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Evocative script dives deeply into the life of ‘Whale Man’ Jon Lien
Award-winning (Governor General’s nominations and a win, among others) playwright Robert Chafe introduces his latest published script, “Between Breaths,” which was on the Winterset shortlist, by discussing two aspects of playwrighting: the motivation of the playwright, and the collaborative nature and process of getting work on stage. This involves dramaturgy, a term (and a profession), perhaps not widely known outside the theatre. Enter Iris Turcott.
In 2010, when Chafe was writing “Oil and Water” and had brought it to a first draft, theatre company Artistic Fraud booked Turcott for a week of workshopping. Chafe was happy with the script and “thought what I had was brilliant and stage ready.” Turcott disagreed.
They clashed (an understatement). Four days in, Chafe had made few of the rewrites Turcott was pushing for. Then she said to him, “every time you’ve told me this story in person, you’ve cried like a baby. This story moves you for some reason, it’s gotten inside you, but that is not in the play yet.”
Chafe was ready to quit, to throw his laptop out the window. He was so frustrated he couldn’t sleep, and then got up in the middle of the night and wrote a scene. That was the beginning of the new script. Turcott was right. And Chafe “vowed that I would never again willingly choose a story to pursue as a play unless it stoked in me that inexplicable bubble of emotion, that mystery of a muse …”
He continued to work with Turcott, including on “Between Breaths,” until Turcott’s death a few years ago. “With her guidance, I ended up writing a play about death that was somehow hopeful, a play about deterioration that was somehow also about growth, a play about loss that was somehow also about the things that we never lose.”
The genesis of “Between Breaths” came from Chafe’s attending Petrina Bromley’s “This Marvelous Terrible Place,” which included dialogue from Jon Lien. Lien, a professor at Memorial University, was pretty famous for an academic, and had an international reputation as “the Whale Man” — this Chafe knew. What he didn’t know was what caused him to burst into tears at the mention of the man. “Never did I think I would write a play about (Lien, but) I decided I had no choice.”
This text includes the play’s staging history, the stage directions, and light and sound effects and cues. There’s a cast of three: Jon, Judy (Lien, his wife), and Wayne (who appears in different guises, including a colleague and a stranger). Multidimensional storytelling, including inventive scene changes and a haunting score, allow for an intersection of biographical details with Lien’s memory of whale rescues, especially his first.
Lien’s relationships with whales, and, equally important, fishers, was never supposed to happen. As his wife tells him:
You study birds. They hired you to study birds, darling, to lecture about birds.
Lien was from South Dakota, where Judy says “we could only dream of the ocean.” Flown to Newfoundland for an interview at MUN, he had hardly landed before he decided they should move there. That was his decision-making process: instant. He refers to himself as “a starter.”
For example, while attending an academic conference on the mainland, he got bored, left to pursue another interest, namely farming (the Liens had a farm in Portugal Cove). He bought a bunch of goats, about which purchase he did not tell his wife, built the crates to ship them back to Newfoundland, and left her to discover this when she gets a call that “they” will soon be delivered.
He had grown up among animals. Still, no creature on Earth is as big as a whale. Fishers do not want to encounter one. “Collisions,” as Lien called them, between whales and nets can cost a fortune, a livelihood. Lien was drawn into the question: how to save the whale, and salvage the equipment?
The answer was something like: go closer to a trapped whale than anyone else would dare; stick your head in the cold, cold water; be on call always, including in in the worst weather; inspire others to do the same.
“Between Breaths” (the title is built into a whale rescue) is a theatrical dive into Lien’s life, awash in his death. For the end of Lien’s life was sad. He suffered a head injury in a car accident which triggered mysterious, deliberating symptoms. The disorientation of this, as well as the holding central core of character, and love, is evocatively rendered in this script.
An aside — it’s a testament to Chafe’s energy and talent that this is the second time he’s been reviewed in this column in three weeks. As he says on his website, “If you want to be happy, just create something.”
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.