General 4-2-2007

Drowning in a Beast of a Book: “Or the White Whale”

Jaime Kleiman spoke to Jon Ferguson, director of "Or the White Whale" for MnArtsWeekly, on what it was like to develop this show.

or the white
or the white

Jaime Kleiman: How did you come up with a play based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick?

Jon Ferguson: When I was a student in England at Middlesex University studying to be an actor, one of the final things we did in our course was an intensive clown workshop and [John Wright, my mentor] encouraged us to come up with ideas for a show. A friend of mine thought it would be hilarious to do a three-person version of Moby Dick. We ended up doing a 14-person production, which I co-directed and produced. I played Ishmael. There were men and women [in the cast], and the women played all the elements—the weather, sea, ocean, fish, birds, people at home, and they sang as well. It was quite beautiful. It was selected to be one of ten shows to go the National Student Drama Festival in England. We played three shows there and won a Sunday Times ensemble award.

So is the production a remount?
No. I’ve always wanted to direct it again, make it again. When I came to America, I saw so many good American actors. The [novel] is an American piece and I thought it’d be great to make in Minneapolis and do it at the Southern. It’d be beautiful.

…I approached John Heimbuch and asked if he wanted to be the writer in the room and take on the job of being a collaborator and he said, which I thought was very revealing, “I’ll read the book and I’ll let you know.” We got together a month later, and he said that halfway through reading the book that it really inspired him. He was waiting for that to happen. So he wrote the piece with us. Moby Dick is such a powerful, epic myth.

What interests you so much about the book that you wanted to revisit it?
I found it to be very challenging to read, a real beast of a book. But I love the story. I love the ocean and…the darkness it can draw. I personally love the sea and living in Minneapolis, I feel like I’m in a drought. Twice a week [since I moved here], I have this dream: I’m going to go surfing with my friends but we never make it to the ocean.

I also drowned when I was a little baby and I was resuscitated. My mom dozed off and I walked straight into the sea. There was a nurse on the beach and she pulled me out.

Why are there no women in the cast this time around?
I couldn’t afford to have 14 or 16 actors, so it [had] to be a smaller cast. I figured I needed to have only the essential characters and there were about ten of them. I felt like it would be weird to have one or two girls in it. It’s impressive to be in the room with ten men, especially when they’re all singing, but it does sometimes feel like there’s something missing. I don’t really want to get into what isn’t there. I don’t think about what it’s like to work with all men. What I think about most is, “Jesus Christ, we’ve got a lot of scenes to make.” We had a six-week rehearsal process.

But it can get pretty nasty, a sense of men acting like vulgar animals. I want this show to have a dangerous, raw feel because [there is] a male mob mentality, men together in a gang and what they drive each other to do collectively.

There are some parts that we’ve been creating in rehearsal, and you look at it and say, “Damn, that’s over the top.” But the book is huge, epic. We’re doing all these traditional work sea songs and Tyson [Forbes, who’s featured in the Guthrie’s upcoming musical 1776,] calls them out. His voice is amazing.

You’re known for creating collaborative work, often working without a script. Tell me about your process on this show.
The process is different because I’m ten years older and I know more about tragedy and life and I have grown a lot more. For example, [a friend of mine died recently]. I look at things in a very different way now. I’ve experienced more and I’m able to contemplate more the darker elements in the book. I’m also able to understand Ishmael’s opening speech. He’s basically saying, “Whenever I feel like it’s time to commit suicide, I go on a ship.” I like that these guys are all vagabonds, that their lives weren’t working out on land. I say to the cast, “They are all going to fucking die in the end!”

Having a writer in the room is awesome and something I’ve been wanting to do for a while…. I’ve been looking forward to having a story and having a writer adapt things so we have something to work from. I was tired of being in a room and thinking, “Okay, what happens next?” Like with The Sad and Lonesome Story of Whats His Name—a play I did recently [with Steve Barberio] about a Vietnam vet—it was a very complicated subject. If I were to redo that piece, I would like a writer to work on that with me for weeks, as well as a dramaturg.

You have a dramaturg for this production. You also have designers for the first time because Civic Stage is producing. How’s that working out?
Our dramaturg, Mark Rosenwinkel, who wrote Wellstone! for the History Theatre, comes in once a week to talk about what might be missing and themes and things he thinks are important. He’d done a three-person version of Moby Dick for kids and it’s one of his favorite books. He came in knowing it really well.

All of the actors are getting a stipend. I have a budget for costumes, props, marketing, a writer, a music director, and a stage manager. The Southern’s done a lot of great marketing already. It’s not a big budget, but there is one. I have tech support from the Southern. Jeff Bartlett is the lighting designer; Erica Zaffarano is the set designer; Keegan Wenkman did the poster design. We’re doing the costumes collectively. This show will be much more developed than my independent stuff, but I do want to have the same feeling of immediacy as my other work—when it works, that is.

As for the set, there are a lot of ropes and pulleys and trying to figure out how you throw a harpoon into a whale onstage and how the boat gets tipped over…. There will be [many] buckets. If they’ve been out hunting whales and they come back to the main ship, someone pours water over their head so they come in soaking wet. I don’t want anything to look theatrical.

Or the White Whale runs April 12-15 and 19-22 at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-340-1725.