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Female Pirates on an Actual Boat

Date: May 26, 2015
Blood Red Roses revives swashbuckling legends


What's the best way to spell "arrrgh?" When you're producing a pirate show, that's not an idle question.

Just ask Drama of Works, the Brooklyn-based company behind Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project. "Is there a 'u'? An 'e'?" asks performer Emily Hartford, sitting with her fellow company members at Cork & Fork in the East Village. After serious consideration, show director, performer and Drama of Works artistic director Gretchen Van Lente replies, "Just 'a-r-r-r-r-r-r-r- exclamation point,' I think."

Of course, Blood Red Roses, which plays through May 31, also presents challenges that are bigger than simple spelling. Take the location. "We are doing a pirate show on a boat," says Meghan Maureen Williams, an associate director with the company. Specifically, the show takes place on the Lehigh Valley Barge, which is docked in Red Hook and also houses the Waterfront Museum.

That means the audience is rocked by the waves of the East River and must travel to the relative remoteness of a Brooklyn neighborhood with no subway access. But for the company, that's a boon for the show's collection of six pirate-themed tales.

"There is an element of risk," says Williams. "You get onto the boat, and you are on it with us. And this sh**'s going down." Hartford adds, "If we’d done it in a theatre, if we'd done it in any space where people just walked off the subway and walked into it, it wouldn't be the same experience as arriving at this place that does not feel like your regular life at all. You've got the Statue of Liberty over the water, the sunset is happening, and then you get on a boat."

That otherworldly sense is enhanced by the company's puppetry work. The high seas adventures are relayed through a mixture of live action and shadow puppetry, with a few sea shanties added for good measure.


Crucially, patrons can see the puppetry effects being created, with actors manipulating cut-outs of ships and crinkling paper to suggest the roaring ocean. "We don't cover up any tricks or hold any secrets," says Williams. "We're pretty open about that. We made the show where the audience was with us, like they [are] behind the screen."

And if all these methods are unusual, that's partly the point. After all, the show is about actual female pirates whose lives are almost never part of the canon. The women of Drama of Works – a company that leans toward female-driven material – have an encyclopedic knowledge of female swashbucklers, and they refuse to let those adventures remain obscure.

"These stories are so fascinating, so how come we don't know them?" Williams asks. "How come we've never heard of these women? We’ve heard about all of these other pirates."

Van Lente adds, "We hear about Blackbeard, and we hear about all these privateers and corsairs from a long time ago."

Hartford responds, "The problem with that is so many of the well-known stories, the classical stories, the historical tales, are about men!"

Blood Red Roses
aims to correct that oversight by focusing on women like Grace O’Malley (played by Hartford), an Irish pirate who met with Queen Elizabeth. She even gave birth during battle and picked up her sword immediately afterward, which inspires an especially memorable scene in the show.

And while the stories may seem farfetched – such as the one about Sadie Farrell (played by Van Lente), who lived in 19th century New York City and who wore her own cut-off ear as a necklace – Williams assures: "We didn't make any of that stuff up."


Diep Tran
regularly covers off-Off Broadway theatre for TDF Stages

Photos by Jonathan Musser. Top photo, L to R, Meghan Maureen Williams, Emily Hartford, and Gretchen Van Lente