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Nile Project winds its merry way around the region

by Tom Huntington, Arts Correspondent 

Preview of The Nile Project at the Flynn on Saturday, March 28. Get tickets at

The Nile Project brings its vibrant music and environmental message to several area locations, where the collective of a dozen musicians from several different countries touching the world’s longest river will settle in for stirring performances and a variety of activities during extended residencies on its first tour of the United States.

Over two years in the planning, the ambitious New England portion of the tour was initiated by the Hopkins Center for the Arts, and features an unprecedented level of cooperation among New England arts presenters like the Hop, the Flynn Center for the Arts, the U V M Lane Series and Middlebury College, among others. The Nile Project makes extended stops in Burlington (March 28-31), Middlebury (April 1-3) and Hanover, N.H. (April 13-18).

The Nile Project was formed in 2011 by Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero, both of whom are based in San Francisco. Meklit (pronounced meh-KLEET), 35, a rising star on the singer-songwriter world who now performs under a single name – she’s delivered a couple of well-received performances of her own in Burlington during the past three years — will perform with the group at all the New England dates.

The majority of the musicians on the tour hail from Egypt and Ethiopia, but Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Rwanda are also represented. And the band’s buoyant sound is created by a variety of instruments from Nile-basin countries, including the masenko (Ethiopia), the ney and oud (Egypt) and the adungu (Uganda), in addition to violin, saxophone, bass guitar and six vocalists singing in 11 languages.

While such a disparate assortment of musical traditions and instruments could easily be a recipe for disaster, organizers took great pains to create a collaborative environment for musicians. Preparation for the tour included a two-week “cooperative creation” residency for all musicians last November in Egypt. And, prior to that, a 10-week online course created by Nile Project music director Miles Jay designed to help musicians delve deep into the details of the different styles.

“This made a huge difference in the quality of collaborations among the musicians during the residency as they were already fluent with many of each other’s musical backgrounds,” says Girgis in press materials.

Adds Meklit, “I feel that the spirit of curiosity is really deep with these artists. Everyone is outside their comfort zone. No one is doing what they normally do.” The results have been well received since the group’s storied first live performance in the Egyptian city of Aswan in early 2013 – recorded for the Nile Project’s debut album, “Aswan,” which NPR called “joyous and even raucous” and one of “5 must-hear international albums” that year. “You can hear how much fun the crowd is having,” said NPR, “and how tight the band is.”

And the New York Times called the Nile Project “a committed, euphoric international coalition” in a review of a January concert at Webster Hall. “With such vibrant music, the good intentions were a bonus.”

This article first appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times-Argus.

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A Sailor’s Wife Had Chestnuts in Her Lap

by Michelle Watters, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of Macbeth performed by The Acting Company on March 25, 2015.

Wednesday night Shakespeare came back from the dead to give The Acting Company’s performance of Macbeth a standing ovation. I’m not sure why Shakespeare chose to retire from the afterlife on this one particular evening but I enjoyed his company and whit.

During the opening scene, Shakespeare whispers to me, “Where are the other weird sisters?”

“I don’t know,” I say and signal him to be quiet.

He fidgets with his ghostly clothes and I let myself be drawn in to the weird sister’s haunting song.  Men in apocalyptic attire complete with steam punk style goggles and scarves covering their faces enter the stage. Their voices unify in an ominous sounding chant.

“What do you think?” I ask Shakespeare who seems as riveted as I am.

“A bold choice,” he says and points to the leather straps the actors wear as armor. “I like those.”

The one weird sister proves to be a big presence on stage. Twenty minutes in and Shakespeare and I are silent as we watch her glide across the stage. Her gray gown with its blood-red hem ripples as if she is floating. Her hands command thunder so expertly I forget it is really just sound effects from backstage.

When we see Macbeth wipe his chalk-dusted hands on the slate wall to mark his kills:

“This is what it’s all about!” Shakespeare says and slaps his knee in appreciation.

“That is clever using chalk dust to signify bloodshed,” I say quietly not wanting to roust Shakespeare.

“I wish I’d thought of that,” replies Shakespeare.

