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Blasphemous Saints and Splendid Drunken Heroes: The World of Under the Whaleback

Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 3:16pm

by Walter Bilderback

Under the Whaleback takes place in a now-lost world: the sidewinder trawlers that sailed out of Hull and nearby ports between the 1880s and 1980s, providing generations of Britons with cod and haddock for their beloved fish and chips. The industry created a class of blue-collar aristocrats along Hessle Road - "blasphemous saints and splendid drunken heroes," as a Hull song put it. Then, the industry disappeared - a victim both of its own success and international competition.

The first sidewinder was launched in Hull in 1881. Powered first by steam and then diesel engines, these ships could pull much larger nets, increasing their hauls. They were called "sidewinders" because they hauled their nets off the starboard side of the ship. The fish were gutted on the open fishdeck, often in sub-freezing weather and Force 8 winds (60-65 mph). In order to provide some protection for the fishdeck,  the trawlers developed "whalebacks" - raised bows. Sometimes, as in this play, the crews' quarters were located under the whaleback.

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From actor Pearce Bunting: On sucking the air out of the room…

Posted Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 5:03pm

Week 3, business as usual - I’m hiding away, gargling with warm salt water, waking up in a cold sweat, drinking more water, hearing ship’s horns in the night, reading James Joyce and comic books and westerns, memorizing lines, wearing a groove into the sidewalk between my apartment and the theatre, eating raisins, and farting a lot.

And now we get to play on our boat.

We have a gangway, a top-side, a companionway, a drying room, and living quarters. We have bunks and benches and a table with a pole. 

And we have a list-to port.

(2 weeks into rehearsal and we’ve already gorra fuckin’ list!)

We climb around and investigate. The first thing we do is start sending sound from our bodies into the wood and into the tile floor and the metal and, of course, into each other. We feel it escape from the sides, up the companionway, into the rafters, and we try to direct it from every bit of our bodies into the seats. We say our dialect-soaked lines, drowning in the vowels and paddling for the consonants. We improvise conversations with each other while we move in the space, talking to each other with our backs, our hips, our bellies, our heads, but never with our eyes. We get frustrated. We say what we’re feeling. Then we go home. So ends us and the boat - first contact.

Earle Gister, my 1st year acting teacher at drama school, once told our class (I’m quoting loosely here), “Actors don’t realize that when they walk out on stage they’ve already done 90% of the work - they’re living, breathing, human beings - we believe that - they don’t have to prove it. The last 10 %?( his top hand sliding over his bottom hand in a plane-taking-off gesture)… cowboys and Indians."

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Hull and Distant Water Fishing, Part Three: Postwar Boom

Posted Monday, February 25, 2013 - 2:25pm

Before you set foot onto the deck of the Kingston Jet, the James Joyce, and the Arctic Kestrel Museum in our North American Premiere of Under the Whaleback, check out this five-part series by Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the rich history, maritime culture, and world-wide impact of Cod Fishing.


Postwar Boom

Once again, world war gave the cod stocks a chance to replenish. Fishing boomed after the war. But the seeds of distant water's demise had been planted. The only nation fishing commercially between 1939 and 1945 was Iceland, which now had its own fleet of modern trawlers, and was entering the 20th century through a combination of the fishing trade and the result of four years exposure to American culture through the base at Reykjavik. As happened elsewhere following the war, the assumption that the Britannia ruled the waves began to be challenged.

It took years for this to become clear, however. In the meantime there was plenty of fish for everyone it seemed, and the shipowners of Hull responded to the competition with innovation, building new ships powered by oil or diesel that were faster and more maneuverable. There were between 500 and 700 ships in the British fishing fleet, including about 200 over 140 feet in length built specifically for deep water fishing, two-thirds of them in Hull. 20,000 people worked directly in the fishing industry in Hull and Grimsby in the 50s, out of a combined population less than a quarter-million. One-third of the fishermen were sons of fishermen. Most came from fishing families and nearly all had at least grown up in the community.

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From actor Pearce Bunting: I shout but nowt is comin’ out

Posted Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 5:42pm

I shout but nowt is comin’ out

I love to explode. It’s easy for me. It’s in my wheelhouse. I can’t resist it. BOOM! Show it! Prove it! Demonstrate it! ANNIHILATE IT!  Anger, rage, frustration - all the vexed vomitings of a little kid (who’s still alive and well inside me- thank you very much!), the man-child, screaming, “I DIDN’T SAY THIS 45 YEARS AGO BUT I’M SAYING IT NOW, MOTHERFUCKERS!”

Ain’t I dangerous? Ooooooo!

Alright, we’ve all got our baggage, our sore spots, our go tos. And I don’t walk down the street screaming at the world, but when I’m on stage it comes really easy.

We just finished our 2nd week of rehearsals and spent a large chunk of it exploring our voices with Jean-René Toussaint. Jean-René is a theatre artist and therapist who has worked with deaf children for many years, exploring with them the sounds they make – sounds that the modern world often thinks of as inappropriate and even offensive – “Can you please quiet your child down?”, “He’s making me feel uncomfortable!”, “Did you hear that kid???”– Why do we respond that way? Is it because it doesn’t make sense to us? Is it too intimate? Too inhuman?  Jean-René believes that these sounds are more “human” and expressive in their unblocked, vertical journey from deep in the body than most of the sounds we make horizontally with our talking heads as we shuffle through our practical lives. And in letting our bodies and voices truly express our humanity, all the many things we feel, sometimes all at once, we also become better listeners, to ourselves and everyone and everything around us. I’ve heard him call it “spontaneous humanity”  and to hear it, to witness it in our cast as we work, is something so rich, so unpredictable, so dangerously beautiful, we realize how little of ourselves we’ve been using in our work.

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Hull and Distant Water Fishing, Part Two: A Trawlerman’s Life

Posted Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 1:36pm

Before you set foot onto the deck of the Kingston Jet, the James Joyce, and the Arctic Kestrel Museum in our North American Premiere of Under the Whaleback, check out this five-part series by Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the rich history, maritime culture, and world-wide impact of Cod Fishing.

 A Trawlerman’s Life

As a result of this fishing boom, Hull and Grimsby prospered. They built the ships, their fishermen - skippers, mates, and deckies - sailed the ships and caught the fish, bobbers or lumpers (depending on the town) unloaded the fish for merchants who sold the fish to points south.

Communities centered on the fish trade grew up "down dock.” In Hull, this was Hessle Road, near St. Andrews Dock; in Grimsby, Freeman Street. In the oral history Fishermen: The Rise and Fall of Deep Water Trawling, Ken Robinson of Hull describes Hessle Road:

Hessle Road was marvelous. Nobody had anything but it was a wonderful place to live. There was nowhere else in the world like it. They were all fishing families, from one end of Hessle Road to the other. Maybe two and a half mile, from Osborne Street to Dee Street, it was almost completely fishing families, fishing or connected with fishing. There were that many pubs you could have a drink in each one and by the time you got to the other end you'd be blind drunk. The pubs were always crowded. There was either a pub or a club [private social clubs requiring membership and with longer hours than pubs] for nearly every street.

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