This is the second part of a roundtable discussion about the upcoming production of Whale Fall by Same Boat Theatre produced in partnership with the Hamilton Conservatory for the Arts as part of the 2022 Hamilton Fringe Festival. The first part can be viewed here.
The participants in the discussion are playwright Stephen Near (SN), director Aaron Joel Craig (AJC) and performers Stephanie Hope Lawlor (SHL) and Raymond Louter (RL)
Please note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AJC: A good story will give you a jumping-off point of a longer, different kind of conversation and it also gets inside of us in a different way than raw data does. Steph, I’m interested, you said earlier that so much of the orca information is kid-oriented and we talked about Stephen thinking he thought his Rebecca might grow out of that, and I was thinking about how people can think that the work that we do in making theatre is something we’ll grow out of. Now we have to reorient the way that we work and I am interested in recapturing some of the “childishness of this work.” The interest in playing pretend in front of people.
SHL: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every kid grows up playing house, playing school, playing make-belief. We all want to try on different identities at some point and I think that’s why people come to the theatre, it’s why people want to see these stories, because maybe they think they’ve grown out of the ability to play make-belief, but they still hold on to that need for imaginative play and escape and that need for a different world. Yeah, sometimes that world is not the one that we’re in. Sometimes that world is more magical or has more musical numbers or has a big dance finale, and sometimes that world is scarier. You know, we watch Black Mirror, we watch all of these spooky Netflix shows because we need that escape, that relief from the outside world. We’re holding onto these ideas of climate change and extinction and what that means for us, for our families, our children, our legacy, and that’s an awful lot of pressure that builds. 28:57 I think to see it can be therapeutic in a sense, it can be cathartic. To see these stories on stage, maybe, offers some hope, so that then you come out of the theatre and you think, “Okay, there’s still work to be done.”
SN: And I think that’s it. It’s so overwhelming that people feel powerless. How do you present work that addresses that thing that people need to pay attention to, but that’s overwhelming sometimes? Not just because it’s an impending problem, but it also touches upon grief. I’ve heard this said that we’re all acutely aware on a conscious level that we’re in very big trouble, so we’re going through a consistent feeling of grief, but we sort of push it aside. Trying to make people pay attention to that grief is really hard, so part of that becomes having to give people a measure of hope. You have to tell your story in a way that will get people to pay attention, to take some action. I think a lot of people minimize it because they just feel so powerless.
SHL: Emotionally, we’re desperate to minimize it.
SN: I guess that’s what I wanted to tap into with this story. To paint one character who is not powerless, who can do something, who says, “I can go find them no matter what, wherever it leads me.” That’s the voice that I tune into. You can throw all the obstacles in the way, but if you have a character who is laser-focused on a goal, that’s a story that people will be interested in watching.
AJC: That’s why all of those marine stories are always about the horizon line, Moby Dick…
SN: The Old Man and the Sea.
AJC: It’s always about going towards that thing that is ungraspable. That’s the thing about the horizon, you never get to it. In this show, there is no question that this is going to cost her something. When it comes to climate change paralysis or general crisis paralysis is that we are hesitant to put ourselves on the line. So many of us have spent the last few years living in constant fight or flight. I think about the orcas attacking their so-called trainers, and yeah, if you’re living in fight or flight your entire life, sure, that makes sense. And I won’t spoil the show, but there is that question of what is the cost, and how that ripples out beyond the play, but also for us, what we think about climate change. One of the reasons society minimizes it is because it’s expensive.
RL: There’s so much that I want to react to in what you’ve all said, and the first is the need that human beings have to play. It doesn’t end with childhood, we often talk to children as though it should. We run down play activity as peripheral, not productive, all that kind of stuff, but I increasingly have come to believe that there is great wisdom in engaging with audiences where they’re at. I think partly it’s a way of drilling down into something, to enter into a deep knowledge of something. Are there lessons in the play? I think there are all kinds of lessons, all kinds of things you could turn into a study guide about the play, but I think there’s also a re-kindling of the human need to play. We don’t want audiences to walk out and say I’m going to sign up for greenpeace tomorrow, but the audience walking out feeling a whole bunch of stuff, feeling so much stuff that they just can’t not respond. I think that’s why kids play, and that’s why we play, and even the people that don’t come to the theatre are still busy playing. Just watch people engaged in all the random creative, nonproductive activity: singing songs, telling stories – we are meant to tell stories. The other offer I would make, which is a non-western way of thinking about theatre, is that this play is potentially a kind of medicine, and the healing might be that it slices just into our anxiety and fear about what we’ve done and what it’s done to these relationships, and it reveals things, but it also injects that wound with something new and something healing. I think that’s, in the end, what makes it not just a show for young audiences or old audiences. Children are honest. They’ll look at you and say, “Tell me the truth,” whereas adult audiences have adopted all kinds of strategies for dealing with their boredom. I really think that the power of what we’re doing is that it affects all of us and it does something to us that’s good and healing and hopeful.
SHL: Something that we haven’t really touched on in this particular conversation is yes, the play is about climate change and the whales, it’s about these big huge massive themes, but we learn about it through such a personal lens. We start to understand those larger concepts, these bigger feelings of grief and of climate anxiety through this relationship between father and daughter. We think about how these big ideas are reflected in our relationships in ways that I don’t know if we’ve ever really felt. And that, initially, is something I loved in reading that short bit at the Junction, was this connection between father and daughter and the memories that come up and the indelible effect of this relationship on her and how it’s what makes her able to handle crisis.
