Interview: Local Author Ridley Pearson Talks About His Novel-to-Musical-Play 'Peter and the Starcatcher,' At The Peabody This Weekend
Ridley Pearson didn’t just come out of nowhere and write “Peter and the Starcatchers,” co-authored with humorist Dave Berry. In fact, Pearson had already published more than 20 suspense and thriller novels, and since then he’s published four more Starcatchers books, six novels in the Disney Kingdom Keepers series, two books in the Steel Trapp series, and other collaborations with Berry including three chapter books and an adventure book titled “Science Fair.” But only “Starcatchers” has been turned into a hit play. The highly innovative and creative musical play based on the best-selling novel comes to St. Louis for the first time this weekend, March 7 though 9, at the Peabody.
In this adult prequel to “Peter Pan,” a company of twelve actors plays more than a hundred unforgettable characters to answer the question that has been posed for a century by schoolchildren and scholars alike : How did Peter Pan become The Boy Who Never Grew Up? The swashbuckling romp uses inventive stagecraft and structure to realize a never-before-seen form of storytelling that wowed audiences and critics alike, and garnered five Tony awards. And nobody is more thrilled about sitting in the Peabody audience on opening night that Pearson himself.
ALIVE caught up with Pearson and talked about his collaboration with Dave Berry, the instant success of “Starcatchers,” and what it’s like to have your novel turned into a musical play by Disney.
ALIVE: What brought you to St. Louis?
Pearson: We still aren’t sure. We adopted a child from China. St. Louis had 500 families organized into a group of families with children from China, and we had—she was our second daughter—and we had been living in a ski resort town and felt that wasn’t the right way to bring up kids. We came out to St. Louis as guests of a fundraiser and fell in love with the area and decided to try it for a year and we’ve been here 14 years.
ALIVE: It must have been an interesting experience adopting a child from China.
Pearson: When we went to the White Swan in Guangzhou, the entire hotel, which was 1100 people or more, was all families adopting kids. It was the funniest thing on Earth. Everytime you got in an elevator, there were four families with a new child in their little stroller.
ALIVE: How did you come to write “Peter and the Starcatchers?” Is the story true that it came from your daughter asking you how Peter met Dr. Hook?
Pearson: Yeah. I tell you, from the mouths of babes. Look at what’s come from that one question.
ALIVE: You asked Dave Berry to write it with you. Were you and Berry already friends?
Pearson: Both of us were invited to play in a never-before author’s band in 1991 for a single night in Aneheim, Calif., and that developed into the Rock Bottom Remainders, now in its 22nd, 23rd year, whatever it is. So Dave and I had met in that band. And over the course of ten years touring we became close friends and our families became friends, we traveled together, that kind of thing. It happened that right after (my daughter) asked me that question, I was staying with Dave because we were doing a performance in South Florida. I said, “Paige asked me the damnest question.” His eyes went wide and we agreed we would try to collaborate and write a funny but suspenseful book about a boy becoming Peter Pan.
ALIVE: Was “Peter and the Starcatcher” an immediate hit?
Pearson: Yeah, it was really strange. First, Dave and I didn’t have any idea if we could do this—if we’d be any good at doing it. We sort of envisioned an 80-, 90-page novella, and at the very least we’d be able to run down to Kinko’s and run a few copies off for our kids. We never really thought, “Oh, we’re going to contribute to the opus of J.M Barrie.” That just didn’t enter our minds. We sat down to write this thing and outlined it and could see immediately it wasn’t going to be 90 pages. It ended up being 450 pages. Because of my relationship with Disney books they took a look at it first, in its infancy—I don’t think we’d written more than eight or nine chapters—which is pretty rare for a publisher to jump in that early.
ALIVE: And they bought it?
Pearson: They just snatched it up, and then they published like I’ve never had a book published. They did a brilliant job of packaging it like a classic and really getting the word out. It went immediately on the N.Y. Times best seller list and stayed there just shy of a year. It was, really, around the world. It shocked Dave and me. You know what I think? That the play started out in a real industry mode; it was never envisioned as being something that would be a big hit, and then it turned into one. This thing has just had a little pixie dust around it the whole way.