I can’t keep my eyes off Macbeth. He is all muscle and passion and I find my heart beating faster after seeing him in what I will now refer to as the tank top scene.

“This is way better then Magic Mike,” I mutter under my breath.

“Who is Magic Mike?” asks Shakespeare.

“Never mind,” I say.

Shakespeare starts laughing when the weird sister says her line about the sailor’s wife having chestnuts in her lap. I give him a look that says be quiet.

He elbows my arm and whispers, “I wrote that line when I was drunk.”

I’m on the edge of my seat literally. I’m leaning into the isle to get a better view. The stage is so dimly lit that I can’t tell if the red round thing being passed between the actors during the duration of the play is an apple.

“It is an apple,” Shakespeare says intrigued. Clearly the dead have better vision than I do.

“I think it is supposed to symbolize something,” I say.

“Life,” Shakespeare says.

Turns out he is right. After Lady Macbeth dies the apple turns white. Like Shakespeare could ever be wrong.

When the porter tells the audience a knock knock joke, we all laugh and clap. “This is what theatre is all about: bringing in the audience, letting them be a part of the performance,” Shakespeare says with a misty eye.

I am enthralled with the battle seen. It looks more like an elaborate dance instead of war. I envision Mad Max meets West Side Story with a hint of Thriller video.

“I wrote this!” Shakespeare announces to the room.

“Everyone knows, no one will forget,” I say.

Lady Macbeth enters the stage wearing a floor-swishing, pale lavender satin skirt reminiscent of Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.  It is the only color besides the green or purple arm bands the soldiers wear.

“This play is a feast for my eyes, ears, and brain,” I tell Shakespeare.

He is sitting cross-legged in the isle and appears not to hear me.

On stage Macbeth chases a woman, dagger in hand. We hear her curdling shriek.

Then Shakespeare shrieks at the same time.

“Why did you shriek?” I ask.

“It was the owl that shrieked,” he says then winks at me.

At the end of the play when the actors are onstage and we are all clapping, Shakespeare floats on stage next to them and bows. Before he disappears I hear him shouting over the applause, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players!”

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Einstein’s Dreams

by Marly Spieser-Schneider, Vermont Artists’ Space Grant

Marly Spieser-Schneider gives a work-in-progress performance of her piece 3 May 1905 in FlynnSpace on Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 pm.

Read a preview of Marly’s performance in this week’s Seven Days.

We have been exploring the previously mentioned structures in rehearsal and it is really fun and exciting to see how they are evolving and how different each run is.  The dancers are becoming more and more comfortable with allowing themselves to make decisions within the structures and explore the possibilities.  As their confidence and willingness to play and try new things develops it makes for more and more intricate and interesting outcomes.

In preparation for the upcoming showing (April 1st!!!!) we are beginning to establish what we want to share and how to give the audience a true taste of the process.  We have settled on sharing a semi-polished “chunk” (say 25-30 minutes) of material.  Then, taking a break to work out some kinks and re-approach each structure just as we would in rehearsal.  Perhaps even have the audience ask a few questions/offer comments at this point.  Then, we will re-run a few of the structures (possibly with different music, starting positions, or slightly different rules) in order to share with the audience how each structure results in an entirely different performing and viewing experience each time.

We are all really looking forward to sharing what we have been doing in the studio with an audience!

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From the Banks of the Nile

by Cynthia Close, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of The Nile Project on the MainStage on Saturday, March 28 at 8 pm. Get tickets at

An estimated 137 million people from 11 different east African countries live on the banks of the Nile, the longest river in the world. Access to this vital resource has caused conflict and strife for generations between the many varied cultures whose livelihood depends on it.

In 2011 two San Francisco based East Africans, Mina Girgis, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero had a vision to use music to educate, engage and raise awareness in the hope of reaching across cultures to address the challenges facing the environmental viability of the Nile. They brought together performing artists and musicians from those African cultures who had a vested interest in solving the issues plaguing the Nile.

