“Marc in Venice” is a new play by writer and director Mark Erson that tells the story of three men named Marc. This cleverly written theatrical triptych tells the interwoven stories of three men, each separated by time, in Venice, Italy.
In the first century (AD), the gospel-writer Marcus is running from the persecutions currently being waged against Christians, only to end up getting shipwrecked in the swamp where the future city will be built. Then, in the 13thcentury, Marco Polo returns to Venice with many tales to tell after nearly three decades of adventure only to find that a local cardinal seeks to suppress the worldly-wise explorer whose stories are seen as a threat to the authority and power of the Church. In the 21st century, an American college graduate named Marc meets a restaurateur named Angelo on vacation, and the Venetian’s attention challenges Marc to face the truth about himself.
Writer and director Mark Erson recently discussed this play and the inspirations behind it via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): You have a unique situation in the fact that you are a pastor and a playwright. Does one role inform the other?
Mark Erson (ME): I find a lot of commonalities in being a pastor and a theatre artist. In both cases you have a community of people who are gathering around a story that they tell. It changes them and they hope it will change the world. They work together for the common good. On the funny side, the other night I was frustrated with an actor but I remained patient, heard his concern, and did not force my plan. We made a change. One of my actors, who has done a lot of directing himself, said “You had to become a pastor.” As if to say, if you were just a director you could have demanded and forced. I guess as a theatre artist I don’t forget I am a pastor and leading a church-based theatre program. We need to do things differently. As a pastor, I try to remember how to engage (not entertain) people with the spoken word and images.
MM: How did you get interested in writing … and what drew you to the theater in particular?
ME: I remember trying to write plays from early on … I’m not sure where it came from. I especially focused on adapting Bible stories. It helped that my father was a pastor. The first Broadway show I saw was “Jesus Christ Superstar” when I was 14. The power of theatre was always a draw. The community is always a joy. Perhaps knowing my clearly defined role (whether on stage or back) was always a comfort.
MM: What inspired this play about three Marcs across time, and why did you set it in the romantic city of Venice?
ME: A few years ago, on my own grand tour of European cities, I stopped in Venice. I always longed to go, and once I got there, I couldn’t leave. My plan for a three day visit quickly turned into seven days (I had to cut Milan, which is funny now that Milan has been so good to this play). While there I heard the legend of St. Mark visiting the islands and the angel coming to him. I knew of Marco Polo. And then a group of young American men were staying in the pensione I was in and stories started to percolate. Originally, 21st century Marc’s was not a coming out story, more of an artist following his passion story. Slowly it evolved. My husband, Scott Jordan, and I went to Venice as part of our honeymoon trip and the second visit reignited the story and brought some clarity of how to proceed.
MM: What were the challenges of getting this play cast and produced?
ME: Some of the cast was in the workshop. The new members fell in place fairly easily. It’s been fun to try some new things. The actor playing the Angel is gender-non-conforming and we are playing the character gender fluid. Hardest part has been the technical end. But the cast has been great about pitching in a working as a team.
MM: What’s your favorite thing about this story and why?
ME: That the issue of embracing one’s truth about sexuality, identity and love, is played out on the same plane, and with the same importance, as wrestling with faith matters. Yet faith is never directly addressed or a part of Marc’s coming out.
MM: What sorts of reactions have audiences conveyed when you produced this show in the past?
ME: I was blown away by responses both from readings and staged workshops. People from diverse backgrounds, with varying identities and faith experiences each find a place to enter the story. People see that it is about pursuit of truth. And that is universal.
MM: What other plays have you written and what are they about?
ME: After winning the Carlo Annoni Prize in 2018, they sent me an invitation to enter again. This year, the sponsors made special mention of the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci’s death. I had just read something about him. Took up the challenge and read a lot more. And a play came out of it all. They gave it (“The Unfinished Genius”) a special mention. Last year I wrote a play for Everett Quinton. He performed in it in June of 2018 here at St. John’s. Dealt with aging and care-giving – but comedic side. For my Masters degree I wrote about Hugo Distler, a German composer during the Nazi regime. I also have a play that is modeled after a Greek tragedy but set in modern times. It deals with our hyper-litigious society. I also adapted a couple of Sherlock Holmes stories that were presented at the Edinburgh Fringe. And I have a bunch of short plays.
MM: Have you any other projects in the works and what are your plans for the future?
ME: I’m working on a play about apprentices in Shakespeare’s original company. And there are a few other half-baked ideas that I visit every once in a while.
MM: Would you like to mention anything else?
ME: It’s so amazing as a writer to have such a talented cast bring characters and words to life. They keep teaching me new things about what I wrote. As I said, that communal experience and creative collaboration is what I love most about theatre.
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