MICHAEL CAWELTI'S presence on the Martinez waterfront brings casual strollers to a startled, delighted stop. In a deep forest green coat (complete with tattered lace cuffs peeking out from the sleeves) Cawelti is quite the nautical persona.
He's also has a theater resume that's several fathoms long. The longtime actor, writer and director has designed sword fights for more than 85 theaters, including Berkeley Rep, the San Francisco Opera and Cal Shakes. He's picked up five Drama Critics Circle Awards for his combat direction. He's also the state park system's go-to safety guy on black powder demonstrations at living history events, and founder of the nation's oldest swordplay school.
And on this particular day, standing near the wind-whipped waters near his Martinez home, Cawelti is an utterly convincing, rakish pirate.
He secures his swashbuckling hat with a dagger-length hat pin — even pirates need haberdashery assistance in high winds — and his metamorphosis into Captain Hector Barossa, star of this weekend's Pirate Festival in Vallejo, is complete. Barossa has ships to plunder and treasure to seek, of course, but he graciously consents to a brief Q&A.
Q: Captain Barossa? Shouldn't that be Barbossa?
A: That was Geoffrey Rush's character in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean." I'm Barossa. Copyright issues.
Q: So, how did you get into piracy in the first place? Was it a childhood dream?
A: Of course! I'm Peter Pan — I'm not going to grow up if I can help it. My first job was wearing tights and being a musketeer. My dad wasn't too thrilled. But then I started appearing on television.
Q: Anyone else in your family involved in piracy?
A: My former wife worked for the U.S. Treasury Department.
Q: What do you think of those Somalian pirates? The real ones?
A: Those are woeful amateurs. You know, that's been a bed of piracy for centuries. There and the Caribbean. But people go into piracy because they don't have other options. Desperation sends them into it. Pirates only lasted three or four years.
Q: Um, are you sure you're a pirate? You don't sound like one.
A: Arr, matey? That's not how pirates talked — that's Robert Newton of (Disney's) "Treasure Island." He had a Yorkshire accent. He's the founder of piratespeak. Now everyone imitates him.
Q: Ah, that explains it — because you sound awfully well-educated. Bit unusual for a pirate, that.
A: I majored in English literature and was captain of the saber fencing team at San Diego State. Trained in stage combat in England with John Waller (head of fight interpretation for the Royal Armouries, Leeds), William Hobbs (fight director for the Royal National Theater under Laurence Olivier, as well battle and fight director for the "Musketeers" movies), and Guy Wilson ("Keeper of the Blades" at the Tower of London). He gave me white gloves and I got to pick up every historical weapon to see how they were balanced! Medieval swords are really lightweight and agile. They knew metallurgy back then.
Q: Piracy seems like seasonal work. What do you do the rest of the year?
A: I act, write, direct. I wrote "Manly Men in Tights" for the Renaissance Faire at Casa de Fruta. I do the Dickens Fair. Teach swordplay at the Albion Schoole of Defense at El Cerrito's Veterans Hall. And I'm a wine educator for Joseph Phelps. Yeah"... we have a costume, but it's not as flamboyant.
Q: So, what can we expect at this weekend's Pirate Festival?
A: It's like a Renaissance Faire for pirates, a living history of pirates with a tent city, a square rigger, cannon battles, sea chanteys, nautical-themed games for kids, wonderful food, beer — free admission! It's a little Brigadoon that springs up for two days and everyone has a great time.
Q: And finally, any advice for young would-be pirates?
A: Avoid baths. Find yourself a good sword. And never play fair.
Reach Jackie Burrell at firstname.lastname@example.org.