Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Safety Last (part 1): Finding the Sense of Danger

 "Nobody ever went into battle shouting: 'Give me safety or 
give me death!' And neither shall we go on stage preoccupied 
with our physical well-being. The show is bigger than any of 
us, so if you're more concerned about your own survival 
than about performing a great show, then you're on the wrong 
pyrate crew! Safety is not worth dying for, and it's 
not worth the show dying for..."

In the early 1990s i wrote my first script for Brethren of the Coast. Our director complained the script was "unperformable" and demanded changes. So i changed the director. The new director didn't work out either so i directed everything myself from then on. The next year we did a new show, 'Sanguinarium,' which i proclaimed to be my masterpiece but which Wolf described as: "an anguished cry for help." Before our first performance i said a few words to the cast to get them into the proper spirit:

"The sound of an audience laughing and cheering is worth 
more to me than my own life. So it's certainly worth more 
than any of your lives. Therefore: i don't care who gets 
the laughs, just as long as the show is funny. And i don't 
care how many of you get hurt or killed, 
only that the fights look good..."

Bullsh*tting the crew. i've got skills at this.
     In truth, there were only a couple of the crew whose deaths i would have been indifferent to but it was Brethren policy to cultivate our reputation as reckless, heck-raising pirates so i did my part.

    Wolf and i had spent some weeks and broken some swords choreographing a double-cutlass duel. i wrote a quick five-person skit that incorporated the duel so we could perform it for the rest of the Brethren on Catalina Island. During that voyage Lazarus drank 12 bottles of Guinness, puked on himself, then passed out below deck. We revived him when we docked at the island and he hiked to the isthmus with us to perform. Badly, very badly. The skit got a great reaction though so i rewrote and expanded it into a 12-person show that became 'Sanguinarium.'

Lazarus: Hours away from a great performance.

    The gist of the plot was: each of several pirates attempting to steal a box of treasure from the others thru fighting, palaverance, backstabbing, treachery and dirty tricks. Beginning with a dozen pirates it got down to four, then two who seem to have co-conspired against the others but, naturally, they betray each other until just one wench, Severine, is left on a stage covered in dead pirates, she thinks she'll finally claim that treasure until…

In those early days our pirate "look" was not even passable.

    i felt it was better if every performer got a few laughs and memorable moments so there were no "leads" or stars in this show, no heroes, just vile reprehensible characters whose sole redeeming attribute was that they were interesting to watch. i wrote the script to fit the cast -rather than casting it to fit the script- so everybody was portraying themself; Wolf, Lazarus, Severine, Winifred, Francisco, Baxter, Drake, myself, and Captain Bellows. (the few other roles were played by different people each time according to who was available).

    We did 'Sanguinarium' at different venues throughout the summer and something always went injuriously wrong. Winifred stabbed my hand in one performance. It swelled up before the second show, two hours later, so much that i could barely wrap my fingers around a sword hilt and when the blades met during the double-cutlass the wound popped open, squirting like a fat angry zit. The hilt became wet, slippery then sticky, i struggled not to drop it. The fight was awkward but the show prevailed.
    A week after that i cracked Wolf's nose with a belaying pin (not intentionally). He had to wipe with his sash and snort blood before each line to finish the show. A couple days later i stabbed Lazarus during rehearsal, into the back of his hand and out the palm. It was bloody. He had a gig that night with his band and went onstage with a wad of cotton taped to his palm and a maxi pad over his knuckles. They were punk rock so nobody noticed.
    For the first dozen shows someone got hurt in every single performance yet we always got more applause than the other acts so we began to suspect that, like a NASCAR race, certain people watched us just hoping to see a wreck.

    But after we'd done it enough times it started going smoothly. We'd adapted to the complications of blood-wet slippery stages and stepping over the dead during combat. (the dead always had their eyes open in terror that a weapon would land on them) We also got comfortable with the sword choreography and this was not a good thing. It didn't seem as piratey when everything worked. The fights were tighter, even graceful, but the audiences weren't gasping or cheering as much. The verbal jokes still got laughs but something intangible was missing. We had evolved into a polished theatrical troupe and polish did not work when you were a pirate.

Winifred, Lazarus, Severine.
    Lazarus did tattoos at Voodoo Ink on Hollywood Blvd. We were there one afternoon drinking tequila shots, watching a stripper get her nipples pierced when he proclaimed: "Something's wrong with the show! It's not fun anymore."
    "i know it, man. i know."
    "We're just a bunch of actors now. I don't feel like a pirate anymore."
    "Maybe we need a new show."
    "We can't do a new show. I finally have my lines almost memorized." (by "memorized" he meant able to remember that he had a line when it came up, not so much able to deliver the line correctly)
    "The jokes still work. It's something else..."
    "It's the fights. That double-cutlass thing used to be the sh*t, but it doesn't pack a punch anymore. It looks like choreography."
    "That's because we don't screw it up like we used to."
    "That's what's wrong with it! When you look too rehearsed people realize they're just watching a show. There's no sense of danger unless you f*ck up once in a while so it looks like a real fight."
    "Sh*t! We should drink before the shows, so we're sure to f*ck things up."
    "Good idea!"
    Naturally Lazarus thought it was a good idea, he'd never done a sober show yet. Still, i resolved to test this theory (strictly for science) so at our next show i stealthily downed a few jiggers of rotgut rum just minutes before stagetime. i was discreet about it because i'd always discouraged the cast from over imbibing.

