“If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, Not me!”
All of us can relate to Peter Pan’s sentiment, but Cathy Rigby is the only one who’s lived it. For 22 years, the 60-year-old grandmother, actress and former U.S. gymnast has been flying through theaters across the United States as J.M. Barrie’s eternal little boy. Before taking flight next week at ASU Gammage, Rigby chatted with us about the role, how she stays in shape for it, and what keeps her coming back to it again and again.
Q: How did you get involved in the role?
A: The first time I did the show was in 1974, in an arena version, but it was more gymnastic. I competed as a gymnast in the ’68 and ’72 Olympics. When I got out of gymnastics, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to get married and have children, but (the arena show) came up and somebody told me if I took voice and acting lessons, it might be something I would want to do. I started doing the national touring production in 1990.
Q: You play the part of a young boy. What do you do to keep up with the physical rigors of the show?
A: When I’m not doing the show, or other theater, I have a workout regimen. It usually changes up quite a bit: I’ll run or do a little bit of weights. When I’m on the show itself, I usually get here an hour ahead of time. I warm up quite a bit and do some core work. The show itself is two hours long. It’s very aerobic.
Q: Are the challenges of the role different now than they used to be?
A: I actually think the show is better now. The flying is more sophisticated. The gentleman I fly with now, we’ve worked together for so long; it’s more daring, we flip more and fly faster. It’s gotten better and better. When you play a role this long, it allows you to be more creative with it. Because I know the physicality of it so well, I tend not to white knuckle it. But being routine doesn’t mean it gets boring, it allows for more creativity because you’re not worrying about the adrenaline.
Q: How do children, seeing the show for the first time, respond when they realize Peter Pan is played by a woman?
A: When I’m on stage, they don’t know that. When they see me off stage, kids are like, hmmm are you a boy or girl? But as long as I’m believable on stage and it has an androgenous feel. Boys have played this role and have done tours and movies, but it’s been a tradition (that a woman play the role). When it was first played in London, James Barry wanted it that way.
Q: What keeps you coming back again and again to the role?
A: Between doing Peter Pan, I’ve done everything from “Steele Magnolias” to the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” but there’s something about reliving childhood and knowing that the audiences you’re bringing in every four of five years are new. The show offers something different to everybody. There are people who have their own history of the show, but many times they’re bringing someone new with them. It’s like Christmas every year, it doesn’t get old. You’re celebrating childhood and growing up and all the bittersweet memories.
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