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Unmasking the Pimpernel Experience

On opening night of The Scarlet Pimpernel, swords clashed and actors exchanged witty banter—but what most viewers didn’t realize was that preparation for opening night took at least one hour for every minute of the performance. The Scarlet Pimpernel cast and crew put in over 400 hours for this 2-hour play.

PCC staff member Dakota Wilson, who played Lord Dewhurst, said that this Fine Arts production was well worth the time. “We knew we were all exhausted, practicing four hours a night,” he said. “But we’re all like-minded people who were in this together. The camaraderie, the talent—it was so fun!”

Preparation began not on the worn stage but at a wooden desk four years earlier with a playwright deep in thought. PCC performing arts faculty and playwright Daniel Webb began his efforts while still working on his M.F.A. in dramatics. Back then, the idea for The Scarlet Pimpernel took shape as a 60-minute short play, but Webb saved favorite ideas for this full-length endeavor.

When Pensacola Christian College asked him to adapt the best subplots and characters from all seven of Baroness Orczy’s Pimpernel novels for a Fine Arts production, Webb jumped at the opportunity.

“I have always enjoyed intrigue stories,” said Webb. “The Scarlet Pimpernel is the first written to combine humor, daring adventure, mystery, and sheer recklessness into one. That was what drew me in, and I haven’t quite recovered!”

Marlene Jekel working on costumes for Scarlet Pimpernel.

With a lot of prayer and a little ingenuity, Webb and his team set out to perform the impossible in merely nine months. By mid-summer, he finished writing the rough draft of the full-length script, and the scene and costume designers began creating renderings. Marlene Jekel helped create the costumes, inspired by the styles of the 1790s; while Matt Phillips and his team worked on the set design.

“Creating an accurate depiction of time period, location, and mood of the play are the most important qualities I try to accomplish with my designs,” said Phillips. “Costumes also play a major role in the set’s finished look. They often dictate final paint colors and decorations for the play. Working with the whole creative team allows us to bring the individual parts of the play together.”

Matt Phillips arranging Sketch-Up designs of the Scarlet Pimpernel set.

Once designs for the set were finalized, construction began in August so that Webb and his actors would have plenty of time to practice the choreography for the duels. As a Certified Stage Combat Instructor and Choreographer, Webb has a thorough understanding of how to create believable duel sequences for stage.

An average two-minute duel requires three hours of planning and one hour of practice for every five seconds on stage. When Josh Hutt (Sr., MA), began practicing for the part of Sir Percival Blakeney (the Scarlet Pimpernel hero himself), he didn’t realize he would be wielding swords several hours every week.

Daniel Webb practicing sword fighting choreography with student, Josh Hutt, who plays the lead.

“It’s hard to get the timing down and trust the other guy not to jab you,” Hutt said. “But it’s really fun and rewarding. You have to go into a Fine Arts looking at the end result—to entertain the audience.”

For graduate student Troy Lobdell (CA) playing the villain Paul Chauvelin, allowed him to get into the mind of a truly unique character. “It’s neat to see that Chauvelin’s not just a villain,” said Lobdell. “He thinks he’s doing what he needs to do. He doesn’t know he’s bad.”

Playing an extra in the script gave graduate student Amanda Cochran (TX) “a time to relax and get out of the classroom. I really like the rush of working with the director to make his dream come alive.”

For this cast and crew, bringing The Scarlet Pimpernel to life was rewarding work that they will not soon forget. Jen Wells (Sr., FL), who played Gabrielle Damiens, summed up the experience perfectly: “I love acting. I love the hard work. My favorite memories are getting to know the other cast members and growing friendships with them. I love seeing a group of talented people give their talents back to God for His glory.”