AJC: It’s interesting too, the connection between the relationship between the father and daughter in the play and also the way that we understand that whales are familial animals.
SHL: They travel in pods.
AJC: And as humans, we are also influenced by the pod that we’re in. There’s research being done that suggests the fight or flight gene gets passed on to your kids. That’s how humanity and every other organism has lived, they pass on those good instincts. In the play, there is the question of what are the good instincts in Stephen that he passes on to Rebecca? We don’t get to choose what our kids do with the things we give them, but we hope they take the good stuff and take it in a good direction. That’s a big part of this too, and for families who will see this show, I think that’s an interesting thing to keep in mind.
RL: I’m interested in exploring the relationship between Stephen and Rebecca, but also the time disconnect in the play. Where is this guy? What’s the space that he inhabits? In some cases, I feel like that’s everything. It’s shattering, it’s optimistic, it’s gift-giving, it’s saying goodbye, it’s all of that. As an actor, I think about the range of that, and I’ll tell you, I’m daunted at all of it. The present tense bits, not so much. I get it, it’s give and take, you do a little Stanislavski. Then suddenly, it’s like the time and space and kind of all at once, and that’s why it is not just a character on a quest to do this thing. It’s both of us going somewhere to do something dangerous, and it’s going to be hard and there are going to be tears and sorrow, but there’s love and hope and care.
SHL: And it’s necessary for Rebecca. Ray, we touched on this last week in conversation. You say you’re daunted – being on this trip together, the two of us navigating this together. And as Stephen and Rebecca that’s true, and as actors that’s true. It’s just us! There are other characters that come in and out of the story, but ultimately it’s the two of us.
RL: We were just talking about dropping lines. The actor’s nightmare, right? I just feel completely emotionally overwhelmed at the tides of our world falling apart but we’re here together in this space, in this time, with these audience members and we’re going to be okay.
SHL: And this is singular. This moment, this time. This performance.
AJC: And it will never happen again like this.
RL: Every moment, every time you do the show is stepping into that possibility. If audiences get that from a show, you have them forever.
SHL: It’s the breath. The life. It’s the koosh. The koosh of it all!
RL: The koosh of it all!
SHL: It’s the liveness
RL: The alive-ness. The risk.
AJC: I’m so excited being four people in a room right now, but when we get an audience in a room… all in the room together. We’re all aware of the way we are in the room together now. And it’s inescapable.
SN: It’s a healing circle, is what it is. That’s really powerful.
AJC: For the next 3-5 years, the only way I want to work is in the round. If we’re going to be in a room together, let’s be in a room together. Let’s re-engage these muscles and say, “This is how my body exists in the room with other people. I remember that and I see that moment land on that person’s face, and what does that make me feel?”
SN: I’m really so glad that I’m doing, that this project is being done with this group of people. There’s something really quite special about that for me, and I don’t know that I could do this any other way. I just knew if I was going to do any sort of piece coming out of the most trying, stressful, emotionally hard time that has had me even question whether I even want to to do theatre with a piece that’s like inextricably tied to me and my identity such that the main characters are named after me and my daughter, I can’t do it with a team that’s anyone but you three. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Aaron, you and I have collaborated on almost every piece I’ve done since 2013, and that’s pretty mindblowing. Ray, I when I came to the city was you had me up at Redeemer teaching a playwriting workshop and as you were talking to your students, I thought wow, this guy really gets it. And Stephanie, I had heard about all of the work you were doing at HCA and with Rook’s Theatre and I didn’t see Venus in Fur –
AJC: Huge mistake!
SN [To Aaron]: But you saw it, and immediately you sent a text saying, “We have to work with Steph at some point, we have to work with her.” It was always this thing of missed opportunities. “When are we gonna get to work with Steph? She’s busy!”
AJC: Turns out, all that had to happen was the world had to end.
SHL: Just a pandemic.
SN: But you’re right, you were the first one who brought the voice of this Rebecca to life, and it was just like, I can’t think of anyone else who can possibly do it. There is no one else.
SHL: And it was one of those magical moments where I read it and I thought there’s no one else who can possibly do it! I have to be the one to say these words, to go on this journey. So I’m so glad that morphed into the reading, and now this production. This play is so special.
SN: I’m just really glad that we can do this. And that we’re doing it at HCA as a BYOV. HCA has such a great tradition in this city of bridging the different age levels and artistic disciplines, and I think it’s really lovely.
SHL: And what’s going to be exciting is that you can show up on a Sunday morning and catch a show for the youngest members of your family, then a show created and performed by adolescents, another show created and performed by teens, and then a show that is resonant whether you are 10, a teen, an adult. When we talk about intergenerational theatrical experiences, that’s exactly what’s coming together at the HCA BYOV.
AJC: There’s a real thoughtfulness and awareness of what we hand down to kids, our values and the way we re-introduce the things that we love. That’s one of the things that, whether it’s the work HCA is doing, or the Fringe, our that we’re doing, they’re all sharing something you love with your kids and the community. That’s the real gift of getting to do this again, and doing it now. I have an acute awareness of the gift of getting to share these things with people after not being able to share anything with them for so long.
SHL: And after all of this, we get to do a play.
AJC: That’s a transformative thought for me.