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Brief Encounter With … Peter Pan Producer Charlie Burnell

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Charlie Burnell has been producing theatre in London since the premiere of Anthony Minghella's Cigarettes and Chocolate in 1996. Since then, his production credits include One Knight Only at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in response to the 2004 Asian Tsunami disaster, Honour (Wyndham's), What the Butler Saw (Criterion), The Shape of Things (New Ambassadors) and Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy for the Colorado Festival of World Theatre. He is currently producing, with Mat Churchill, a multimedia production of JM Barrie's Peter Pan, mounted in a specially constructed tent located in the story's spiritual home, Kensington Gardens, where it continues to 30 August 2009.

How did the Peter Pan project start?
It was early 2006 when Mat Churchill, a tent theatre specialist, and I decided to collaborate on a family-friendly piece of theatre at a landmark location in or around London. So we put our thinking caps on and I came up with the idea of doing Peter Pan; and there was clearly only one place to do it, Kensington Gardens, where J.M Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies children who inspired him to write the story in the first place.

Was it difficult persuading Kensington Gardens?
It was a big ask, and as soon as we decided to do it we became absolutely tenacious in our pursuit - they're understandably incredibly protective of the location. But Royal Parks were wonderful from the beginning, agreeing that if anything was going to be performed there it would have to be Peter Pan. We had ongoing discussions that lasted about a year deciding how we could make it work.

As talks progressed we built up our team - it was very encouraging to see how quickly people we approached bought into the vision for it; they absolutely got it. Consequently we managed to put together our dream team of creators. Tanya Ronder has a great track record in adaptation, William Dudley is a design legend and Ben Harrison is an absolute site-specific theatre guru. And Ben Wallfisch, our composer, is up and coming and provided the epic score we were seeking.

What are the challenges/rewards of creating your own venue?
It’s undoubtedly a double-edged sword. We had to decide what our production was going to be and design and build a theatre to accommodate it – so quite the reverse of producing in a traditional venue. The structure of the very top of the tent is in two sections and it was specifically designed to hold the flying rig and the lighting rig and speakers beneath that. We designed it with that in mind and the inside part of the tent is painted a specific matte grey which is the best colour to project video on to. So it was great to be be able to create our own space, but logistically it was a lot of extra work.

Did you decide to use video projection from project's conception?
It actually came later; our original intention was simply that if we were going to stage Peter Pan for the first time on a large scale in the place where Barrie conceived it then it was our duty was to tell the story as well as we possibly could with everything at our disposal in 2009.

We designed the tent with an external supporting structure so that the children could fly freely without bumping into tent poles and also to avoid unclear sight lines. When Bill Dudley, whose video credentials in live theatre are clear to see, saw this, he thought 'well there are no obstructions inside, we could project video throughout 360 degrees and immerse not only the actors but the entire audience in the set'. We discussed that for a long time before we decided to do it. With all new technologies there’s always a danger that it can be overused or it can unbalance what your central task is – to tell the story. We thought very about carefully of how we would use it and if it would help us to tell the story or if we would be better off with a conventional set. But as we worked through the play we decided it would help us in wonderful ways, not least with the flight to Neverland which is a lot of people’s favourite part of the show. It enabled us to fly over 400 square miles of computer-generated Edwardian London!

Is it important that the characters themselves never become animated?
We didn’t want the video to imbalance the production. There are only a couple of set pieces where the actors are interacting with the video; the rest of the time it serves as a conventional set. It was absolutely a specific decision not to animate any of the characters and put them in the video. I think it would’ve been a huge error to bring people to see a live show in Kensington Gardens and then just play them a movie. It’s really about, with or without the video, the actors in the middle of the stage and them telling the story. I remember when I watched a first run-through in rehearsal when we didn’t have any video; it was very important to me that the story worked. We didn’t have any sound, flying, music or video, but I was still wholly engaged by the play.

Do you think there's a danger that video may become too dominant in theatre in the future?
Only in the wrong hands. It’s no different to any other idea or new technique - there’s always a danger that people will overuse it when it's new. I’m reliably informed that when the censorship laws were relaxed every show had a nude scene in it and then everybody got over it and just told the story. I think video is exactly like that, it should be there as a tool like any other - lights, script or music. You should use it carefully and judiciously to help you tell the story in the right way. If it becomes the centre of attention then you've made a mistake.

Have there been any technical mishaps?
Remarkably there haven't - not to my knowledge, certainly regarding the video. It’s very exciting. There's an edge blending technique which means you can run ten projectors in parallel and the edge of each projection blends perfectly and invisibly with the edge of the next one. This is the thing that has enabled us to do this 360 degrees projection. That is all new technology.

Are you really going to pack it all away in August?
There is very much a future for this production. We always felt that if we told this well enough and the word spreads, we can take it forward. We may well progress to another London location for a run around Christmas time and then we hope to open in the USA next year – an absolute venue has yet to be agreed but it may well be Chicago. Wherever we take the production we'll take our theatre with us; it's part of what we do. We're very keen to find locations with a great environment - another nice park or a beautiful area with a view of the sea or a lake. I think part of the experience of coming to Kensington Gardens is being in a peaceful surrounding outside the tent. There's no shortage of beautiful locations around the world and wherever we can include them and make them part of the experience we will do that.

Would you like to see more children's theatre in London?
I think there can always be more and I think the standards of it in London are going up. During the 70s there were so many dark theatres and people were saying live theatre is dead because of movies and television. That happily turned out not to be true; there’s nothing like live theatre. The visual involvement the audience feels while watching the show that no one else will ever see because no two performances are ever the same. Good children’s theatre will build an appetite for live theatre in our young and I think then they’ll seek out the good stuff as they grow up and that’s absolutely vital.

- Charlie Burnell was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Peter Pan, which stars Ciaran Kellgren, Jonathan Hyde, Abby Ford and Itxaso Moreno, continues to 30 August. Our Whatsonstage.com Outing on 23 July has now sold out, but click here to join the waiting list.


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