Growing up, Peter Pan was Lauren Kampman’s favorite story. She relished watching the live action version of the iconic tale.
“I wanted to be on an adventure like that one day. And now I get to. It’s such a blessing,” said Kampman, a senior acting major who portrays Molly in the theatre department’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
Based on the novel “Peter and the Starcatchers” by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and adapted for the stage by Tony Award–winning playwright Rick Elice, the play provides the backstory for Peter Pan. But Kampman’s character, Molly, is also right at the heart of the story.
“It’s really the story of Molly, this 13-year-old girl who saves the world by getting starstuff into the hands of good people like her father, Lord Aster, and out of the bad hands of people like Slank, one of the evil captains, and Black Stache, the pirate, who are also trying to get this treasure,” explained Bruce Cromer ’82, Wright State alumnus, professor of acting and movement, and director of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”
For 10 performances in late September and early October 2019, a cast and crew of Wright State students and faculty took audiences on an ocean journey aboard two ships to a faraway island where a young girl becomes the heroine and a young orphan boy finds his name and a place to forever call home.
A love letter to theatre
August 27, 2019. It’s the second day of Fall Semester classes and the second night of rehearsal for “Peter.” All 12 cast members and their understudies are gathered in the stage combat studio in the Creative Arts Center. The set designer, properties master, sound designer, and costume designers are also on hand to show the cast the world of make-believe they will recreate on stage.
Prototypes of costumes drape a series of mannequins in the front of the room. The actors try out props that will be used in the production. Dialect coach Deborah Thomas helps the cast perfect their British accents for the play’s Victorian England time frame. And Cromer discusses his vision for the show.
Cromer describes “Peter” as a love letter to theatre, where the show is all about the story. He encourages the cast to ponder the play’s recurring themes of identity, home, and family, and to discover the elements that speak to them.
As the cast rehearses over the next four weeks, there is still much more work to be done before opening night: painting and finishing touches on the set, costume fittings, adjustments to the lights in the Festival Playhouse. The list goes on and on.
A whole new world
On the second floor of the Fine Arts Building, Terry Webb, a senior theatre design and technology major, uses a glue gun to attach a stem to the top of a pineapple, a key prop in “Peter.”
“The best thing about the props in ‘Peter’ is that everything is organic. Everything is original,” said Webb. “You get to have foliage, fruits, vegetables. We have a lot of tires, hubcaps, and fans mixed in with jungle materials. It has that balance of man-made materials and nature itself.”
As Webb begins walking through the prop shop, he is surrounded by aisle after aisle of shelves that house props from the ceiling to the floor. It looks like grandma’s attic on steroids or a hoarder’s dream come true. It’s also a treasure trove of Wright State theatre history over the years.
“It’s definitely a maze around here,” said Webb as he points out vases, lamps, empty champagne bottles, chandeliers, typewriters, and a slew of countless other props that have graced the stage.
Webb picks up the captain’s wheel for the ship in “Peter,” which is sanded and spackled to prevent splinters. He also begins rolling along the floor one of two trunks used in the show.
“This is what the audience is going to see,” said Webb. “When the curtains open, you’ll know where you are. You’re on the captain’s ship. You’re in Neverland.”
Downstairs in the Fine Arts Building, scenic artist Carleigh Siebert works with a handful of other students painting and doing the final assembly of the set.
Giant scaffolding wagon pieces that have two sides form the basis of the set.
“They rotate so they have a completely different look for the second half of the show,” said Siebert, a junior theatre design and technology major.
Nearby sketches show how the stage will transform throughout the performance, transporting the audience from the deck of a ship in Act 1 to the jungle environment of Mollusk Island in Act 2.
“It’s cool to see it go from the original drawings and designs to seeing it on stage,” said Siebert.
Found objects, collected by set designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway, will then be incorporated into the set.
“There are a lot of found objects and decorative elements,” said Siebert. “It’s not just a plain wall that’s painted—it has different decorations and more dynamic elements to it.”
In the basement of the Creative Arts Center, the sound of sewing machines resonates throughout the costume shop. Bolts of thread form a kaleidoscope of color on one wall, while costume sketches cover a nearby bulletin board. Another wall is lined with racks of costumes for “Peter” and other upcoming performances.
In the center of the room, junior theatre design and technology major Victoria Gifford works on a prototype for the mermaid costumes at the beginning of Act 2. Cornucopias decorate the bodice, and a variety of whimsical found objects adorn fish nets that serve as the costume’s skirt.
“It’s meant for a lot of laughs and to be very colorful,” explained Gifford, who co-designed the costumes with Michelle Sampson, visiting assistant professor of costume design.
Before she even began to design the costumes for “Peter,” Gifford read the script three times; researched the time period for aesthetics, textures, and patterns; and looked at historical photographs.
To make sure no detail is overlooked, Gifford creates a spreadsheet with a scene-by-scene breakdown of what each character is wearing.
Gifford’s work is by no means finished when opening night comes around. She has to keep up with laundry, pressing, and ongoing maintenance of the costumes throughout the run of the production.
While the audience won’t know the work that takes place behind the scenes, she hopes they will notice how each costume matches the character and speaks to who they are.
