Charlottetown Festival returns with Newfoundland play celebrating 'the whale man'

The Charlottetown Festival returns this June with a play celebrating the life of a Newfoundland and Labrador scientist who became known as 'the whale man.' 

Artistic director calls play 'beautiful piece' that resonates with Atlantic Canadians

Darryl Hopkins and Steve O’Connell perform a scene from Between Breaths, being presented next month at the Confederation Centre by the troupe Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland. (Riche Perez)

The Charlottetown Festival returns this June with a play celebrating the life of a Newfoundland and Labrador scientist who became known as "the whale man." 

The theatre group Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland will showcase Between Breaths at the Confederation Centre from June 3 to 19, under director Jillian Keiley. 

The cast and crew are having to fly to P.E.I. by chartered plane in order to start the required two weeks of isolation before opening night in Charlottetown. 

Adam Brazier, the artistic director of the Confederation Centre, said it was challenging to bring the play to Prince Edward Island given the current level of COVID-19 restrictions and the need for two weeks of isolation because the Atlantic bubble has not yet reopened.

"One of the biggest pivots we had to make was how do we bring this incredible show from Newfoundland here, now that the bubble has closed down," Brazier told host Matt Rainnie of CBC's Mainstreet

"Whether that bubble opens or not, we are going to have what I believe is one of the most valued and important theatre companies, in Artistic Fraud, coming to P.E.I. to put on this brilliant piece."

Rescuer of humpback whales

Between Breaths is about the life of wildlife conservationist Jon Lien, popularly known in Canada's easternmost province as "the whale man." 

Lien spent most of his career saving humpback whales that had become trapped in fishing nets. He died of dementia 11 years ago.

The playwright of Between Breaths, Robert Chafe, said his admiration for Lien's work inspired him to create the play. 

"I had known about his story for many years. Then our company had developed a bit of a reputation over the last 20 years, and needed a playwright for doing biography plays," Chafe said.

"This one kind of presented itself to me, and, when it did, I didn't even know Jon [had] passed away."

The play starts late in Lien's life and gradually moves backwards to the first of his approximately 500 whale interventions.

Chafe said he is grateful for what his crew did with the script and the welcome it is getting from Confederation Centre staff, saying: "They're really dedicated to the story and the play." 

Links to fisheries, nature

Brazier believes the play will be well-received by Prince Edward Islanders.

"Between Breaths is a beautiful piece that really, I believe, resonates to an Atlantic Canadian audience in powerful ways," he said. 

"It resonates to any community that is close to fisheries and has a passion for preserving nature."

It's an honour to have the Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland at the Charlottetown Festival, Brazier said.

"I am a big fan of Artistic Fraud and the exceptional work they have been doing for decades. The kind of creativity that comes out of that company is enviable."

The kind of creativity that comes out of that company is enviable.- Adam Brazier

"It's a real thrill to be having them as part of this season." 

Brazier said he was prepared to face any challenges that might have stopped the production of the play in P.E.I.

"We knew that the possibility of not having a bubble was there. We knew that we would be conservative in the types of productions that we would be able to put on stage."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from CBC's Mainstreet


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