BWW Interview: Christine DiTota And Auggie Abatecola of PETER PAN at Yorktown Stage

Courtesy of Christine DiTota

PETER PAN, one of the most crowd-pleasing shows ever presented at Yorktown Stage, is about to fly high once more, entertaining audiences for the start of the holiday season. The perennial family favorite, which has played in front of 10,000 people at this venue in recent years, will have weekend matinee and evening performances during Thanksgiving week of Nov. 21-29.

Filled with songs that have charmed generations of parents and children - from "I Won't Grow Up" and "I Gotta Crow" to "I'm Flying" and "Neverland" - the lighter-than-air fantasy has captured hearts since the live telecast starring Mary Martin made television history decades ago.

Yorktown Stage associate producer, August Abatecola (of Thornwood), stars as Peter Pan, reprising the role he had in 2005. Veteran performer Jeff Schlotman (Pleasantville), who has appeared in numerous productions here and at other regional theaters, is the deliciously devious Captain Hook, doubling as Mr. Darling, the third time he has played the twin role at this theater.

Under the dynamic direction of Christine DiTota (Actors Equity), the cast of 27 includes a stellar lineup of professional and local actors familiar to Hudson Valley audiences. In a novel twist new to PETER PAN, Broadway veteran Chris Jamison (Yorktown) plays both Smee and Mrs. Darling. Christine Gavin (Ossining) is Liza/Tiger Lily. The Darling children are Lauren Wagner (Wendy; Danbury), Thomas Dal Ceredo (John) and Jesse Goodman (Michael).

In the ensemble as Pirates are Yorktowners Bruce Apar, Robert Graham and Aidan Mahoney; along with Bill Halliburton, Tim Harbolic, and Justin Valero (Bronx). Warriors are played by Charlotte Athanasidy and Kit Athanasidy (both Cortlandt), Leighann DeLuca (Yorktown), Gabriele Paige (Mahopac), Samantha Miley and Gina Noto. The Lost Boys are Samantha Davidson, Ellyn Drysdale, Elias Gonzalez, Alie Puerto, Lior Shaham, Alice Tinari and Brooke Vogel.

PETER PAN is produced by Barry Liebman, president and producing director of Yorktown Stage. Musical director is Steve Loftus. Choreographer is Carrie Silvernail. Stage manager is Casey Brehm. Lighting design by Andrew Gmoser. Lighting technician is Melanie Leff. Sound design by Jon Hatton. Wrangler is Christine Drysdale.

PETER PAN performances are Saturday, Nov. 21 & 28, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 27, at 2 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 22 & 29, at 2 p.m.

General admission tickets for PETER PAN are $26; seniors (63+) and students (12-22), $21; children (under 11), $19. Group discounts are available. Ticket reservations and online seat selection can be made at YorktownStage(dot)org--or by calling the box office (914) 962-0606.

Yorktown Stage is part of the Yorktown Community Cultural Center, 1974 Commerce Street (theater entrance around corner on Veterans Road), Yorktown Heights, NY 10598. Ample free parking is available and a wide choice of affordable dining is conveniently within walking distance.

I am here with the Director of Yorktown Theatre's Peter Pan, Christine DiTota, the Director and Auggie Abatecola. Auggie is playing Peter Pan and is also the Artistic Director.

Christine DiTota has actually played this role before so she brings her own experience as Peter Pan, which is pretty interesting. Even though she's a woman, directing a man playing Peter Pan. She can sort of do it all. Christine. Let's start with you!

Okay, I'm ready.

Okay. Now tell me about your background in theater. You went to Purchase, which is a very cutthroat, intense ...

Yes. I went to the Purchase Conservatory of Theater Arts which is in the top 5 acting conservatories, where 4,000 auditioned. That 4,000 applied, 2500 hundred auditioned, maybe 25 get it in. You graduate with 15, so it's a pretty high level, but it's not musical theater. It's mainly just plays.

Oh, I know, and you come from a very sophisticated, academic group of people who went there like Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci and Parker Posey.

Josh Hartnett.

Hal Hartley, the movie director. Did you know him while he was there?

No, I didn't. The most famous person that we had direct us was Tim Potter, and those are the people that helped Larry Cornfeld, who led an entire theatrical revolution in the 60s and 70s. Yes, it's a pretty intense training program.

I know. I've heard about it.

That's where I started, and then I began to pursue musical theater after I graduated from there.

