By Nicole Trifone
The 18th century boasts a plethora of scientific pioneers whose achievements changed the course of history. Flight technology progressed because of three such pioneers: Rooster, Duck and Montauciel the Sheep.
The story of a rooster, a duck and a sheep that became the first passengers in a hot-air balloon sounds like the premise of a joke. But it really happened, which makes it perfect fodder for an original farce from The Jug Broke Theatre Company.
How does Colonial Williamsburg’s five-person theater company pull off a low-budget production about these animal aerialists? Tell it from the perspective of the animals, then add a song or two.
“We take true stories from the 18th century and look at them through a whimsical lens,” said Luke Schares, a founding member of The Jug Broke Theatre Company. “We want to bring out the spirit of 18th-century theater, not mimic it.”
What Goes Up debuted on Thanksgiving Day 2016 as the company’s inaugural show. It is now one of 15 original plays the troupe has written, produced, directed and performed. In September the troupe added its first 18th-century play, David Garrick’s The Guardian, to its repertoire and by the summer will add a second, R.B. Sheridan’s The Scheming Lieutenant.
Audiences can see the troupe — Schares, Chris Hartman, Courtney Hurt, Alex Morse and Hope Roselle — perform Tuesdays through Saturdays in multiple shows per day at the Playbooth Theater. Performances are free to ticketholders.
Though Jug Broke performs on the original site of the first theater in America, the small open-air stage is not a reproduction of that 1716 building. The original two-story theater may have measured as large as 86 by 30 feet, or roughly the size of many provincial English theaters from that time period. The Playbooth stage is only 22 by 17 feet.
“This isn’t a real theater, this isn’t what the theater looked like,” Hurt said. “We move our audience past that quickly and make it fun for them. We’re having fun, so they have fun.”
They recycle trash into props. They cleverly reuse clothing and accessories. They crouch behind wooden planks that serve as the stage’s wings. And they do it with a wink and a nod to the audience, who are pulled into the joke with them.
The actors’ instincts for resourcefulness predate their time in Jug Broke. Before Jug Broke was founded, Hartman, Hurt, Morse and Schares performed in Historic Area taverns, using the room, the people and, above all, their own talents to play games and improvise with the guests, whose receptiveness to such entertainment varied table to table.
The four of them, along with Gary Moore, who has since left the Foundation, looked for ways to take their talents beyond the constraints of the tavern walls.
“We were like the Island of Misfit Toys,” said Morse, who also supervises Jug Broke. “I liked the energy that was in the art we were doing in the taverns. I thought it would be really cool to transfer that to the stage, so we started performing anywhere we could get away with it.”
In impromptu performances, they began loosely portraying members of the Chowning family. Since not much is known about Josiah Chowning, for whom the Duke of Gloucester Street tavern is named, or his extended family, the actors had room to build personalities — and pretend the Chownings had musical and acting abilities. In this reimagining, the actors invented a family of...actors.
The troupe’s name even has a tie to their tavern days. The actors first spotted “jug broke,” a term for a drunkard that dates back to the 1600s, in the 18th-century play The Schemers. The strange combination of two seemingly unconnected words seems to appeal to children, and for adults it establishes a connection between the Chowning family members and their tavern.
Engaging audiences with a few props and an abundance of creativity seemed made for the Playbooth stage, which often hosted programs that interpreted the site and 18th-century theater rather than scripted plays and performances.
Jug Broke wanted to create a family experience and bring the site back to life. When the troupe formed in September 2016, the actors had two months to write a 20-minute play that showcased the type of entertainment they wanted to bring to the Historic Area: an “outside-in” look at the 18th century.
“Colonial Williamsburg is often telling the story about how Williamsburg rippled out, and rightly so,” Morse said. “We wanted to tell the stories people in Williamsburg would have been hearing about. We take a look at how the world rippled into Williamsburg.”
Morse heard the story of the hot-air balloon passengers, who took their ride in France in 1783, on a podcast called “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” and he knew there was a Williamsburg connection — a hot-air balloon club at the College of William & Mary had successfully constructed and launched its own hot-air balloon from the Courthouse green by 1801. Inspired by the hilarity of the podcast, the troupe wrote a musical comedy.
Audiences loved What Goes Up, and the combination of whimsy and reality has proven to be a successful formula.
A woman discovering eight comets between 1786 and 1797 may not seem whimsical on paper. But put Caroline Herschel in a conversation with the first comet she discovered — played by another actor dressed with a long white fabric trailing from her back — and whimsy abounds in The Comet Huntress.
