|My Wendy costume.|
Sunday, November 16, 2014
I didn't fully realize until last night at IHOP that we have been working on Peter Pan for the last six months. In June I was cast as Wendy, the twelve-year-old girl struggling to balance her desire to grow up with the temptation to stay a child alongside the whimsical Peter Pan––the perpetual little boy. Since then, I have invested myself in the story, like I do for every play.
This story was unique in that I had an entire book and several movie adaptations to construct my own interpretation of Peter Pan, and more specifically, Wendy Darling. I was also fortunate to have castmates who shared my love for analyzing the play––in particular, my friend Emily, who played my mother (Mrs. Darling), and my friend Joe, who played Peter Pan. I scrolled through all our Peter Pan e-mail exchanges and Facebook messages and copy and pasted them into a document. That document is 21 pages long. There's so much I want to talk about, so I think the best way to address them is to break this post up into sub-divisions.
Wendy, Peter and Mrs. Darling
Mrs. Darling and Peter are the embodiment of Wendy's coming of age struggle. In Mrs. Darling, Wendy sees her adult self. J.M. Barrie's book implies remarkable similarities between Wendy and Mrs. Darling. It is because of Mrs. Darling that Wendy realizes she needs to grow up someday. The book begins:
One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.
To say "she must grow up" has a tone of negativity, yet there is part of Wendy that is excited about growing up. She loves taking care of her brothers. She loves to play house. In picturing herself grown up, I imagine that Wendy thinks of Mrs. Darling. To Wendy, growing up is inevitable. She doesn't question it.
Until Peter. Peter flies into her window and enchants Wendy. He talks about flying and mermaids and fairies; about the Neverland, a world filled with fun and games and make-believe. Peter has somehow managed to beat the system and not grow up. In meeting Peter, growing up is no longer inevitable. Wendy has a choice, and her decision about whether or not to grow up is one of her many coming of age moments in the play.
The book says Wendy "grows up of her own accord," so eventually Wendy grows up because she wants to, not because it’s inevitable.
Wendy and Peter
Throughout the play, I was obsessed with figuring out Peter and Wendy's relationship––in particular, Peter's feelings for Wendy. How appropriate, considering in the script Wendy asks Peter, "What are your exact feelings for me?" It was a line that got laughs every performance, which made me defensive of Wendy. "She really wants to know!" I thought. "This is really hard for her!" But then again, it is a very adult line for a twelve-year-old girl.
Joe and I talked about this a lot, each proposing our own theories. Below are two of our many theories.
My Theory: I definitely get the sense that Wendy loves Peter, and she wants Peter to love her too, but love is too grown up of an emotion for Peter. What I can't understand (and maybe you have some insight/ideas?) is where Peter stands. When Wendy asks how Peter feels about her, he says that he feels like a "devoted son." Do you think that's all he feels? I know he enjoys Wendy's company, but the book doesn't seem to show any adolescent romantic interest (that's the weirdest way to word that) on Peter's side. There's no kiss on the cheek at the end, or sweet song. Peter forgets to get Wendy for spring cleaning the second year, and forgets a lot of their adventures. But, although he doesn't come back for almost 30 years, he does come back eventually, so I guess he still remembers Wendy, which, I don't know, is maybe significant because Peter forgets so much (including Tinkerbell and Hook)?
Wendy desperately wants Peter to love her and to grow old with her. I think Peter does love Wendy to some degree, but he doesn't know it's love because it's too adult of an emotion for him. I think Peter is sad Wendy isn't staying with him, which is another new emotion. But ultimately, he sacrifices Wendy because he loves being a child more. So why does he kiss her? I don't know.
Joe's Theory: Well...maybe he can't admit he does love her so instead of admitting it he just kisses her instead. Oh I've got it. Peter does love her. And he does want to grow up but his ego is too big and he won't admit it... I could probably keep coming up with weird things to answer your question but I really don't think I know either.
The kiss at the end of the play was hard for us to figure out, because it shows a remarkable amount of character development for Peter. It was important to us that this kiss contrasted the kiss at the beginning of the play. For the first kiss, our director instructed Joe to make a surprised look after I kissed him–like "What is this?"–immediately followed by a, "I like this" look. At that moment, the kiss is just, “This is cool.” The kiss doesn't have the same emotional attachment for Peter as the kiss at the end does, when he kisses Wendy. But where does that emotional attachment come from? And how much emotional attachment is there?
Here I am talking about Peter even though I played Wendy, but I can't help trying to analyze him, because Wendy spends the whole play trying to analyze him and her relationship to him.
Wendy and Me
I still don't think Joe or I have the entire relationship figured out, because I don't think we're supposed to. A few weeks ago, Joe and I watched an acting video of the renowned German American actress and acting teacher, Uta Hagen, with a group of friends. In it, she warns her students to not think about what they're feeling onstage––the words “think” and “feel” themselves are contradictory.
“I do that to you all the time,” I said to Joe. “I’m always asking you, ‘What are you feeling?’ ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘I’m going to do this here because of this.’”
In this way, I realize I am more like Wendy than I thought I was: the desire to always put a label on my emotions, rather than just feeling them; wanting to have it all figured out; wanting to know rather than feel, or rather, know how I feel, because knowing is so much more concrete. But the more time I spend trying to know how I feel, the less I feel. I understand this when I’m onstage. My best performances are the ones when I’m in the moment, not thinking about, “What is my character feeling at this moment?” but just being that character in that moment.
This show comes at a very apropos time for me. It’s my senior year, and as I prepare to wrap up this chapter in my life, I’m torn between the desire to grow up and the longing to stay a child. Like Wendy, who grew up of her own accord, I am leaving home of my own accord next year. No one’s telling me I have to go to college or that I need to go far away. I’m optimistic and nostalgic; excited and scared. I’m taking ownership of my life, which scares me because if I’m wrong, there’s no one to blame but myself.
Last night was my friend Connor’s last performance ever on our high school stage. Three Novembers ago, we were performing together onstage in Romeo and Juliet, our first high school play. As I watched him bow, I couldn’t stop crying, thinking about the time when I will need to say goodbye to him and my other senior friends. We’ve been through so much together. I have so many emotions about it all and I’m not always sure what I’m feeling or how I’m feeling, and somehow I want to find a name for it. But there I go again, thinking instead of just feeling.
My favorite part of Peter Pan was the final number, when Joe and I slow danced while he sang “Don’t Say Goodbye.” I believe that is Wendy’s freest moment of the play, because she is not thinking, just feeling. And in my performance, I too was not thinking, just feeling. Nothing made me feel freer than when Joe would spin me in my blue nightgown, and I could feel the fabric swishing around me and the wooden stage beneath my slippers.
"Don't think of when we meet again, if it will be the same. Don't cry too hard, just smile, be happy now, be strong,” sang Joe as Peter, urging me not to worry about the future. "Don't wonder how we came to now, don't wonder why,” he sang, telling me not to think about the past. Just think about the present. Because if you read the book, you know that Peter forgets to come back for Wendy most years. He’s too preoccupied with his own adventures. But in the moment, Wendy believes with all her heart that Peter will come back for her, and that’s all that matters.