ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – The famous “whale man of Newfoundland” is being remembered in a new play opening in St. John’s this week.
“Between Breaths” follows scientist Jon Lien’s life, moving backwards from the period shortly before his death in 2010 to his first whale rescue in 1978.
Over the course of his career, Lien freed hundreds of whales from fishing nets along the coast of Newfoundland, and was respected by environmentalists and fishermen alike for his work.
Award-winning playwright Robert Chafe said Lien’s mutually trusting relationship with the fishing community stood out to him during his interviews with those who knew him.
“He was a scientist and a conservationist, those people are usually the antagonists to people who work in industries like the fishery,” Chafe said in an interview
“But everyone I knew in the fishery who talked about Jon, when his name would come up, just spoke about him with such respect and reverence. And I thought, that’s just so beautiful that he did the work that he did, but also fostered this great respect from these people.”
In the late 1970s, more whales were getting trapped in Newfoundland fishermen’s nets, as the animals swam closer to the shore looking for food.
Lien quickly caught the attention of inshore fishermen for the care he took to preserve the nets as well as free the whales. He would spend hours on the water during his rescues, studying the nets to make sure they weren’t destroyed in the process.
Lien was awarded the Order of Canada in 2008 for his commitment to preserving the marine environment, before he died from heart complications in 2010.
Chafe began research on the script by interviewing Lien’s family, friends and colleagues, starting in 2012.
He said he’s been appreciative of the support from Lien’s family during the difficult process of remembering stories about him so shortly after his death.
“I saw a lot of grieving,” Chafe recalled of the early developmental stages.
Lien was injured in a vehicle accident the early 2000s. His health deteriorated afterwards, and he eventually had to use a wheelchair.
Chafe said he felt a desire from people to remember Lien in his younger days, doing the work he loved. That motivated the decision to tell the story backwards, as Lien uses his memories to move freely as his physical mobility declined.
“The metaphor of the whale being trapped in the net, is really Jon,” said Chafe.
The title comes from a lesson of Lien’s: when the whales became trapped, the animals would often try to dive deeper and swim away while between breaths.
“Really, the idea for the title is that’s exactly what’s happening in the show — between breaths, Jon is going diving deeper into his past.”
The feat of bringing the sea to the stage will be achieved with just a few props and creative lighting. The show is directed by Chafe’s long-time collaborator Jillian Keiley, and Steve O’Connell will play Lien.
Sound also plays a big role in setting the scene, and the show features an original score by St. John’s trio The Once.
“Between Breaths” premieres this weekend in St. John’s, but Chafe and his theatre company Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland hope to bring the show beyond Atlantic Canada after its initial run.
The show has been in development for more than five years, and Chafe is hopeful that audiences will leave the theatre with an appreciation of the Lien who was — a friend to whales and fishermen alike.
“If people walk out with a sense of who this man was, and a kind of admiration for not only the priorities of his life, but how he lived and how he executed that, that would make me very, very happy.”