It might seem a stretch for Len Causey to go from serving his country in the U.S. Army to leading a band of bumbling pirates against the most famous flying boy in all of fiction, but the Maryville resident is more than up for the challenge.
After all, he told The Daily Times this week, his military service involved a lengthy stint in the Army Entertainment Corps, and while the role of Capt. Hook is about as far removed from singing the National Anthem around the country as two jobs can be, the spotlight is a familiar place. As the March 23 and 24 dates draw closer for the Appalachian Ballet Company’s full-length production of “Peter Pan,” Causey has enjoyed stepping back into it once more.
“I’ve done theater all of my life, and when I joined the military, I had an easy tour because I spent most of my time doing Army Entertainment,” said Causey, who works in IT support for Summit Medical Group and lives with his family in Maryville. “I volunteered to sing the National Anthem one time, and it just so happened the head of Army Entertainment was in the audience and recruited me. So something like this is nothing new, but from a ballet standpoint, it’s different.”
Causey and his wife came to East Tennessee for family support while he was still enlisted; after his discharge, they sought a dance studio for his oldest daughter, Abigail, and upon asking around, they were pointed to Van Metre School of Dance in downtown Maryville. His wife landed a job in Blount County, and after driving back and forth from Knoxville multiple times a week for work and ballet, they moved to Blount County two years ago. As Abigail — who has a role as one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys in next weekend’s production — grew into a role with Appalachian Ballet Company, Causey and his wife discovered an organization dedicated to professionalism while maintaining a family atmosphere.
“We are still with them because of the level of expertise they bring to the table, but more than that, they really treat our children as their children,” Causey said. “I think the first time we went to a concert by Appalachian Ballet, the first thing Amy (Morton Vaughn, the company’s director) talked about was all of the seniors that were graduating and all of the honors they were receiving outside of ballet. Their technique is wonderful, the performances are wonderful and so is their characterization and choreography, but more than that, it’s a family.
“They care about more about our kids than just being dancers. There’s an emphasis on school and personal growth, and that’s what has kept us there. And as someone who’s seen dance all over the country, they’re definitely on par with a lot of the top professional programs in the nation. They do a really good job using what they have and really emphasizing the talent that’s available.”
Appalachian Ballet Company first mounted “Peter Pan” as a 40-minute shortened version in 2010, recruiting familiar Blount County personalities (including this writer) to fill out the cast as pirates. In 2014, she resurrected it as a full-length show, and this year, adding to the story and building out the set, it’s grown even more complex, Vaughn said.
“I’ve added three new dances this year, because we have so many dancers,” Vaughn said. “I’ve created (roles for) pirate wenches, swashbucklers and cooks that come on and feed Capt. Hook. And of course, adding new parts means new costumes, more choreography and more music. But it’s been fun, because each time, we’re finding new places to make it better. I feel like this year, we’ve demanded a little bit more of our pirate men. Back when I was trying to recruit men from the community, we didn’t want to burn them out, but this time, a lot of the guys are extras from our ‘Nutcracker’ performances, so we’ve required them to be at more rehearsals. I think they’ve enjoyed that process, and I think they’ve really enjoyed knowing their steps better because of that. And it’s allowed us to flesh out the whole big ship scene by giving them more to do and adding pirate wenches in black lace boots and leather cummerbunds around their waists.”
Causey was one of those “Nutcracker” recruits. He and his wife volunteered early on to help populate the party scene in the annual holiday ballet, and when she tapped him for the role of Capt. Hook, it was an easy transition, he said.
“I’m very much a ham, as my wife would probably tell you, and I think what I really bring out for Capt. Hook is a little bit more characterization than you would see normally,” he said. “He’s still that fiery captain in charge, especially when me and Smee (the famous first mate) add a little silliness to it, but he’s more of a drama queen with me playing it.”
Anyone who wasn’t raised by wolves has at least a passing familiarity with “Peter Pan,” the story and the character created by J.M. Barrie. First appearing in Barrie’s works in 1902, he’s boy who resides in Neverland, where he leads the Lost Boys, fights pirates and interacts with Indians, mermaids and a fairy named Tinkerbell.
Given that it’s the title role to the entire production, Berry is once again the star of the show, having danced it before in 2014. And as in both previous productions, one of its biggest moments will be when Peter Pan actually flies. ZFX Flying Effects will return to Blount County to rig the harness and ropes that will be used to hoist Berry into the air.“She’s loving the fact that she’s going to be flying again after having a baby a year ago,” Vaughn said. “Just the element of Peter Pan flying is such a phenomenal, fun thing to do, even though we can only do it every five or six years because it’s so expensive. I just think it’s part of the magic, and to me, because I deal with kids all day long, just doing a production about not growing up and being a kid forever is appealing for me.”
That sense of childlike wonder is pervasive throughout “Peter Pan,” which is one reason the dancers will appear in character on Sunday afternoon at Vienna Coffee House in downtown Maryville for a “Tinkerbell Tea” event.
On stage, the wonder sits comfortably side-by-side with laughter, and Vaughn is confident that “Peter Pan” appeals to the broadest audience possible: patrons of the arts who will enjoy the dances as an art form, lovers of the “Peter Pan” mythos who will find warmth in the familiar story and children who will grin when Peter flies and giggle when the pirates flair around on the deck of a pitching pirate ship.
“I do think I’ve created a very comedic piece of work, and I think any time you can go to a ballet and laugh and enjoy it is a plus,” Vaughn said. “I know that as I’ve added more comedic elements to our ‘Nutcracker,’ our patrons have really commented on how much fun it is to go and be truly entertained and laugh, and with ‘Peter Pan,’ there are just so many funny elements to it.”For the Causey children, the fun began when their father first landed the role. That they’re a part of the production in which he plays one of the most visible roles is a bonus, he said.
“They love it, they really do,” Causey said. “They were the ones who prompted me to do stuff with them, and they love having dad on stage with them. They love seeing dad dress up as a character, and since I’ve got a bald head right now, when I put on the full wig and the big mustache and the soul patch, they love seeing dad all dressed up, even though it’s not Halloween.”