    The show began with a three on one fight against our captain, Jaimie Bellows, with him prevailing and vanquishing us. The liquor crept up on me thru those first moments. i couldn't tell what effect it had on my swordfighting but it sure well worked on my mind. i felt GREAT! Like a true pirate, completely in character. This was awesome! The only thing that went wrong in the whole show was a squib not breaking, nobody even got hurt. What a triumph.
    "Helluva show!" said Lazarus.
    "What a show," said Bellows. "Now we can get a drink, finally!"
    "Umm, yeah," i said. "Let's get a drink." i was already four sheets to the hurricaine but i presumed they couldn't tell. (they could tell but i was too drunk to tell that they could tell)
    Severine wasn't fooled. She began shouting at me: "What the hell were you doing, going onstage drunk?!"
    Had i been sober at that moment i would have realized the futility of trying to explain it to her but, alack, in my diminished state, i tried: "i thought the show might look more natural if i wasn't so sober."
    "Well it didn't. You forgot half your lines!"
    "You're exaggerating. You're a pathological exaggerator.."
    "And you totally grabbed Winifred's ass in your scene with her."
    "i don't remember that." If i had done that i regret not remembering it.
    "Oh yeah, and you scared the hell out of Cabinboy." It had been Cabinboy's first show with us. (We called all the new recruits Cabinboy until we came up with proper pirate names for them).
    "Why? What's his problem?"
    "When his squib didn't break he was afraid you were going to stab him for real just to get some blood in the scene."
    "He's right. Blood is very important for this show. Next time i will stab him to get that blood. He moved out of the way this time." i meant that as a joke, of course, (no, honest, it was a joke).
    "You should go talk to him and tell him he's safe. He thinks you're mad that he didn't let you stab him. Now he's afraid to do the next performance."
    "No, he isn't."
    "No, he really is! You need to talk to him."
    "Balls to that! i'm drinking."
    i staggered off toward the bar. Severine followed. "I need a drink too…"
    Cabinboy didn't show up for the next day's performance.

    i had resolved not to drink for the next show but it was too late, the precedent had been set: "If the director can drink," the crew reasoned, "then we can drink too." It was immediately clear that something was wrong. Wolf was slurring his words. He was thoroughly, obviously drunk. This is going to go badly, i thought. And it did. The fights did not look like choreography though, and the crowd applauded during the double-cutlass.

    Bellows got us gigs like the CutThroat Island screening and the Redondo Beach pier opening but we also did a few non-piratey things like histrorical festivals and faires. i really hated the faires. They always contained at least a few meddling, busy-body, "safer-than-thou" types. (Lazarus called them "safety-nazis"). Sword performers who held to a narrow opinion of how things should be done and were hostile to anyone who deviated from their orthodoxy. These were broadsword/rapier/etc. fighters. As pirates, we used different weapons hence we did things diferently. We didn't criticize them for being different but they sure came after us.
    At those events we could measure our success by the amount of hostility we got from the other performers. We quickly realized that whenever someone told us how bad our show was it was usually because our show went over better than theirs had, it was just jealousy, so if we came off stage to the rebukings and admonishments of other artistes we knew we'd done well.
    Some criticisms were reasonable, like: "Maybe you guys need to rehearse more." i would respond by pointing to the Brethren of the Coast placard next to the stage and asking, "Does that say 'Refined demonstration of thespianic skill?' No, it says: 'PIRATES!'"

    Sometimes the older sword performers would try to lecture us, affecting superiority and then boring us with "safer-than-thou" platitudes and suggestions -like "Never drink before a performance"- that would have only weakened our act until it sucked as bad as theirs had.
    We pirates felt that, as long as the audience didn't get hurt, the performers were adults who could decide for themselves what risks we were willing to take by getting onstage with one another, we could only blame ourselves for our injuries so it wasn't anyone else's concern. But these "lecturer" types presumed that we were trying to do what they did: polished proficient swordfights. They were wrong; we were pirates and there is no polish or gracefulness in piracy. It was they who wanted what we had: the fun of performing.

    One memorable "Safety First" crusader insisted on condemning us for recklessness after we'd done a particularly successful show. This guy got so angry that Lazarus and i couldn't resist antagonizing him, we eventually made a sport of these perpetually outraged busybodies. This fellow berated us for several minutes, seriously shouting things like: "Your whole crew is dangerous and you shouldn't be allowed to perform anywhere, at all, ever!" i again pointed to the placard. "Does that say 'Polished demonstration of the proper and gentlemanly techniques of swordplay?' Well, does it? No. It says: 'PIRATES!'"
    "Well I'm reporting you for drinking!"
    "Dude, we're pirates. PIRATES!" He just didn't comprehend it.
    "You're the most unprofessional group I've ever seen!" He was furiously mad even though we'd given him no provocation other than winning over an audience he had failed to, and our cheerful demeanor (which we knew would get his goat). He finally stomped away, probably to yell at somebody else he disapproved of. There's always somebody who'll try to make you feel bad about feeling good. F**k those people.
    Bellows asked: "Who's he going to report us to? The Temperance League?"      Lazarus said: "Let's get a drink!"
    We never discovered what that guy's problem was but i will speculate that he suffered from a bad case of Pirate Envy.

The lessons to be learned from this: 1: There is no polish or gracefulness in piracy. 2: If Patrick Henry had demanded "Give me safety or give me death!" nobody would remember him today.  


Thanks to Jessica Black Photography for several of the pictures here.