News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 23, 2018 and The Weekly Packet, August 23, 2018
Play brings story of The Royal Tar to life


Part of the cast of The Royal Tar production, including Kate Russell on box, Joshua McCarey, right, and Hannah Legere, Andrea Kunkel, and Melissa Jones-Bayley, rehearse a scene.

Photo courtesy of Kate Russell

by Monique Labbe

The story of The Royal Tar steamship is one told often on Deer Isle. In October 1836, the ship departed on a voyage from St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, en route to Portland, with a crew of 21, 70 passengers, and circus animals belonging to Burgess and Dexter Zoological Institute. The ship hit rough waters later that night just off the shores of Stonington and Isle au Haut, and ran into further complications when a fire started in the middle of the deck. Without an adequate number of life boats, many passengers, and some animals and crew members, jumped overboard. Many of the people on board were saved, but in the end, 32 lost their lives, and all the animals perished except for two horses.

Such is the premise for an original play, written and directed by Kate Russell and Joshua McCarey, that is set to be performed later this month. The general facts of the ship’s demise will be scattered throughout the play, but the directing duo have decided to add a bit of drama by making the main characters a young immigrant girl from Europe and her father.

The Royal Tar production has been a community effort, with Russell and McCarey inviting actors from the Island and Blue Hill Peninsula to take part in a collaborative effort to make the play into what it has become.

“In devised theater, you say a lot of ‘yes and,’ and in that you are able to collect ideas about scenes and themes that you might not have thought of otherwise,” said McCarey.

The play does not have a script, and the vision for the sets has only begun to present itself. That freedom of creativity has been one of the most exciting things about the process for Russell.

“It’s one thing to say that we are going to do this type of theater, but when someone in the cast says ‘what if we do it this way,’ and you think to yourself ‘yes, that’s a great idea,’ you really see it in practice, and it’s a truly beautiful moment,” she said.

Russell and McCarey held open workshops over the course of the spring to explain the type of theater they wanted to create within the show. The idea of open collaboration was perplexing to some, but they were able to find a cast that was willing to dive into the production with them.

“We made a rookie mistake trying to do this at the height of the summer season,” said Russell with a laugh. “But the cast we have put together is amazing. They’ve really gone into this with as much excitement as we have.”

The cast features actors ages 5 to 90, and will take place at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington. Russell said that the space and the strengths of the actors have both played a part in how the play has developed over the course of rehearsals.

“I think when people first came in, they felt a little intimidated to share their ideas,” said Russell. “But they’ve all come together so well and really latched on to this idea of pure collaboration. They feel emboldened now to shout out an idea. And sometimes those ideas are great, and sometimes Joshua and I have to come back after a rehearsal and say ‘well, this might not work.’”

Russell and McCarey began working on the project this past winter, which was difficult because while McCarey lives in Sedgwick, Russell uses Brooklyn, N.Y., as her home base.

“That was awful,” said Russell. “By the time summer came around I was back in Stonington immediately, and that was when we were really able to work.”

The production is being put on through Russell’s production company Threadbare Theatre, which highlights epic stories on stage. She and McCarey were able to raise over $18,000 via a Kickstarter campaign, which has allowed them to pay local collaborators involved with set and costume design, as well as a means to market the production, and pay themselves a small amount.

“We have been so fortunate that people have reached out to us and said ‘what can we do to help?’” she said. “This is an incredible community, both on island and off, and we feel so lucky to be making theater with such amazing people.”

The production can be seen August 30 through September 2. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7 p.m., while the time for the show on Sunday will be announced later this month.