D.C. Playwright Bob Bartlett has always been curious about the ways humans respond to injured or distressed animals, and that theme seems to find its way into his writing again and again.
In Falwell, a black lab named Falwell dies in the opening scene, and returns to comically haunt his owner’s apartment; and in Happiness (and Other Reasons to Die), an “immortal” sickly dog seems to have some odd connection with his recently deceased owner. The idea is once again featured prominently in Swimming with Whales, which makes its world premiere starting May 31st at 1st Stage in Tysons.
“We seem at times more likely to help a dog that has gone astray than a person,” he says. “This play initially featured a group of strangers who come together to save a beached whale. It wasn’t long before the story centered on a father and son, Patrick and Owen, who are ‘lost’ and trying to find each other again, trapped together on a beach, and a whale who tries to save them.”
The play follows 14-year-old Owen and his fisherman father, as they spend time together at a secluded cottage in Nantucket, clashing over the things fathers and sons fight about. Their relationship takes a turn after a run-in with an injured whale.
The idea for the play has roots more than 20 years deep, when Bartlett’s younger brother lost his battle with leukemia when both were in their twenties, sparking a need for him to write about loss. It wasn’t until reading an article in a small Outer Banks newspaper and reading a quote from then-park ranger Erica Newman that he found the subject for a play about grieving that became a play about healing—a whale beaching.
“Once they come to the shore, they are pretty much already dead—they come ashore so they won’t drown,” Newman said in that 2008 issue of the Island Free Press that inspired the playwright.
Swimming with Whales
Produced by 1st Stage
May 31 – June 24, 2018
Details and tickets
“After spending a few hours on the telephone sharing with me her experiences at Hatteras Island, Newman granted me permission to use her quote in an unwritten play and even inspired the character of Grace,” Bartlett says. “Swimming With Whales became my MFA thesis production at Catholic University of America and began a development journey that included work at The Kennedy Center, The National New Play Network, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, and Signature Theatre, among others.”
Bartlett feels his best plays always touch on fathers and sons, and eccentrics trying to find a sense of family they’ve lost or never had, and admits there’s plenty of “him” in the story.
“I believe audiences, especially these days, want a sense of hope and healing.”
“That coming-of-age voice of Owen’s is clear for me, so I seem to go back to it in other plays and characters,” he says. “Outwardly, I wasn’t as rebellious as Owen at his age, but inwardly, yes, I was there. I certainly wasn’t going through Owen’s trials, but my brother was. I also have a vivid memory that seems to have found its way into this play, of feeling abandoned and stranded while staying with my grandmother in a tiny cottage that barely had electricity or running water. By the end of that week, I was off in the woods getting lost while maybe finding a bit of myself, like Owen does in my play, albeit on an isolated beach.”
Over the years, Bartlett has done a good bit of research on whales and beachings, most of which isn’t in the play, but he feels it helped him capture the essence needed for the story.
“For a long time the play was set in Hatteras, but last summer I had the chance to spend a few weeks at the O’Neill’s National Puppetry Conference investigating puppetry in my work, so I had the time to explore the Connecticut/Massachusetts coastline and visit Nantucket, which has a singular legacy of whales and whaling,” he says. “I also got out on the ocean seeing whales for the first time, and it was spectacular and inspiring. I saw several humpback whales, the same species as the whale in my play, and one who really put on a show, swimming close to our boat, smashing its fins on the ocean’s surface, and breaching five or six times.”
He immediately moved the setting to Nantucket.
“Alex is a director who isn’t willing to settle for good enough, so he’s pushing me and the script in exciting ways. The script has grown so much in our first few weeks of rehearsal, which is due in large part to the connection between the two of us and our wonderful cast and designers,” Bartlett says. “There are two new scenes in the play, which he encouraged me to explore. Those are now two of my favorite moments in the play, and I’m not sure how the play functioned without them.”
Moreover, Bartlett notes how Alex keenly understands the language of the play and its thesis, and the people living in it and is thrilled with the collaboration with his director and the Tysons-based theater.
“I set out to write a play with big design challenges, and believed that 1st Stage was a company who could more than handle them. I believe I’ve left plenty of space in the script for collaborators to build the play’s world, as well as the character of the whale,” he says. “As a playwright, you hope a theatre, an artistic director, a director will fall in love with your play, because that’s kind of what it takes to get a production, and the right production. After speaking with Alex, I knew he was a director who understood my play—in ways I perhaps didn’t.”
Once the play ends its run at 1st Stage, Bartlett envisions a long life for its story.
“I believe audiences, especially these days, want a sense of hope and healing,” he says. “And they want to laugh. And like the unique family in my play, are looking to retreat and regroup and reenergize. Sometimes we do that at the beach, and sometimes in a theater.”