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Arnie Burton
Peter and the Starcatcher

by Beth Herstein

Also see our recent Eric Simonson, Magic/Bird

Arnie Burton
After its critically praised run at New York Theatre Workshop last season, Peter and the Starcatcher recently moved to Broadway, where it has earned nine Tony nominations, including one for Best Play. Based on Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's popular book "Peter and the Starcatchers," the show is a fast-paced, clever prequel to the Peter Pan story. Whereas another successful Broadway prequel, Wicked, is a huge production replete with special effects, Peter takes an alternate approach, keeping its sets simple and letting the cast—and the audience's imagination—do the rest.

Among the cast's many talented performers is Arnie Burton, who plays several roles, most notably Mrs. Bumbrake, who is nanny to Molly, the show's young heroine. Burton, who shared a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble in 2010's The Temperamentals, also has received acclaim for his work in Broadway's The 39 Steps, Theatre for a New Audience's The Jew of Malta, and the national tour of I Am My Own Wife, among other shows. Burton also has acted frequently in the works of playwright David Ives, of whom he says, "I love his comedy. It always comes with heart. I'd work with him again in a second."

A self-described shy kid who grew up watching Carol Burnett and listening to Nichols and May recordings, Burton also is drawn to heavier stuff, "like Vanessa Redgrave in Long Day's Journey into Night or Orpheus Descending." His eclectic taste has helped him find his way into the heart as well as the comedy of Peter. I recently spoke with Burton on the phone about his career and his work on Peter and the Starcatcher.

Beth Herstein:  You, along with most of the cast, transferred to Broadway from last season's New York Theatre Workshop production. Can you talk about the camaraderie that has developed among the performers?

Arnie Burton:  This show defines what it means to be an ensemble. Everyone in the show plays a great character and gets the chance to have their moments. One moment you're having your scene, and the next moment you're being a door or a wall. The feeling of the ensemble developed very naturally because of that. It comes from the directors too; they make everyone feel a part of this whole thing. We're all the storytellers.

BH:  What has it been like working with two directors?

AB:  Actually, it's almost like having three directors. We have Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, our directors. Then there's our movement director, Steven Hoggett, who is brilliant. He did the movement for Once and American Idiot. All three of them are wonderful men, and they really complemented each other well. Alex and Roger have been working together on this production since Williamstown [where, in 2007, while Rees was artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the two presented the first lab production of Peter]. They also produced [a full fledged version of] the show at La Jolla Playhouse [in 2009]. So, by the time I joined the cast for the New York Theatre Workshop last season, they had their relationship down pretty well.

Roger will often deal more specifically with the actors, details of the scenes, and Alex has an amazing visual eye. He'll sometimes look at the stage as a picture and compose things that way. Of course, sometimes they'll do the opposite. Also, there are times when we'll get a note from one director saying, "Do it this way," and from the other director saying, "Do it that way." But there was never an issue. If we pointed out [that they'd gotten a contradictory direction from the other director], then he'd say, "Ok, do it that way." So, it was interesting and challenging, but really great. You have these three minds looking after you and putting the show together.

BH:  I read a piece you wrote about not improvising but giving the feel of improvisation or spontaneity to your work. How does that apply to Peter and the Starcatcher?

AB:  Peter is heavily choreographed. It has to be. There's not a lot of set there, so basically the actors become the set. But within those parameters, as an actor you have to have a sense of improvisation. During a long run, you need to constantly shake yourself up and find ways to reinvent your role. You make whatever kind of mental adjustments you can to find something new and discover something new. I tell myself before I go on to find something new for a scene tonight, and I will. That will change the way the scene goes, but in tiny ways. It keeps the show alive, and that's our main goal.

BH:  That must be easier because of the strong sense of ensemble you have. You can react easily and quickly to the adjustments that are being made.

AB:  Exactly. And that keeps you focused too. You can find yourself, in a long run, not really listening from time to time—not because you want to [lose focus], but because that's the nature of it. So you tell yourself, "Tonight I'm going to really listen to that person, really hear what he or she has to say." That simple adjustment will change the way you say your lines, because you've actually heard the other actor in a new way. You can't underestimate the power of that.

BH:  Earlier you talked about the storytelling in the show. Even in terms of the way you create a forest or a hill, you use your physical tools to tell the story.

