Dressed To Plunder, and Maybe Kill: Costuming Signature’s ‘Blackbeard’

Erik Teague, creator of phantasmagorical costumes, talks about outfitting an army of pirates and zombies in Signature Theatre’s world premiere musical ‘Blackbeard.’

When the actor playing Blackbeard first appears on stage at the Signature Theatre in the new musical bearing his name, smoke literally curls out of his matted black hair.

Captain Blackbeard sketch by costume designer Erik Teague.

It’s a terrifying look and one that may cause the grownups in the audience to consider huddling under their seats.

Happily, there’s no need for that. As most 10-year-olds will have guessed, the fumes emanating from the pirate’s mane are quite safe, thanks to the machinations of Erik Teague, the devilishly clever costume designer behind Blackbeard. The show—with lyrics by John Dempsey and music by Dana Rowe—was commissioned by Signature for its annual ‘family fun’ production.

The musical is based on the story of the ‘real’ Blackbeard, a British pirate named Edward Teach who plundered ships in the Caribbean and off the coast of North Carolina before being beheaded in 1718. The governor of the colony had finally appealed to the British Navy to get rid of Teach, who, as Blackbeard, was notorious for his habit of sticking lighted fuses inside his matted locks.

Recreating the smoke without setting the actor (or the audience) on fire was the biggest challenge faced by Teague, who disclosed that costume designers often double as magicians.

But smoke without fire was not the only challenge to be faced. There were plenty of others.

Costume Designer Erik Teague. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Blackbeard’s coat, for example,” he said, as we pored over the original drawings during the course of a telephone interview. “I wanted the coat to reflect his hard life. So I created patches of bright red, to show that the coat was once new and impressive. But the rest of the coat is the color of rust. That and the raggedy hem show how rough and tumble his life really was.”

Despite its muddied and battle-torn condition, the coat boasts a number of historically accurate details. These include genuine “baldrics” and “frogs,” which are holders for carrying swords. (Paintings often depict Blackbeard with three or four swords as well as spirals of smoke.)

“Chris Hoch, the actor who plays Blackbeard, has really made it his own,” Teague added, pointing out that it’s the actor who provides the swagger and the ferocious glare under the pirate’s hat.

Although all the action is set in the early 18th century, in and around the Caribbean, the characters come from different backgrounds, reflected in their outfits.

“Some are sinister, and some are droll,” said Teague.

Certainly, the drollest of all are the zombies, an army of the dead—or “undead” —rescued from the bottom of the sea and enlisted to fight with Blackbeard against the British navy.

In fact, the zombies are puppets, designed to move in tandem and created by Teague to portray the corpses brought back to fight. Their movement is like a toy ballet.

According to Teague, there’s a real overlap between puppetry and costume design. “I like to fuse the two together,” he said.

Costume Designer Erik Teague’s sketch for Dominique the Sea Witch.

He also likes working with wig designers, such as Anne Nesmith, who is responsible for all the hair treatments in Blackbeard. “Wigs are extensions of costumes,” he explained.

One wig that clearly dominates the stage is that of Dominique, the Sea Witch. Even though her body has been fused into a coral reef, she possesses immense powers. Her wig is a thicket of seaweed and coral. Chains of coral dangle from her arm.

Most conspicuously, however, she blooms inside a huge burgundy skirt. The fabric is sort of a fossilized lace, multi-dimensional, with an almost brainy texture.

“It’s a baroque silhouette,” Teague said, suitable for someone who casts powerful spells. “She is also an old flame of Blackbeard’s. Tossed aside, she becomes his enemy.”

Dominique has to compete with two other ladies. One of them, Meg the Peg, started out in rehearsals with a wooden leg, similar to Captain Hook’s in Peter Pan, but shapelier.
“Unfortunately, the wooden leg was too cumbersome for costume changes, so we dropped the leg and the name of Meg and changed her into Morgan,” Teague said sadly.

And then there’s La Mer, the goddess of the sea. Clad in a diaphanous gown of watery blues and greens, tucked under a bodice laced with fishnet and pearls, La Mer is Blackbeard’s current love.

On the other end of the costume spectrum, and more sinister than most, is Odinn, the one-eyed Norse god, who appears to be a Viking with antlers. (Think of Rudolf the Reindeer, wearing a helmet and holding a spear.) At one point, Odinn engages in a drinking contest with Blackbeard, during which he sings a patter song about the Ring Cycle and performs a soft-shoe dance.

Costume Designer Erik Teague’s sketch for Odinn, the one-eyed Norse God.

The music reflects the mythic force of the Vikings. There’s even, Teague speculates, an echo of Valhalla.

So how did Teague, who was recently awarded the 2019 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Costume Design, get hooked on all this fantasy design?

You guessed it. He began with comic books, to which—growing up in Cartersville, GA, a small town north of Atlanta—he became addicted. His favorites were Batman and Spiderman, and he copied them all diligently.“That’s how I learned to draw,” he said. Later on, he graduated to Watchmen and the V for Vendetta movie.

Drawing comics led to dressing them, first at Kennesaw University, where he got his BA in Theatre, and then Boston University, where he received his MA in Costume Design.

Although he has designed the costumes for many award-winning companies—including the Glimmerglass Festival, Boston Lyric Opera and the Washington National Opera—this is his first production at Signature.

“Blackbeard is a culmination of all my passions, “ he said. “It combines my love of adventure stories with tales of the Vikings and the Norsemen, zombies, and pirates.”

It’s a frothy mix for a summer show, and ideal for kids who are over eight—old enough not to get too scared when swords clang, or when smoke starts coming out of Blackbeard’s hair.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

Blackbeard plays from June 18 through July 14, 2019, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.

Suitable for age 8 and above.