Court Theatre's return to live theater was supposed to be “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912),” February 4 to March 7, 2021. The idea was that Owen McCafferty's courtroom docudrama would be performed for small audiences of 50 people maximum and also available digitally for those who didn't feel comfortable coming back to the theater yet. Artistic director Charles Newell and the play's director Vanessa Stalling felt it would be a feasible alternative to large-scale shows, such as “Gospel at Colonus,” that had been on the bill before the pandemic. They also liked the challenge of thinking about theater in a different way.
However, as the opening approached and COVID-19 persisted, Court realized that it was too soon for live audiences and pivoted again. So, now, “Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912)” will run June 14 to July 11 as a virtual production. It was rehearsed and filmed at the theater with social distancing and all other necessary COVID measures in place.
Rather than taking a conventional approach, Stalling (“Photograph 51” at Court) has totally reconceived the staging — in keeping with her reasons for wanting to revisit the 109-year-old story of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the first place.
“I was looking for something that reflected the current moment and found McCafferty's work, which is based on verbatim transcripts from a court investigation of the wreck, to be completely relatable to our response to the pandemic,” she explained. “There will always be icebergs, metaphorically anyway, and the choices he made reveal the value system of a society that didn't have enough resources for everyone and let the most vulnerable people suffer the most. It's a clear indictment of capitalism and how corporations can influence things.”
While the original inquiry into the tragedy that claimed 1,517 lives lasted 36 days and included almost 100 interviewees, McCafferty's script features fifteen characters ranging from ship workers (no third-class passengers were interviewed) up through prominent survivors, such as Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, and Lord Mersey, the commissioner presiding over the proceedings. They're played by six actors — Ernest Bentley, Nate Burger, Ronald L. Conner, Alys Shante Dickerson, Andy Nagraj and Bri Sudia — plus Xavier Edward King, who portrays the Clerk of the Court, the fictional narrator who opens and closes the two-act show.
Stalling's concept, which she said has gone through multiple designs, started with jettisoning a courtroom setting like that used for the April 2012 premiere that was the inaugural production of the MAC, Belfast. Instead, she wanted to make the audience privy to the creation of an audio experience — or podcast — and, at the same time, to honor what it's like to watch live theater rather than a film that has been edited for you.
Three socially distanced, Plexiglas-surrounded sound booths dominate Arnel Sancianco's scenic design. Each has a microphone and a camera for close-ups trained on it. There's also an overhead camera and one for wide-angle shots, so audience members can choose what to watch on their computers. Thick blue lines painted on the floor mark pathways for the actors, who will be visible on breaks as well as in the booths. Their mostly gray and black costumes, designed by Izumi Inaba to highlight their voices, are contemporary but also subtly suggest social class, Stalling said.
“Once we eliminated the live audience, we also flipped the staging around to make the house's empty seats the backdrop,” she added. “Lighting designer Keith Parham transforms them into the ocean's dark waters and uses glimmers of metal as the ship itself. The seats also acknowledge that the audience is absent and are a metaphor for both the dead passengers and COVID-19 victims.”
Stalling said the expansive soundscape by designer Mikhail Fiksel has been an essential element from the beginning, so much so that members of the live audience were going to be issued headphones. “As for a podcast or radio play, the sound creates the landscape and point of view for each witness, giving us access to their memories, be they literal, such as the ocean, or emotional like the anxiety or horror they're feeling. Their testimonies should resonate through a heightened, visceral experience that pushes the boundaries of design and performance.”
Just like the actors, the sound designer was present from the first day of the three-week rehearsal period in the space, and the lighting designer came on early in the two weeks of tech that followed. Stalling said the cameras arrived at the end of the fifth week, and filming by HMS took two full eight-hour days.
The most difficult thing for her, she said, was not knowing if they'd have to postpone again, even though the piece was selected partly because it didn't require physical closeness. “Keeping the plates in the air in terms of direction and design” also was a challenge.
On the other hand, Stalling said she was immensely grateful to be in a room with other theater artists solving problems rather than having to use Zoom. “COVID-19 was always present, but the juxtaposition of our contemporary environment with the circumstances of the 1912 inquiry was essential for this show to work. Hopefully, we'll all be vaccinated soon,” she concluded, 'though society's problems won't be solved so easily.”
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