Now, did you take voice lessons while you were there?

I found that those voice classes weren't for singing but more speaking, helped pave the way for becoming a singer. After I graduated, I began studying at Will Bryan Voice Studio, and through the years I just merged the two together. One thing I never merged was dance. Singing and acting, yes, and so I studied there, for voice.

Okay, so then you graduated from Purchase, and you did all these other classes. How did you get involved in Westchester Broadway Theatre?

Well I just ... George Puello was my first connection in there, so he was the artistic director there for a long time. He gave me my first job there. Then the second and third one. Then a couple of other things fit, and I did them. Ultimately I was fortunate enough to sign a contract for Peter Pan in advance, and I waited a year to do it, and then I finally got to do it there, which is a great setting for it, a great stage. I did it with a production company called Theater Productions at the time which was directed by George Puello. They played well together where they were trying to bring local professionals and aspiring actors and children, youth, from the community together, into productions where everybody would learn from each other, develop a mentorship, and bring people up and learn from all of us. Kind of like that.

Right.

That's how I got involved.

Westchester has become this collection of talent. People don't really know the caliber of the people that come out of there.

Auggie ... he works with a great deal of our community. He is an apprentice with the youth. I performed with him. I'm directing a lot of his students in our production, but he's really a part of the training process for these kids. 'll let him talk about that.

Yes, Auggie. Tell us about your experience.

Yes. At the theater here, we have the Yorktown Kids Program, which is a company that I founded about, 3 years ago now. It was just an opportunity for kids in the area to get a true, professional experience. They're rehearsing very short periods of time. They only rehearse for 4 weeks. They pack for 1 week, and they run, you know, along with what we do with our main stages. It's an opportunity for them to get ... A grasp on what it would be like if they were to step out in the professional world. A lot of our kids do go onto Broadway. A lot of our kids do go onto national tours and regional productions, which makes us so proud. It's just been a great program here. We've really blossomed and started several readings. I think You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, was our first one, and it was with ten kids. Now he's cast upwards toward 40 kids, and the last show we did, Aladdin,Jr sold out. We had to extend!

The program just exploded. Now we just found the dance company as well, and we have acting lessons and voice lessons, and all these things at the theater. It's great just to see these kids actually get this opportunity to do things, that when I was young I wish I had the opportunity.

Right.

I wish I had that home base. It's great, because now being here ... 6 or 7 years, it's great to see this new generation of kids rise, and a lot of them are going to be seniors, and it makes me feel really old. It's just very cool to see them go through the ranks, and then see where it takes them.

Now, why Yorktown? How did Yorktown become this pulse of Westchester Theatre? How did that happen?

Well, when I first came here. When I got here, a few years ago, we were only doing a three main stage production a year, and it was blast. It was so much fun. I found that I had a lot of free time on my hands. If there was one thing I knew I could do, it's I could communicate with kids, and I could work with kids. It's always been something that I loved doing. For a while, I actually went to school to be an English teacher, if you can believe it or not.

Listen you're teaching the classics, and that's very theatrical.

I knew I loved teaching these kids. I approached Barry Liebman about possibly stepping in and forming some programs, and like I said, it snowballed. I don't think ... Even myself, I never expected it to take off as much as it did. Peter Pan, gets these kids involved in our main stages.

Absolutely.

We did, Gypsy, this past spring. We had Michael McAssey, who is a Broadway extraordinaire, and we had Tony nominated actor, Sally Mayes.

I know, I saw that.

Now it gave us an opportunity to audition our kids and give them the opportunity to be on stage with these professionals. Now not only are you learning what's in our programs, but now if you get into our main stage, you get the extra reward of learning from the actual professionals. This is what you've been working towards. They're getting the full circle of the whole business.

Right, right. Christine, how did you get the job as the director?

I knew they were doing it. I didn't know who was directing it. I just sent an e-mail that said, "Hey, if you are looking for a director, I would be interested in doing it." They considered it, and then fortunately, a series of fortunate events, here I am. I'm the one who was chosen to do it.

Now do you feel like, since you played the role that you bring some ... Other depth to it?

What's interesting about it, is the control. As an actor, you kind of have control of the piece. As a director, you don't. You have to place the control in someone else's hands. That's really been an interesting process for me.

