a fan of live theatre, as well as someone who grew up loving J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan, of course I didn’t want to miss Peter and the Starcatcher. This stage adaptation of a popular children’s novel is a prequel of sorts to the Peter Pan story, showing how the boy who didn’t want to grow up landed on a island paradise, and how an ornery pirate came to fear a ticking crocodile.

It’s a lovely show, one that makes full use of the imaginative possibilities of live theatre. The one-dozen actors play many roles, and the audience needs to stay focused in order to appreciate the play’s inventive language and exuberant stretches of mime. But during the annual Broadway awards season, it was the technical crew who captured the Tonys. At the 2013 ceremony, there was a rare unanimity among Tony voters: Peter and the Starcatcher was honored for its sound design, lighting design, costumes, and scenery.

Taking a gander at an article in the play’s program titled “One Person’s Trash is Another Person’s Tony Award,” I learned something fascinating. The show’s set designer, Donyale Werle, believes in using recycled and sustainable materials in her work. As a dedicated member of the Broadway Green Alliance, she tries to avoid the usual practice of building a complex set out of durable materials and then simply trashing it when a show is over. The highlight of the design for Peter and the Starcatcher is an old-fashioned gilt proscenium arch that frames the stage. True to her belief in re-purposing stuff that would otherwise end up in landfills, Werle has decorated her arch with cast-off materials collected with help from the alliance: 3500 used corks; 800 bottle caps; 300 pieces of plastic silverware; along with countless discarded kitchen utensils, broken toys, CDs, and other leavings of our throwaway culture. The same inventiveness marks the show’s costumes, especially in a colorful scene introducing Neverland’s mermaids, whose costumes feature old tablecloths, sponges, metal scouring pads, and hilariously strategic vegetable steamers.

The recycling of everyday objects into theatre sets and costumes appeals to me as someone who cares about our environment. But it also intrigues me – as a former Roger Corman person – because I well remember how Roger’s fundamental cheapness helped make adaptative re-use something of a mantra among his employees. If you worked for Roger, at either New World Pictures or Concorde-New Horizons, you knew all about re-using old scripts, old footage, and sometimes old actors. (Our casting director was well aware that once-famous thespians could be hired cheap for major roles because they no longer had their old box-office cachet. That’s how we got F. Murray Abraham, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Amadeus, to star in our Dillinger and Capone, and the legendary Ray Walston to take a featured role in Saturday the 14th Strikes Back ).     

Roger was especially keen on recycling sets instead of scrapping them to build something new. In 1989,  when writer-director Howard Cohen was visiting the Concorde lot in Venice, California, he saw an exterior set of a medieval castle, which had just been used for some low-budget sword-and-sorcery extravaganza. Inside the studio was an ultra-modern science lab that had played a role in a science-fiction thriller. It was a lightbulb moment. Howard announced to Roger his idea for a time-travel film that would put both sets to work. That’s how The Time Trackers was born. And Roger has also tried making two films simultaneously on the same set, one shot in the daytime and one after-hours. But that’s a story for another day.


  1. I can't wait to hear about the two shows on one set! I love Donyale Werle's repurposing for her award winning sets - and it is funny how it parallels Roger Corman's own recycling - and each springing from such different origins of thought and purpose! Ray Walston also worked for Roger Corman in Galaxy of Terror five or six years before 1988's StFSB.

  2. Glad you liked the post, Mr. Craig. Do remind me to tell the "two shows on one set" story. I can't do it now because too much else is going on in Movieland, and I'm apt to forget in a month or two.