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Q&A with director Shanda Sawyer on ‘Marvel Universe LIVE!’

Craving some action and adventure? Marvel Universe LIVE! brings some of the most iconic heroes and fearsome villains to life like never before during a live-action arena spectacular that will tour an astonishing 85 North American cities over the next two years. Produced by Feld Entertainment, the show launched last month and seeks to redefine the live show experience by merging Marvel characters with state-of-the-art special effects, pyrotechnics, aerial stunts, martial arts, and more.

The heroic cast of "Marvel Universe LIVE!" assembles to take on the most sinister villains in an epic battle to save the world.
The heroic cast of "Marvel Universe LIVE!" assembles to take on the most sinister villains in an epic battle to save the world.Feld Entertainment
"For audiences to be in the same room with their favorite superheroes, see them up close and personal as they perform astonishing stunts and interact with each other, is thrilling in a completely visceral way."
"For audiences to be in the same room with their favorite superheroes, see them up close and personal as they perform astonishing stunts and interact with each other, is thrilling in a completely visceral way."Feld Entertainment

As the show’s concept creator, director and co-writer, Emmy Award-winner Shanda Sawyer unites 25 of Marvel’s greatest heroes and villains for a stage spectacular that will thrill and delight comic book fans of all ages. The show’s next stop includes five consecutive dates at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, kicking off tonight (Aug. 13).

In this exclusive interview, I caught up with Sawyer to discuss the origins of the show, the unique attention to detail that goes into everything from character licensing to stunts, and some her all-time favorites in the Marvel Universe.

When and how did this show originally come together?

In the later part of 2012, Kenneth and Juliette Feld asked me to create a concept for a Marvel arena show. I immersed myself in everything Marvel. I read all the comics, watched all the movies, animated shows, etc., and put together a concept that I felt would not only present the Marvel characters in a compelling storyline, but would also be very fresh and genre-busting. I wanted to create something that is truly spectacular and that the whole family could enjoy together.

[When] we first brought the concept to Disney, they suggested that I meet with Joe Quesada, Marvel's Chief Creative Officer. Joe was gracious enough to give me notes and work with me to refine the concept. Then we presented the show concept to Marvel in November 2013, and they were really excited about the idea—that’s when Feld Entertainment and Marvel got together to work out the partnership and here we are!

Since Feld Entertainment also produces Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, what elements of the circus are a natural fit for this production?

Feld not only produces the circus, but they also produce huge motor sports events and shows (Monster Jam, Monster Energy Supercross, Nuclear Cowboyz, etc.). We definitely pulled from our knowledge of circus and stunts to deliver the technical elements of the show, but virtually everything you see in this show is prototypical, created and designed specifically for the show.

What makes this show unique is that it's a story told through live action. All the stunts and incredible action moments are there in service of the storyline. We brought in a top Hollywood stunt coordinator, Andy Armstrong, who worked with me to design never-before-seen action and stunts, and create an arc of action throughout the show.

With the circuslike atmosphere, what are your thoughts about having Stan Lee make his debut as a ringmaster at one of the shows?

Stan Lee is an icon! While Marvel Universe LIVE! has no ringmaster, it would be amazing to have him do a cameo in one of the shows!

What has the reception from critics and audiences been like so far on this tour? What opportunities do you see for future editions?

Reception has been fantastic! What's great is that there's something in the show for all ages, super fans and families alike. Younger kids are transfixed by seeing the superheroes up close and personal, teens and adults can really appreciate the difficulty of the stunts and fight sequences, and everyone can enjoy the visual excitement, state-of-the-art projection mapping, and mechanized staging elements.

How familiar were you with the characters and stories of the Marvel Universe prior to your involvement with this show, and what new things have you learned about them and its history since then?

I was certainly a Marvel fan, but not super knowledgeable. After delving so deeply into the Marvel Universe, I think I've entered official geek status! These characters are so complex and richly imagined. They all have incredible back stories and depth, and what makes them so compelling is that whether hero or villain, they all have fatal flaws that give them a real sense of humanity.

With more than two dozen Marvel characters in the show, can you tell us a little bit about how unique that is in terms of the freedom that a stage show allows compared with movies or TV?

Because of the well-publicized licensing issues, Marvel Universe LIVE! is the only place you can see Spider-Man, Wolverine and the other X-Men teamed up with the Avengers.

One of the things I had the most fun with was teaming up the superheroes in unlikely combinations; for instance, Wolverine is teamed with Bruce Banner in a quest to free Storm and Cyclops from Loki, and Spider-Man heads out with Thor to take on the Sinister Six. It all lends itself to some fun moments.

I believe that the power of live entertainment is extraordinary. Sure, the movies can do incredible things with CGI, but for audiences to be in the same room with their favorite superheroes, see them up close and personal as they perform astonishing stunts and interact with each other, is thrilling in a completely visceral way.

With the arena, there's also an opportunity to really immerse the audience in the show by moving the action from one place to another as the story takes them on an amazing journey through the Marvel Universe. Wherever you sit in the arena, you'll have the best seat for some part of the action.

Regarding the script written by Adam Wilson and Melanie Wilson LaBracio, can you comment on how much attention was paid to make the characters true to both their comic book counterparts along with their recent movie personas?

I created the concept for the show and co-wrote the script with Melanie and Adam. Early on in the creative process, I worked extensively with Joe Quesada, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of these characters in all their iterations—he was instrumental in helping shape the storyline. Then, as Adam and Melanie and I moved into scripting, we continued to work closely with Joe and other folks at Marvel to ensure that the story, situations, action and dialogue all stayed very true to the characters.

For the most part, we stayed true to the comic versions with a nod to the current screen personas.

The current tour will be hitting the road with international dates. Where will it be headed outside of North America?

The show plays 85 cities in the U.S. over the next two years, then goes out to tour globally. Overseas tour dates and locations are still in development.

Some of the stunts, especially with motorcycles and a man on fire, are especially thrilling. How much work went into planning the logistics of all of these stunts for the stage show along with the importance of safety precautions?

Safety of our performers, crew and audience is of primary importance. So much planning and R&D went into designing the stunt sequences and the prototypical equipment used for each. The stunts needed to be incredibly exciting, yet be safely repeatable, up to three shows per day.

Casting was also critical. We searched for the most talented stunt performers and athletes, then brought in a team of top stunt professionals to train them in the specifics of each sequence. Our cast continues to train daily in addition to their show performances.

Extensive safety inspections are done daily on every piece of equipment—large or small.

Something that the audience would love to know that goes behind the scenes at each and every show is…

Early in the first act, we use projection mapping to fly over NYC. The visuals are accompanied by some very kinetic techno music—if you were backstage at that moment you just might see the entire Chitauri army getting down in a huge dance party—jacking themselves up for their first big fight scene!

Who’s your personal favorite Marvel Universe hero and villain?

I can't pick, I love them all! There's one for every facet of your personality; some days I might feel like the Black Widow, and then others I turn into the Hulk!

Finally, who are some characters you’d like to see in the next incarnation of the show?

I'd love to see that big baddie Ultron get involved at some point, and of course it would be fun to take the next story off Earth and incorporate the Guardians of the Galaxy.

For upcoming Marvel Universe LIVE! dates and cities, visit www.marveluniverselive.com.

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