Nfld. & Labrador

Whale researcher Jon Lien's life set to be dramatized this summer

The renowned scientist is the subject of a new play by Artistic Fraud, scheduled to tour the island this summer.

Show premieres in St. John's August 1

Artwork for Between Breaths, which begins touring the province Aug. 1. (Facebook)

The life of renowned whale researcher Jon Lien will be thrust into the spotlight this summer, as the subject of a new play set to tour the province called Between Breaths.

The scientist's work saving whales from fishing gear, along with multiple scientific endeavours, earned him the Order of Canada, the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador and accolades from the students and fishermen alike, before he passed away in 2010.

Jon Lien, seen during in 2008, worked for many years with fishermen on freeing whales that had become trapped in gear. (CBC)

That acclaim caught the eye of playwright Robert Chafe, who himself comes from a long line of fish harvesters.

"It's not very often you hear a university professor, in many ways an ecologist, being spoken about with such glowing reverence," Chafe told CBC Radio's Weekend AM, about his decision to dramatize Lien's life with his theatre company, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland.

Lien's legacy

Early on, Chafe approached Lien's widow and family to get their blessing on his creative pursuit.

"From the very beginning I felt nothing but support from them," he said, adding the family is still grieving Lien's death.

"There was always a sense that Jon had a legacy, and so they were really really encouraging and super supportive."

There was always a sense that Jon had a legacy.- Robert Chafe

From there, Chafe shaped the play that bounces back and forth through time to explore Lien's life, work, and the lengthy illness he fought in later years.

Some of the play involves tricky-to-stage aspects — such as actors who fly and a whale skeleton — but the theatre company's managing producer has found ways around that.

"We're doing a sort of stripped down version of this play this summer that can easily tour to rural communities, and we're really happy about that," said Pat Foran, adding the skeleton and more elaborate sets may appear in subsequent productions.

The play premieres in St. John's on Aug. 1, and continues with a full tour schedule covering eight other communities on the island.

Coming soon

But Between Breaths isn't the only ambitious piece of theatre in the works for Artistic Fraud.

Chafe is also in the midst of planning a dramatic version of Kathleen Winter's acclaimed novel Annabel, which traces the story of Wayne, born intersex in a remote coastal community in Labrador in the 1960s.

Soulpepper Theatre asked to be involved with the dramatizing of Kathleen Winter's acclaimed novel. (CBC)

"I had a really visceral emotional reaction when I read that book," said Chafe.

 "It's going to be a challenge, but that's exactly why we're going to be taking it on."

Artistic Fraud is getting some help in that challenge, in the form of one of Canada's premiere theatre companies, Soulpepper Theatre of Toronto.

Pat Foran said Soulpepper heard about Annabel and asked to be involved.

"What that will mean is that some of the development will happen with actors in their company," he said, adding work will be split between Toronto and St. John's.

Annabel is still in the planning stages, with Chafe saying the next year will be devoted to outlining the plot and scripting.

With files from Weekend AM