By JAMIE FLATHERSfor Inland 360
The University of Idaho’s Department of Theater Arts will open the family-friendly pirate comedy, “The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire” this weekend. Written by UI alum Ariana Burns, the play tells the story of Wilhelmina Dowdy, aka Captain Hellfire, who kept the secret of her buried treasure until her crew came back to divvy it up. Burns, who graduated from UI with a bachelor’s degree in technical theater in 1991 and a master’s degree in cultural anthropology in 2012, spoke with Inland 360 about pirates, history, playwriting and disguising yourself as a man to avoid being thrown off a ship.
360: Tell us a little bit about your history with plays. Have you always loved them, or was that something you acquired later in life?
AB: I’ve always liked storytellers and storytelling, so that’s kind of how the theater-and-anthropology thing goes together. When I was an undergrad, I explored different styles of storytelling — comic strips, short stories — so I wanted to take a class on playwriting. One of my instructors told me to take a theater class, which was on stagecraft, and that’s how it kind of got started.
360: What made you want to write about pirates?
AB: When I was a kid, I was always watching pirate movies and playing pirates, and when I was an undergrad, my roommate wanted me to write a pirate play for her to act in. So here we are, umpteen years later, and I finally got around to it.
360: Tell us about Wilhelmina Dowdy. How did she first occur to you, as a character? Did she come at you in chunks or fully formed? Is she based on a historical figure?
AB: There are two famous Anglo-English pirate women: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and they were kind of a jumping-off point to create that character. Just the appeal that there were actually female pirates out there doing something — it seemed like it could be a fun story to tell. And I really like social history, so I’d been reading a lot about working class people during the 18th century and how they were making their way in the world.
360: Do you have a favorite pirate, fictional or historical?
AB: You know, I would have originally told you Anne Bonny and Mary Read, but with all the research, I discovered there were so many other women doing it. It’s getting harder to pick a favorite. Most of them were dressed as men, and it wasn’t until later that they were accidentally discovered or they revealed themselves to not be men. I read some stories where women were discovered on sailing ships and given a cabin away from the men and then put off at home, but others finished out their careers and were able to apply for pensions from the government. The stories talk about the heartiness of the women who had to do that kind of physical labor, and there’s stories about women building contraptions so they could go to the bathroom without the men knowing. There’s some doubt about the veracity of those stories.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: University of Idaho Department of Theater Arts production of “The Three Keys of Captain Hellfire”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 19-20 and 25-27; and 2 p.m. April 20 and 27
WHERE: Hartung Theater, 625 Stadium Drive, University of Idaho, Moscow
COST: $5-$15 general admission, free for UI students. Matinees are “pay what you can.”
OF NOTE: The show features original music by Portland-based musician Shandeen. Some content may not be suitable for children.