By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
Lucky me to be asked to interview the renowned, award winning playwright, Bob Bartlett, who wrote the thoughtful comedy with important themes, “Swimming with Whales”, which is set to open soon at 1st Stage in Tysons. He is a professor at Bowie State University right here in our area and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation which included tales about the progression of his play through seven years of workshop productions and table readings, including the O’Neill National Puppetry Festival in Waterford, CT, and a play reading last year at Signature Theatre as part of their prestigious SigWorks Series. All this development work will culminate in the upcoming World Premiere Production at 1st Stage in late May.
I asked Bob what his inspiration was to write a story about a whale, a father and a son. His answer surprised me. He said that for some time he had wanted to write a play about grief and grieving but also about healing, in order to help HIM deal with a situation in his own life that happened when he was a young man. The story, he said, came to him during a stay in the Outer Banks, NC a few years ago.
He related that he was vacationing in Avon, NC, when he read a newspaper article about a “whale beaching.” He said he was always interested in how people respond to animals in peril, but most especially, about whale beaching. Then he posited, “We are much more apt to respond to a stray dog than a stray person.” He continued that the writer of the article quoted a park ranger who observed that once a whale comes ashore it is generally doomed, and talked about the Hatteras area being the graveyard for many marine mammals. Now very interested, he tracked down the park ranger and interviewed her for a couple of hours and that became the genesis of the play. “And from there it became a play about a father and his 15 going on 16 year old smartass son and their strained relationship when they come together for a week, and the spiritual, magical communion that this boy has with a whale.”
As he related, “In my story there is no beached whale, but there IS an injured whale swimming offshore and the threat of a beaching. The boy has medical problems and seizures that in some way magically link him to this whale that could be in imminent peril. The whale helps him come to terms with himself and his feelings about his father.”
Bob made very sure that I understood that this is not a sad play—“it’s a comedy, it’s hilarious and real because both of these people are dealing with loss, but no heavy drama. It’s a comedy about fathers and sons and this magical, spiritual whale that comes into their lives and affects and heals them in different ways.”
Going on, he added, “This is a big play with epic ideas and design challenges because part of the play is spent underwater and part on the beach. Plus the theatre has to render the whale in some manner and there’s even a whale song.” He acknowledged that he basically stalked 1st Stage Artistic Director, Alex Levy, to read his play after experiencing many other 1st Stage shows with their thoughtful design work, saying that he truly felt it would be the only theatre that could take on his play and fully realize its big ideas and big theme, so the stalking began. And it worked—not quickly, but it worked.
Bob summarized in closing, “’Swimming with Whales’ is a big, beautiful, magical comedy about healing. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what audiences want right now and I think they really want to laugh and to heal and so that’s really where my focus is these days as a writer. I love writing comedy, and while this play has some serious themes and issues in it (it’s a play about loss), it is a comedy.”
Here’s a good idea: this play runs over Father’s Day. Think about surprising your dad with a post-brunch powerful play! It will be a fun, but thought provoking afternoon.
Production Information: May 31-June 24, “Swimming with Whales” (World Premiere) by Bob Bartlett, Directed by Alex Levy. At 1st Stage, 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons , VA 22102, Box Office: 703-854-1856