London, 1789. A whirlpool of filth, thievery and political unrest. Jails overflow with petty criminals, many of them women forced out of work and onto the streets as jobs are reclaimed by soldiers returning from the American war. The penal code hasn’t been updated in more than a century, and crimes as trivial as pickpocketing are hanging offenses. Faced with a legal system in crisis, and a growing humanist movement opposed to executions, the courts hit upon an innovative solution: ship the woman convicts to Australia to revive the failing all-male penal colony in New South Wales.
Adapted from historical accounts, Floating Brothel follows three of these women—a down-on-her luck country girl, a thirteen-year old prostitute and a high-class con artist—on their harrowing year-long voyage from the underbelly of London to the underside of the world.
Performed by five actors on a 3 x 6 platform, the epic tale unfolds in a radically reduced space that functions as a camera lens, enabling cinematic shifts in time, scale and location. Through the course of an hour, using only their bodies and a handful of props, the ensemble creates myriad characters and locales, transforming the raw platform into the bustle of London, the din of the courtroom, the dank bilge of the ship, and the rolling expanse of the ocean.
In this production, five actors tell the story of a ship full of convict women pulled out of their world in the underbelly of London and thrust into the belly of a ship sailing to a new continent where they will begin their lives anew. This epic journey is performed entirely within the confines of a 3’x6’ platform that the actors never step off of. With the help of a few everyday objects, they transform the playing space from the bustle and noise of London, to the dank bilge of a ship and the harrowing voyage across the sea to a new world.
The Story: A Big Story for A Little Stage
It’s the end of the 18th century and the London penal system is in a serious predicament. Soldiers are returning from the American war and taking back jobs, leaving a huge number of women out of work. With no means to make their living, many turn to crime. The jails are overflowing and since stealing anything over six pence is punishable by death, most of these women face the noose. But the humanist movement is just gaining momentum and the death penalty –which used to effectively thin out the jails—is suddenly a morally questionable act. Caught between packed jails and humanist protests, the courts decided on an innovative solution: send the ladies to a male penal colony.
Adapted from historical accounts of female convict ships in the 18th century, we follow three women—a down-on-her luck country girl, a thirteen-year old prostitute and a high-class con artist—pulled from the worlds they know and thrust into a new one: on the ship, the crew controls everything. Being able to work the new system means the difference between sleeping in the dank, rodent-ridden bilge with 200 other women (imagine menstruation and seasickness without running water) and a nice dry bunk with a full ration of food. The women must use their savvy and ingenuity to forge alliances with the men and with each other –bonds that will determine in the end whether they live or die. And when they arrive at the colonies…the rules change again.
The Style: Doing More with Less
The small raised platform we employ for this production will be familiar to Lecoq students as a “tréteau”, and is descended from the tiny, portable stages traveling commedia troupes would erect in town markets for their performances. Commedia troupes relied on the virtuosity of the performers rather than fancy set pieces and elaborate productions to amaze and entertain their audiences. Following in that tradition, we choose the tréteau to create a show based on our performers’ dexterity and skill. The reduced space functions like a camera lens, focusing the audience’s eye on a tight stage picture. The performers never leave the tréteau, but instead use their bodies and several objects to transform the small stage from scene to scene. There are close-ups, jump cuts, pan-outs—just as in film. The actors shift between being characters, backdrops and even props. The everyday objects, likewise, function at times as puppets, at times to change the scale of the stage image, and at times simply as the objects they are in a human world. At a time when the public can step into a movie theater and be amazed by the results of big budgets and special effects, we remind audiences why theater is exceptional and extraordinary: our actors amaze the audience by telling an epic story from a small wooden platform.
Further Reading and Viewing:
“The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and its Cargo of Female Convicts,” by Siân Rees
“Mary Bryant: Her Life and Escape from Botany Bay,” by Jonathan King
“Voyage of the Courtesans,” a PBS show about the female convict ships–the website also contains more background info
“The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner,” a memoir by John Nicol
“The Fatal Shore,” by Robert Hughes
Created by Megan Campisi, Loren Fenton, Kevin Lapin, Liz Vacco and Ben Vershbow.
Written by Megan Campisi.