How Peter Became Pan

An interview with 'Finding Neverland' director Diane Paulus

The cast of the National Tour of Finding Neverland.

Jeremy Daniel

Acclaimed Broadway Director Diane Paulus was drawn to Finding Neverland because, she says, “It is a complete love letter to theatre.” Because, as a mother, this was a show she could create through the eyes of her two young daughters. Because it is the first story to fully explore how author J. M. Barrie first imagined Peter Pan and brought his iconic character to life.

But mostly, it was because of a line from the show that Captain Hook says to Barrie himself:

"You can go back to being what everyone expects you to be. Or you can find the courage to write your own story."

That resonated deeply with Paulus, the director, mother and artist who previously brought the launch of the national touring production of Pippin to Denver in 2014.

“That could mean literally, ‘write your own story.’ Or it could mean, ‘write the story of your life,’” said Paulus.

The story of Peter Pan, she says, is a call to anyone of any age to ask themselves:  “When do we wake up and live the life that we know we need to live - not the life we think we should be living?” That, she said, is the story of Finding Neverland.

The innovative Broadway musical is based on the 2004 Oscar-winning film of the same name. The story follows Barrie as he summons the courage to become the writer – and the man – he yearns to be. Barrie finds the inspiration he’s been missing when he meets a widow and her four young sons who inspire him to conjure the magical world of Neverland. And it was surprisingly risky for him to put the resultant play on stage before high-minded, high-society London theatergoers.

“I love stories that take us backstage, that take us through all the trials and tribulations and the fear that go into making art,” Paulus said. “All sorts of people who have seen Finding Neverland have then said to themselves, ‘Oh my goodness - what am I doing with my life? I've got to wake up, do what I love and take a risk. That's where the riches of life will lie.”

The lasting influence of Peter Pan on popular culture is vast and continuing. There has been the 1953 animated Disney film of course, the 1954 Broadway musical and countless movies and songs. It has been suggested that Peter Pan influenced J. R. R. Tolkien's creation of his Elves of Middle Earth. And in 1983, psychologists even gave a name to young men with underdeveloped maturity: The Peter Pan Syndrome.

“This story has been part of our psyche and in our zeitgeist and on our peanut-butter jars for so long that it’s hard for us to imagine a time when there wasn't Peter Pan,” said Paulus. “It feels like an archetypal myth, and yet it didn't exist until J. M.  Barrie took this artistic plunge in 1904. And in doing so, he really comes into his own as an artist. And at the same time, he discovers himself as a father. And so in that way, Finding Neverland is also a story that redefines family.”

Here is more of our conversation with acclaimed Director Diane Paulus. The conversation took place on June 13, 2016, the morning after the 2016 Tony Awards:

John Moore: Last night was certainly a celebration of diversity in the theatre.

Diane Paulus: You know, I'm so excited to be part of this theatre community, and particularly this last season on Broadway - the artists that it embraced and of course the many landmarks that were reached.

John Moore: Congratulations on Waitress. What did it mean for you to direct the first Broadway musical with an all-female creative team?

Diane Paulus: I've said it time and time again: Every artist is in their position at Waitress because they were best person for the job. There was no agenda to only consider women. It's just a reflection that women are at the top of their fields in composing, in writing and in choreography. This is the 21st Century, and we all have benefited from the generations of women behind us who actually were told that they couldn't be the directors or the writers. We all have benefited from their mentorship and their example. I hope more than anything we can provide that same example to the next generation of artists wherever they are across America. We need to say, “Look, this is a place for anyone, if you work hard and you work with integrity. If you tell important stories, this is not a closed door.” I mean, we still have a long way to go for women. But, yes, this was a great landmark - and let’s hope it continues.

John Moore: How does this sudden proliferation of women storytellers tangibly manifest itself in what we see in the theatre?

Diane Paulus: One out of three women in the United States experiences some form of intimate-partner domestic-violence abuse. This is a syndrome in our culture. It's a crisis in our time and in our world. So the fact that the stories being told this year are stories like Eclipsed, Black Bird, Waitress, The Color Purple, Spring Awakening -  these are all stories about women who have encountered some form of abuse or violence. We need to be telling these stories - not because that's all we care about as women, but because it's actually happening in our world.

