Spotlight on Marcus Stevens

Marcus Stevens

Marcus Stevens, the playwright and director of “Yo, Vikings” is one busy guy.  His three passions include writing, directing and acting – and he has simultaneously achieved all three: he recently wrote the book and lyrics for the musical “Yo, Vikings!” along with Samuel Willmott who wrote the music, he’s directing the world premiere of “Yo, Vikings!” at Summer Stage, and he’s presently playing the role of Motel, the tailor, in the Walnut Street Theater’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Stevens, a native of Wallingford, PA, has been involved with theater on a professional level for seven years. Earlier he earned a BFA in Theatre Arts from Point Park Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, PA. He is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, AFTRA, and the Dramatists Guild. As an actor, Marcus has worked in many of Pittsburgh’s premiere regional theaters, including The Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, City Theatre Company, The Pittsburgh Playhouse, Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh and Bricolage Production Company.

As a writer, Marcus is the recipient of the Richard Rodgers Award for his musical Red, co-written with composer/lyricist Brian Lowdermilk. Red was also a finalist in the Eugene O’Neill Festival for New Musicals and for the TAMS New Voices Prize. Marcus has also written the book and lyrics to Elliot and the Magic Bed and Eastburn Avenue, which had its world premiere with the Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep. Company.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Marcus and talk to him about his busy, yet very satisfying days this summer.

LSY – Your days are very full! What’s the schedule of a typical day for you?
MS – I’m here in the morning, just before 9 am and work with the cast until 4:30 pm. I run right out of here, and do the show (Walnut Street Theater’s “Fiddler on the Roof”) until 11 pm. I get home by 11:30 pm or 11:45 pm. And then take an hour or so to wind down.

When do you take the time to write? Is there a particular time of day?
With this show I would get up in the morning and I would work – depending on the day, depending on what my schedule was – I cleared a pretty big spot in my schedule when January started, this past January when Sam Willmott and I started writing the show. I would start writing in the morning at around 9 am and work until 4 pm or 5 pm, just like a regular job, basically. I would take breaks here and there. And then sometimes it’s really good at night. Sometimes I’d get an idea and start writing around 9pm. But most of the time, with this show, I put myself on a schedule so I could get things done.

The author of the book “Yo, Vikings” is Judy Byron Schachner from Swarthmore, PA. She based her book on a true story about her daughter Emma. When I talked with Judy, she told me that you and Emma went to school together.

Emma was a bit younger than me. We both went to Strath Haven Middle School and High School. I knew her mom was an author and her dad, Bob, played in the pit in the first musical I ever wrote which was produced here at UD Summer Stage. It was called “Finding the Blue Stone.”  It’s a musical about growing up, the pressures that high school kids have because at the time that’s what I knew in my life to write about! Bob and his younger daughter Sarah, the inspiration for Ollie, both played in the pit for that production. I knew Emma. She was a really excellent violinist.

How did you discover “Yo, Vikings!”?
I was interested in making “Elliot and the Magic Bed” (presented twice at Summer Stage) into a children’s book. And Judy gave me a copy of “Yo, Vikings!” as an example of how you put a children’s book together. She actually gave me a layout of how you put together a dummy. And I had the book for a really long time. And I remember loving the illustrations.

Harry Dietzler and I talked over a year ago about commissioning a world premiere musical for the 35th Anniversary of Summer Stage. I was going through some stuff and I came upon the book.

You have embellished the story, comparing the book to your script.
That’s sort of our job as playwrights. We take something and we adapt it for the stage. Initially, Judy and I had a meeting when I told her I was interested in basing a musical on her book. And I said to her, “I’m not going to change your story, but I have to enhance it, because I have to make it stage-worthy. I have to take the characters and I have to add more conflict. And I have to add more action, and I have to give them more of a journey so it can be played out on the stage.” So we sort of expanded it and took all of the inherent themes that already were in the book and brought them out.

Marcus and some of the cast members of “Yo, Vikings!” – Clockwise, seated left: “Emma,” played by Rachel Costello, “Mom,” played by Rachel Medori of Havertown, “Bothvar,” played by Tristan Horan of Havertown, and “Sigurd, the librarian,” played by Sean Skahill of Springfield

For example, the characters of Emma’s Mom and Dad are mentioned briefly in the book, but we decided it was a story about a family so we expanded the Mom and Dad characters. And Emma’s teacher, the Mrs. Mukherjee character – we developed her character, and developed Emma’s classmates. And there was a scene in the book where Emma thought about the Vikings. So we thought we’d make the Vikings more specific and create an imaginary Viking clan that comes back and forth during the show. So we created Bothvar, the Fork-Splitter along with his clan.

