Last month while perusing my local, hip video store, Casa Video, in Tucson, Arizona, I stumbled upon a familiar face.
“What’s up?” my beloved asked.
“That’s Marcus Wolland!”
“What’s a Marcus Wolland?”
“He’s, like, the most talented actor you’ll ever see!”
“But what’s he doing in the employee pics section of Casa Video?”
There he was — the spitting image of Orson Welles, under the title, The Magnificent Welles.
“Well I’ll be damned.”
So we brought it home and watched it.
It turns out that there’s a terrific, small film company in Seattle, Stage Direct, that seeks out obscure theatrical jewels and illuminates them via beautifully produced independent films.
I worked with Marcus 20 years ago when I directed him in a fun little send-up of Richard III in Reno. During the rehearsal process (when one hangs out almost exclusively with one’s show mates), I witnessed Marcus’s impersonations of Jack Nicholson, Jon Gielgud and everyone in between. While he does bare an uncanny resemblance to Welles, I can attest to the fact that he can look exactly like Michelle Obama, if he puts his mind to it. He’s one of the few actors I’ve known who I can honestly describe as a genius.
I tracked Marcus down via Facebook (bless it!) and interviewed him via e-mail.
Jeanmarie Simpson: You have been working with the character of Orson Welles and the changing material that comprises your script for roughly a decade, yes? What are the most significant changes you’ve made in the text, and how has your crafting/framing of the role evolved?
Marcus Wolland: The ending of the piece is the most significant change. In the original 2001 script, Welles regretfully tears up the positive comments from the first screening of The Magnificent Ambersons which he jotted down during a phone call with Jack Moss. He then walks to the window of his hotel room and sprinkles the confetti on the carnival revelers in the streets below as the lights fade to black… It’s a bit defeatist. In the 2005 version (which was produced in ’07 by Zemfira Stage in Alexandria, Virginia featuring actor Jay Tilley), Welles uses the confetti in another way, underscoring one of his lifelong fascinations — magic. The 2005 version also has more Shakespearean quotes and theatrical references. This ending is bittersweet because there is a sense that what has happened during the course of the play is merely a setback and not the beginning of the end. In crafting and framing the role, the ability to storytell is essential. Welles, like anyone else, was not above fabricating details of his own life, and I think it was a personal challenge within him, a game in which he would push the boundaries of his storytelling prowess to see just how much he could impel an audience to believe. His powers were great, as proven by the 1939 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. In approaching the role myself, my main interest in college was not acting but speech and debate, and it was speaking events such as dramatic interpretation, prose and duo interpretation that I enjoyed most. In a speaking event, you have only your voice and presence to rely on…there are no grand sets, elaborate costumes or other actors to provide distractions for an audience. It’s up to you alone to hold their attention, and my experience in that area suited the role of Orson Welles nicely.
JS: Now that you’re ten years in, what would you say is your relationship with the soul of the material and the person whose life you represent in the piece?
MW: The soul of the material centers on loss and the ache of the irretrievable, whatever that may be. It’s universally understood because we all lose things throughout our lives, both tangible (people, material possessions, etc.) and intangible (innocence, integrity, hope, etc.). Therefore, my relationship to the script is familiar and comfortable (though not comforting). Regarding my relationship to Orson Welles, besides developing a greater respect and admiration for his achievements, I would say, because of him, I have an appreciation for my own inscrutable nature and that of those around me. In reading biographies and compiling history for the play, the one absolute everyone was in agreement over was that Welles was enigmatic and unpredictable. Everyone possesses varying degrees of those qualities, but we never pay attention to our own idiosyncracies, just those of friends, neighbors and public figures. We seldom recognize our own rich textures and indecipherable reactions. Fortunately, that is theatre’s principal purpose — bringing us face to face with ourselves through the plight of others.
JS: I find this very interesting. Most theatre people, I think, tend to be very self-analytical, but you’re so right. It’s rare that we can identify the nuances. In fact, once we’ve identified them, they tend to disappear on us and we lose them as textures for performance. How do you work these days, as an actor? What’s your process?
MW: I favor working from the inside out. I focus on a particular quality of whatever character I’m portraying and radiate from within. Acting is communication, whether it’s a specific message or the attempt to alter perceptions and promote further understanding of the human condition. My job is to reach as many people as possible and, despite the message not always being well-received or even understood, it will touch someone somewhere, and that is what I strive for.
JS: So you’re not of the Olivier School of Nose. On what kinds of qualities do you focus? Do you look for their insecurities? On what do you focus when you do Welles today?
MW: So much depends on the particular character, but what I try to look for is the less obvious yet universally understood trait. The quality I focus on for Welles is vulnerability. He is remembered for theatrical innovation and cinematic genius, his strength and commanding presence, but as is the case with such people, we tend to forget they’re also human. I think there’s an expectation that a show about Orson Welles will entail a much lauded but overbearing, egotistical and therefore unlikable personality. People don’t imagine they’ll be seeing one of his greatest disappointments unfold before their eyes, or that they might even be touched by it.
JS: Let’s talk about the filming process. How was it done?
MW: Jeff Meyers of StageDirect oversaw the process, and it involved shooting on five separate cameras over the course of four live performances. He also took one day to shoot certain close-up sequences without an audience. It was recorded at The Odd Duck, a small theatre in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle. Strangely, that process was much easier for me than recording the extras for the DVD. Jeff shot them himself on one camera in the living room of my home, and I think the absence of an audience or other technicians threw me, but the whole experience couldn’t have been more pleasant… Gary Cole, founder of StageDirect, and Jeff both went out of their way to put me at ease. I’m sure there were painstaking hours spent editing and mixing sound, but I was spared that.
JS: How did they learn about the show?
MW: Jeff Meyers was scouting possible productions during the 2001 Seattle Fringe Theatre Festival and happened to catch my show. He was interested in Welles and wanted to see what a one-man show about him might look like. Luckily for me, he was pleased enough with the performance to overlook some of the writing flaws and approached me after the show. He gave me his business card, and I’m ashamed to say I took it all with a grain of salt. I met once more with Jeff, received a few e-mails over the next few months, and realized he and Gary Cole were quite serious. Then, in February of 2002, Jeff arrived with his camera crew and we shot the show.
JS: Is the film still readily available for purchase?
JS: What have you been doing since then?
MW: I’ve been working on a three-person play with music about Broadway producer David Merrick for a few years now… I’m hoping to complete it by the end of this year or early 2011. I’m also writing, shooting and acting in a webisode series called Turning Left, which my associates Anthony Poff and Kelly Rothwell hope to launch in late spring of this year. We have our website address and will add content in the next several months.
JS: Tell me about the David Merrick project. What inspired you to create it?
MW: Merrick is another iconic figure not unlike Welles, and after reading the unauthorized biography The Abominable Showman, I thought he’d make an interesting subject. Welles was subtle and charming in his manipulations; Merrick was overt and bullying in his. However, I didn’t want it to be another one-man show, so I’ve got one man playing Merrick and a second man and woman to play other people in Merrick’s life, including Gower Champion and Merrick’s six wives. I also wanted it to be a play with music, since Merrick produced mainly Broadway musicals. Ideally I’d like five songs in the show, but right now I’ve only got three…still working on it.
JS: You do a lot of Cabaret nowadays.
MW: I do enjoy cabaret singing here in Seattle. My current locale is the Little Red Studio, a wonderful performance and visual art venue near the Space Needle.
JS: Next time I’m in Seattle, I’ll look you up, Marcus. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.
MW: Thank you for asking them. If you do come to Seattle, perhaps I’ll persuade you to do a project, or at least an appearance in Turning Left. Until then…Rosebud!