By KC Stanfield
Though the San Diego region has a vibrant performing arts scene, there are few programs like La Mesa’s Peter Pan Junior Theater. Students ranging from fourth to eighth grade from all over the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District work together each year to put on a play.
This year’s show is “Once Upon a Mattress,” a musical based on the fairy tale “The Princess and The Pea.” The show opened March 25 and continues with performances through March 28.
More than 200 kids auditioned in September. In order to give more students the opportunity to take part, the play expanded its original 19-member cast to 90 by writing in new parts.
Through the use of puns, director Mark Arapostathis made sure to give every character a unique name. With characters named Lady Luck, Duke of Hazzard, Maid JaLook and Sir Upp, Arapostathis is trying be fun while ensuring no one will be cast as a tree or a nameless guard.
The student cast performs on stage at the Kroc Center with professional scenery, costumes and a full orchestra, which is why each production costs about $50,000. However, acting plays more of a supporting role to the main program’s main objective.
“The goal set for the Peter Pan Junior Theater isn’t to put on a show; it’s character and leadership,” Arapostathis said . “We’re using theater as a mechanism to teach those qualities to children.”
Arapostathis, who has been the theater’s director for 22 years, says the program teaches skills that go beyond the stage, with self-control being one of the first character traits taught to kids.
“Onstage, you’re going to be playing the part. You’re not going to be yourself, you’re going to play someone else, so you have to have a lot of mental acuities and self-control,” Arapostathis said. “Also, when you’re onstage, you have to have self-control because if you break character, it’s distracting to the audience.”
Arapostathis says even if a student is unable to pursue a career in acting, the skills he or she learns will aid them for the rest of their life. He mentioned Jay Heiserman, a former alumnus, who participated in Peter Pan Junior Theater as a student and practiced set design for the program a few years later. Heiserman is now the Art Director for the Emmy-winning Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Robert Kuhne originally founded Peter Pan Junior Theater in 1970, and it has continued to thrive in part because the students love it and tell their friends about it.
“It’s like you form a family,” said seventh-grader Elaine Alfaro, who is playing Princess Winnifred. “It’s really fun.”
“I like theater because I get to be someone else for a while, then go home and be myself,” said eighth-grader Katie Henry, who is playing Princess No. 12.
Both Katie and Elaine are participating for their third year, and as older kids, they’re expected to set an example for the younger children.
“We expect that the older kids will act as leaders to the new kids who are coming into the theater,” Arapostathis said. “And what we teach them is — leadership is not simply bossing someone around. In fact, very rarely is true leadership about managing, it’s about serving.”
As a volunteer-run organization, parents are required to assist with the production by joining two of the 12 committees that help with everything from costumes to concessions.
“The new ones are wide-eyed at the first meeting, but at the end, they’re eager to be involved,” said Kelley McGue, production manager.
For more information, showtimes and tickets, visit ppjt.org.
—KC Stanfield is a journalism student at San Diego State University and an editorial intern with La Mesa Courier.