PAPILLION, Neb. — Ten minutes outside of Omaha, we ventured out of our car on a 102-degree August day into a berry and pumpkin ranch. The reason? Midwest Pirate Fest, one of many pirate festivals held across the country. The vast majority of these festivals are held in landlocked towns. We wouldn’t have known about it if it weren’t for a family friend selling coffee there.
Once we paid our entrance fee and crossed the threshold, a table of adults in full-on pirate garb —
“Go visit Ms. Rose in her crow’s nest,” one of the greeters suggested. “And give her an insult, would you? In order to build the rest of her pirate ship she needs more insults.”
In her non-pirate life, Ms. Rose is Laura Linder, a phlebotomist in Omaha. She also makes and sells custom costumes.
“These festivals are a chance to be in a different world, to let go of stress,” she said. “I used to do theater in college. I never want to leave this group of actors. We’re all dirt sailors in a chance to be a kid again.”
The community ties are strong. “Once you’re in that space, you feel loved,” Ms. Rose said. “You’re part of the family.”
At the end of the interview she handed me a melted chocolate dubloon. “They’re for kids of all ages,” she said.
The pirates’ counterpart, the Royal Navy, arrived to greet us.
“I’ve been involved with these festivals for seven years,” the captain said. “We do a Wild West Show and a Renaissance Festival, too.”
The same cast of characters plays other roles. “This festival he’s the captain and I’m the doctor,” his wife explained. “But at other times, we’ve been Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, a train conductor and a teetotaler.”
Slipping back into character, the doctor proudly showed us her dagger and bowl full of fake blood. “Right now I’m working on 100 percent mortality rate. It just so happens that all the crew die in my care! Today is our bloodletting day.”
“What happens with fainters?” the captain asked.
“We throw them overboard!” they cheer.
“People like to lose themselves into a fantasy world,” the captain explains. “You can put on a costume and be whatever you’d like. It’s immersion entertainment. We hope that you’ll get lost and believe that you’re there.”
The immersive aspect of the Midwest Pirate Festival isn’t just for children.
“As adults, we are taught not to play,” the doctor said. “We want to let people become a kid again and enjoy it.”
In real life, this gang of pirates is a medical technologist, a computer programmer, a marketing communication strategist, a graphic designer, a teacher, and a chef.
“Some of us grew up not knowing how to speak in front of the public at all, and many of us are introverts. When we put the costume on and come here, we change. We open up. It’s a kind of release,” the doctor explained.
“Everyone really is welcome,” the captain added. “When it comes to fun and fantasy, there’s a lot of us that don’t spend time on the coast, so this is what we have to fantasize about. We like to imagine being on a ship, being on the seas. And we love costumes. We have to allow ourselves to play.”
Across the dirt path, an old man and a young boy, both in full costume, engaged in a wooden sword fight. The art of play is alive and well in Nebraska.