James Graham on 'Peter Pan' as true theatre anarchy

Finding Neverland. Photo by Carol Rosegg
“There was an idea about what art should be, and J. M. Barrie contradicted that by suggesting there was possibly a value to learning from children,” says ‘Finding Neverland’ writer James Graham. Pictured: Laura Michelle Kelly and Aidan Gemme of the original Broadway cast. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The first national touring production of Finding Neverland opens in Denver on Dec. 20. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore was given exclusive access to the principal cast and creative team, and we are posting his extensive interviews in a seven-part series here on the DCPA NewsCenter. Part 4: Book writer and playwright James Graham. Next: Tom Hewitt, who plays Charles Frohman and Captain James Hook.

J. M. Barrie not only put children on the stage – he made them the focus. And that gave them the power of the storytelling.

By John Moore
For the DCPA NewsCenter

Finding Neverland is the story of how playwright J. M. Barrie found both the inspiration to write Peter Pan, and the courage to put his story on the turn-of-the-century London stage.

James Graham, a 34-year-old British playwright who has been cutting the edges of the London theatre himself with a series of timely and political plays, understands why modern audiences might be a bit baffled to hear that it took actual courage for Barrie to stage what has become one of the most beloved myths of the past century.

“Yes it’s easy to forget now, because Peter Pan is so ingrained in our popular conscience,” said Graham. “But when J. M. Barrie wrote that play in 1904, it was incredibly radical and actually quite dangerous.”

What Barrie was doing 100 years ago just wasn’t done in London. He not only put children on the stage – he made them the focus. And that gave them the power of the storytelling.

James Graham Finding Neverland Quote“The idea that J. M. Barrie would, first and foremost, give children voice, rather than the grownups, was a complete reversal of the hierarchy and the status quo,” Graham said. “He was famous for flipping those power dynamics. He even made their nanny a dog. All of that was quite anarchic. It was quite shocking to the theatre establishment when he delivered that play.”

This was, he further explained, a very rigid, post-Victorian society. “And if you look at Downton Abbey, which began about 10 years later, it’s all about social structures and hierarchy and knowing your place and never going above your circumstances,” said Graham. “There was a proper way of behaving, and that did not suit Peter Pan in any way.”

Finding Neverland recounts many amazing backstage stories we probably can’t believe now, Graham said. “They wouldn’t even hand out the whole script of Peter Pan to the actors at first because they thought they would rebel. They had to have security on the doors in the rehearsal room because they thought that if it ever leaked out that this was a play about flying pixies and fairies and dogs and pirates, it would destroy the theatre’s reputation – and Barrie’s.

“There was an idea about what society was and what art should be, and Barrie contradicted that by suggesting there was possibly a value to learning from children, from returning to that sense of innocence and make-believe from childhood.”

Graham ‘s recent plays include the acclaimed Privacy at London’s Donmar Warehouse and This House at the National Theatre. This House, which was nominated for the Olivier Best Play Award and later was broadcast to cinemas worldwide, took a hard political look at the House of Commons. The more recent Privacy, which starred Daniel Radcliffe and became a hot ticket at the Public Theatre in New York, investigates the consequences of living your life online in the post-Snowden era. Variety’s David Benedict called Privacy “theatrically sophisticated, deeply researched, sharply structured material that’s as fascinating as it is unnerving.”

Which might not make Graham Director Diane Paulus’ most obvious choice to write the book for the Broadway musical adaptation of Finding Neverland. But when you think of yourself not only as a kindred spirit but a direct literary descendant of Barrie’s – Graham was perhaps the perfect choice.

“Everything about it appealed to my slightly anarchic side,” he said. And Graham evidently appealed to Paulus.

“Diane has an incredible forensic knowledge of how you build a musical and how musicals work in terms of their structure and their effect on an audience,” Graham said. “I think she does apply some pretty out-of-the-box thinking when she puts a show together. That was certainly the case with this process.”

