En garde, hook! Rory Schrobilgen, as Peter Pan, and Joe Dennis, as Captain Hook, rehearse with the cast of Peter Pan at Percy Julian Middle School on Thursday.Photos by J. GEIL/Staff PhotographerClick here to buy one of these photos and see more in our photo store.

The musical “Peter Pan” is the ideal show for a mob of children: loads of pirates, Indians and Lost Boys. But it takes some grownup sophistication — and a decent budget — to do it right. After all, kids are actually flying up there.

Percy Julian Middle School’s renowned CAST program celebrates its 25th year with a revisit this weekend to their first year’s production of this magical show in 1985.
The special effects will be top-flight. “We have about 15 hours of flying practice: ‘aeoreography’ – that’s what they call it,” says CAST Program Director Bill McGlynn.

To achieve the effects, CAST works with FOY Flying in Las Vegas under top-secret conditions. HOY’s trade secrets are confidential, but actors may be harnessed and attached to superstrong steel wires. Computer-controlled winches and pulleys may fly the Darling family (Wendy, John and Michael) and Peter Pan through three dimensions. Adults pulling ropes may also be involved.

As in all CAST productions, student inclusion is the driving principle. “We have 55 kids in Peter Pan, with an added 80 in the choir,” said McGlynn. Fifteen student crew members will be backstage moving the 30 foot sets, since the production calls for quick changes.

Sinead McDonald, 13, is a crew member who has already helped build sets for eight different CAST performances. “We’ve had a Maypole and a swimming pool. Someone flew in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and now they’re flying again,” she says.

In “Peter Pan,” McDonald plays the dog ‘Nana,’ inadequate babysitter for the Darling children. “I think [Nana]’s really sweet, trying to care for the kids but the husband gets in the way.” She says power drill skills she’s learned in the shop help her fix things at home. “I helped my mom build the guinea pig cage.”

Tinkerbell, as is traditional, is portrayed by a ball of light – but she’s been techno-upgraded from a spotlight to a laser. In the show, Peter Pan cajoles the audience, “We can’t let Tink die. Do you believe in make-believe? If you believe, clap your hands!” It’s one of theater’s most famous examples of audience-participation: Tinkerbell is brought back from her near-death experience.

“The show will really come together (in the intense rehearsals) during tech week. It always does,” says McGlynn.

CAST has performed “Peter Pan” four times in a quarter century, but this show will be the first in Julian’s new auditorium – built in 2001— which has 50 foot ceilings. Prior shows in the 1980s and 1990s were performed outdoors or at Dominican University, which has a full size theater.

McGlynn attended Percy Julian and participated in the first class of CAST in 1985. He returned during the summers to help with CAST’s summer camp. When CAST’s founders, Jill and Michael Poehlman retired in 1997, McGlynn took over the program director job. District 97 provides some funding, but CAST also does its own fundraising. Show programs are filled with ads from local businesses.

A couple of years behind McGlynn, CAST veteran Malachy “Mac” Boyle also helped CAST with summer camps after middle school. Boyle’s youngest brother, Joe, played Peter Pan in the 1996 performance at Dominican University. Coming full-circle, Boyle is directing the 2010 performance of Peter Pan. He teaches CAST’s Drama, Speech and Debate classes at Julian.

Around 450 students per year participate in some way in CAST theatrical performances, auditioning in September and January. “Our goal is to give every kid a part, and over three years, give every kid a part they like,” says McGlynn.

Middle school is a “very important age to be influencing kids,” he says, “while they still have time. When they get to high school it’s too late. They’re too busy.” Unlike Peter Pan, CAST members do grow up. “The number of Broadway stars will be very small,” says McGlynn, but he hopes students develop a love for the arts and become “arts advocates in later lives, supporting local theater and the arts.”

McGlynn says there are free tickets waiting for any visiting CAST member who performed in Peter Pan back in the day.

“Lost Boys, Indians and Pirates show up on resumes of CAST kids more often than any other single name in the last 25 years,” says promotional material for the 2010-11 season. “This show has CAST written all over it.” For 25 years, CAST directors have shown they “believe in make-believe”— and audiences have clapped their hands.

“Peter Pan”

  • CAST production at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave.
  • Nov. 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m.
  • Tickets: $5 for students middle school and younger, $7 for adults



Principal just wanted an after school program

It began in 1985 as an after school activity to keep an eye on children until their parents “got home from the Loop,” says Dr. Benjamin Williams, former Julian Middle School principal. Williams plan somewhat unexpectedly blossomed into CAST: Communication Arts, Speech and Theater Education. “I just wanted a good program that really respected children,” he says. Williams visited family in Oak Park last week from his retirement home in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Williams built the program around two principles: First, that children “learn while doing.” His idea was to bring in real actors who could teach the acting craft live. From the beginning, CAST developed a tradition of visiting artists, actors, musicians and guest directors. Williams hired husband-and-wife Oak Park actors Jill and Michael Poehlman to run the program. “The job of a principal is to hire good people and free them up, let them go.”

The Poehlman’s put CAST on the map accomplishing what few thought possible: Having middle school boys and girls sing and dance on stage.

Williams’ second idea was that listening to children’s voices would show them respect – which would build their character and improve behavior. From the beginning CAST has included original written material generated by the students. “Children have something to say, and when you give them that opportunity, they say it well.”

Eventually CAST expanded from after school into the school day as elective classes, exposing tens of thousands of Julian children to high quality arts education.

A community of parents grew up around the CAST members, says Williams. “I’ve seen parents come out [of the theater] with tears in their eyes. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t know my child had that kind of confidence.'”

Shortly after CAST began, Hollywood came calling. Producers filming the 1988 movie Vice Versa picked Julian (renamed “Hemingway School”) as backdrop for their comedy about a boy and father who swap bodies. Actors Judge Reinhold and The Wonder Years child actor Fred Savage visited the school and talked about their craft. The hallways, lockers and lunchroom school scenes were filmed at Julian. “We got some renovations in the school we had been wanting,” says Williams. “Every single kid at Julian got their face in the movie. It was just really great fun.”

“It was a great 10 years,” says Williams. “I’m so glad the Oak Park school system has recognized what a gem it has in that CAST program.”

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Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...