Tuesday, January 08, 2008


This is the much much much belated recap of our mid-December creative retreat for The Tragic Swashbuckler (working title). It was easily the best retreat in recent memory: good interpersonal vibes, good food, good drink, and um...good theatre! Click here to skip right to the photos.

The goal of the retreat was to figure out how the production's concept would balance the two influences: swashbucklers and Greek tragedy. Was this going to be a swashbuckler staged in Ancient Greek period? Would this be a Greek tragedy set on the Renaissance high seas? 20% swashbuckler, 80% tragedy? We left very confident about how to steer this ship (oh the nautical references are only just beginning, my friends!). We decided we would borrow some plot tropes, use of the chorus, and portrayal of violence from Greek tragedy and fuse it with the character archetypes, overall plotting, and moral/national fluidity from swashbucklers.

We also spent some time messing around with the biography of John Paul Jones, the "American" (really Scottish) pirate who is considered the father of the American navy. And it disturbed/delighted me oh so much to see us play around with the idea of American patriotism in an earnest way. Scary potent stuff. Talk about alienation-effect: scream at a downtown NYC audience and flash bright lights at them and they'll eat it up; but offer them up a slab of American patriotism (without the side of irony) and you'll have people lining up at the exits. Who'd of thunk that could be so darn provocative?

Another visceral discovery: combining swashbuckling and tragic modes of violence. In a swashbuckler, laughter abounds in climactic duels to the death but the deaths in the tragedies are...well...tragic. They are heavy. Devastating. Irrevocable. You get the sense that Sabatini (the novelist who penned most of the stories that would later become swashbuckler films, most of which starred Errol Flynn, were directed by Michael Curtiz, and scored by Erich Korngold) would hardly blush at the idea of bringing a character back from the dead after he's been run through, but Sophocles...if Sophocles is bringing someone back from the dead, it's to torture the already miserable protagonist. So, the idea of watching two laughing antagonists prance around with swords as they exchange witty repartee and then deal with the actual tragic consequences of their actions just gives me the shivers. I like the shivers.

One more thing. Or rather, one more thing before I paste in a few pages summarizing our activities over the weekend. Read Sabatini's Scaramouche and see the awful Mel Gibson movie The Patriot right now. They are both tragic swashbucklers, brilliantly and manipulatively dealing with the same cliches and contradictions that we're exploring in this piece. Do not, however, SEE Scaramouche (an awful unfaithful adaptation) or READ anything Mel Gibson says.

Here's what day 1 looked like (sorry for the wacky font sizes and any obscurely named exercises):

10:15-11:15: Warm up and Exercises

  • Personal Warm-up
  • One-Two, Princes Who'll Adore You
  • Chorus work:
    • Balancing the stage
    • 2, 4, 6
    • Shipwreck: using only the body and voice, create a shipwreck. you are the elements (water, wind), the boat, and the people on it.
  • Swashbuckling characters

11:15-11:35pm: "Ha ha ha ha ha" (Comp #3)

  • Plot of Robin Hood
  • Only text can be laughter
  • One moment of Choral laughter

11:35pm-1pm: "Pirates of the Aegean" (Comp #4)

  • Use plot from Trojan War (Greeks vs Trojans, Gods), but each character on stage must correspond to a swashbuckling archetype
  • Chorus is onstage the entire time and two actors play all roles.
  • Chorus watches a battle which is appearing in the audience
  • An oath declaring what separates the Greeks from the Trojans
  • Use 4 different levels
  • Curtain peels back to reveal tableaux of tragic ending
  • Use 5 lines of text from the Iliad and 5 lines from Sea Hawk screenplay (Spend no more than 10 minutes finding text)

1pm-1:45pm: Lunch

1:45-2:30: "Captain Blood Curse" (Comp #5)

  • Adapt plot and characters of Oedipus Rex into swashbuckling archetypes
  • Use a maximum of 10 lines from Sophocles' text (Spend no more than 10 minutes finding text)
  • One "sped up" fighting sequence
  • Do not use a chorus
  • The entire scene must be set to the soundtrack of The Sea Hawk

2:30-4:00: "I have not yet begun to fight" (Comp #6)

  • Plot from the biography of John Paul Jones
  • The scene must be structured: Prologue, Parados, First Episode, First Stasimon, Second Episode, Second Stasimon, Third Episode, Third Stasimon, Exodus (http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~pinax/Structure.html)
  • The chorus is American revolutionaries
  • The song "God Save the Thirteen States" should be the Parados (stanzas 1, 3, & 4) (http://www.mcgath.com/freelyr.html)
  • 6 purposes of chorus pg 148 of packet
  • Use quotes from biography

4pm-4:30: Coffee break

4:30pm-6:30pm: Swordplay exercises (@ Molinari Hall)

And day 2:

10:15-12:15: More swordplay exercises

12:15-12:30: Snack Break

12:30-1:30: Comp #7

  • Work in partners
  • Use text from Prisoner of Zenda
  • Sword fight itself should be in swashbuckling style
  • When Rupert is stabbed, his death should be "real" and Rudolf is stunned and horrified by the murder he has committed

1:30-2:15: Lunch

2:15-4:00: Comp #8

  • Setting is Jacobean England, English colonies, and Caribbean Sea
  • Plot must include:
    • Incestuous relationship unknown to lovers
    • Someone's life must be sacrificed to save a ship
    • Protagonist must avenge a death even though he/she will be punished for that vengeance
    • Hubris
  • Characters must include:
    • Captain Blood archetype
    • Queen Elizabeth archetype
    • Rupert or Basil Rathbone archetype
    • Colonel Bishop or Prince John archetype
    • Arabella Bishop archetype
  • The protagonist must go through 4 identity transformations (pirate, Englishman, etc.)
  • Laughter in every episode
  • Choral prologue and then no chorus after that
  • Call and response speech ("What are we going to do with this money?" "Give it to Richard!")
  • A sea battle
  • 6 levels
  • Patriotic pageantry
  • Sped up duel which ends in off stage tragedy which is revealed in tableaux
  • Happy ending (not ironic!)

And now...silly photos:

Thanks to Dave Gochfeld and Barbara Seifert for joining the Chairs for the weekend!

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