“…what theater can do that nothing else can do, is force you to use your imagination and fill in the holes. It’s about what you don’t see as opposed to what you do see.”
A conversation about Titanic, the Musical and the directorial concept of Marcus Stevens
Actor, playwright and director Marcus Stevens is on a roll. He walks in with a smile and his enthusiasm is viral. Upper Darby Summer Stage is blessed to have this extremely talented artist as the director of the program’s Mainstage production, Titanic, The Musical, the Broadway-style production that features young adults up to the age of 28. Many in the production are pursuing professional careers in theatre.
Marcus earned his BFA in Theater Arts from Point Park Conservatory in Pittsburgh, PA and since then has been involved in all aspects of theater. As an actor, he has performed on the stages of Walnut Street Theater, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and many others. As a writer he has collaborated with composer/lyricist Brian Lowdermilk on the Richard Rodgers Award-winning musical Red, as well as the children’s musical Elliot and the Magic Bed. Recently, he collaborated with composer Sam Willmot on the musical Yo, Vikings! which premiered last summer at Upper Darby Summer Stage. Both Marcus and Sam have been invited to attend the prestigious Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project, a weeklong intensive project that hosts the nation’s most promising songwriters across all genres.
Today we talk with Marcus while he is in director mode, and we get the treasured opportunity to visualize his interpretation of Titanic, the Musical as he and the cast and crew begin their arduous yet rewarding task of bringing it to life on the stage July 29, 30 and August 5, 6. In talking with Marcus about his vision of the production, it’s like biting into piece of fine Belgian chocolate and beginning to identify the surprising tastes that satisfy the taste buds. (Not to mention the sheer delight in savoring a special treat of fine Belgian chocolate.)
A BIT ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Titanic debuted on Broadway in 1997 and went on to win five Tony Awards that year including the trifecta, Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. The music and lyrics are by Maury Yeston and the book by Peter Stone. It became a hit and the same year it debuted on Broadway James Cameron’s film Titanic was released, fueling the interest in the subject matter of the fateful voyage of 1912.
Marcus Stevens: I saw the Broadway production while I was in high school and I wept for the first 20 minutes. Since that time I’ve thought about directing it here because it’s the kind of show we do best here. It has about 40 principles, providing opportunity for all sorts of people. It’s big, full-scale, huge cast, presented on this enormous stage. Even back then, I pictured the show in this theater because this is the best theater ever for this show, because it’s so enormous. We want it to feel that big – on a grand scale.
“IT’S LIKE LITTLE IMPRESSIONIST PAINTINGS OF IDEAS OF WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED – OR MAY NOT HAVE HAPPENED.”
MS: The thing that really grabs me about the play is it’s not a linear story line. There are impressions. It’s not like the movie where you follow two characters through the whole thing – it’s like little impressionist paintings of ideas of what may have happened – or may not have happened. What I like about that is it lends itself to being abstract, and to being like a memory and to feeling dreamlike.
But what is amazing about this first scene is that the ship is not onstage. Even in the Broadway production. It’s theatrical in every sense of the word. When they wrote that opening sequence they had it totally right. We know what the Titanic looked like. We’ve read it, we’ve seen pictures of it. The idea is that, what theater can do that nothing else can do, is force you to use your imagination and fill in the holes. It’s about what you don’t see as opposed to what you do see.
And that’s what makes this story-line so devastating is that you know what’s happening, but in this production it is being represented in an abstract, theatrical way.
THE THREE FATES
MS: We can’t replicate the Titanic. We just can’t. One of the initial discussions we had included asking ourselves, ‘are we going to do it with hydraulics?’ But I never really pictured it with hydraulics. One, when I saw it in New York I think it was a mistake by making it too much about the set, because the story is about the people. Two, I said to Harry (Dietzler), no matter what we build to replicate what they did on Broadway is going to disappoint the audience.
I’m all about taking something very real and intermingling it with fantasy to enhance. My ascetic is to mix fantasy with reality. In this production we’ve added the element of The Three Fates to enhance the telling of the story. We want it to feel otherworldly – they don’t speak, they dance.
SIDE: The Three Fates were goddesses that appeared in Roman and Greek mythology known as the Moirae or Parcae. They were also known as the Matres, ancient deities revered in northwestern Europe, and the Norns, female beings who determined the fate or future of a person from Germanic folklore. Shakespeare incorporated the three Witches in Macbeth, and in modern day, the Fates were featured in Disney’s animated movie Hercules.
MS: The show starts under water with just the three women, the Moiraes, sewing their thread. The Titanic has taken on this mythic stature in the world and in the country. It’s like folklore, and so the idea is to add that mythic, fateful, sort of twist to it.
The show starts with their three heads in the floor. They come out and dance a ritual – cutting the thread – and the audience begins to understand that they are cutting the thread of life.
They’re always in black – but they take on different roles. Because they are spirits they morph into the guises of the different characters that appear on the ship. Sometimes they appear as stokers, sometimes they appear as Victorian ladies, sometimes they appear as officers.
At the end of the first act – instead of a little boat going across the stage like in the Broadway show – it’s going to be the Moiraes rolling out the thread and cutting it. We see them cut the thread, the lights go out, and we hear the ship scraping against the ice berg as the audience sits in darkness.
“IT’S A VERY AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING. I DON’T LIKE TO TAKE THE EASY ROUTE. I MAKE THINGS A LOT HARDER FOR MYSELF.”
MS: The easy route is just to do the show as it has been done before. I don’t like to take the easy route. I make things a lot harder for myself (laughing).
It will become very clear when you watch it – it will feel other-wordly and the audience will get the feeling that something is mystical about these characters. Even if you aren’t familiar with the mythology.
The way we’re going to get the gloom and doom in the show, to get people to understand how we’re progressing, is with these women. How do we do it? In a very dramatic way.
It’s a very ambitious undertaking. But at the same time, it’s really simple.
“WE WANT THE PRODUCTION TO BE ABOUT THE ACTORS AND THE ACTING.”
MS: The whole opening number there’s nothing on stage but the actors, looking out at the ship. But there’s no ship!
I said to the cast the other night in rehearsal, ‘If you are in it from the very beginning and you see that ship, the audience is going to see it to. It’s a challenge. But it’s so cool. The audience – from looking at your faces – is going to see it too.”