AB:  Exactly. And it's so rewarding to do something like this, so nice to be part of a show that celebrates the most basic elements of theater and storytelling and imagination. Especially on Broadway, where audiences have been fed a steady stream of shows with big, extravagant sets, and very literal sets. We take the opposite approach and say, "Use your imagination along with us. Imagine that this rope is going to be a ship. Whatever we decide to make this rope or piece of wood, hopefully the people in the audience will believe that. It's the closest I've felt doing plays as a professional to what it felt like doing plays in my backyard as a kid.

Christian Borle, Arnie Burton, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Adam Chanler-Berat
Photo: O&M Co.
BH:  Mrs. Bumbrake is a wonderful character. How did you develop her?

AB:  When I first auditioned for the show and got the part, I didn't realize that we'd all be on stage practically the whole time and would be playing different parts. I thought maybe I'd be in full drag. So when I got up there and I was talking to Roger, I asked him, How do we go about having me play this English nanny? How are we going to achieve that? This is actually the first time they've had a man playing this part. But they wanted Molly, the girl, to be the only female in the show. So they were going in the direction of the old English music hall productions, where men would play the parts of the women.

In rehearsals we had to figure out how, physically, we were going to achieve this. At one point we thought I might have a whole wig that I would take on and take off. Then, we were talking to the costume designer and came up with the idea of this hair band with a bun on top of it—in keeping with the style, using rope instead of real hair for the bun. I can just rip it off or on in a second, it just appears and disappears. So, I never am fully in drag, I have to achieve the character with this hair band and an apron—which at first looks like a cook's apron, but for Mrs. Bumbrake becomes a dress. The rest is through body and voice. I'm so grateful, really, because this is a much more theatrical and interesting choice to me for this character than drag would have been.

BH:  In addition to Mrs. Bumbrake, you play other characters. In several of your shows recently you've played more than one role. What are the challenges and rewards of this type of casting?

AB:  I've been really lucky because, especially in the last few years, I've been able to do a lot of that. I can barely remember the last show where I played only one character. It certainly comes in handy because today, with the economics of theater, you can't have huge casts. Yet writers still want to tell great stories. So, over the last 10 years or so there's been this idea of having actors who are able to play several roles in one play. I know all the tricks now—and there are a lot of them. Making bold choices for your character, being able to switch [from one character to the next] when there's no time to add anything or do a complete costume change. I actually love it, there's no sense of monotony. It makes the evening go by fast.

BH:  Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which co-director Alex Timbers directed, shares some of the silly-smart sensibility, some of the more scatological humor. The night I saw Peter, the audience really embraced all of that. Although it starts out like that, it becomes more and more of a personal journey story as well, so by the end it's eloquent and moving.

AB:  That's true, and it's become even more so as we moved from New York Theatre Workshop to Broadway. That was definitely a very conscious part of the evolution as the show went to the next stage—to temper the comedy. We actually cut a few jokes, even ones that worked, because the directors or the playwright thought that they were getting in the way of the heart of the story. And the profound movement of Peter's search for home, and his connecting to the girl, and even the sense of love of story and theater—sometimes the comedy can be distancing from that. It was a real trick in finding where we could allow the comedy to be, and allow it to go full force, and then where to pull back and let the audience see something deeper.

So yeah, we have a number of good old fart jokes that play great, and hopefully what gives Peter its reason for being, more than just its fun and laughs is kind of this deeper yearning—one, to celebrate the theater and the imagination; and the other, the characters' yearnings for home and family. It works—you see people laughing so hard, but as you look in the audience in the final minutes you can see some tears. That's pretty great.

BH:  At intermission, my friend and I wondered whether there were enough children's jokes and story lines mixed in with the elements for grownups, that children could enjoy the show. We thought so but weren't sure. As it turned out, we ran into a couple with three children, and they loved the show, already had their favorite characters and scenes.

AB:  It is a wonderful kids' story—teens grew up on these books, and we wanted to honor that. You have pirates, a shipwreck, and Peter Pan. A flying cat. But underneath it are adult jokes and an adult story line, and a very complex plot. If we veered too far [away from that], one of the directors would say, "No, now we're going too far into the children's theater realm." Rick [Elice, the playwright] did a wonderful job of balancing all those elements. We are confidently riding the line between making it a real play, which I think it is, but something that could be accessible to the kids. Then, Alex has [injected] really remarkable stagecraft stuff that is more downtown than Broadway. So, it's a whole cornucopia of everything. I think they've made it truly a show for the whole family.

Peter and the Starcatcher at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street.

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