The remains of a sunken pirate ship found off of Cape Cod, Mass. in 1984 form the ballast of the traveling National Geographic exhibit Real Pirates, opening June 22 at Union Station. The exhibit also features some 200 artifacts found nearby on the ocean floor and, to heighten its authenticity, Union Station has hired a number of actors who will be playing real and fictitious pirates that visitors will be encouraged to engage.
Nearly fifty people are gathered in a meeting room at Union Station for the orientation of volunteers who will help the new exhibit Real Pirates sail smoothly. It's a hot summer day and most of the group are dressed appropriately, though four of them conspicuously are not. Three shaggily coiffed men are wearing ornate coats and pillowy pants tucked into boots. They are actors hired to play the three real life characters whose story is told in the exhibit, says Paul Craig, who is playing Captain Sam Bellamy.
As They Lived and Breathed
"The big stress with the actors specifically is bringing the exhibit to life and making it as real as possible," Craig says. "The name of it is Real Pirates and we take that to heart.
"We want everyone to know these are not movie pirates, not television pirates. These are actors playing roles of actual people that lived in the 1700s and lived, breathed, and died as pirates. And we wanted to make sure it’s educational, but bring it to life where people can actually appreciate the hardships and work that went into the people we’re portraying."
National Geographic sponsors the exhibit, which features the restored remains of the Whydah, a pirate ship that raided other ships throughout the Caribbean and along the Atlantic coast before a Nor'easter sunk her in 1717.
The Facts of Life
Kevin Payne, who plays Dublin-born Richard Nolan, explains how the actors are building their particular personae. "We all have to fill in the blanks with the history, the architecture, the documents of the time," Payne says.
"We have to be familiar with the culture, the normal everyday facts of life: how people got up, how they dressed, how they ate. How they related to one another. Between the little bits we know as fact about each of these people, we can fill it in with all of that rich tapestry of information."
The actors' task is similar to performing immersive or interactive theater in that there's no real script but a definite template, says Eric Van Horn, who plays Pelgrave Williams. "The thing with interactive theater is that we’re going to continually grow in our roles," says Van Horn. "There are going to be questions that we not at this time have answered in our head.
"We will have answers when we’re asked the questions, and convincingly, because that’s our position if we’re immersed in the character. And we’re going to continually develop because we’re going to get asked things we haven’t thought of. We’ll have to think on our feet and create an answer for it."
Boots on the Ground
Several other actors are employed to play fictitious pirates who will take on less specific roles. And the authenticity for their wardrobe falls to costume designer Jana Jessee, who says, "I pride myself on being really historically accurate and in that I have to research portraiture of a period, as well as study the culture just to get the right feel for the costumes.
"Typically, for example, most of the people on the ship would have been barefoot. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I want pirate boots.’ It’s, ‘No, you wouldn’t have had pirate boots.‘ Because of the exhibit itself, we can’t allow people to be barefoot. But boots would have been expensive. A typical pirate couldn’t have afforded those boots."
Jessee, who attended the orientation in full costume, adds that she's also playing a pirate she has named Opal. She says with a chuckle that, unlike the real-life pirates depicted in the exhibition, she's still developing Opal's sure to be colorful backstory.