The story of Col. James Innes setting up cannons stolen from his own Continental army to celebrate Gen. George Washington’s birthday is absurd, if not troubling, on its face. Spotlight its absurdity — turn the audience into the mob, dramatically unveil the “cannons,” which are actually drawings on sheets of cloth, and, of course, add music — and you have comedy with Washington’s Birth Night.
“For all our plays, we are starting with a true story from history that interests us,” Hartman said. “Guests who are not as familiar with the 18th century are absolutely going to have their minds blown by the stories alone. Then we exaggerate these personalities or sing silly songs or use these absurd props.”
The result is fun family theater.
All of Jug Broke’s original productions live within the same universe. The scripts often include references to other Jug Broke shows, which ties them all together and brings repeat guests in on the family’s inside jokes.
The family dynamic the five actors have built offstage is an added bonus. The group did not have to put much work into it. They all clicked from the start. When Roselle joined the cast in June 2018, she fit right in.
“Coming in as an outsider to a group that has such a good relationship with each other could have been intimidating,” Roselle said. “They made it so easy. I’ve never had such a comfortable dynamic with a group of co-workers, and it’s something I treasure and hold extremely close to me.”
For more than two years, Jug Broke has pieced together sets, props and even their casts — sometimes pulling in auxiliary players from tavern musicians such as the Watermans or other actor-interpreters. They plan to continue to build recognition and work toward expanding their repertoire as well as explore new avenues for programming, including special ticketed events.
“We’ve proven we can create something special with few resources,” Hurt said. “Imagine what we could do as we continue to grow. Whatever lies ahead, we want to continue sharing the stories in our unique way, and what better place than here in Williamsburg to be able to do so.”
It’s true that the actual 18th-century Chowning family did not form a theater company. In fact, very little is known about Josiah Chowning, who owned the popular Chowning’s Tavern, and his extended family. The Jug Broke Theatre Company actors took what information was known and then used their own imaginations to embellish the characters. These biographies are as whimsical as the company’s plays.
Josiah “Josi” Chowning was born on a tobacco farm in Middlesex County, Virginia. Though he learned the farmer’s life, his mother inspired him with an interest in the world around him. Josi likes to fancy himself a combination of Don Quixote and David Garrick, which made a life of theater a natural fit. Josi and his wife, Millie, like to look the part of a gentleman farmer and a wealthy tavern keeper, respectively. “I wanted to bring levity to the city for nothing brings a community together like laughter,” Josi said.
Mildred “Millie” Cavendish was born the daughter of a wealthy family from Powhatan County, Virginia. She is an accomplished rider and confident competitor who once won an ox, a Carolina parakeet and the deed to an acre of swampland in South Carolina in a game of whist. Before her marriage she was a society darling; now she’s the wife of an actor. “From tavern to theater. I should have seen this coming,” Millie said.
Edward Chowning is the half brother of Josiah. With his mother’s money, Edward had the privilege of attending the Inns of Court in London to study law. While abroad, he developed a love of the Enlightenment by attending theater, debate societies and poetry clubs. When he returned to America, he lived with Josi and Millie in Williamsburg. Unmarried but hopeful, he has a sense of fashion with no real means to indulge, as he offers very little financially other than occasional tutoring for anyone willing to pay. “Lawyers are liars, so the stage was a natural fit,” Edward said.
Genevieve “Evie” Chowning is the youngest sister of Millie. She met her husband, Cyrus Chowning, at Josi and Millie’s wedding but became a widow soon after when Cyrus was killed by a boar while traveling. Since her husband’s tragic death, she has moved in with Josi and Millie. Though she continues to mourn her beloved, Evie has found her feme sole status quite liberating. Evie’s wit and love for performing have not waned these past melancholy months. “I feel the closest to my family when we’re sharing the stage together,” Evie said.
Jedidiah “Jeddi” Chewning was born in Caroline County, Virginia, and is of no relation to the Chownings. He found his fortune in land and furs when he went off to Kentucky after the Seven Years’ War, but he discovered his love for painting and poetry long before. Jeddi moved to Williamsburg in hopes of finding his brothers who deserted the Continental army. He lives on property owned by another family of entertainers, the Watermans. “The Chownings kindly welcomed me into their company,” Jeddi said. “I know our similar last names fool patrons into thinking we’re related, but I am certain one letter would not launch centuries of confusion on the pronunciation of Chowning.”
Addie Cavendish is the sister of Millie and Evie. She enjoys any time she can spend with her sisters, onstage or off.
Though the Chownings are not quite sure he is truly their uncle, they do know he deserves all the credit for inspiring the talented family to form The Jug Broke Theatre Company. He has an air of mystery.