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Voices from the rig

NQ editor recounts creation of play from Ocean Ranger tragedy

By Joan Sullivan

It was shortly after I started working at Newfoundland Quarterly that a young writer named Mike Heffernan sent in a submission, a chapter from a book he was writing.

It was titled Madhouse, and was about the Ocean Ranger. It was an interview with Dave Russell, a roustabout with ODECO, the American company who owned and operated the Ranger and leased it to Mobil.

Verbatim theatre

It was riveting, and I knew it would read well in NQ.

From left, Susan Dodd, author of The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, Mike Heffernan and Joan Sullivan. at the 2013 Atlantic Book Awards.
From left, Susan Dodd, author of The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, Mike Heffernan and Joan Sullivan at the 2013 Atlantic Book Awards.
Photo: Submitted

Mike had published some fiction before, but was now beginning to concentrate on oral history. He is a good interviewer and serious and meticulous with his background research.

At that time I was doing the M.Phil. program and was getting interested in a kind of theatre called documentary, or verbatim, theatre.

These were scripts based on interviews with real people, and were often presented with minimal props and sets and with actors playing multiple roles (two things I really like both as a playwright and as an audience member).

Madhouse, told in Dave’s own words, had colour, texture, authority.

“We’re not right — it doesn’t feel right. We’re listing too far to portside.”

“That Saturday before, at about six in the morning, I happened to look at the railing in relation to the horizon,” he said.

“It was obvious we had a list. Right away I went into the office. ‘There’s a problem on deck. We’re not right — it doesn’t feel right. We’re listing too far to portside.’”

Sold out run

When Mike’s Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster came out (Creative Publishing, 2009), I read it in pretty much one sitting. I knew it could be a play.

I called Mike and asked if I could experiment with turning it into a script, and he said sure. The first version, staged at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre in 2012, had a cast of 11, playing 28 characters.

It sold out but there was no talk of extending the run: 11 was just too big a cast, it wasn’t feasible.

A year or so later I was invited to contribute a reading to an Arts on Oceans event one evening at The Rocket in St. John’s.

rig_voices-from-the-ocean-ranger-disaster

Six actors and I met and cut the script into a shorter version (the play was never very long, running time about 55 minutes).

The night of the reading, we were the last of four presentations (also pivoting around artistic uses of historical research), and everything was running very late.

As we took the stage, I remember thinking, “Oh, this poor audience, they must be so tired by now, and now they have to sit and listen to us.”

“This story needs to be told again.”

But they were captivated by it. Some to the point of tears.

I was astonished; I thought, “This story needs to be told again.”

All 84 names of the men who lost their lives on the Ocean Ranger can be found on a memorial on the grounds of the Confederation Building in St. John's.
All 84 names of the men who lost their lives on the Ocean Ranger can be found on a memorial on the grounds of Confederation Building in St. John’s.

And then, the executive director of Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement, (and my boss, as it happens) Dr. Robert Greenwood, who was amongst those listening, came up to thank the cast and told us he’d worked on the Ranger, and missed the sinking by a day.

So we knew we had to rework and remount it.

Never again

This new version has six actors (and one new character), but what happened Feb. 14-15, 1982, is still the hub it all revolves around: the attitudes and environment and tragedy of the Ranger.

I am old enough to remember the storm. It was terrible. But that extreme weather was not the sole agent that sank the Ranger. It’s important to remember what happened.

And it’s vital it not happen again.

Rig: Voices From the Ocean Ranger, running at The Rooms for three nights only, Feb. 14-16, features Janet Edmonds, Aiden Flynn, Stephen Lush, Steve Oates, Wendi Smallwood and Marquita Walsh. Tickets are available by calling 709-757-8090 or at the door. Running time: under an hour.


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