High School Students Book Passage on Broadway's Titanic

High School Students Book Passage on Broadway's Titanic
Clockwise: Students sing "Godspeed, Titanic", Pianist Ralph Affoumado leads rhythmn exercises, students gather around the piano, and Camp Broadway's Corrie Cooper as her character, Stewardess Mary Sloan.
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Photo by Photos by Starla Smith

Clockwise: Students sing "Godspeed, Titanic", Pianist Ralph Affoumado leads rhythmn exercises, students gather around the piano, and Camp Broadway's Corrie Cooper as her character, Stewardess Mary Sloan.
 

They boarded Titanic at 10 AM Feb. 4, 1998. Tickets in hand, they separated into classes -- first, second, and third -- and sat accordingly -- in a more separated "dining saloon" for the first class, the second and third closer together.

On each boarding pass was a name. At the left hand corner table in first class, these names were Brenda Devilliers, William Douglas, William C. Dulles, Dr. Washington Dodge and his son, Master Washington Dodge -- all actual passengers on the Titanic.

In reality, that first class table sat six students, four from Paul Lawerance Dunbar School, Bridgeport, CT, and two from Upper Marion High School, King Of Prussia, PA. Their real names were Deon Lufton, 12, (Douglas), Raymond Arroyo, 11, (Dulles), Levar Edmonds, 12, (Dodge Sr.), Edward Murphy (Dodge Jr.), Sara Hill, 17, (Davidson), and Dorothy Duff, 15, (Devilliers). They were gathered at the Broadway Grill restaurant in New York's Broadway Theatre District as part of the Stages for Learning Program, operated by Camp Broadway and Dodgers Endemol Theatrical Productions as a way of getting students involved in theatre in ways even more direct and hand-on than simply being audiences.

The students began by assuming the role of their own personal passenger.

At each table place, a place mat had been set, each one a reproduction of the New York Times headline for April 16, 1912: "Titanic Sinks Four Hours After Hitting Iceberg."

On the back of the place mat, there was a worksheet where each passenger could describe his or her own charcter by filling in the blanks to prompts like "I am traveling with..." and "I am going to American because..."

As they filled out the worksheets, the on ship "program director," Nigel Davis, introduced himself and the ship. He stressed the class differences which met with pride from the first and second classes and enthusiastic whoops from the third, especially when they were told that third class had to provide their own entertainment.

Most of all, he assured everyone of Titanic's safeness. With 21 lifeboats, he insisted, "We are the safest ship on the sea."

Nigel Davis was actually Broadway actor, Drew Eschelman (Thenardier in Les Miserables). This was Eshelman's first performance as Davis, a character he created himself. A friend at Collaborative Arts Project 21 introduced him to the workshop program. He liked the program and joined it.

"The goal really is to allow the kids to bring out some of their creativity. That's basically what we're trying to do. Celebrate their creativity," he said.

After being welcomed on board, there were journals to fill out and entries to be created about the first four days at sea. "DAY FOUR: We are over halfway to New York. There will be a party tonight." the entry began. The passenger must create the rest.

At 11:05 AM, there was a frightening crash. Camp Broadway staff, acting as fellow passengers, stewards, and stewardesses, passed among the students, assuring them that nothing was wrong.

They hand out life vests--white ribbon for the first class, blue for the second, and red for the third. Again, the students were told that everything was alright.

The first class grumbled. Arroyo as Dulles asked a staff member why life jackets were necessary if the ship was unsinkable. He was not properly answered.

Murphy, the younger Dodge, cried. "I'm too young to die!" He demanded the Captain be brought to him.

Meanwhile, Eshelman as Davis took control again, asking the students to pair off and write a dialogue detailing their passenger's reaction to striking the iceberg. Some of the skits would be acted for the whole group, he explained.

Hill and Duff were among those chosen from first class. In their piece, they disussed rumors--collision with an iceberg or was Titanic merely traveling the wrong way?--and settled on having a nice cup of tea. Other skits included two second class sisters determined to die together, two first class gentleman who wanted to put the third class on the engines to start them up, and several third class gentleman who wanted nothing more than to have a drink.

Eshelman used the skits to teach acting and theatre terms, from "events", props, character, humor, dialect to "Lights up!" .

After the performance of several dialogues from each class, composer and pianist, Ralph Affoumado led the musical program. Earlier, he provided piano accompaniment to the student's writing activities. Mostly he improvised on rags, polkas, and music of the period--with one special addition--the "Love Theme" from Titanic, the movie.

The first week of the workshop, a student requested it. Now, Affoumado plays it every week.

"I sneak it in and look up to see if they recognize it," he said.

Affoumado began with rhythm games, first explaining the difference between a whole, half, quarter, and eighth note. He used the notation to teach the students how to clap SOS in Morse Code.

Rhythm was only the start of the musical lesson. Sheet music was then handed out, "Godspeed, Titanic" printed on it.

The passengers sang through the song together a few times before Affoumado divided them, by class, into harmony groups. The first class was assigned the high G at the end. Some managed it, even professed altos Hill and Duff.

The food then arrived; first class served first, naturally. The left hand corner table drank a toast to not being third class and conversation centered on Titanic -- the movie, anyway. General consensus was that it was good, exciting, and sad.

"Part of it was true; that's why it was so sad." Arroyo said.

They discussed Leonardo Di Caprio, the passengers freezing, and the ending -- especially the old woman and the pictures of her life.

The conversation continued until someone mentioned sports and suggested wrestling was fake. A bitter battle broke out.

Listening, one hardly imagined such an argument in the first class dining area of the actual Titanic.

By the time dessert had been served to all three classes, it was time to leave for the theatre. Still carrying their boarding passes and many still wearing their life belt ribbons, the first class divided back into their respective schools and departed.

Camp Broadway's contribution ended when the students left the Broadway Grill. Dodger, however, adds one more aspect -- an after the show question and answer period with some of the actors.

Matthew Bennett, Jonathan Brody, Michael Ceveris and Jennifer Piech fielded questions ranging from set specifics -- how do the actors get off the sinking ship, how does the three tiered set move -- to how Titanic has changed from previews to the show the students witnessed.

And there was the inevitible question about Ceveris' coiffure (he's bald in the show). Did he shave his head for the role or did he wear his hair that way? Ceveris explained that while the real Andrews did have hair and he himself expected he'd be wearing a wig for the role, the producers liked his shaved head look and had him keep it.

"They wanted me to look like I was in Smashing Pumpkins." he said.

Ceveris saw the question and answer time as a chance for the students to see the reality behind the show.

"It seems most of the kids really enjoy it and enjoy getting to actually see and talk to the people that do this stuff...I'm sure it doesn't seem real to them. I think it's great for them to get a chance to see that this could be them one day, if they want it to be." Ceveris said.

Hill and Duff agreed that the program had given them a view into Titanic that strengthened their enjoyment of the show. They even felt a connection to their passengers.

Both looked for and found their passenger's name on the passenger list printed on the walls of the Lunt-Fontanne lobby. Duff's passenger lived; Hill's died.

Of the program, Hill said, "We kind of got into it a little bit, more than if we just showed up and saw it."

"You feel important. Like 'I'm an actor'!" Duff said.

The Stages For Learning Wednesday Workshops are held every Wednesday, starting in the fall and lasting through March. The Broadway Grill hosts the Titanic workshop, while Comedy Nation holds a second workshop for 1776. Camp Broadway and Dodger Endemol Theatrical Productions produce both programs.