One-woman show to focus on Titanic passengers, music of era

The RMS Titanic may have sunk at 2:20 a.m. April 15, 1912, but Deborah Jean Templin’s one-woman show

The RMS Titanic may have sunk at 2:20 a.m. April 15, 1912, but Deborah Jean Templin’s one-woman show “Unsinkable Women: Stories and Songs From the Titanic” is riding high. When Templin performs the show, which she wrote, on Friday and Saturday at the Charles R. Wood Theater she’ll be closing in on the 100th-performance mark.

“My training is as a repertory theater actress,” she said, “and my one-woman concert allows me to play many roles. Such a joy.”

Theater-goers may remember Templin from another show that she performed in 2008 at the Wood, “Souvenir,” about Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur opera singer known for her obliviousness to her own incompetence. That’s where Richard Wargo, artistic director of the Marcella Sembrich Opera Museum in Bolton Landing, heard her.

“Deborah is a wonderful singer,” Wargo said.

At the time, Wargo was already looking ahead to what to schedule for the 2012 summer season and the centenary of the Titanic sinking. For those not familiar with Sembrich, she was one of the most famous soprano divas at the Metropolitan Opera around the turn of the 19th century. Her museum was actually her studio where she brought her vocal students, many of whom studied with her at the Juilliard School, where she established the vocal department.

‘Unsinkable Women: Stories and Songs from the Titanic’

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

WHERE: Charles R. Wood Theater, 207 Glen St., Glens Falls


MORE INFO: 798-9663;

Part of the era

“Marcella Sembrich was a part of that era,” Wargo said. “The Astors and such who were in first class [on the Titanic] and were her fans and the immigrants who would have flocked to the tiers of the opera houses. . . . I felt that the Sembrich as a museum of a prima donna could illuminate the tragedy through the music of the era.”

He decided to present a three-part series with the Titanic as the focus. The first part was how the Broadway show “Titanic: A New Musical,” which won the 1997 Tony Award as the Best Musical of the Year, was created. The second part was about the music of the period and the eight musicians who made up the band on the Titanic.

The third part is Templin and her show.

“Deborah had already been touring in the show and I thought it an ideal way to end the series,” Wargo said.

Templin, who first premiered the show in 2000, has written nine plays to date, having started writing at nine through a 4-H program in Minnesota. But it wasn’t until she did the national tour of the Broadway show “Titanic” from 1998 to 2000 that she became inspired to write something about the women who survived the sinking of the ship.

Templin’s other credits include national tours of “Baby,” “Annie” and “Mamma Mia!” along with several television shows and films and awards for acting, including the Richard Burton Award in Acting.

“My job on tour was to cover seven real characters, some of whom perished and others who survived. I did 45 cities,” she said a few weeks ago from New Hampshire, where she was working in repertory at the Weathervane Theater. “I began to wonder what happened to the survivors after the lifeboat.”

Researching subjects

So when she played Denver, she visited the home of Margaret “Unsinkable Molly” Brown. Later, in Boston, she went to Harvard University in Cambridge to visit the Widener Library, founded by survivor Eleanor Elkins Widener in honor of her son Harry, who had died on the Titanic. She checked out Newport, Rhode Island where Madeleine Astor had married John Jacob Astor, heir to one of America’s greatest fortunes. And she roamed through Macy’s in New York City to see if there was a memorial to the Straus family who had founded the store. Both Ida and Isidor Straus died on the Titanic.

“I found a doorway with a relief to Ida and Isidor and a memorial to them at 107th and Broadway,” Templin said.

Eventually, she decided to focus on no more than nine women, six of whom she’ll present at the Wood. They include the Irish stewardess Violet Jessop (1887-1971), Molly Brown (1867-1932), Eleanor Widener (1861-1937), Nora, who is a composite of a vaudeville actress and singer, and Ida Straus.

Templin will also present Daisy Spedden (1872-1950), who wrote a storybook about her Titanic experiences to give to her young son at Christmas. Almost 40 years after her death, a relative going through Spedden’s trunks found the storybook, had it fully illustrated and Little, Brown and Co. published it in 1994 as “Polar, the Titanic Bear.” It received numerous awards; Madison Press Books now publishes it as a paperback.

Templin will also sing many period songs. There were no vocalists aboard the Titanic, only the band, but everyone would have known “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” the most popular tune of 1912. A friend’s sheet music collection also yielded “The Oceana Roll” and “Silver heels — an Indian ballad.” C. Colby Sachs will be at the keyboard. Ron Schwinn did the musical staging typical of the vaudeville era.

While it was fairly easy to find the tunes, it was much harder to find information about the people Templin wanted to portray.

“Some papers of the time published information about some of the people, but for the third-class women there was not so much,” she said. “But I got lucky. I met Walter Lord, the author of ‘A Night to Remember’ [an account of the sinking], which was published in 1955. I met him in 2000 [Lord died in 2002]. He told me to use my imagination.”

She was also fortunate to talk with Isidor Straus’ great grandson and Daisy Spedden’s grandnephew.

Six personae

With six different women, that means six different costumes and six different ways of presenting herself. Sara Jablon designed the Edwardian-era costumes.

“Each has a different body center in how they hold themselves physically — their head, chest, body or hips, and each must speak in their own voice,” Templin said. “I gave Violet an Irish accent and Molly a Colorado twang.”

Templin thinks in instrumental terms when she determines where to pitch her voice.

“Some are flutes, some are oboes, some are lyrical or a violin or music box,” she said. “I also consider the tempo in which they speak and the velocity in which I’ll move.”

What’s most important is that she’s truthful to each woman because each was real and that she has written an entertaining as well as informative show.

“Writing a play is like developing a recipe for a great cookie,” Templin said with a laugh. “And this play is my tribute.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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