ALIVE: It doesn’t have the normal trappings of a Disney production.
Pearson: In the beginning, it was a Disney production, and then about three years ago they sold a majority interest to 3 -2 -1 Productions, which does Wicked. They recognized in all their wisdom—Dave and I wouldn’t have, honestly—that it shouldn’t be a big, blown-out “Wicked” kind of production. It should be a very modest small cast thing with many roles. The whole thing should feel like it could be 1880 or 1920, and they just knocked it out of the park. And when they got it knocked out of the park, Tom (Schumaker, the president of Disney Theatricals) looked at it and said, I think very wisely, “this isn’t something that we’re going to be able to put our Disney ‘D’ on. Then we’ll have Greenwich housewives bringing in their 6-year olds and they’ll be extremely disappointed. Because it’s really an adult play with some songs in it.”
ALIVE: What was your reaction when you found out it would be adapted into a stage play?
Pearson: I was flipped out when I heard this might be a New York play. When you sell something like this to a company like Disney, you know you’re going to have no say in it. I have no idea how you turn a book into a play. To their credit, they did ask Dave and me for notes and input and we certainly gave it. I don’t think they needed it. So they made us feel at home, which was so incredible, but they didn’t need us. It’s not like we contributed much to the thing.
ALIVE: How did you feel seeing the show performed on stage that first performance?
Pearson: I first saw it when some actors at Williams college and the Williamstown Theatre. Just in a bar in Williams. They brought in some actors who cut pages out of the book and read from them as they walked through the scenes. That was the first time I saw it, I was like, “Wow, this is cool!” And of course it wasn’t anything. A year later Dave and I saw six scenes in their infancy that Rick Ellis had written, performed by some really good actors in the basement of a church in Manhattan and it was mind-boggling seeing that. Then Rick and everybody said, just fasten your seat belt, because when you see it in full with Equity actors you’re going to be amazed. It was outstanding. Just jaw-dropping theater. And it was our play. We laughed all the way though it and finished with a tear in our eye. And it’s only grown from that day on.
ALIVE: Will you be going to the show at the Peabody?
Pearson: Oh yeah! I’ll be the one who goes, “Woo hoo hoo!” I’ve seen this group, I’ve seen this cast. Three or four weeks ago I saw a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, 120 performances into the road trip. Unbelievable. And that’s the group we’re all going to see. One of the things you typically see with these touring groups is a high turnover. It’s pretty grueling. These guys go a month or two and then they bail. In our group, nobody has left yet, and it’s been running for eight months. So these guys are a polished group of actors delivering those lines. It’s quite a show. I think everybody will be quite impressed with this thing.
ALIVE: What are you writing right now?
Pearson: I’ve got the seventh and final Kingdom Keepers novel coming April 1, and now that series too has had a couple of million readers, so that’s kind of a big deal for me. I had a big adult thriller in my Risk Agent series launch on June 17 called the “Red Room,“ which should be a huge book for me, and I’m just starting the next in that series, and I’m starting the next Kingdom Keeper series that follows the current series, so I’m a busy boy right now. It looks like we’re getting very close to selling a tv series.
ALIVE: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Pearson: I would just add that the play is about Peter Pan, and people see that and think, “Ah, I don’t want to go to that.” But if they go its very, very funny and it’s such inventive theater that I have yet to run into anyone who hasn’t said it’s one of the best theater experiences they’ve ever had. The New York Times said about the play—not once but twice—that this is one of the most inventive uses of theater in the last thirty years. Anyone who likes to see a curtain go up is gonna like this. Even if they think they want to stay away because it’s Peter Pan, they don’t. Do not miss this experience. You won’t regret it.
“Peter and the Starcatchers” plays this weekend at the Peabody, March 7-9. For tickets or information, visit the Peabody website, or call 800-745-3000.