And we added conflict. In the book, her classmates will put her down here or there.  In the show, there really is conflict because Emma is disruptive. Then, what Sam and I really saw in the show was the element of adventure. Focusing on what is the real adventure, and what adventure means. We realized there’s a dichotomy between the fantasy world that Emma has and the real world. It’s about finding a balance. And it’s about using your creativity to be a leader in real life as opposed to in your imaginary world.

Do you have plans to develop the show for other venues?
Plans are in the works for other productions. We’ve work-shopped the “Yo, Vikings” material at the BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Workshop in New York. (The BMI Workshop is for musical theater composers and lyricists who apply to participate in an open competition.) This is where “A Chorus Line” and “Avenue Q” were developed and where Ahrens and Flaherty gained extended collaboration on “Ragtime.” So we presented all the songs and received some great feedback at the industry showcases. We’ve also done a concert of the show at the Laurie Beechman Theater in New York.

Emma is tenacious. Everybody is telling her “you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” including her mother and her teacher. But what I love about her is that she doesn’t give up. She has a true belief in herself. She spends a great deal of time going into her fantasy world. When you developed this character – where did you find the inspiration?
Well, that was me as a kid. I certainly wasn’t as tenacious as Emma was, but I had a very vivid imaginary life as a kid. Sam and I talked about this a lot – when we were growing up we wanted to be anything BUT kids. We were these old souls, creative and inventive. When I was in middle school I wanted to be a professional actor already.  But then you realize that part of the journey is BEING a kid. One should have that adventure first. And that’s what we saw in Emma. She imagined herself as being a Viking because it’s this way of being – she has all this stuff in her…she’s a born leader and has tenacity and strength. She wants to be that Viking leader now. She doesn’t want to wait for it. But at the end of the journey what she finds is a way to solve an issue as Emma. At the end she finds a way to say, “look, here’s a problem, let’s solve it” – and she realizes that’s the better way to do – as herself.

Marcus watches as Cate Paxson shoots the press photo shoot

One element that comes to the surface in the play is how important the art-form of story-telling is, reinforcing this by using the character of the librarian and the books for research. The librarian, Sigurd Torvaldsson has a line in the play, “Spare the sword. Summon a book.” We decided that instead of having the ship come to their backyard as Judy did in the book, the ship was going to come to save the library. We wanted to add an extra-level of the importance of the library. We’re making a statement about our technological age and the importance of books and storytelling – because the Vikings have this rich story-telling culture.

We also wanted it to be about a community. Emma wants to be the leader of her classroom, but everyone doesn’t understand that. And she wants to be the leader of the Viking clan which is the fantasy version of that. But she finds a way to be a leader in her real community by stepping forward and attempting to save the library.

One can relate Emma’s journey to what happens at Summer Stage. Kids are made to feel welcomed. They’re made to feel important.
Kids become empowered here. That’s the magic we’re all talking about. It’s a place where kids are accepted. We have created an environment where kids can be themselves and express themselves. It’s really an amazing thing what we do here.

The whole time we were writing this we knew it would be played out on the stage at Summer Stage.  So the themes of the show very much apply to what happens here. It’s about a community. It’s about being an individual within that community, about being an individual no matter what, and enjoying the everyday adventure. And these are all things we do here.

Was there a particular moment or time that you fell in love with theater?
As a kid I was always into story-telling. When I was in third grade we did a school play – and I was a pretty shy kid in elementary school – and I was given this very arrogant role in the ”The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf.”  I automatically gravitated to playing character parts where I could step outside of myself; I could put on funny voices and whatnot.

John Davenport, costume designer for “Yo, Vikings” collaborates with Marcus Stevens, director

And then I got involved in Young People’s Workshop in Swarthmore. The director there approached me after the school play and told me this might be something I’d like to do. From third grade on I did about three or four shows a year. It was something that just became my outlet – my way of expressing myself.

I started writing about 7th or 8th grade. I knew I wanted to tell my own stories. I took a young playwriting class in 8th grade. So, I was bitten pretty early and I was stuck.

Are you satisfied with the path you are taking?
Yeah, I know whatever I do, it will always be in theater. It’s what I know the best. It’s what I care about. It’s what I’m good at. I’ve been very lucky to be doing it professionally for about seven years now.

What would make you most happy?
I’m most happy right now. I used to think, “I have to make it on Broadway, I’ve got to win a Tony Award.” And that would be wonderful. But now I think about my life right now. I wrote this play, I’m directing it during the day, and then at night I go and do a play that I’m acting in, in a professional theater.  This is the stuff that makes me happy. It has been extremely fulfilling. I’ve redefined success for myself just doing the stuff that makes me happy and that fulfills me. And this has been extremely fulfilling.  As long as I can keep doing what I’m doing…that’s all that I need.

“Yo, Vikings!” – a world premiere Children’s Theater musical!
July 21, 22, and 23 at 10:30 am and July 22 at 7:30 pm
Upper Darby Performing Arts Center
601 N. Lansdowne Avenue, Drexel Hill, PA

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