The Valdez Conference Center, where the Valdez Theatre Conference takes place, sits on a bluff overlooking the placid, bright blue waters of Prince William Sound. The walk down to the harbor is a short and invigorating one, a fine thing to grab should you be attending the conference – as I was doing this past week – and happen to find yourself with an hour to spare amongst all of your other commitments. I happened to have such an hour on Tuesday, just before our lunch break, and then the afternoon reading of my play Before Vinson. Seeking for a picaresque way to assuage my playwright anxieties, I stole away and headed down to the water.
A cruise ship had come into harbor earlier that day, and a number of its passengers were sitting at the pier, fishing and sightseeing. I said hello and made some small talk – it’s a friendly part of the world – as they stared out at the still waters. Or at least, the waters appeared to be still, even though my new acquaintances were intensely scanning every ripple and shadow. Curiously, I asked what they were looking at, or at least looking for.
Humpback, they said.
It seemed that they had spotted humpback whales earlier in their journey through the sound, along with orca pods, and were alert to whale activity in the area. And they were spotting tiny little disturbances in the water, which to their practiced eyes denoted fins breaking the surface and other activity. I spent minutes myself, trying to scan the waters of the sound, until I was forced to admit that the signs and signals my new companions could read so effortlessly meant nothing to me. I took my leave, and headed further down the dock. I ran into another of the playwrights – his work would be going up in the same afternoon time slot as mine, in another part of the conference center, and he’d had the exact same thought as to assuaging anxieties – and pointed out at the water, telling him what I’d been told.
And at precisely that moment, a great whalespout erupted, at least twenty feet into the air.
The animal never breached, so we never saw the humpback itself, but we got to see a total of three spouts come up, to mark the spot where it had come up to breathe.
And with that, we both headed back to the conference center, had our lunches, and then went into our respective rooms, to hear our words read and dissected, to process feedback, to field questions both fair and unfair, to have all our anxieties about our work laid bare, and then convert all of that into helpful pointers for the next draft.
Because much like whales coming up for air, most the work we do as playwrights lays far below the surface, and only those who think to look will ever be likely to see it.