How Does a “Starcatcher” Move?
Steven Hoggett creates evocative movement at New York Theatre Workshop
What’s the most surprising thing about the mermaids in Peter and the Starcatcher? It could be their bras, which are made from things like vegetable steamers. It could be their gender, since most of the underwater beauties are played by men. But for anyone who sees their big musical number, when they flounce their sparkly tails and sway their arms like belly dancers, the biggest shock could be learning they were choreographed by Steven Hoggett.
Hoggett is known for aggressive choreography in shows like Black Watch, an intense look at Scottish soldiers, and American Idiot, a punk rock musical about alienated youth. He’s rarely attached to a whimsical piece like Peter, which runs through April at New York Theatre Workshop.
“Off the back of Black Watch, a lot of the offers I’ve had for work have been because of the movement in that show, so you end up having a bit of a reputation for a certain style,” Hoggett says. “The work that I do make is not very delicate or necessarily very beautiful. I’m drawn to more ballistic, energetic ‘anger movements’ and what that does.”
Indeed, his choreography for Beautiful Burnout, currently running at St. Ann’s Warehouse, depicts both the artistry and ruthlessness of boxing. But Peter and the Starcatcher, despite its mostly male cast and fighting pirates, has a gentler feel.
The play is a prequel to Peter Pan. In this version—written by Rick Elice, who wrote the book to Jersey Boys—Peter is an unnamed orphan on a pirate ship. A girl named Molly and her father are also on board, determined to keep a mysterious substance called “star stuff” from getting into the wrong hands.
Hoggett, who’s credited as the movement director, was drawn to the show’s inventive storytelling. He says,“It was about showing the mechanics of theatre and actors enjoying themselves putting the story up.”
To that end, he wants the actors’ movements to define everything from interpersonal relationships to the size of a room. “The physicality of the show changes scene by scene,” he says.
For instance, when Molly and her nanny are stuck in a small space on the ship, the performers become the walls around them. They often move their bodies to suggest the rocking of the sea, and in one scene, they careen across the stage as the ship breaks in half.
Executing these movements—and making them convincing—requires an extraordinary amount of precision and energy. Hoggett used a series of strength-building exercises to help the performers become a cohesive unit, and he worked with them to consider how audiences interpret even the smallest gesture. Therefore, as they run, jump, crawl, and slide, they’re not just actors having a chaotic good time: They are a true ensemble, using their bodies to create an entire world.
Photo by Joan Marcus