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Chris Lemieux, shown here on the set of Peter and the Starcatcher, has brought a sense of play—and a unique interpretation—to the production he’s directing for Shoreline Theatre Company (STC). (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
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As someone who embraces the spirit of Peter Pan, Chris Lemieux has brought a sense of play to directing Shoreline Theatre Company’s (STC) first play, Peter and the Starcatcher.
“I’m a massive Peter Pan fan, and Peter and the Starcatcher is essentially the prequel to Peter Pan,” says Chris, a Branford native.
Chris also saw an opportunity to bring a unique interpretation to the original Broadway play, which was staged as a period piece (complete with pirates and sailing ships) sprinkled with mentions of modern-day conventions.
“It’s a period piece, but at the same time there’s contemporary language going on—like they mention ‘Cadillacs’—but those things never appear. So, for me, there was such a disconnect,” he says. “And one night, I was reading through the play and thought, ‘How interesting would it be if this show took place in 2019, on Neverland, when Neverland has lost its magic? And there’s a bunch of islanders on this island, and these are actors who are visited every single night by a bunch of tourists, and they perform the play of how Neverland got its magic back.”
Now, it’s nearly time to bring up the curtain on Chris’s unique take. STC will present two performances of Peter and the Starcatcher at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3 and Friday, Oct. 4 at the Branford High School (BHS) Cathyann Roding Auditorium, 185 East Main Street. General seating tickets, $10, are available online now at branfordct.myrec.com.
From the moment the audience enters the auditorium, they’ll have arrived on the island of Neverland, says Chris.
“Immediately, when you walk into the theater, we’re going to have actors on stage, living life, doing things, building stuff,” he says. “We have some dancing, and we have some really great ways of showing how the pre-show music is getting piped in.”
Following the tenets of the Broadway play, STC actors will take on multiple roles in this production.
“At its base, it’s called story-telling theater,” explains Chris. “It’s like five-year-olds playing pretend—’I’m a pirate! Now I’m a Power Ranger!’ And as an adult, it’s very hard to connect with that. That’s what this play does, all the time. People like Mike Martone [who plays Mr. Smee] are playing 15 different roles—he plays a cat, he plays a sailor; they all play doors, they play trees. It’s very different. Not only are the actors using their imagination, but we are asking that the audience takes a step back [and] imagine they’re in the midst of all this.”
Martone, the current BHS music education/choral director, recently starred as Max Bialystock alongside Chris, as Leo Bloom, in STC’s June 2019 production of Mel Brooks’s hit Broadway musical The Producers.
Chris earned his BFA in acting from Pace University in New York in 2013. He brought his acting skills to the table when working with the players who populate this production of Peter and the Starcatcher, starting off rehearsals with improvisation games with the actors.
“It is really about a sense of play,” says Chris, who also cast 15 “age-appropriate actors” (ages 11 through 60-something), rather than sticking with the Broadway show’s use of all-adult actors.
“So the Lost Boys are boys. And the mothers, and the fathers, and the pirates are older,” says Chris. “You won’t see the way it’s being done here anywhere else, and that’s what’s exciting about it.”
It’s been an exciting year for Chris, who has been living in New York City and coming home for Branford summers. Recently, he completed an acting stint in Alabama (including performing with company of Alabama Shakespeare Festival, the sixth largest Shakespeare festival in the world) followed by helping a friend open a Los Angeles-based theater company (Chris took on the role of director of development).
When Chris came home to Branford for summer 2018, he dove right into the area’s burgeoning local theater scene.
“When I came back to Branford, I noticed the theater scene in the community was starting to blossom. That’s something that we never really had when I was a kid,” says the BHS Class of 2009 graduate.
As a BHS student, Chris acted in some of the only local theater available at the time: BHS fall plays and spring musicals.
Chris says his interest in directing plays ties back to his BHS fall play acting experiences under the direction of Maria Ogren. Recently, Chris and Ogren wrote an adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Ogren produced as the BHS 2018 fall play.
“She instilled in me that you have to have a purpose for telling a story. You can’t just be telling a story that someone else has told. That’s something I owe to her,” says Chris.
He’s additionally grateful for the experience he gained as a stage performer by working with past BHS musical co-directors Cathyann Roding and Toni Cartisano. Chris also never forgot the support BHS performers received—and continue to receive—from the town’s appreciative crowds.
“There’s just something about Branford, where the people are very receptive to live theater,” Chris says.
But for many years, local theater offerings ended at the school stage. Now, a shift is underway.
In 2018, Chris re-connected with friend Colin Sheehan, who had recently taken over artistic direction of Branford-based Tabor Arts.
“It was kind of a full-circle moment, because Colin directed me in my first play when he was 14,” says Chris. “I was like, ‘Shepherd Number 3’ in his nativity play he wrote for St. Mary’s Church.”
Chris first helped Sheehan with Tabor Arts by providing coaching to actors in a 2018 production of Peter Pan Jr. As Sheehan and Martone also co-direct the BHS spring musicals, Chris offered his help there, too, working with actors on the 2018 BHS production of Shrek, The Musical.
Then, in summer 2018, Sheehan co-founded STC with Martone, operating the new theater company under the umbrella of Branford Parks & Recreation. Chris went on to assist STC with its youth summer theater camps.
The summer of 2019 was a particularly busy time in Branford for Chris. He landed his starring role as Leo Bloom in STC’s The Producers in June in Branford. In July, he appeared in The Legacy Theatre’s outdoor Shakespeare production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed on the Branford Green.
Branford’s growth spurt of theater offerings are also succeeding because it’s taking place in a community that wants to show its support, says Chris.
“It’s something this town has always said they are always receptive to, but I’ve never felt it until recently,” says Chris.
He’s also see a growing interest in the number of kids signing up with STC for youth programming. Chris was happy to help out by teaching summer theater camp classes with STC this summer. He also accepted an offer to teach acting for the 2019-’20 school year at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet middle school in New Haven.
“My main passion is acting, but what I’ve slowly started to realize is I really love teaching and directing,” says Chris.
That’s why, when he learned STC was considering putting on its first play, he threw his directorial hat in the ring.
“When Colin and Mike didn’t have anything for the fall, and they really wanted a play, I said, ‘I’m super-interested in directing something...There’s this really crazy play called Peter and the Starcatcher.’ And both of them were familiar with it.”
As a Pan fan, the play couldn’t have a been a better choice for Chris.
“In a way, Peter is the most adult character of all of them. And that’s why I like Peter Pan in general. I’ve always found something very interesting about someone who never wants to grow up. However, it’s someone who’s pretending he hasn’t grown up, because he actually has. But he wants to keep that magic.”
Chris hopes audiences will come out to see STC’s Peter and the Starcatcher and catch a bit of that magic, too.
“I think that’s kind of what this show is about, in general, and why it’s so important now. Because nowadays, everyone is so quick to 'no-ing'. It’s ‘No this, no that. You can’t do this; you can’t do that. You can’t play pretend; you can’t do these things.’ And you’re never given a reason. And all of these people are saying ‘Yes, we can,’” says Chris. “And that’s great to know for actors, as well. I’m always telling actors to never lose their sense of play.”
Shoreline Theatre Company presents two performances of Peter and the Starcatcher at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3 and Friday, Oct. 4 at the Branford High School Cathyann Roding Auditorium, 185 East Main Street. General seating. Tickets, $10, can be purchased at branfordct.myrec.com.
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