This rich musical collaboration spawned workshops and education programs aimed at university students globally with the goal of advancing understanding of this fragile ecosystem and fostering creative thinking to come up with new solutions. From this valuable experience the hope is that these students in turn would become ambassadors, spreading the word in ever widening circles, like rings around pebbles tossed in water. The Project offers a Nile Fellowship and a Nile Prize to further encourage university students to become active “doers” rather than passive “listeners”.

However, it is in the listening to the music that we become captivated and entranced by The Nile Project. This collaborative rings out with vocals in over ten different languages, along with rhythmic harps, drums and lyres. Twenty-eight musicians, many born in Africa, are featured on the group’s website: male, female, black and white and every shade in between. Each one shares an impressive diversity as is evidenced by Alai K., born in Mombasa with a Swahili upbringing; his music demonstrates elements of Mijkenda, Taarab, Swahili and Sengenya music. He integrates Swahili poetry and storytelling in his lyrics and merges the instruments chevoti and chakacha together with what is referred to in his biography as a Qaswida influenced singing style that he calls “SwahiliSoul.”

The group has released a new CD called Aswan. When I listened to samples on their website the music made it impossible to sit still. I think the Flynn may have to allow for dancing in the aisles when The Nile Project comes to town.

The environmental and cultural challenges along the Nile basin are emblematic of the issues all the worlds people face, including Vermonters struggling with the ever-declining water quality of the rivers and lakes we depend upon for our survival. At first glance, The Nile Project may seem exotic, far away from the shores of Lake Champlain. But I think we all have something to learn from this performance and I look forward to be moved by the musicians of The Nile Project on March 28.

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Beyond the Bog Road

by Josh McDonald, Burlington Writers Workshop

Review of the St. Patrick’s Day celebration with Eileen Ivers at the Flynn on March 13, 2015.

“Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe.” Or so claims the 1991 film The Commitments, about a band of Irish musicians playing African-American soul music.

Eileen Ivers, in her Beyond the Bog Road tour, doesn’t say it so explicitly, but the sentiment is there. Her sets, while predominantly Irish-traditional, are seasoned liberally with works by Leadbelly and Louis Armstrong – whose song Irish Black Bottom toyed with this point some ninety years earlier. “I was born in Ireland,” claims the jazz legend. And in a sense it’s as true of him as of most in this country who celebrate the Feast of Saint Patrick this month.

Ivers often introduces her songs with bits of Irish-American history which further sells the point that, similar to the African-American tradition, Irish music finds its heart and its energy from the long-suffering history of its people. The story of the Irish in America is of a people who go from vilified immigrants to jovial (if demeaning) stereotype, to seeing pieces of their culture and heritage enveloped into and mass-marketed by the larger American culture. The story of the Irish in the US is ultimately the story of every people brought to these shores.

If this all sounds rather dry and academic, it may be worth noting at this point that Eileen Ivers has been called “the Jimi Hendrix of the violin.” And watching her performance, one quickly sees that it’s not hyperbole. When she really gets going, and especially when she starts throwing in some classic Hendrixian distortion, it’s unmistakably clear that classic rock is as strong an influence as her own Irish-American heritage.

But then, classic rock would fit into the “American” part of “Irish-American,” wouldn’t it? As would bluegrass, Appalachian folk, and Country. Ivers takes on all these genres and more, bringing out the Celtic influences that underlie all these American traditions. If America is the Great Melting Pot, Ivers demonstrates, that pot is heavily seasoned with some good Irish stout.

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By The Pricking of My Thumbs

by Michelle Watters, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of Shakespeare’s Macbeth performed by The Acting Company on the Mainstage, Wednesday, March 25 at 7:30 pm. Get tickets at

Before Game of Thrones or House of Cards, there was Macbeth. Macbeth is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies. A political thriller combined with the supernatural.

I was first introduced to the plays of Shakespeare in a high school world literature class. We read aloud from a book as thick as an old dictionary. The first play was Romeo and Juliet. I was sixteen and had already romanticized forbidden love so of course it was a favorite. Second, was Hamlet. I couldn’t decide if my favorite characters were Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, or the hopelessly poetic Ophelia. We did not read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in that class. I read that a year later after watching the black and white film adaptation on public television.

