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A Q and A with David Catlin, Creator and Director of Moby Dick at Arena Stage

December 9, 2016 by Constance Fred
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The Chicago Sun-Times called Moby Dick “a triumph of grand theatrical imagination.” And now it’s here in D.C. David Catlin, one of the founders of Chicago’s award-winning and ever-daring Lookingglass Theatre Company, has brought his hit production to Arena Stage, playing now through December 24. We sat down with David to talk about his spectacular invention.


What first inspired you to adapt this story to the stage?

From a perspective of form, I love the impossibility of Moby Dick. I love that the act of theater—like the act of reading—can, through the power of the audience’s imagination allow us to render and experience the impossible. And that in a theater, that imaginative experience is communal.

From a perspective of content, I love the humanity, themes, and location of this story. I love the feelings of loneliness, the desire for connection and purpose. The desire for nobility.  The unexpected humor of it.  The question of Fate vs. Freewill.

photo credit Liz Lauren
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

How is a classic novel about whaling of all things still relevant to audiences today?

This novel was published in 1851 at a time when the country was deeply polarized and on the verge of ripping apart.

At the water’s edge of New Bedford, Ishmael meets Queequeg.
Queequeg, the ‘cannibal, savage.’ The ‘other’ from the other side of the world.
Tattooed and terrifying. Threatening in his physical, culture, and religious differences. And yet, in this ‘barbaric brute’ Ishmael finds another lonely soul. Another outcast. They find connection. They find profound friendship. I feel like we need to tear down the walls of ignorance and division, not build more of them.

photo credit Liz Lauren
photo credit Liz Lauren

How do you go about adapting a work of that caliber into a new medium? Was it daunting? How do you preserve the original spirit of the book and still make it your own?

Most daunting.

I submerge myself in the story and the characters. I have to consume it, inhale it deeply, and then exhale (or regurgitate!?) my version of it. I want it to be true to the original spirit, but not a mere transcription. It is not enough to cut and paste dialogue and plot.

I immerse myself in the biographical context of the author to understand what he/she might have been wrestling with. I devour history of the period to understand how the world at the time might have informed the author’s need to write.

And then I begin to envision why this story needs to be told now; why I, on a deeply personal level, need to tell it; and I begin to formulate how to tell it in a way that a live audience sitting in chairs might be wholly engaged by it.

photo credit Liz Lauren
photo credit Liz Lauren

What have you found is different about doing it in the nation’s capital as opposed to its origins in Chicago?

Our company arrived for our first rehearsal in Washington, D.C. shortly after the election and we discovered that many elements of the story resonated even more profoundly.  Being at the center of this transformational moment in our country’s history, the people of D.C. seem to feel the weight of it even more heavily. The feeling of a country polarized, fearful, and the looming sense of doom felt by both sides makes this story that much more immediate. The ability to see each other and celebrate what is truly important despite our obvious differences (and to celebrate and honor those obvious differences!) feels more important than ever.

photo credit Liz Lauren
photo credit Liz Lauren

In traditional Lookingglass style, I know there’s quite a bit of magic and circus training in all the special effects that get a ship, some whales, and a rather terrible storm onstage. What is your favorite bit of spectacle in the show and why?

I really love so much of it because the actors are so brilliant and live and play in all of these moments so fully, so truthfully—whether Ishmael’s cat-and-mouse nightmare of being toyed with and eaten by the ‘Cannibal-Savage’ Queequeg; or the near-drowning and rescue of Cabaco who leaves his soul at the bottom of the sea; or the hoisting up of a dead whale and the stripping away of her layers and layers of whale blubber to reveal the nearly-naked humanity of the woman who plays her; or frenetic thrashing and chaos of the initial encounter with Moby Dick.

photo credit Liz Lauren
photo credit Liz Lauren

What can an audience member expect to walk away with after seeing Moby Dick at Arena Stage?

I hope they will feel like they have been on an exciting, transformative, and communal journey.  I hope they will ask themselves questions like:

What will doom me if I let it?

Experience Moby Dick for yourself. Get tickets on TodayTix here.