A Pirate's Fight for Me

by Lisa Arnett
in Feature

Behind The Pirate Queen’s broadswords, rapiers and sea battles with fight director J. Steven White


When Riverdance producers Moya Doherty and John McColgan paired with the famed duo Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Misérables) to create The Pirate Queen, an original musical based on the legend of Irish sea chief Grania O’Malley, two things were to be expected: great dance and some spectacular fighting. J. Steven White is the man behind the moves — not the soaring leaps and high-energy jigs (that’s choreographer Mark Dendy), but the swift and slicing swordfights that make The Pirate Queen the battle story that it is. With Broadway previews slated to start March 6 with an April 5 opening, we talked stage combat with White, an Illinois native, as the show neared the end of its fall 2006 pre-run in Chicago.

Coming Aboard
White first got wind of The Pirate Queen while working with set designer Eugene Lee on A Moon for the Misbegotten at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. When Lee mentioned that they were looking for a fight director, White called up Galati and was brought on board in February 2006. Rehearsals kicked off in late July in NYC’s The Duke on 42nd Street; the first days the creative team worked with the ensemble on dance rehearsals, music and basic fight lessons from White, which included safety, technique and the simulation of strategy.

Like a choreographer adjusting a dance for different spaces, much of White’s attention went toward moving his fight scenes from the NYC rehearsal hall to the stage at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, where scenery was introduced. With the majority of the artistic material already taken care of, White assumed the role of master adjuster.

“When you’re moving it from a rehearsal hall into a theatre, there are always changes,” he explains. “In the first sea battle, we have a net upstage, and then you have the orchestra pit; you have to keep their feet a certain distance from that. There are huge safety considerations: there are 10 people in front of the net fighting and they all need their space.”

White has been designing fight scenes for more than 30 years (including more than 30 productions of Romeo and Juliet), but in contrast with many of the plays he’s worked on, Pirate Queen had one caveat: all motions must fit within the musical structure.

“This isn’t like Romeo and Juliet, where Tybalt and Mercutio can take their time, talk and take some pauses here and there. You can only do that if the music accommodates it,” says White. “The sword engagements are actually structured to the music. Actors are either fighting to the music — so they’re staying on count — or they are fighting in counterpoint. The moves and numbers of moves I give them have to conclude as the music concludes.”

Wonders of Weaponry
For most, the word “pirate” conjures up visions of a gritty Johnny Depp wielding that iconic curved sword. However, that’s one weapon you won’t see in Pirate Queen. The reason why? It didn’t exist in the late 1500s in Europe, and this show sticks with what’s historically accurate.

“The cutlass, this heavy military cutting instrument with just the one edge … it did exist in Arabic countries. Of course in Japan, you have the samurai sword, which is curved,” notes White. “It’s also not period for Shakespeare’s time — the swords were straight, especially in England and in Ireland. We’re using what’s called a flat sword, a traditional English broadsword. It can be sharpened down by the tip and on both sides. It’s not sharpened down by the forte — the strong part that joins the handle.”

The more sophisticated rapier — longer, thinner and lighter than the broadsword — was also coming into play across Europe at the time of Pirate Queen.

“There were fencing salons opening up in England, and young men could come there and study this new stabbing, piercing weapon, with a very long blade and a very sharp tip, called the rapier,” says White. “It was lighter than the broadsword and you could use it in a more strategic way. Some people have compared the broadsword to a typewriter and the rapier to a computer.” Much like a computer in its early days, rapiers were expensive and therefore usually owned by English officers, or the Irish pirates who recovered them in a fight. Both the broadswords and rapiers used in Pirate Queen were crafted by Lewis Shaw of Baltimore — “the best sword maker in America,” according to White.

Battles of Three
Pirate Queen is anchored by three major fight scenes. The first clash comes just minutes after the curtain rises, when Grania stows away on her father’s ship and joins in a skirmish when the crew is attacked. White worked with aerial designer Paul Rubin to choreograph the actors’ climbing, rapelling and fighting on a giant net, which hung upstage and reached from the rafters to the floor. Even with all the upstage action, it was their goal to keep the audience’s focus on Grania (played by Stephanie Block, the original Elphaba in the national tour of Wicked), who is engaged in a swordfight center stage.

“We had to make sure that Stephanie has the primary focus there,” emphasizes White, “since that’s the part of the story when she steps out and shows the men that she can fight equally as gracefully and as strong as they can.”

The second major battle erupts in the second scene when Queen Elizabeth sends her fleet, led by officer Bingham (played by William Youmans), to defeat Grania and her pirates at Rock Fleet. The unexpected twist? The men are incapacitated, drunkenly cavorting in the town bar, leaving the Irish women in charge of defending their land, led by Grania.

“We wanted to get away from a more traditional sword fight and get into something that was unusual,” says White. “So we have the women come out and act somewhat seductively to the English soldiers and then draw daggers, stab them and fight with them.”

Grania goes head to head with Bingham (they both draw rapiers) and defeats him. “The women of this clan are tough — they know how to fight,” says White. “They can throw their man a right cross when he’s drunk. Maybe they haven’t had traditional sword training classes, but they can work all day in the field and then at night, they can haul their men out of the tavern. They’re strong. That’s what we wanted to show — that the women behind Grania could follow her lead, too. It wasn’t just the men.”

The last major battle of the show is perhaps the most dramatic — and also the most likely to change in the months before Broadway. Critics have ridiculed the sequence in which Grania gives birth to her son, and seconds later, struggles to her feet and joins in the fight while her husband, Donal, cowers.

“There’s a kind of almost biblical metaphor of the woman working in the wheat field, stopping and giving birth and going back to work,” comments White. “Now, is our modern sensibility really able to handle that? I don’t know.”

Far more pressing for White is the crowd of actors onstage in this scene. “This was the hardest fight scene to do because there’s so many people onstage,” he says. “There’s a birthing tent in the middle of the stage, a wheel, and we have 10 fighting couples onstage. Your arm is three feet, and you put another three feet of steel in it — you’re taking up six feet. And if there’s another person across from you, we’re now taking up 12 feet. We’re essentially doing stationary fighting.”

And if White called the shots? He’d put less people on stage and bring in the guns.

“Ten fighting couples — that’s a lot of steel flying. How would I change it? I’d like to see some more gunfight in the scene,” says White. “The English were using firearms at that time. Queen Elizabeth was one of the first English rulers to equip her army with firearms.” Such changes, though, are up to the producers and the director before the NYC opening. White, after all, is the fight director working to help bring their vision to life.

Lisa Arnett is an arts journalist living in Chicago. Her writing has been published in
Time Out Chicago, Chicago SHOPS magazine and Chicago Tribune’s metromix.com.