The last play we read was Macbeth. Being a teenage girl I couldn’t relate to the political power that Macbeth lusted after. I felt more of a kinship with the witches, also known as the weird sisters, who told Macbeth of his prophecy to be king. Unlike Lady Macbeth who commits suicide the weird sisters felt like powerful central characters.

I feel grateful to have developed an appreciation for Shakespeare. I imagine most teenagers suffer through a teacher’s dry explanations with the sour smell of coffee on their breath. I remember the dispassionate drone of some of my fellow classmates when called upon to read. Not me though, all the passion, turmoil, and uncertainty of life unfolded in Shakespeare’s plays. I was dramatic and Shakespeare knew how to write drama.

We all know the fate of Romeo and Juliet. A miscommunication that in the hands of Three’s Company would be slapstick , but with Shakespeare becomes a tragedy. Hamlet and Macbeth both experience an existential crisis. Hamlet gave his crown away to Prince Fortinbras after watching his entire family die from either suicide or poisoning. Macbeth gains the crown but as a result loses his wife and his humanity.

On March 25, something wicked this way comes when The Acting Company performs Macbeth on the the Flynn stage. There will be death, battle, weird sisters, and lots of drama. There is even a curse attached to the play aptly titled “Curse of Macbeth.” It has been said that Shakespeare included actual black magic spells in the incantations of the witches. Those who appear in the play, or mention the name Macbeth in the theater, bring evil spirits upon them. I bet they didn’t tell you that in high school English class.

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From FlynnArts to Broadway

by Zoe Williams

Oscar Williams, a longtime FlynnArts student and member of the Flynn’s Junior Show Choir, was recently cast in the Broadway production of Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel. His mother shares his journey from theater-loving kid to Broadway actor.


I’m writing this from New York City, where my son Oscar is in rehearsals for Fun Home on Broadway. Looking back on how we got here, I feel so thankful for this wonderful community, full of people and organizations that nurtured Oscar and made this possible.

Oscar’s first theater experience, at age seven, was a Very Merry Theater summer camp. He loved it and wanted more. The Flynn was offering local kids a chance to audition to be Munchkins in the National Tour of The Wizard of Oz, so Oscar tried out. He wasn’t cast. It was his first experience dealing with the rejection that comes with this business, and he wanted to learn from it. Christina Weakland, the Flynn’s director of education, suggested that Oscar could use some dance training in order to pick up movement quickly in an audition setting. He had been singing in the Essex Children’s Choir but had little dance experience, so Oscar began studying dance, enrolling in Lois Trombley’s class and a FlynnArts acting class.

The Flynn’s classes and camps facilitated his growth as a young performer, with great advice, guidance, and even unexpected opportunities. For example, Christina recommended Oscar to a local production company looking for children for a TV commercial. Oscar booked the commercial and has been doing commercials ever since. He continued gaining stage experience with Very Merry, took private dance classes with Kate Whalen, and voice lessons with Bill Reed.

In January 2013, Oscar auditioned for Lyric’s Oliver. He was cast as an orphan, and while excited to do a Lyric show he was also deeply disappointed that he wasn’t called back for the role of Oliver. I was talking about this with the parent of another Oliver orphan, Rebecca Raskin, who empathized with Oscar’s disappointment and told me a story that became important to our lives.

Rebecca’s older daughter Amelia Mason, along with several Flynn Junior Show Choir students, had auditioned for the Broadway production of Matilda. Unexpectedly, Amelia had gotten very close to being cast, making it to final callbacks three different times
(which was a total of 13 callbacks) and was even considered for the title role! But in the end, she wasn’t cast. Rebecca talked me through the disappointment they felt and how they dealt with it. It seemed an uplifting story to share with Oscar to help him process his own sadness. His response was, “Wait . . . are you saying you can live in Vermont and audition for Broadway?” That wasn’t what I was saying, but Oscar now had a new goal: he was determined to audition for
a Broadway show!

