"It's a tough town, Hull, but we are mad and proud."
Richard Bean is one of the most important playwrights to emerge in Britain in this century. He's best-known for his farce One Man, Two Guvnors, which ran on Broadway last year. Here is the full interview with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback.
WALTER BILDERBACK: You had a somewhat unusual career path to playwriting, at least from an American standpoint. You started out as an occupational psychologist and then became a stand-up comic, if I recall. How did that develop?
RICHARD BEAN: Yes, I trained in Social Psychology at Uni, mainly an American discipline with the dominant psychologists being Milgram, Asch, Skinner. I ended up with a BSc and went into the occupational side.
WB: What led to the transition to playwriting?
RB: I'd been working in Personnel and Training departments in big factory situations for 15 years and all of that time I was corrupting myself with the literary education that I hadn't had at university. Specifically I started reading Henry Miller, Kerouac, Steinbeck, and Conrad - just for fun really, but it was Henry Miller who corrupted me just through serendipity. I was working as a Personnel Officer in a telecoms company and I, by chance, started reading Tropic of Capricorn, which is Miller's story of his life in New York and Brooklyn as a Personnel Office for a Telecoms company - and I was corrupted. I became self-conscious about my work, which destroyed my ability to do it, and so, bit by bit, I started writing, and my first step was stand-up comedy.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.