Description: Elizabeth Burgin, on the run from the British in 1779 New York for helping to free hundreds of Patriots from prison ships docked in Wallabout Bay, finds shelter with a pair of twins and their stepmother in a strange, gated house far from her intended destination of Philadelphia.
First Produced: 2012
Date Added: 10/8/2012
Content Advisory: One instance of strong language
Folklore and Legends ·
True Stories ·
Gender and Sexuality ·
Mostly Female Characters ·
Large Cast Size
1 Act, 90 Minutes
9 Females, 0 Males
A History of Launching Ships (somewhat after Washington Irving) is fully protected by copyright law and is subject to royalty. All inquiries concerning production, publication, reprinting or use of this play in any form should be addressed to email@example.com.
From the Author:
While this play could be performed in any space – a theater or otherwise – its writing was inspired by one place in particular – the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I wrote HLS (the abbreviation we used to talk about the play because the actual abbreviation, AHOLS, was unintentionally unfortunate) as a commission for Brooklyn theater company Polybe + Seats. I’d written another play for them called Granada, but they wanted this process to be somewhat different. We had just finished performing a 19th century French melodrama called Alice, or the Scottish Gravediggers in Park Slope’s Old Stone House, an historic reproduction of a colonial Dutch farmhouse, and had been performing in various nontraditional spaces around Brooklyn for several years. This time, they were interested in finding an historic Brooklyn location and then having a play written to be performed there, rather than the reverse – writing the play first and finding a space in which to produce it. After investigating many options, we submitted a proposal to the staff and board of BLDG92, who bravely agreed to let us use their gorgeous building to perform in for three weeks in October 2012. They also gave us access to their archives and archivist, something that proved crucial to my writing of the play.
I wasn’t as interested in creating a play that was a retelling of any historical events at the Yard so much as I was interested in creating something separate from the Yard that sprung from and, in some way, encapsulated, its spirit. Most of the details, names, stories, songs, etc. in the play come from some part of the Yard and its history, but it exists independently as a play. The only historical figure in the play is Elizabeth Burgin, whom we know very little about and whom I took a lot of license with. I liked her story of rescuing prisoners from the British prison ships as a jumping-off point for exploring some American themes as well as providing a loose journey structure to the play. I also knew I wanted to write an all-female play somewhat influenced by the history of women at the Yard. While thinking about Burgin, I began thinking about Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle story – specifically the idea of someone disappearing during the Revolution and reappearing afterwards. While that’s not the exact structure here, I like to think of the play as a kind of in-between time for Elizabeth after mysteriously exiting her own reality and finding herself in the anachronistic reality of Sabine, Savannah, and Oneida’s home. I also tried to let the gothic, ghostly quality of Irving’s work inform the play. It also helped that we were to perform it in a large, empty museum filled with model ships and other relics. No matter what space HLS is produced in, I would encourage its creative team to think about it as a historical museum piece – in which many eras exist at once, the movement of time is somewhat subjective, and the audience is left to fill in some blanks for themselves. We found doing that led to some fairly exciting choices.
Doubling of roles is highly encouraged (except in the case of the actress playing Elizabeth). While there are nine roles, the play was written to be performed by four actresses. See original credits for suggested doubling.
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Original Production Information
History of Launching Ships (somewhat after Washington Irving) was presented at and by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG92 with the following cast and credits:
Elizabeth Burgin: Kate Reilly
Savannah/Eugenia/W1: Lindsay Torrey
Oneida/W2: Sarah Sakaan
Sabine/Machinist/W3: Elaine O’Brien
Producing/Commissioning Company: Polybe + Seats
Producer: Catherine Wallach
Director: Jessica Silsby Brater
Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Alyson Fortner
Set and Object Design: Carolyn Mraz
Lighting Design: Marika Kent
Costume Design: Karen Boyer and Bevan Dunbar
Sound Design and Composition: Kate Marvin
The play ran October 11-28, 2012.
Amy Lee Pearsall
When visiting a naval yard, one quite often thinks of ships, battles, and blue-collared labor. It is not typically an environment that might cause one to think of women, much less the roles they’ve played throughout maritime history, with wives and daughters recast as nurses, riveters, and revolutionaries. Polybe + Seats’ A History of Launching Ships, currently showing at The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, takes preconceived notions about sea yarns, theatrical experience, and even one’s concept of time, and upends all.
A History of Launching Ships is a site-specific work of historical fantasy inspired by the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the gothic stories of Washington Irving, and by real-life patriot Elizabeth Burgin, who aided bluecoats in their escape from British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay in the winter of 1779. Playwright Avi Glickstein crafts a poetic tale that anachronistically spans the period between the American Revolution and World War II, and exists at all times in between.
Here, Elizabeth finds herself with a bounty on her head, having aided in the escape of roughly 200 men from prison ships. On the run, she wanders until she lands at the front gate of an absent Naval Commandant. His wife and daughters take Elizabeth in and hide her. In fact, each woman seems to be hiding from something: the enemy, the truth, or her own potential. Together, the women confront their dreams and sacrifices, and each discovers that she can engineer her fate more than she ever thought possible.
The ensemble of Kate Reilly as Elizabeth, Sarah Sakaan and Lindsay Torrey as unlikely twins Oneida and Savannah, and Elaine O’Brien as the Commandant’s delusional wife, Sabine, is a pleasure to watch. At the helm, director Jessica Silsby Brater steers the story – and the audience – up and down four flights of stairs (bad knees, beware) while using BLDG 92 itself as a scenic backdrop.