We wanted to support our son but knew nothing, so I looked for Broadway open auditions and found one for The Lion King. Hundreds of kids shuttled through, and nothing came of that. He auditioned for two more shows, but still, nothing. Soon Matilda was re-casting, a show we knew would involve strenuous dance, and we weren’t sure Oscar was prepared. We spoke with Christina, who knew a New York City dance coach that could help with the specific style used in the Matilda audition. He was hooked! We got him a manager and an agent, and auditioning for Broadway shows became a regular part of our schedule. Constant rejection is part of the process. Keeping up with positive performance opportunities and training at home was very important. In addition to all his lessons, he joined the Flynn’s Junior Show Choir and flourished in that environment.

The summer of 2013, Saint Michael’s Playhouse put on a production of Fiddler on the Roof, and Oscar was cast. He loved the experience of his first professional show, and it probably helped him get cast in a New York gala benefit concert for Fiddler’s 50th anniversary with the original Broadway and film cast, and creative teams—his first time singing on an NYC stage.

With lots of auditions now under his belt, Oscar won a few roles in local productions, including Stowe Theatre Guild’s Secret Garden, and the title role in Middlebury Community Players’ Oliver. At the same time, things in New York were starting to click:
he was consistently making it to final callbacks for Broadway shows.

Then in November, at age 11, Oscar was offered the role of Christian in the exciting new Broadway musical Fun Home. He was overjoyed!

Through all of this we found the classes and opportunities offered through the Flynn to be a strong foundation for Oscar. We are so lucky to live in a community that cares about fostering the arts so much. It takes a village and without all of the caring and nurturing educators, Oscar would not be where he is today.

When he is done with his time on stage on Broadway he will eagerly return to the Flynn community that he calls home!


Registration for Summer FlynnArts classes and camps is open now.

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The Flexibility of the Vermont Artists’ Space Grant

by Marly Spieser-Schneider, Vermont Artists’ Space Grant

Marly Spieser-Schneider gives a work-in-progress performance of her piece 3 May 1905 in FlynnSpace on Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 pm.

So we are finally to the fun part of the process, or at least what I think is fun. In the most recent rehearsal, and in the next few weeks leading up to the in-progress showing, we are working on using the phrase material that all the dancers have learned to explore various structures that I have developed. In a previous blog I gave an example of one of the structures we would work with. So far we have explored that structure (“Stuck”) as well as a second structure we will call “River.”

This structure was inspired by the following passage in Einstein Dreams: “In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection back stream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves suddenly carried to the past.

Persons who have been transported back in time are easy to identify. They wear dark, indistinct clothing and walk on their toes, trying not to make a single sound, trying not to bend a single blade of grass. For they fear that any change they make in the past could have drastic consequences for the future.”

The structure I developed to emulate this passage follows these rules:

– All dancers start in one corner of the space and travel in a narrow corridor to the opposite corner.

– They start on their own time and all are doing the same phrase material.

– The goal is to dance fully and if contact between two dancers is made, to make who was “displaced” and who did the “displacing” clear.

– The dancer who was “displaced” leaves the corridor (or “river”) and runs back to the starting point – the dancer then makes their way through the other dancers, this time, working to avoid any contact with anyone.

– When the dancer who was displaced makes it back to the physical place on stage where they had left off, they pick back up with the phrase material.

– The goal is for all dancers to get offstage, depending on the level of contact/“displacement” between dancers the piece could last 3 minutes or 15—duration will vary depending on the level of interaction.

We had a very lively and informative rehearsal last Monday and I look forward to several more during which we will continue to attempt the same structures, coming at the process from different angles in order to get a sense of what works best but maintaining the spontaneity of the work. We may very well discover that there are a couple different ways to approach any given structure and it is likely that we will decide to share more than one of these approaches in the showing—this flexibility and malleability of process woven with set structures and movement is exactly the sort of pairing I am interested in exploring and I look forward to what it yields.