“Through the costumes, you can determine someone’s class, what they like, what they don’t like, what some of their belief systems are,” said Gifford, who aspires to work on Broadway someday. “I like being able to express the smallest amounts of their story through something that they happen to wear.”
Without lighting, the intricate details that everyone has worked so hard to create in the costumes, sets, and props would be completely lost on the audience.
“A lighting designer tells you where to look,” said senior theatre design and technology major Autumn Light. “From start to finish, we collaborate with the director and the scenic designer. We figure out what kind of concept we want moving forward.”
As lighting designer for “Peter,” Light strives to create an atmosphere that is dreamy and childlike. “Keeping that magical vibe is important throughout this process,” Light explained.
To set the perfect mood in the Festival Playhouse, Light works closely with her crew. “Everyone will have a hand on this production,” said Light.
It’s a team effort Light hopes the audience will make note of. “I hope they take away not only the great storytelling by the actors on stage, but all of the magical atmospherics,” she said. “If they walk out the doors and they’re talking about the show, that’s all that we can ask for.”
“To have faith is to have wings”
Before every performance, the cast of “Peter” comes out to mingle with the audience, inviting them to play make-believe for the next 130 minutes. The adventure begins, taking the audience on a journey that includes battles of good versus evil, on-stage antics that elicit peals of laughter, and poignant moments that tug at the heartstrings.
With six shows remaining, some of the members of the cast, who are enrolled in Cromer’s Acting Professionally class, discuss their experiences with the production. For the actors, who are all in their senior year at Wright State, “Peter” demands a level of physicality unlike anything they have experienced before.
“It’s interesting how you have to be on it every single second, move from scene to scene, and do transitions with the set while also telling a story,” said Kenneth Erard, who plays the dual roles of Slank and Hawking Clam. “As exhausting as it can be sometimes, it’s also super rewarding.”
The physical demands of the production are part of what attracted Will Graber to the lead role of Peter.
“The show never really stops, other than intermission. I like that, because I’m a very physical performer. I like jumping around. I like moving,” said Graber, who came to Wright State to study with Cromer, well known for his work in stage combat. “Once we get started, I’m never out of it. I’m always active in some way, and that forces me to be involved, which I love.”
While Graber revels in the physicality of his part, Kampman says she feels empowered by her strong female character.
“She is what I needed when I was 13,” said Kampman. “I didn’t know that, as a girl, I had the opportunity to stand up to people and stand up for me. That’s been really important to me—to show girls that they can be strong too. That’s what I gravitated to so much with Molly.”
One of the highlights for the cast was acting alongside Josh McCabe, who plays Black Stache. Many have studied with McCabe, an assistant professor of acting. While they might have been a little intimidated to perform with their teacher, McCabe put them at ease.
“He has been so generous at being a peer,” said Erard. “He just feels like another actor on stage.”
The amount of teamwork that goes into a production like “Peter” has not gone unnoticed by the cast. From the sets and costumes, to the music and sound effects, the actors acknowledge that each element is an integral part of the show.
Sophie Kirk, who plays Alf, and Kaitlyn Campbell, who takes on the dual roles of Mrs. Bumbrake and the Teacher, have especially high praise for music director Matt Ebright.
“The show was originally written for all men plus a female Molly,” Campbell explained. “Since we have four girls in the cast, the orchestrations and the vocal scores of the music all have to be changed to fit the voices of women.”
“Matt Ebright did an amazing job as the music director,” said Kirk. “He cared so much about us looking and sounding good—he put so much detailed work in.”
As the senior members of the cast approach graduation and look back on their Wright State experience, they express gratitude for the lessons they have learned and the teachers who have guided and mentored them along the way.
“You start freshman year terrified with doing stuff in front of people, because you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Louis Kurtzman, who plays Lord Aster. “As seniors, you don’t have that fear going into auditions. That might change when you get into the real world and maybe there is some big producer name, but I guarantee you are way more prepared for that than you were freshman year.”
As Kampman reflects on her transformation at Wright State, she is reminded of one of the most powerful lines from “Peter”: “To have faith is to have wings.”
“That’s what this department has given me,” she explained. “They push you beyond limits that you didn’t know you had or that you didn’t necessarily want to go past.”
The students are also emboldened by the success of alumni who have gone before them. “Seeing our alumni that are working right now is really encouraging,” said Erard. “There is a huge network of people to talk to, share, and create with, and rely upon if needed. That’s amazing.”
For Cromer, who has taught at Wright State for 30 years and plans to retire in 2022, “Peter” could be one of the last productions he directs for his alma mater.
“Wright State has an excellent Theatre, Dance, and Motion Pictures Department,” said Cromer. “We get really good people. They’re inventive, creative, kind, inclusive. They’re a big reason why I believe in this program. I’m just proud of what we do.”
Like Cromer, Kampman says she will one day look back and remember “Peter” as one of her fondest memories. For the young woman, who dreamed as a little girl of going on great adventures like Peter Pan, the experience was everything she could have hoped for and more.
“It has meant the world to me. Every night, I’m so grateful that I get to tell that story,” said Kampman. “These stories are hope, and that’s what we need. No matter what the world is going through, somebody is always going to need that story.”
For more information on the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Motion Pictures, visit wright.edu/tdmp.
This article was originally published in the spring 2020 issue of the Wright State Magazine. Find more stories at wright.edu/alumnimag.