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Fallen women, ribald sailors and 18th century birth control. In 1789, 200 convict women set sail for a male penal colony in New South Wales…

Floating Brothel ImageIn 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.

Floating Brothel was created and produced by Gold No Trade. For more information about the company, visit www.goldnotrade.com.

Floating Brothel was first performed in August of 2007 at the HERE Arts Center in New York as part of the "American Living Room Festival".
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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

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