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The Champ

by Josh McDonald, Burlington Writers Workshop

Preview of a St. Patrick’s Day Celebration with Eileen Ivers on Friday, March 13 at 8 pm. Get tickets at

Eileen Ivers is a nine time All-Ireland Fiddle Champion. I’m not sure what that means— one doesn’t typically think of music as a competitive sport. Participants don’t score points for knocking down another fiddler and there’s no such thing as defensive fiddling (not as far as I know, anyway—though I’ve never been involved in music on the championship level). But whatever it takes to become a fiddle champion, Eileen Ivers has done it—not once, but nine times.

Not only that, but she’s won one championship on the banjo and holds a total of thirty musical championships in all. So whatever criteria they’re using, it’s no fluke. She’s just that good. She could launch into a chorus of Queen’s We Are the Champions (and play the heck out of it) and really mean it.

And she plays well with others—such others as the Chieftains, Hall and Oates, Sting, Riverdance, the Boston Pops, the London Symphony and scores of other orchestras, bands, and musicians of all types. Her music draws on her Irish-American heritage, with as much emphasis on the “American” as the “Irish.” She plays a full melting-pot of jazz, Cajun, bluegrass, and other World Music traditions, blending them into a style that is eclectic, vibrant, energetic, equal parts traditional and innovative—her fiddling runs the gamut of enthusiastic adjectives.

So basically, Eileen Ivers is a musical champion of the highest level. We’re talking she should have her jersey-number retired, be advertising Nike on TV, and have a personalized line of fiddle-bows with her name on it level-champion. Instead, she’s bringing a St. Patrick’s Day musical celebration to the Flynn. Don’t miss this show—it promises to be a winner.

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Peter and the Starcatcher: Transformative Storytelling at its Best

by Christina Weakland, Director of Education

Peter and the Starcatcher is the winner of five 2012 Tony Awards and named one of the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the New Yorker’s top ten shows of the year. Get tickets to see it at the Flynn on Tuesday, April 14 at 7:30 pm.

I saw this wildly theatrical and wonderfully inventive prequel to Peter Pan when it took Broadway by storm in 2012, and knew I was in for something special the moment I walked through the door.

That ornately gilded Broadway proscenium? It wasn’t plasterwork at all, but a cleverly constructed facsimile made of rolling pins, kitchen timers, corks, and hairbrushes. In fact the entire set is made of salvaged and sustainable materials: old scaffolds, pallets, buttons, records, and even a door that fell off the bodega next door to the theater during a fire!

I’ve even heard that the touring set is made up of assorted items sent to the designers from theaters around the country. This kind of inventiveness takes my breath away, because it’s what theater is meant to be: making something out of nothing. The whole idea of the show is that your destiny is not limited by anything except your imagination; what you can imagine, you can create. The artistic team certainly practiced what they preach!

My wonderment only grew as the show began and a ragtag troupe of Victorian actors—tinged with Steampunk style—entreated us to join them. “Supposing all these planks and ropes are now the British empire. And we are lords and captains, mothers, orphans, sailors, pirates, tropical kings. Use your thoughts to hoist the sails . . .” That’s right, I thought. We can only create this world together; artist and audience engaged in that mystical exchange of energy that makes live theater great. The ingenious creativity continued: a simple rope became a door, a window, a ladder, a cramped chamber. (My director-self started taking notes.) Actors captivated and tickled us, jumping in and out of over 100 different characters, regularly reminding us that we were there together to weave the story. “We haven’t got all night Smee, people have paid for nannies and parking!”

And what a story they wove! J.M. Barrie’s imaginative tale of the boy who never grew up is has enchanted generations of children, but Peter and the Starcatcher has been called the “adult-ified prequel.” Based on the bestselling novel by humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, it has all the elements of the best childhood adventure tales—a dangerous journey, an unlikely friendship, and discovery of a new world, and the most cleverly-staged shipwreck you ever saw (and I directed Lyric’s Titanic on the Flynn stage!). It evokes every ounce of child-like wonder we have buried down deep under our day jobs and mortgages and adult responsibilities, but manages to do so without ever feeling childish.

But maybe, in the end, we should all follow Peter’s lead and refuse to grow up now and then. I can’t wait to revel again in the wonder of Peter and the Starcatcher, and I hope this time you’ll be there to share the truly magical experience!

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Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
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