Playing with knives, under adults' eye

At Cherry Hill High East, Erin Weaver - herself an alum - teaches the art of stage fighting to students in the school's "Peter Pan." Here, she helps Dillon Rebock, who is Hook. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
At Cherry Hill High East, Erin Weaver - herself an alum - teaches the art of stage fighting to students in the school's "Peter Pan." Here, she helps Dillon Rebock, who is Hook. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

Cherry Hill grad returns for a more realistic "Peter Pan."

Posted: February 25, 2013

As students ran across the stage at Cherry Hill High School East, placing buckets on one another's heads and jumping rope in a choreographed frenzy, Erin Weaver silently stood by, watching from the front of the auditorium.

"Nice," she said, once the chaos - a scene from the school's forthcoming production of Peter Pan - had ended.

Then she climbed on stage, announcing that while there were "a lot of things that were very clean, very fun, very good," others were "totally a mess."

"You got to chill out, OK? You have to chill out. You have to do things like you're a ninja," Weaver told the students, who sat cross-legged on the stage, several twirling strands of hair or biting fingernails.

"You have to work like professionals, knowing that moment is going to be awesome," she said. "All I saw were a bunch of kids that were freaking out."

Weaver used to be one of them. The 32-year-old actress, who has won awards for performances in Philadelphia and Washington-area theaters and earned rave reviews last year for her role in Xanadu, a musical that ran at the Signature Theatre in Virginia, graduated from East in 1998 and is the daughter of the school's theater director, Tom Weaver.

In between shows - and with a young daughter of her own - Weaver has been back at her alma mater recently, teaching the art of stage combat to students involved in Peter Pan, which opens Friday.

Weaver, a former soccer player, fell in love with the physicality of stage fighting as a student at the University of the Arts and took courses in the technique every semester.

A self-described tomboy, she identifies with Peter Pan - and has since her father told her as a child she had to audition for the part. ("Are you kidding me? You are Peter Pan," she recalled him saying.)

So she welcomed the opportunity to return to East when her father decided to teach his Pans and Hooks - the school double-cast the parts - to spar with real swords.

That isn't the norm for school Peter Pan productions: "They always just go bop-bop-bop with plastic swords," Weaver said.

She and her father believed the students at East would be up to the challenge of staging a more authentic fight, training for hours on technique before even working with swords.

The amount of training is needed to develop muscle memory, Weaver said, ensuring students won't lose control during an onstage adrenaline rush.

"It's a tremendous amount of work for what's going to be a two-second moment," she said.

The real payoff is the experience, Weaver said.

As a young person working with professional actors, "I got a taste for the discipline and what it will amount to," she said.

While her work with the students has focused on the four who play Pan and Hook, all of the students in the cast - there are 87, along with 30 stage techs and as many musicians in the pit orchestra - received some training from Weaver.

Thursday afternoon, she worked with Dillon Rebock, a 17-year-old junior playing Capt. Hook, and Patricia Irwin, a 15-year-old sophomore playing Peter Pan. Her father watched offstage.

"This is the dangerous one," Tom Weaver said as Rebock lunged at Irwin, jabbing a sword beneath her feet as she was hoisted into the air by a professional stage-flying system.

In a school known for sending its students into college and professional theater programs, the production's elaborate elements haven't fazed students.

"We want to put on a production, not just a high school production," said Sarah Sosland, 16, a junior who also plays Peter Pan.

Of learning stage combat, she said: "We're extremely lucky. Most high schools don't get to do things like this."

Brandon Weinberg, a 16-year-old junior who plays Hook, said that while the training had been hard work, it was also "a really cool experience."

Swordfighting is "something you dream of as a little kid," Weinberg said.

That spirit is present in Erin Weaver's approach to the stage.

"I call it very serious play," she said.

Contact Maddie Hanna

at 856-779-3232 or

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