The street where I live...

The street where I live...

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Six Months on the Titanic, as the Unsinkable Mrs. Brown

First of all, she was never called "Molly."  She was Margaret, sometimes Maggie, and usually Mrs. Brown.

The whole "Molly" business started long after the death of Margaret Tobin Brown when a musical based on her life was produced (a musical that played VERY loosely with the actual facts of her life.) The people who made that musical decided that Molly was a more, well, musical name than Margaret or Maggie and so they called their show: The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  But she was never Molly in her real life.  She was Margaret.  And she was as fascinating as a person can be.

In 2007 I answered an audition call seeking actors to play characters at a Titanic Artifact Exhibit at our Provincial Museum.  This exhibit was going to be a blockbuster, and I wanted in.  The audition notice asked for a head shot and resume - the usual - so I sent in my stuff.  I eventually received a call offering me an audition time, but when I asked: "What role will I be up for?" I was told the museum and director hadn't decided on the characters yet, so all prospective actors should do a little research and write a piece about any person associated with the Titanic - passenger, crew member, whomever - and come on in and perform as that person.

I began my audition prep by googling and youtubing anything I could find about the disaster.  There is a massive amount of  information out there.  Titanic is a huge obsession for many people.  I discovered elaborate websites tracing the pre, during and post lives of every person associated with the ship and the event.  And the cast of female Titanic characters is fantastic - from the poorest immigrant women to nannies travelling with rich families to stewardesses to some of the richest and most famous women of their era.  Why James Cameron decided to make up characters is beyond me. Over 2200 true stories and he makes up Jack and Rose?

As I read about Titanic's women I found myself wanting to write a voice for all of them, but that wasn't really an option.  So I did what I do before any audition: I thought about who the director might see me as (always audition for what you are auditioning for - don't do your fabulous King Lear piece if you are auditioning for a farce), and I thought about what everyone else auditioning might do so I could find my own spin, make myself stand out from the pack.  And when I am auditioning for a museum theatre role my absolute rule is: make it a real, honest portrayal and not a "character."  When you do museum theatre work you are representing real people, real events, real circumstances, and it is the museum performers job to do this with respect.  Big respect.

I knew The Unsinkable Mrs. Brown was sure to be the persona 90% of the female auditioners would show up with, so my first instinct was to find a more obscure character, but then I reconsidered.  I knew I could credibly play Mrs. Brown.  My age and my presence as a performer are right, and she was certainly one of the most famous personalities to emerge from the epic story so museum visitors would expect to see her at the exhibit.  I decided to plunge in and audition for what I was auditioning for.  I wrote a piece for Mrs. Brown.

When I arrived at the audition location I was, of course, met with a room teeming with would be Molly Browns. And, as I suspected, most were going for the big, blousy caricature portrayal.  There was even one woman there, in the waiting area, who was insisting on being "in character" before her audition. *shudder* . Is there anything worse than someone in character at inappropriate moments?  Makes me crazy with fontrum (look it up).

When my name was called I entered the audition room and began my piece with this line:

"Titanic has come to define my life."

I went on, as Margaret Brown, to discuss the contradiction of loving the fame that Titanic brought me, but hating the horror that made me so famous.  I suspect my attempt at playing Mrs. Brown as a real person might have given me the edge that day, as I was offered the role - six months, a well paid contract at one of the best museums in the world, playing Margaret Tobin Brown.  It was a great six months.  Interpreting an event this big and world changing was awesome and humbling.

I could go on and on here about the different aspects of the job, the deep respect I developed for Margaret Brown, the amazing actors I worked with, the closeness we all still feel to the story, five years later.  I could go on about the line ups so long they snaked down two escalators, through two lobbies and out on to the streets every single day of the exhibit.  I could go on about how it felt to stand before a huge crowd of people and recount the story of that night, to see so many eyes tear up, to hear so many audible gasps as I talked about my lifeboat, not even half full, rowing away from screaming, freezing, drowning people.  But that might be a story for another time.

Right now, as I type, what I am thinking about is the fact that exactly 100 years ago Titanic had just struck an ice berg.  Every person aboard was about to learn that they were more or less doomed.  Over the course of my six months at the museum I learned the stories of most of the passengers, and they feel like friends now.  And I feel like I am a tiny part of the story for having interpreted those stories to thousands upon thousands of visitors.  And right now I am thinking of Mrs. Margaret Tobin Brown, who, a century ago, was minutes away from climbing into Lifeboat Number Six and being lowered into the freezing North Atlantic.

I know it's already history, but good luck tonight, Mrs Brown.  It was my honour to be you.

1 comment:

  1. I remember you fondly as Mrs. Brown, as do my children. When I mention you they ask, "Is she Mrs. Brown from the Titanic?" It was a fantastic exhibit that we all learned so much from, it was the work of you and your colleagues that gave it a personal side to which people could relate.