ken cerniglia: managing expectations

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LMDA NYC visits with Ken Cerniglia
Disney Theatrical Productions Dramaturg and Literary Manager
Friday, March 25, at 1pm

Ken Cerniglia (I love the hands in motion), New Amsterdam Theatre 8th floor conference room.  Photo by Martha Wade Steketee.

The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) New York City chapter continues its series of conversations with institutional dramaturgs in town with Ken Cerniglia, Dramaturg and Literary Manager at Disney Theatrical Productions in New York City.  Attending this midday Friday at the New Amsterdam Theatre at 214 West 42nd Street are: Amy Jensen (LMDA regional VP, freelance dramaturg), Mike Cohen (Music Theatre Initiative  of the Public Theater, and Literary Manager for the York Theatre), Arminda Thomas (Ruby Dee/Ossie  Davis archives), David George Schultz (Tectonic Theatre Project, Theater of War, and other projects), Michael Warren (PhD student in theatre at Tufts who traveled from Boston for this event!), Heather Violante (dramaturg and development associate for Mint Theatre), and Martha Wade Steketee (freelance dramaturg).

After introductions around a table in one of the stunning 8th floor administrative office conference rooms of the historic New Amsterdam Theatre (once the aerie location of Florenz Ziegfeld‘s famous afterhours midnight follies), Ken begins with some background on Disney Theatrical Productions in general before moving to conversation about his work on the new “play with music” Peter and the Starcatcher.

Disney Theatrical Productions was created in 1994 as a “one off” around the stage version of Beauty and the Beast. Activities originally were overseen from Disney’s Burbank offices.  Beauty won a Tony for costumes and was seen by critics as a “cartoon on stage”, and yet, due to the musical theatre experience among the creators of that cartoon, the show actually suggest the reverse: the stage version put Beauty the musical back on the stage.  Disney invested $37 million in the 42nd Street Redevelopment efforts and has invested in a range of stage efforts (I append production years after a quick spin through IBDB): Beauty and the Beast (1994-2007),  King David (1997, 10 performances), Lion King (1997-still running), Aida, produced by Hyperion (2000-2004),  Mary Poppins (opened in London in 2004 and running at the New Amsterdam since 2006).

Disney Theatrical’s efforts in the schools have taken several forms.  Stage versions of the television/movie efforts High School Musical, designed to be presented simply have been wildly successful.  Since late 2004 there have been 30,000 licensed productions world wide.  High School Musical was turned into a stage event in six months.  The head of the Disney Channel’s vision was to develop the next generation of movie musical loving kids.  According to Ken, this “hit the pocket.”  Disney Theatricals also has developed scaled down versions of Disney musicals for schools available for a license fee — the Disney staff works to ensure that providing a script and a score will be enough information for the school to generate a product.  “We know that kids doing theatre is good for them,” Cerniglia noted.  Their collection includes a range of shows that started as films: Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid (the newest in their scaled down school catalog), Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin, Mulan, and others.

The development work of Disney Theatrical has financial advantages and additional responsibilities.  They don’t have to raise money to develop products, but have a public responsibility (to Disney’s shareholders) to not go out on a limb.  There are assets not to be discounted, but additional responsibilities.

Work on the play with music Peter and the Starcatcher funded by Disney Theatrical has been a several year adventure, beginning with a book written as a prequel imagining the story of Peter Pan before he could fly.  What happened before everyone landed in Neverland?  [Full disclosure — I have seen and was quite enchanted by the current production — see  http://wp.me/pHkrs-165.]  Ken notes that Peter is the first project since Aida that Disney Theatrical has worked on that was not first a film.  As noted, the original inspiration (from which the stage version freely adapts) was a series of novels by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson imagining this prestory.  From the original 2004 book galleys, people at Disney and others have seen the stage and possibly film potential in these books. Workshops honed the number of ships involved from 3 to 2 and orphan boys to 4, refined the panto-inspired story-telling and stripped down aesthetic of the show.  There have been casting shifts (Roger Rees, originally envisioned as the character Black Stache, becomes a co-director), and performance venues explored.

Ken’s work as dramaturg on this project has included assembling, brokering, clarifying.  One challenge with this piece, he notes, is managing expectations.  This piece  is somewhere in between drama and musical.  “It didn’t feel like it wanted to be a musical”, notes  Cerniglia.  “It wanted to be a play.”   A key early development questions was whether the play belonged to the orphan Peter or the starcatcher and natural leader Molly.  Clarification on that point came through simplifying the title to the nonplural “Starcatcher” — it is Peter AND Molly’s story as a result.  Characters were pared from 16 to 12, villains were simplified and reduced in number, Peter and one of the books’ boys Jim were conflated.  The production is in the middle of a well received run at New York Theatre Workshop and the production team is currently considering business models addressing whether they can move it in New York and which of the available houses could hold it.

Ken provides the assembled dramaturgs an excited and exciting perspective on the possibilities and responsibilities of creating musical theatre for adult and school-aged audiences using the sizable resources of the Disney Corporation. Corporate dramaturgy in a building that resonates history.  Thrilling.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 28, 2011)

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