The museum makes for an intriguing set, with its ship models, a 22,500-pound anchor lodged in the center’s atrium, and a huge photo reproduction of a ship being repaired in one of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s historic dry docks. It also allows for the rare opportunity to use archival recordings and materials in a theatrical piece.
To this landscape, scenic and prop designer Carolyn Mraz adds a womanly touch with lace curtains and tablecloths, a china tea set, and bites of refreshments offered to the audience. She is also pragmatic, arming the actors with hand-held lamps that act as beacons, calling forth and directing the audience through the hallways. And of course, there are sails and rigging; watching their deployment during the course of the piece is an absolute delight.
Karen Boyer and Bevan Dunbar do a lovely job in constructing costumes that hint at the sea, with gathered dresses hitting below the knee, stripes, net leggings, capes, laced boots, and even a fisherman’s sweater. Of particular note was Sabine’s ridiculous hat, perfectly offsetting a ruffled dressing gown the color of sea glass.
Lighting designer Marika Kent admirably rises to the task of lighting a theatrical production produced outside of a theatre, creating ambiance with faux flickering candles and using freestanding flood lights as spots. Kate Marvin layers in the element of sound with the call of wind, waves, and ambient music.
In short, A History of Launching Ships is not merely a play, but a theatrical experience. You may even want to make a day of it, if you have time (and comfortable shoes – you’ll be walking and standing, remember). Peruse BLDG 92’s exhibits and perhaps even take a bus tour of the yard before the center closes at 6pm, catch dinner nearby, and return for the 8pm curtain. You will journey home the richer for it.
review of the original production in 2012
A History of Launching Ships (somewhat after Washington Irving)
Each week, me and some other women, we make rounds of the prisoners aboard the Scorpion , comforting, soothing best we can. That morning, I thought I heard muttering from the corner. I threw it off as madness, not so unusual considering. But when I was closer, I listened harder and heard it wasn’t just nonsense. I glanced at the door. The guards always stay right outside but never come far in if they can help it for the stench of the place. I reached below my mop cap and took out some scraps of paper and a nub of pencil. The men often give me messages to pass on to family and the like. I moved toward the corner.
His body was all bent, his hands in fists tight. He was sweating and shivering. He may have had a fever. I don’t know.
Can you write? He nodded. I opened his hand and pressed paper and pencil into it. He started writing, without even thinking it seemed, like he’d had it all stored up in his head. When he had done, I put the paper back under my cap. I’ll hold this for you. He nodded again.
And I left him there.
I read what he wrote while crossing back over the ice. The Wallabout’d frozen early and, when that happens, the redcoats tell us to just walk straight across the bay. I don’t mind it though. The other women and me even sometimes have a bit of fun sliding into each other. Laughing and deep breaths of the cold make us feel better about coming from seeing what we seen.
It had been frozen the week before too, when, just as I put my foot from the ice on the salt marsh shore the Bay’s got, I feel a hand grab my arm. Firm, but not rough - friendly but urgent. I almost screamed. Don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe because there was something about George Higby, something that makes George Higby George Higby.
I hear they just caught him on Long Island. With two hundred pounds offered on me, I might soon join him.
He had an offer for me. A plan to get as many off those hulks as possible. He said he needed me. The Culper Ring needed me. I laughed. He told me where I could find him. And he left.
I didn’t think myself the sort until crossing again Christmas Eve morning, when I read what that man wrote. I had thought I was doing what I could, but they made me see I could and had to do more. I stepped off that ice and I went and found George Higby.
That winter, a few at a time, we snuck 200 off every ship - off Jersey , Strombolo , Scorpion, over the ice, and back into the Revolution. It took the redcoats until July to discover us. They don’t bother counting very often. George vanished, leaving me in the lurch. I hid myself two weeks in New York then five weeks on Long Island until William Scudder came in a whale boat. I gave him the last of my money and made my escape, being chased halfway up the Sound to New England. Now, alone, I make my way toward Philadelphia.
It smells of chocolate here.
Yes, awful isn’t it?
You’re a long way from Philadelphia.
Is that true?
Probably. How’d you get in here?
The door was open. The light was on.
She’s like a moth.
Do you live here?
I woke up in the garden. I tried the gate, but I couldn’t get it open. It was too tall to climb over. I saw the light. I tried the door.
See? Like a moth.
That gate’s secure.
It doesn’t open for anybody but mother.
Stepmother. Strange you could even get into the garden in the first place.
I didn’t go into the garden. I just woke up there. I was on a road, in the Catskills...
You wouldn’t want to go outside now anyway.
Didn’t you know there’s a war out there?
I believe she’s wondering if we’re on her side.
If your mother would open the gate, I would -
Oh, she’s asleep.
And your father?
In the war. He’s a Commandant.
Not during wartime.
Now he’s an Admiral or something like that I think. He’ll go back to being a Commandant though.
No he won’t.
Oh. Yes, I keep forgetting.
You can stay the night and speak with her when she wakes.
Make yourself comfortable anywhere you like. If you’re hungry-
I can bring something for you.
You can wait in the other room. I’ll bring it to you there. Oneida will show you the way.
Oneida? Oh, of course! What’s...? I’m called Elizabeth. My manners are usually better.
Surprising I know. Come along.
It’s just the three of you here? The house is so large.
We find ways to fill it.
I feel strange staying the night without your stepmother’s say-so.
It’s our house too. We said you can stay and you can.
I know that.
Do you? How could you?
I suppose I don’t.
Do you not want to stay? Do you want me to toss you out?
I’d like to try.
No, please. I’m sorry.
Well don’t apologize. Apologies should be like curse words - used very sparely and very specifically. Too many people curse too much and apologize too often. Fuck sorry.