Here is more of our in-depth conversation with ‘Finding Neverland’ book writer James Graham:

John Moore: Congratulations on Privacy.

James Graham: Thank you. It’s such a crazy play.  We’re really pleased that people have taken to it. It’s cool. It’s great.

John Moore: How was it received in New York? 

Daniel Radcliffe in 'Privacy.' Photo by Joan Marcus. James Graham: Really well. It was furiously sold out, which was good and bad, because obviously you always want to get all of the people in who want to see it. It’s such a strange show. The form is quite experimental. We ask the audience to keep their cell phones on during the play, and to share every night on social media. It was a tough one, but it was fun to do something a bit crazy and a bit different. 

(Pictured: Daniel Radcliffe in ‘Privacy’ off-Broadway with Michael Countryman, left, Raffi Barsoumian and Reg Rogers. Photo by Joan Marcus.)

John Moore: I find it fascinating that Diane Paulus thought to pick you for Finding Neverland. I mean, you’ve just written this very timely new play about the impact of social media, and yet Diane looked you to adapt this century-old story. Why you?

James Graham: That’s a very good question. I often ask that myself. I write political plays in the U.K. about obscure British historical events that would not normally interest anyone else. So I was as surprised as anyone. But as you say, my roots are very much in theatre, first and foremost. I love writing television dramas and screenplays, but I started on the stage and that’s where I feel the most comfortable. I had a reasonable success at the National Theatre about four years ago with This House. (Finding Neverland producer) Harvey Weinstein saw that show and then we imagined we might make a movie together at some point. Then I was incredibly surprised with the call I got from him a couple of weeks later inquiring about the writing of a book for a Peter Pan musical. I didn’t quite imagine that’s what that conversation was going to be. But I’m so thrilled he asked, because it’s been extraordinary. I love being tested and challenged in different parts of my creativity and my brain. I loved the challenge of going from one production that features what I think is the biggest socially political issue of our time – how technology is eroding our privacy and our sense of self – to writing a pop musical with these guys that explores childhood, fantasy and imagination. Most of us have never had the joy of working with a composer or a lyricist or a choreographer. And we’re all from such different disciplines, like TV dance shows or the U.K. pop circuit. It’s been awesome. It’s been cool.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: So you’re a writer, and J. M. Barrie was a writer, But what specifically interested you most about the story you were being asked to write?

James Graham: First and foremost, I would say I related to the plight of the main character, J. M. Barrie, as a writer who is feeling slightly trapped and blocked, and a writer who yearned to return to an age of living in his head and imagination at a time when life was more fun and playful and free. I think we all have a bit of Peter Pan in us, and I think I probably have more of a child than most of the people I know my age still. I spend my life making up characters and living in my own head. So I associated with that, because in real life, I’m not very exciting.

John Moore: When you talk about J. M. Barrie’s anarchic spirit, it begins to seem as if Finding Neverland has more in common with your plays Privacy and This House and than meets the eye.

James Graham: I hope so, because I think if you are going to ask people to leave their homes and come to the theatre and watch a show like Finding Neverland, I think it has to mean something and have some value in their lives. But equally, I won’t pretend it was also anything other than what we hope is a sort of raucously entertaining, thrilling night at the theatre. It’s such a comical and sparkly show. I think visually, Diane Paulus has created some of the most beautiful and thrilling effects on stage that I’ve ever been a party to.

John Moore: What was it like working with your pop-star composers, Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy?

James Graham: We tried to take the spirit of J. M. Barrie and do something that felt sort of intentionally incongruous. Having upbeat British pop music in an English, Edwardian setting was really exciting to me. There are some incredible numbers in the show from these guys. That has nothing to do with me, but I think the audience hopefully should be leaving the theatre singing at the end of the night.  

John Moore: I know that in the theatre, the playwright is God. When you sit down to write Privacy and This House, that all comes straight from your laptop. So what are the challenges when there is not only a source film to be faithful to, but you also have these other creators saying to you, “Hey, we need to stop your story and sing a song right here”?

