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Pirate School a Swashbuckling Mix of Slapstick and Magic
Thursday, September 14, 2023


Avast, ye land lubbers. It’s time for all you scallywags and wenches to walk the gangplank and seek your treasure in David Engel’s “Pirate School.”

“Pirate School” starts at 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, at The Argyros in Ketchum. Pirate Professor Billy Bones will teach the finer parts of being a boisterous buccaneer with the help of a talking skull and the world’s only wearable pirate ship. Show up late and you may be banished to Davy Jones’ locker!

The swashbuckling show for ages 4 and up features puppetry, eccentric props and slapstick sword play—all for just $10 and $15, tickets available at

“I haven’t met anyone in 35 years who doesn’t get excited by the idea of swashbuckling,” said Engel. “Prof. Bones teaches the finer points of mischief, magic, bubble play, slapstick, sword fighting—it’s vaudeville, a variety show at heart.

“We have a lot of interaction, classic Monty Python stuff, and the shows get loud. We teach various lessons about things like sword safety. And we even have a final exam where the entire audience takes part in a big battle.”

Engel’s interest in pirates started with his fourth birthday parties—with a pirate theme.

“The allure of the pirate, of sailing over the horizon and carousing and finding treasures—it’s a universal allure,” he said. “I grew up sailing on Lake Michigan, and now I’ve performed my pirate school in China, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Europe, the United Kingdon, Singapore--all paces that pirates frequented.”

Engel was working in TV and film and performing in “Hamlet,” “Macbeth, “Titus Andronica” and other Shakespearean plays in Chicago when someone suggested he perform at kids’ birthday parties, given his  propensity for clowning around.

“I thought, ‘That’s easy.’ Then I discover that children can be the hardest audience in the world,” said Engel who not only mastered performing for children but went on to work as a clown doctor in pediatric hospitals with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Program.

Engel has scoured pirate museums around the world and had first-hand experience crewing tall ships in the Caribbean, both of which has helped him authenticate his role. He also was a fight director, during which he excelled in sword play and the use of black powder weapons.

“The amazing thing about real pirates was that pirate ships were multicultural and totally democratic,” he said. “Pirates voted for their captains and were a pluralistic unit on ship. Tolerance and cooperation were in high demand. One of the things I teach in my shows is how being a loner won’t get you anywhere on the high seas. You get a sense of how important it is to have a crew.”

Engel said he doesn’t think he would’ve wanted to be a pirate because they were thieves. But he might have been okay with being a buccaneer.

Buccaneers got their name from “buccan,” a French word for the green boughs of wood on which Caribs  barbecued or smoked jerk chicken and pork. The privateers who preyed on the Spanish for the French began taking this food with them when they sailed, selling it at different ports. They only turned pirates when ships laden with gold came back from Central and South America.

Pirate School is not Engel’s only show. He has a dozen other shows, including a wizard academy, super hero training academy and shows revolving around dinosaurs and mad scientists. All play to children’s boisterous spirit, giving permission to their parents and grandparents to play along and access their own spirit of adventure.

But he never tires of being a pirate.

“I’ve done these shows thousands of times over the years and I love it. I can be tired—I’m driving 10 hours from Wyoming to Sun Valley the day before. But, when I put on the outfit, stash the sword in my belt and place the big hat on my head, there is a quickening, an excitement, an extra jolt of energy. I stand in the wings and listen to the audience, listen to the kids, and their excitement feeds me.”

On one occasion, he did in fact turn into a very real pirate on the streets of New York City.

“I used to do shows on a giant ocean-going ship named the Peking in New York Harber. I was dressed in my pirate outfit one day when I saw the masthead of the Peking in a shipyard in Staten Island where it was being refurbished ahead of being returned to the government of Germany. I don’t know what made me do this but I drove into the shipbuilding area, walked past security in my pirate outfit and right up the scaffolding onto my ship to say goodbye.”

On board Engel encountered two old men, who had been the ship’s original riggers in the 1970s. He went down to the captain’s quarters where he spotted a pile of things ready to be tossed.

“Like any good pirate, I pillaged the heap. I took the anchor and a couple other things and walked off the ship. The security guy was looking at me like I was a ghost and I wondered, ‘Is he going to stop me?’ He asked me what I was doing and I replied, ‘Well, I’m a pirate and I’m pillaging stuff from the ship,’ and I walked out of the yard with a couple suitcases full.”

Engel says he’s excited to bring his Pirate School to Sun Valley considering how cowboys and rodeo were a big draw during Sun Valley Resort’s early days and how rodeo is still a big draw during Hailey’s Old Days of the West Fourth of July.

“There’s an overlap between cowboys and pirates,” he said. “They love carousing and getting boisterous. They both have a sense of adventure, spirit of independence, quest for freedom and a grit and courage that’s acquired.”


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