For nearly a century, Peter Pan, Captain Hook, Tinkerbell and the Darling siblings have been captivating audiences in mediums from print to stage to screen. Finding Neverland, which plays at the National Theatre through March 3, 2019, takes a few steps further back to share the partially true story of Peter Pan’s author, J.M. Barrie, and his adventures with a group of boys and their mother that inspired the timeless tale. Maryland Theatre Guide had an opportunity to get to know mid-Atlantic native Conor McGiffin, who plays theatrical producer Charles Frohman and the renowned Captain James Hook.
Maryland Theatre Guide: Growing up Dover, Del., did you always have the dream of becoming an actor?
Conor McGiffin: I had the good fortune of having parents who were determined to support even the slightest of interests my sister and I had. My mother brought me to the first audition at the Children’s Theatre of Dover for their production of The Wizard of Oz.
We all had to stand in a line on the stage in front of our parents and say one of Scarecrow’s lines. I shook like a leaf in a tornado and bombed. Mom took me aside afterward and said, “There’s another show this winter—if you really don’t want to do it, you don’t have to go in again.” Two months later, I was standing in that same line but singing a lyric from Babes in Toyland. To my shock and surprise, I was cast in the role of a Toy Soldier. I was in the second act, sat on a bench, and sang the chorus of the titular song. The energy backstage, the costumes, the rehearsals where we all became friends, the proud look of our director, and the applause of the audience enchanted me.
After we closed, I was desperate to get back to it. From the age of 8, I knew that I wanted to be an actor, and I have the Children’s Theatre of Dover to thank for that.
MDTG: What ways were you able to prepare for your current career path growing up?
CM: Growing up, I was surrounded by music. My parents played in three different local folk bands and a church choir. I would listen to their rehearsals from right outside the music room. That exposure to music really helped with developing my ear for pitch.
On the theatrical side, I first learned what went into making a show when I accompanied my mom to play rehearsals at Polytech High School. She helped out with the music, and I would watch the director try to mold a show from scratch. I’d help with taking the place of an actor who was sick to do the blocking, so that rehearsal time wasn’t lost.
In middle school, I started participating both in band in school and in dance outside of it. By day, I was drumming, and by night, I was tapping. Then high school came around and two important events came to be: I got a voice teacher, and my parents learned of this theatre company in Rehoboth Beach called Clear Space Productions. Without Charlene, my teacher, I would have never been cast by Clear Space, and without Clear Space, I wouldn’t be on this national tour today. They gave me the best artistic education a high schooler could have ever dreamed of and were instrumental in getting me into college.
MDTG: What was your first major role, the one that made you think, “This could actually be my career”?
CM: I was actually working in the ensemble at Clear Space Productions when I thought, “Wow, I can really do this.” It was run by these two phenomenal artists, Ken and Doug, and they were exacting with everyone. They were so legit—they invited Broadway’s Britt Shubow to perform as Millie, and she came! I thought to myself, “If Britt wants to work with these guys, then maybe I have an actual chance.”
MDTG: What is the audition process like for a national tour (or other major professional production)?
CM: It depends on the company, but usually it goes something like this: There is a general call for actors to come and either sing 16 bars of music in the style of the show you’re auditioning for or dance a combination at a rehearsal studio. This will be overseen by the casting director (CD) of the production and/or their assistant and the choreographer if it’s a dance call.
Then, there is an invited call where you sing more material for more people (CD and assistant, music director, choreographer, and director). After that, you could have anywhere between one to seven more callbacks, where the people I mentioned will want to see you do material from the show. This includes dialogue, song selections, and choreography. The director will use this time to give you tips or challenges to face. One director wanted me to do a monologue in four different accents, one right after the other. Another wanted me to take off my shoes, so I could feel the ground beneath me.
MDTG: Is there something about the story of “Finding Neverland” that speaks to you?
CM: The way it treats the process of grieving. The children in the show lose their father before the curtain rises, and one son, in particular, Peter Llewelyn-Davis, has taken it very hard. It doesn’t turn him into a happy-go-lucky “aw, shucks” kind of kid. He is suffering, which inspires J.M. Barrie to make Peter feel better—and thus, we have Peter Pan. As someone who has experienced grief at a young age, I can relate to that.
MDTG: What is life on a national tour? What are the challenges, and what are the unexpected perks?
CM: Your life becomes travel, mostly by bus and sometimes by plane. The real challenge is on a day where you only do one show in that city. You wake up, check out of the hotel you were staying at, get on the bus, drive to the next hotel (which could be anywhere from the next town over to 600 miles away), get into the hotel, get back on the bus, go to the theater, do the show, and get back to the hotel. The unexpected perks are the frequent flyer and hotel points you accrue! More importantly, you get to see cities and national parks you never could have dreamed you’d see. I never thought I’d see the White Sand Desert or Yosemite in my 20s, but I did!
MDTG: How much longer are you on the road? Are you looking forward to returning to your home base?
CM: We are touring until June 23, and even though I will miss this cast, I cannot wait to be home.
MDTG: What tips do you have for aspiring student actors?
CM: 1) Read everything: Biographies on dancers, acting techniques, scripts, scores, interviews with artists. They will inform what you do greatly.
2) Expand your mind and your comfort zone. Take dance classes, find a voice teacher, learn to cook, learn an instrument. You may laugh, but experience makes better actors. The more you can offer, the more you will work.
3) The life ahead is going to be difficult—you’ll have to wake up for auditions at 5 a.m., work multiple jobs that pay just enough for rent, so be prepared for anything they ask you to do in the room. Every time you step into the room, there are 600 people behind you waiting to do the same. The odds are certainly stacked against all of us, but if you can get up every time you are knocked down, if you treat everyone both the waiting room and the audition room with respect and dignity, if you prepare yourself fully for the audition (16-bar cut, 32-bar cut, full song, monologue), your chance of success increases dramatically. If you believe in yourself and love what you do, the people behind the table looking at you will take notice.
4). Most important tip of all: Do good. I don’t mean perform well in the audition, I mean do good. Be kind to every other actor in the waiting room, and hold yourself with grace. Don’t treat the other actors like competition but like compatriots. These same actors turn into producers, casting directors, and music directors (i.e. your future bosses). At some point in your career, it doesn’t matter how good a singer you are—if you are toxic, no one will want you near their project.
5). Sleep. It’s not overrated.
“Finding Neverland” runs through March 3, 2019, at The National Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the tour’s website.