James Graham: It’s an entirely different writing process. I say this in the best possible sense: You kind of have to leave your ego at the door of the rehearsal room every day. As you say, there is tradition in the theatre world that the author is God, and your name is above the door, and there is kind of a reverence around you. That’s not the case when you write a musical. Because you’re only one part of a team, or a machine, and all of it has to be functioning. I really, really loved that because I have never had to incorporate other people with my art, and here that might be dance or music or sound or visual effects or anything else that goes into the show. That’s such a good discipline I think for a playwright to have to work at. It’s very humbling to see other peoples’ skills, and then try and bend your own work around theirs – and see them bend theirs around yours.

John Moore: What did you think of the 2004 source film with Johnny Depp?

James Graham: I absolutely loved the film. I watched it when it came out. I found it really moving and beautiful and funny. So that was another reason to sink my teeth into it as well.

James Graham Finding Neverland QuoteJohn Moore: What was it like watching the film again, knowing that your challenge now was to bring that story to the stage?

James Graham: I wasn’t really intimidated by it. I always feel quite free when I’m adapting anything, whether it be historical events or source material. I think I convinced myself that you can only really take the essence of a film or a book that you’re adapting, and then you really have to find what it means to you personally and how you might find theatrical language for that. And I was super, super keen to find a theatrical language to this show, because it is a play about the theatre and the power of storytelling to inspire and change things. So I was keen to move it as much away from the film universe and toward the theatre universe as possible. 

John Moore: Was Peter Pan part of your childhood?

James Graham: Oh my gosh, yes. Hugely. I had it from age 4 or 5. I have a very vivid image of me in my house as a kid in the 1980s standing on the arm of my sofa and genuinely believing that if I closed my eyes and had a good thought, then I would be able to fly off the thing. Obviously, I crashed and burned. I remember that very vividly. Here in London we have a tradition which you don’t really have there in America. It’s a Christmas show called pantomime, where we take on legends and stories and myths like Robin Hood or Cinderella and Peter Pan. It’s a very specific type of silly comedy show that we’ve been doing here for hundreds of years, and everyone goes to watch at Christmas. My favorite one to go and watch at my local theatre was always Peter Pan.

John Moore: There have been so many variations of Peter Pan in books and film and on stage. What can I tell people so they don’t mistake Finding Neverland for any other Peter Pan story?

James Graham: This story tells the origins of one of the greatest works in our shared culture. We’re getting used to that in the theatre now, when you think of the huge popularity and success of Wicked. Finding Neverland is almost like the Star Wars prequel. It’s not the story of Peter Pan itself – it’s the story how Peter became Pan. And it’s a really, really brilliant and funny and amazing and moving story of how this playwright, finding himself in a condition which I think every audience member will understand, of suddenly feeling like you’ve gotten slightly older, without meaning to. You’ve taken on all this responsibility, and life just isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be. Meeting this extraordinary family, as Barrie did in real life, turned him into this brilliant, silly kid again. And then he took on London society and created this play that inspired them all. It’s a real-life story and it so brilliantly exciting and funny and moving that I think hopefully people should love it. 

John Moore: Sadly, we, we don’t get to see it here in Denver it until December.

James Graham: Oh, but that’s the perfect time to come and see it – Christmas.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Finding Neverland: Ticket information
• Dec 20, 2016, through Jan. 1, 2017
• Buell Theatre
• Cast talkback: After the Dec. 21 performance
• ASL interpreted, Audio-described and Open Captioned performance: Dec. 30
• Tickets: 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
• Groups: Call 303-446-4829 

Selected Previous NewsCenter coverage:
Finding Neverland
creative team, Part 1: Director Diane Paulus
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 2: Choreographer Mia Michaels
Finding Neverland creative team, Part 3: Composers Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy
Diane Paulus on the rise of ‘adventure theatre’
Finding Neverland flies onto Denver Center’s 2016-17 Broadway season

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