John Moore: Switching gears, can you give us an idea of what kind of theatrical experience we're in for with Finding Neverland?

Diane Paulus: I was so drawn to Finding Neverland because it operates on so many important levels for me. One, it's a complete love letter to the theatre in that it's about the creation of a seminal work of theatre: J.M. Barrie’s play of Peter Pan. He had a producer named Charles Frohman who committed, come hell or high water, to make it happen. So Finding Neverland is the story of how Peter became Pan. And of course, inextricably threaded through that is the discovery of love and family.

John Moore: Speaking of family: When we last talked, you said you wanted to take on this particular project specifically for your two daughters. Could you elaborate on that? And how it has impacted their lives?

Diane Paulus: I did think this would be one that I could really create with my two daughters in mind. They are 9 and 11 now, and they were always present with me throughout this process. Just, you know, the spirit of what it means to be a kid, and how kids see the world, and their honesty, and their imaginations, and their ability to see things. I've seen it in my own living room. A blanket literally becomes a magic carpet, and you can go anywhere you want just by being pulled on a blanket through the hallways of your house. That is so much of a part of my life as a mother, and it is so much a part of Finding Neverland. I think they've grown through this, especially my younger daughter. The story also deals with how you survive hardship. It's about resilience. It's about overcoming some of the hardest challenges in life. It’s sort of like when children experience the heartache of Bambi. They understand that, and they move through that, and then they find comfort in that. We've experienced so much of that as a family. We have had people of all ages come to see Finding Neverland, whether they're kids or grandparents, who have experienced loss. If a kid has experienced the loss of a grandparent, there is something deeply comforting about this story and the power of metaphor and how we use metaphor in stories to help us in life. Theatre is metaphor. This idea of the ticking clock chasing you constantly was obviously so central to J.M. Barrie. And the idea that there is this place called Neverland where you never grow up. Peter Pan has really become this archetypical myth, and these myths are there to help us. I have really come to appreciate the power of Finding Neverland as a piece of theatre. 

John Moore: Between Finding Neverland and Peter and the Starcatcher and so many others, why do you think Peter Pan myth is remains such a good source for new stories?

Diane Paulus: Because I think Peter Pan is such a classic archetype. The definition of a classic is, for me, that you can take it and twist it and interpret it and re-interpret it - and no matter what you do to it, it survives all the tests of time. You can have any number of productions of Hamlet, and it stays Hamlet. Hamlet will survive. There's something about this story, and our fascination with it, and people wanting to get inside of it or look at it from a different angle. That’s what we do with classics. We want to feel them and explore them and get inside them in different ways. And I think this one is so powerful because it applies across generations. This is not just a kids show. Adults have grown up living with Peter Pan and love Peter Pan and remember their childhoods through Peter Pan.

John Moore: This musical is obviously adapted from the popular film. But can you tell us how the stage version is not a mere replica of the film?

Diane Paulus: It's a beautiful film and Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp give a sublime performances. But film has a certain pace that is completely appropriate for that medium, and that doesn’t always necessarily work on a stage. I knew it was the imagination of J.M. Barrie that we had to explode on that stage. That is really what led me to understand how Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy's pop score could function in the story. Because J.M. Barrie’s imagination is timeless, I learned that we could be in 1904 London and have the juxtaposition of this very British pop score representing the timelessness of J.M. Barrie’s imagination. The musical takes small moments in the movie and makes them into whole numbers - like the dinner party where the kids, through J.M. Barrie’s instigation, misbehave. That becomes this disastrous dinner-party number called “We Own the Night.” To me, the movie felt like it should become a musical because I could see these portals into musical theatre where we could dig deeper than the film ever could because we have music to take you there.

John Moore: Do you want to say anything about your touring cast?

Diane Paulus: Our J.M. Barrie is Kevin Kern, who's played the role on Broadway so much this past year. He's just a genius in the role. He sings it like no one else, and he knows this role inside and out. And he's such a generous soul. He is an incredible father of a huge family, and God bless him. I think it’s all going to work out, and we are so lucky he's going to be leading the tour. 

To purchase tickets or learn more about performance times for "Finding Neverland," coming to the Tulsa PAC March 6-11, go here