When I played Peter Pan, I controlled his every move. I controlled his every thought and his every feeling. What I'm trying to do is ... To share, with Auggie, what I experienced, but let go of the control of the piece, so that he can say, "All right, that was her experience. What is mine going to be? How am I going to take what she ..." He has played it before. He has a basis of knowledge. I have a basis of knowledge, and I think, that like I said, it's about sharing that knowledge with each other and then me stepping back and letting go of control, which as you know ... Sometimes is really hard to let go.

How does it feel to be the director after acting the role? I would think it would be challenging; to be an actor and sort of be on the sidelines now.

Well, you think of it as like how do you transition from actor to director. I try to think that it's a transition as much as a progression. How do you take yourself ... Not transition as a director, but allow yourself to progress and move forward. You get to a certain time period in your life where you learned a little bit, and you feel that you can kind of guide, versus take for yourself. Try to guide ... Again, try to share, try to guide.

I directed my first show when I was in college, like 1993, at a community college, and it was just a group of friends. However, at Purchase, it was be there, act, or get out.

Yes.

If you say to us, you'd like to be director. Okay, well here's the door. There's nothing ...

Cutthroat.

I graduated and then my first job was an assistant director of Midsummer Night's Dream. Pia Haas was directing it and she was like, "Listen, you've just been studying and eating Shakespeare for 4 years. Can you come on board and work at the jobs, and help with kids understand what they're saying, understand the speech through." You just jump ship. You just go, okay, I'm going to try. WHOOOOOO!

Some people are so egocentric. To let go of that, the need to be front and center.

I remember ... As I get a little bit older, I'm like ... I don't need to be front and center anymore. I'd rather be back and to the left.

I think that's what happens. You transition.

I don't know. It's a lot easier now on your body, mind, or your emotions. You aren't a child now.

Right.

Not keep toying with myself, that I'd rather toy with others.

By the way, do you have a full orchestra?

We do have a live orchestra. Yes.

Are any of the kids local?

Yes. We have kids from all over, but mostly Yorktown.

Okay, Auggie. Tell me about playing the role when it was originally conceived for a girl/woman.

The whole process has been interesting ...

I need to ask. Was the music transposed for you?

It was. Yes. I would love to say I sound like Mary Martin, but not so much ...

You're singing in a tenor range?

Everything is in. Everything got transposed. That was the very first thing we did, honestly, a couple months ago ... Before we even went to rehearsal. I met with Steve Loftus our musical director, and we went through song by song, NPI is great. They offered the transpositions so we ordered them, and they're on their way. It's great. It's a huge help.

It's definitely interesting being a boy, playing this role. Every version I watch, if I ever went to go do research or just even growing up ... I grew up watching the Mary Martin version. The biggest challenge for me was how do I say these lines and not sound like Ethel Merman. Everything is so, "Oh, I'm going to Neverland." It's ridiculous. It's so overdone. The music is just written for a female ... The melody, just everything about it. I needed to find a very playful way of pronouncing everything so it doesn't come off as this female from 1956.

Certainly a lot to think about!

Honest to God, that was my biggest challenge. It was very interesting coming back to the show, a decade later, because the whole show is based on an ageless boy. It's just interesting how I read certain lines when I was 16, and now how I'm reading them at the age of 26. Certain lines mean different things to me now. Certain moments, that when I was 16, I went I don't get it. Now I'm reading it and going ... Holy crap, I had no idea that's where we going with here.

Now what I want to know, why wasn't this show imagined with the male in the first place?

The height of ... The man who wrote this piece ... There's a quote, you can look it up somewhere. I don't want to misquote it. They asked him, why did you cast this ... Why did you write this for a female? He said, because I see the face of Peter Pan, in every childless woman. Also, it's easier for a female to get high enough to sound like a young boy, of course ... When they're singing, reaching higher, so they'll sound like a young boy.

Exactly.

I think that that's interesting as far as that need if you haven't had a child yet, or if there's a childless woman and they see a child and they want to keep the child, because it's a part of them that's missing. If you can find that quote, it's really, really really interesting. Now the writer, of course, wrote it as a little boy. I'm reading the book again to try to understand this. He actually wrote it very differently in the book. It's actually very interesting. It's kind of mean and sadistic ... Extremely playful ... Almost in a ... Dangerous way. me about the project. I think if it was another female in the role that I might compare myself more to what they're doing. With a male playing the role, I never find myself comparing what I did to what he's doing.

Well, I look forward to seeing it! Thank you Auggie and Christine for talking with me! Good luck during tech week!

(Both) Thank You!



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From This Author Kathryn Kitt