Perhaps no where in the states is a production about pirates more applicable than on southeastern NC’s shoreline. Stories of Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet run rampant among our murky waters. Just in 2011 a 3,000-pound anchor from Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was found among the depths of our Atlantic.
With tourist season now in high, not only will Wilmington’s TheatreNOW host a dinner show of sheer enjoyment but also with a stream of historical education threading its original production, “The Gentleman Pirate.” Written by TheatreNOW’s artistic director—and local actor, musician, writer, and all-around creative guru—Zach Hanner, the show will be a fun romp for pirate fans of all ages.
“I loved the direct tie-in to the NC coastal community and history,” TheatreNOW proprietor Alisa Harris says. “Who doesn’t love a good pirate story? It’s been a particular focus with TheatreNOW to tailor shows to the community or local history. . . . This show was all Zach’s baby. He has cast some of his Superstar Academy high-schoolers [from TheatreNOW’s after-school acting classes and workshops], so we will have some ‘kids’ in the lineup, too.”
Hanner will present his rendition as a tailored family-friendly version. Yet, he has a full-length musical in the works, too, which will become a tawdry piece with adult-themed dialogue. encore spoke with Hanner about the show, its inspiration, themes, and other highlights folks can expect of its run, which starts this weekend.
encore (e): Tell me about the writing process: Where did the inspiration come from?
Zach Hanner (ZH): My good friend “Jungle” Jim Shaugnessy introduced me to the Stede Bonnet story probably a dozen years ago. He thought it would be a good screenplay idea. I did some perfunctory reading and even wrote perhaps a dozen pages or so, but the project cooled in light of other things I had going on. However, it was something that stuck with me all this time.
I listen to a podcast called “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” and last fall they had an episode on Stede Bonnet which lit the spark once again. As we planned our 2014 TheatreNOW schedule, it was something I thought would be fun to finally stage, but would have mass appeal. After all, who doesn’t love pirates?
e: What’s the basic plot?
ZH: I followed the historical path of Stede Bonnet in order to assemble the play. It opens with him in Charleston, SC, recounting his life story which begins as a privileged child of a wealthy plantation owner in Barbados. Married off early and suffering a mid-life crisis in his 20s (that was midlife back then), Bonnet decides to abandon his family, his wealth and all his comforts for a life of adventure and plunder. However, being mostly book smart rather than practically so, he is a terrible pirate. He does all sorts of things wrong and is widely mocked by his crew.
After sustaining injuries during a botched robbery, Bonnet meets Blackbeard, who takes him under his wing and tries to teach him the ways of piracy. The two meet with some success and eventually stage a successful blockade of the port of Charleston. The pair receive pardons and are free to live their lives as legalized privateers—but do they?
e: Through your research on pirate history, what did you learn that’s included in the show?
ZH: I read a ton of stuff about pirates, which for me was a great pleasure. The audience will learn the difference between a pirate and privatee. They’ll get some insight into Blackbeard’s dramatic “showbiz” approach to piracy. They’ll learn the rules of a pirate ship and, of course, some interesting history that occurred right in our own backyard. Plus, you’ll learn that “walking the plank” rarely happened, despite tales to the contrary!
e: Tell me a little about your characters and how the cast is impressing you most.
ZH: Cabot Basden portrays Bonnet, and he’s doing a wonderful job finding the proper mix between over-the-top comedy and subtle humor. He’s the pillar the rest of the show balances on; he’s both hilarious and pitiable in his portrayal. Reid Clark plays his first mate, David Herriot. Reid is a top-notch comic, and his improv in rehearsal have become part of the show (as with many of the cast members). Instead of a caucasian of British descent, we’ve had Reid, an African-American actor, portray Herriot as more of an islander, sporting a Barbadian accent, which serves him well with some of the jokes. Liz Bernardo, Arriana Tysinger, and Zeb Mims are a hilarious trio that portray various characters during the show, from children to pirates to old ladies.
Craig Thompson and I play in the Irish band, The Blarney Brogues, and I brought him on to add some live instrumentation onstage but he’s doing a great job with his character. This is his first play! I also play a handful of characters, including Blackbeard. Of course, when you write the show, you sometimes get to be the coolest character!
e: So, it’s a “musical”; who wrote the music?
ZH: As the musical aspect goes, it’s somewhat of a mix of things. There are five numbers in the show. The first is an original song I wrote called “The Life of the Sea,” which is a thematic piece that encompasses the overall vibe of the show. We also do a traditional seafaring tune called “The Irish Rover.” Craig wrote an original ode to beer called “Hops and Barley.” I, as Blackbeard, rock a reworking/parody of the Patti Page/White Stripes tune “Conquest” and Bonnet closes the show with “The Parting Glass.”
I consider this show an “alpha” version that I will eventually write completely original songs for, but I simply didn’t have the time to put all that together as well as write the show. I envision a more adult version down the road that will be bawdier and more saucy.
e: What do you love most about writing original musicals?
ZH: I have this inner conflict with musicals. I’m built to do them. I love to sing, to play and write music, and to act. But I find most musicals, especially 20th century ones, to be rather dull or corny. I do like sendups of genres so perhaps that’s what I hope to do with this show eventually, spoofing the classic musical with some self-referrential humor that crossed the line.
e: Is this a comedy and drama?
ZH: Definitely! The historical nature of the violence of piracy lends itself toward drama, but the idea of Stede Bonnet as a bungling idiot was just too appealing for me to quash my comedic sensibilities. When I pictured a famous person playing Bonnet, Rowan Atkinson immediately came to mind, and that’s the sort of slapstick, vaudevillian humor I went for. The show is very funny, and all of our actors are so skilled at comedy that I think there will be laughs all around.
The Gentleman Pirate
TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th St.
June 2nd – July 12th, Fri. and Sat. only
Doors, 6 p.m. • Tickets: $24-$38 (includes three-course dinner; limited show-only tickets available)