This summer, a theatrical troupe of circus-performing ghosts, will be rafting down the Mississippi River. Well, okay, they aren’t really ghosts…but Walken Schweigert, an artistic director of the Unseen Ghost Brigade, says the performers will be utilizing a technique called “transformational characterization,” which means that even as the group of five performers and one cook anchor their raft at the various towns along the river, they’ll maintain their ghost characters.
“It’s not like we land and become the ghosts,” says Schweigert. “We want the audience to believe the ghosts are traveling and doing the show.” Of course, when the troupe reaches larger cities, they may be spending several days to regroup, and in that case they may have to lose their characters, but she said it is entirely possible that when they stop at some of the smaller towns, that they will spend the entire time setting up, performing, and taking down the show as their characters.
The troupe are assuming ghostly identities to convey the stories of people who have died along the river. The play has an ecological message about the damage that has been done to the river through pollution and also a message about how important the river has been, and still is, to our society. “We’re trying to engender more of a connection of people to the river,” Schweigert says.
To create the piece, the performers have been researching historical data as well as folk stories and ghost stories. Naturally, they have been reading Mark Twain, and also William Faulkner. “We’re looking for stories about vagabonds,” Schweigert says. The ghost characters, who will tell the stories of their deaths, come from the lower rungs of society: fortune tellers, river pirates, gamblers, prostitutes, and the like. In addition to library research, the group is also using movement techniques to create a solid ensemble, as well as training rigorously in acrobatics and circus tricks such as stilting and aerial work.
The band of ghosts will travel in an 18-by-30-foot raft, with a cabin on top and aluminum pontoons underneath. A trailer boat will drag behind, carrying the set. Schweigert says that he wasn’t too worried about run-ins with the weather or other natural disasters—he’s an experienced camper who grew up camping with her dad, a guide in the Boundary Waters. “The main thing I’m worried about is having enough food to eat,” he says.
The Unseen Ghost Brigade will have a benefit show at Bedlam Theatre on Sunday, April 4 featuring music by Children of Euler, the Ukeladies, Military Special, and Rags & Iron. More information can be found on the group’s Web site and blog. A video of the troupe members talking about their work can be seen here.