What: Between Breaths
Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Tuesday, March 17, through Saturday, March 21
Tickets: $29 from belfry.bc.ca or the Belfry Theatre box office (250-385-6815)
Celebrated playwright Robert Chafe is known for work that’s unapologetically rooted in Newfoundland.
But as his latest play, Between Breaths, makes its way across Canada for several performances, including five dates next week at The Belfry Theatre’s SPARK Festival, the actor-writer is changing direction.
“Between Breaths was part of a number of plays that we did over a 10-year period that were unabashedly based in Newfoundland,” he said. “The next couple we have lined up have been moving away from that a little bit.”
If reaction to the play he’s currently writing at a rural Newfoundland cabin matches the acclaim generated by Between Breaths, the Governor General’s Award winner will continue to be seen as one of the most inventive theatre minds in the country.
He’s not overthinking his next step, or bowing to pressure. Chafe is happy to let inspiration come to him. “I’ve learned that sometimes, it’s conscious and sometimes, it’s very unconscious, an emotional reaction. Something that you don’t even figure out for yourself until you get into it and unpack the story.”
That’s exactly how he came to write about Jon Lien in Between Breaths, which is being produced by St. John’s-based theatre company Artistic Fraud, of which Chafe is also artistic director.
Although he went to school with one of Lien’s sons, Chafe said the idea of writing a play about the former Memorial University professor and animal-behaviour specialist, who died in 2010, had never crossed his mind. It wasn’t until he saw a play featuring monologues about Newfoundland, one of which featured the words of Lien, that he considered him ripe for deeper examination.
He began writing Between Breaths, which premièred in 2018, knowing little about his subject; Chafe wasn’t even aware Lien had died years earlier.
“He was kind of a local celebrity around here, and was someone who would show up on the news at least a couple of times a year. A lot of his advocacy work was quite public, so he was a well-known person. But I didn’t know anything about his illness or any important facets of the story that would come to be a big part of the play.”
Lien battled dementia in his later years, which Chafe and his longtime collaborator, director Jillian Keiley, use to great narrative effect in Between Breaths. With actor Steve O’Connell in a starring role, the play covers Lien’s life in reverse.
It’s a demanding role for O’Connell, who has very little in the way of stage props for help. Chafe wanted a bigger scope for Between Breaths, including a 10-metre whale skeleton with actors on flying harnesses.
“We ended up striking that entire idea, because it wasn’t necessary. What you see on stage now is three actors and three musicians with very simple staging, whether it’s in a boat in the North Atlantic or in someone’s kitchen.”
Juno Award nominees The Once were commissioned to write the score, which is performed in touring versions by musicians Steve Maloney, Brianna Gosse and Kevin Woolridge. The music provides an atmospheric framework, but the play largely rests on the shoulders of O’Connell, who excels in the very demanding role.
He makes Lien’s complicated life come alive during Between Breaths, according to Chafe. “Jon’s story, I thought was going to be about issues of sustainability and the environment, and certainly those are there through the show. But the play ends up grounding itself in Jon’s illness and death in a way I never expected it to. What the play is ultimately about is legacy and how we exit this world.
“I always tell people this play is my wish that when we exit this world, we exit — at least in our heads — as the best version of ourselves. The play is a manifestation of that.”