The Odyssey of a Story
by Robert Lovinger
Marshfield's Jay O'Callahan has some lucky neighbors. It was they he chose as test audiences last year for a storytelling work-in-progress called "Tell Them" [Now called "The Spirit of the Great Auk"].
Today, the piece is earning stellar reviews in places as far flung as New Zealand and Gloucester.
Thursday night, Mr. O'Callahan brings it to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
In ["The Spirit of the Great Auk"], Mr. O'Callahan becomes Richard Wheeler and tells the amazing tale of Mr. Wheeler's 1,500-mile kayak voyage from Newfoundland to Buzzards Bay in 1991.
Mr. Wheeler, a Wareham resident, made the grueling journey to trace the migratory pattern of the auk, a seabird hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
But along the way, he learned a great deal about himself and about the damage humans were doing to the sea and its disappearing fishery. As he made his way down the coast, fishermen and villagers pleaded with him to pass along the story of their growing plight.
"The fishermen led me further than I expected. They had this intuitive sense that what they were doing was wrong and had been for a long time," Mr. Wheeler says.
A retired director of the USS Constitution Museum, Mr. Wheeler spends a lot of time these days speaking to schoolkids and civic groups. He's also helping prepare a middle-school curriculum guide about what he learned on his trip, and an art awareness program on the life of the auk.
Even before he set out on his journey, Mr. Wheeler knew he would return "with something people needed to hear. ...I knew in my heart and my head that our relationship with the ocean is tragically flawed. That's what I started with."
But he felt he wouldn't be the best person to relate the tale. "If I got up and told the story, it would be too self-serving."
So, he contacted Mr. O'Callahan, a nationally known storyteller. They had been hooked up through a mutual friend and then he chanced to hear Mr. O'Callahan on his car radio.
"I heard him performing a piece called 'The Herring Shed'. I was in my car and it made me cry," Mr. Wheeler recalls.
Mr. O'Callahan remembers Mr. Wheeler calling and saying, " 'I think you might be interested in what I'm about to do.' ...He talked of his dream about this long paddle. His idea was: Maybe artists can reach people's hearts."
When Mr. Wheeler's four-month "paddle" ended in Bourne on November 16, 1991, Mr. O'Callahan was there to welcome him home.
"His face was filled with wildness." Mr. O'Callahan recalls.
"The trip has changed me," Mrs. Wheeler says. "Things that used to upset me, don't anymore. I used to have high blood pressure; not anymore."
He insists he didn't set out on "a macho, man-against-the-sea thing. I went very cautiously and with humility."
He laid low for a while, then helped produce a documentary on his trip for the PBS show "Nova". Finally, in 1994, he and Mr. O'Callahan began work on a performance piece the two hoped would move people.
The work lasted almost three years. "We spent a lot of time recording his thoughts. I was trying to get a sense of his journey, of the sea and of the people he met," Mr. O'Callahan says. "Then I had to make the story mine."
Mr. O'Callahan and his wife, Linda, traveled to Newfoundland to get a firsthand feel for the stormy and economically troubled place where Mr. Wheeler's trip began.
["The Spirit of the Great Auk"], which Mr. O'Callahan began performing early this year, is still changing.
"It keeps growing in spareness," he says. "I'm trying to get it very spare, very lean."
Most difficult, he says, is walking the line between art and sermonizing.
"It's very tricky: telling the story of this adventure and not preaching," Mr. O'Callahan says, pointing out how the pleas of the fishermen and townspeople Mr. Wheeler met along the way are central.
"As an artist, this was very hard," Mr. O'Callahan says, wryly chuckling with the memory of the work's gestation period and birth.
To bring audiences into the story, he quickly has them feel the physical anguish of Mr. Wheeler's accomplishment.
"He said the paddling was like running two marathons every day for four months," Mr. O'Callahan relates.
"The audience can get tired, because they paddle a lot: 1,500 miles in an hour," he says. And conditions for Mr. Wheeler were often harsh. "Most of us don't go on adventures like this that test us. Something wild comes out."
What came out of Mr. O'Callahan, he says, "is a deep frustration at the confined existence most of us have; a busyness that keeps us from the joy and ease of life. That really gets to me."
In coming weeks and months, the Brookline native will take ["The Spirit of the Great Auk"] to the Hudson River Festival and the National Storytelling Festival.
Meanwhile, he'll be performing other, shorter stories, and writing new ones.
Mr. Wheeler, who expects to attend the Whaling Museum performance, loves what Mr. O'Callahan has done with his odyssey and believes it has moved people to awareness, including some "from the other side" (the fishing industry).
"That gives me hope, occasionally, but overall I'm depressed about the future of the fishery. People don't understand that these small boats tied up in New Bedford and Gloucester can scrape the bottom of the ocean of fish. People can't grasp how small the area is in which fish are caught," Mr. Wheeler says.
Mr. O'Callahan hopes people leave the Whaling Museum admiring Mr. Wheeler's accomplishment and pondering their own capacity for adventure - even if it's time spent looking at a flower.
He also wants them to come away "thinking about our relationship with the Earth and of the sea being such a force in our lives."
The Whaling Museum is a good place to perform "Tell Them," Mr. O'Callahan says, "because the fish are disappearing in New Bedford. There's an awareness of the sea and that we have to pay attention or else things will happen."
"We've never had the technology we have now, to fish millions of fish in a week."
It's his job, Mr. O'Callahan says, "to have you feel some of the things Dick Wheeler felt - because they were so powerful - and then just let it be."
June 15, 1997
Reprinted from the Sunday Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA, by permission.