Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: The play, #WhaleFail, recently premiered at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. For our readers who may be unfamiliar with the show, how would you describe its premise?
Brett Epstein: #WhaleFail follows the sister of a whale trainer who was killed at a SeaWorld-type marine park called Ocean Planet. We track how this ordinary woman reacts in the face of an extraordinary, wild, inexplicable situation. Along the way, we meet the Director of Operations of Ocean Planet, a documentary filmmaker, and even Ivy, the "poster girl of Ocean Planet" herself. #WhaleFail asks “How do you move forward when you don’t have all—or even half—of the answers you want or need?” and “What makes somebody a hero?” The play is inspired by the Dawn Brancheau tragedy, but not based on it. I used that captivating story (which then inspired the brilliant documentary, Blackfish) as a backdrop for a play about a woman dealing with a major, major loss.
BD: What inspired you to develop this show in the wake of the 2010 SeaWorld tragedy that claimed the life of trainer Dawn Brancheau?
BE: As a playwright, I am constantly on the hunt for world events that fascinate or inspire me. Yes, I can and I have written autobiographical plays. That is one valid and useful avenue. But it’s a whole other type of thrill to contribute my voice-- via playwriting-- to real-life, important issues. I cannot tell you exactly why I was so taken by the 2010 tragedy at SeaWorld, but I was blown away. I would spend hours researching, learning all sides of the event. The story was nuanced, intricate, and layered. And in my eyes, the story was ripe for live theatre. This was SeaWorld’s poster girl. So, why did the whale kill her? What made the whale snap? Who is to blame? And on an even more personal note... What if I had a family member who died being eaten by a whale in captivity? How do you move forward? What do you say to the organization at fault? What do you do to cause change? That was my way in. My play begins after the death of the whale trainer. My play is about picking up the pieces and finding closure. In just one hour, #WhaleFail shows the sad, funny, messy, lovely, painful side of grief.
BD: What can you tell us about the creators who brought #WhaleFail to life, and how would you describe the creative process by the group?
BE: In New York City, #WhaleFail received a workshop funded by the Dramatists Guild Fund. I was able to hear passages aloud for several weeks and make adjustments accordingly. It culminated in a sold-out reading and Q&A at BAM. The play then received another reading and Q&A at Bristol Valley Theatre as part of the New Works Initiative.
In LA, I shared the script with frequent collaborator Sherry Berg, who read it and said, “We have to do this play. I need to be Bridget [the central character].” It was a done deal and a perfect match. Sherry envelops the curious, strong, hilarious, yet heartbreaking, nature that the role requires, and I’m so lucky to have her aboard. From there, we found our director and our other three stars and we begun table reads in April. The table reads were vital to answer the actors’ questions and discuss the very relevant hot topic of whales in captivity. Everyone brought himself or herself to this process, and that’s what made it special. We all asked, "what if my family member died that way?," "What if I thought my calling in life was to train whales at SeaWorld?," "What if I RAN SeaWorld?," "What would I do after the tragedy?," etc. The table work allowed for tremendously useful conversation before we dove into staging and acting.
BD: What do you hope that audiences will take away from the show?
BE: I am going to quote what one audience member wrote on our #HFF16 page after seeing the show, because it sums up what I hope everyone will take away from #WhaleFail. “The play flips the death of a whale trainer into a darkly humorous and poignantly touching exploration of the human condition, specifically dealing with loss and guilt. This play will leave you laughing, feeling, and thinking as you leave the theater.”
If you leave the theater laughing, feeling, or thinking (or all three at once!)… then I’ve done my job. I also hope people take away that in loss and in grief, you are never alone. That was vital to show in the telling of this sensitive story.
BD: What makes the Hollywood Fringe Festival the best venue for #WhaleFail?
BE: Hollywood Fringe is full of bold, vibrant shows that sometimes push boundaries in terms of genre, tone, and content. I thought Hollywood Fringe would be a perfect fit for this dark, dark, dark, dark, deep comedy.
BD: The show will be appearing at the Hollywood Fringe Festival through June 25, 2016. Are there any future plans to perform the show at other venues?
BE: We are going to finish out this run, which has been lovely so far, and then discuss what is the best next step for the play. Right now, we are thinking of a remount in the fall. In LA again!
BD: Are there any upcoming projects that you would care to share with our readers?
BE: I am the star, writer, and producer of another darkly comic, human piece called (Not) Brothers. We have completed season one, which was just announced as an Official Selection in the Miami Web Fest and LA Comedy Fest. Season 2 is upcoming! For more Brett goings-on, check out www.itsBrett.net.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell readers who want to learn more about and purchase tickets for #WhaleFail?
BE:#WhaleFail is playing at the Lounge Theatre (6201 Santa Monica Blvd).
Upcoming performances of #WhaleFail are:
~Friday, June 17th at 8pm.
~Saturday, June 18th at 10pm.
~Wednesday, June 22nd at 6pm.
~Saturday, June 25th at 2pm.
Info and tickets are here.
Tickets are $12; however, if you are reading this carefully, use the code “believe” for $10 tickets to any show (limited availability).
*Photos by Nick Clifford.