Emily Hardy chats to actor Jason Ralph about Peter & the Starcatcher, New World Stages and the post-Broadway journey of a Tony Award winning play.
“I love failing. I desperately need to fail because if I fail enough, then eventually the magic happens.”
Five Tony award winning Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice, is the prequel to Peter Pan, elucidating how ‘Boy,’ a mistreated orphan without so much as a name, comes to live in Neverland, stay forever young and keep the acquaintance of a ticking crocodile, a band of pirates and the lost boys.
As Jason Ralph steps out of the lift, it is remarkable (almost comically so) how much this young actor resembles a Peter Pan. Ralph sits in his rugged orphan costume (because a few minutes earlier he got soaked in an unexpected New York downpour) slugs a large energy drink and makes preparations for the physically demanding show by munching at a pack of peanut M&M’s. “We’re essentially running a marathon everyday. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and have no idea how I am going to find the energy get up, let alone be Peter Pan.”
That’s hard to imagine whilst he’s enthusiastically perched here, grinning, bemused by the situation and excitably looking around as if it were the first time he had seen the theatre foyer. I do my best doe-eyed Wendy impression whilst Ralph tells me the story of how his own dreams came true.
“I was a real goth kid at school and my mum was terrified of all my friends. She really pushed me in the direction of theatre. I found out later that she had actually persuaded the drama teacher to give me all the roles I’d played at school, but I’m so grateful because I was able gain a lot of experience. I did transition out of my goth phase and eventually became a slightly more normal human being. Then I went to Collin College in Texas and after that did four years at Sydney Purchase here in NYC. Basically, I should be a doctor by now!”
In another transition, Ralph went from being the understudy in the Broadway production of Starcatcher to playing the lead in the now, off-Broadway revival. ”It was amazing. I felt like I’d really earned it though because I worked my way up in the way that you should be able to. I had the luxury of going on a few times previously, and when that happened people kept asking me how it felt to be making my Broadway debut. I’ve rarely loved anything more but I didn’t feel like it was the be all and end all. I was still just part of the company. It was just like taking another step forwards.”
And Ralph makes such a brilliant Peter. We suspend our disbelief entirely and become immersed in the beautifully suggested fantasy world of the play, never questioning the motivation of 13 year-old Pan who seeks only a fresh start and the opportunity to ”just be a boy for a while.” Starting out as a cover though meant that Ralph was not afforded the luxury of creating the role. To what extent then is the interpretation of Peter his own?
“Directors, Roger Rees and Alex Timbers were very kind to me because they were also keen to rediscover the play again. Lots of the cast were coming into the play totally fresh and that made it easier to recreate it too. I wanted to do it my own way but it’s difficult to distinguish between changing something for the sake of changing it and changing something for the benefit of the story telling. I knew all of the lines and the movement so for the whole rehearsal process I was able to try things out and just fail all over the place until I found the things that were right.”
Looking as young as he does, I wondered if playing Peter was having an anti-ageing effect on him, but Ralph, actually 26, has worked tirelessly to reach where he is today. “The best thing I did was work as a reader in a casting office for a year. I didn’t get seen for anything but they got to know me and after a year, they saw me for this and I booked it. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. You wait, persistent, always trying to enjoy the journey, and then eventually the right thing will happen. Nothing this good was ever going to be easy.”
Ralph’s dream is to eventually play Prince Hal in all of Shakespeare’s Henrys. Suggesting that he should come to London to do that makes him to beam from ear to ear. “I would love to do that in London…at the Globe!” he announces excitedly.
Peter and the Starcatcher has taken a journey of its own; it was as new to Broadway as Ralph was, but winning Tony awards granted the production wings (so to speak.) Starcatcher embarks upon its first national tour later this year but it is currently at New World Stages. To an outsider, the move from Broadway to off-Broadway seems to be an unconventional one. “It is a strange transition, but the theatre we were in before had prior bookings. There was still a demand for the show, perhaps because of the Tonys, so it has kept on going. It’s an intimate play and we’re finding that it actually suits this smaller space better.” It is hard to imagine Starcatcher anywhere other than here in its new home, a magical 500 seater venue only a stones throw away from Broadway.
People living far from New York City eagerly await the opportunity to see Tony winning productions when they come to a town near them. This bodes well for Starcatcher which is an ideal piece to tour with; it uses very little set and instead relies heavily upon the bodies and voices of the cast. The actors remain onstage throughout in order to create the rattling ships and the fantastical Neverland. This initially presented a challenge for Ralph who had the responsibility of covering five roles. “I was sat there on the first day of rehearsals with five highlighters. My script looked like a rainbow with stick men running here there and everywhere. When I got home, I had no idea what any of it meant. As an understudy though, I was able to see it from the outside; it’s very satisfying to see how easy and seamless it all looks but from the inside, it is orchestrated chaos, absolutely manic. You never stop running and if you check-out for a second, the illusion is shattered.”
The choral speaking is occasionally convoluted and difficult to follow (perhaps because the audience are not expecting it), but we are soon engrossed by the self-aware, slapstick humour and the intoxicating, seamless movement courtesy of Steven Hoggett. “The show is like a machine, in a lovely way. Once it starts it never stops and you are thrown into scenes where you bare your soul without any preparation. That works for me because I don’t have time to worry about it. You are just an integral cog in the machine.”
Everything works. The piece is a joyous celebration of theatrical form, but one thing has me stumped: Peter and the Starcatcher, for all its literary relishes, intricacies and unconventionality, feels as though it should be aimed at a younger audience. The story, sold as ‘The Grownup’s prequel to Peter Pan,’ carries the morality and resolve of a fairy tale. “Children love it. They invest so much in the story of Peter and Molly. The adults tend to focus more on Black Stache.” There are, of course, references and nuances that children will inevitably miss but kids don’t go to the theatre alone. Suggesting that they play is for ‘grown-ups’ is misleading and suggests that it is inappropriate for those whom, I believe, it is best suited. After all, children are better qualified than most when it comes to the use of the imagination and the infectious energy of this inventive company should be shared and appreciated universally.
On that thought, I left my Peter Pan to his M&M’s and ventured back out into the monsoon.