Author Profiles | Literary Arts | Theater

The beginning of the rest of the world: Shawn Fisher’s “The Shuck” at SLAC


It has been almost five years since playwright Shawn Fisher first ventured into Utah’s theater scene with his play Do Not Hit Golf Balls Into Mexico at the Salt Lake Acting Company. It began as two performances on a minimal set. “I admire [SLAC’s] commitment to developing new work and they have been very supportive of my plays,” he says in an email exchange. “I am grateful for that.”  Originally from New Jersey, Fisher now runs the MFA Program in Theatre Design at Utah State University, where he is an associate professor. At USU, Fisher founded and directs the Fusion Theatre Project, an ensemble of performers, writers, designers and directors who conceive and produce original plays about contemporary social themes. He frequently travels back East for projects in New York and New Jersey and to run the National Playwrights Symposium at Cape May Stage where he also serves as the company’s literary manager. The relationship with SLAC, arguably the state’s premier and longest-running incubator for new plays, has led to two other works by Fisher at the Marmalade Hill theater in the past few years, his most recent being Streetlight Woodpecker in 2016.

Now comes The Shuck in a free staged reading Monday, March 5, at SLAC’s New Play Sounding Series, which produces about four readings a year with support from the Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation. Most often in contemporary American theater plays are “written by, for, and about metropolitan or suburban people,” as the promotional material from SLAC states. “Stories about rural working-class Americans – farmers, fishermen, laborers – are not as often told. This play is intended to show the beauty and pain that exists in the lives of those who have few choices in life and who are intimately tied to the communities where they work and live.”

Fisher, who grew up on a farm in rural South Jersey, spent much of his early life working on and around boats and Shuck, set on an oyster boat in the Atlantic tells the story of hard-working oyster farmers. This is a realistic view of these families tied to the land and sea, but Fisher is also keen on showing the dignity of the work and the people who do it.

“My family has a history of sailors: WWII merchant mariners, naval submariners, and farmers who loved to mess about in boats. I liked the water more than the dirt of my family farm. So I learned to sail and became a sailboat captain and instructor for many years in the summers. A lot of that time was spent fixing them, cleaning them, and making them safe for others. I was the farm boy surrounded by fancy ‘yachties’ as we called them. But I loved the sea, although I always connected more with the workers like myself than I did those who paid me. In The Shuck, the character of Constance looks out to sea and refers to it as ‘the beginning of the rest of the world.’ That’s a little bit of my voice sneaking into her character.”

Fisher has been known to craft his plays, as he says, by “giving [the audience] just enough information for them to engage and make discoveries about the characters and the story. If we give too much information, then the audience ceases to be a part of the process. They become viewers rather than participants.” In reference to the art of a playwright he says, “Live theatre is special because of how deeply it pulls the audience into the process.” And that, “if you present characters honestly, it humanizes them for an audience.”

Fisher, who recently was selected as Creative Artist of the Year by USU’s Caine College of the Arts, recalls how some of his favorite plays such as Fences by August Wilson and ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman have influenced him tremendously. They are “[p]lays that deal with people of modest means, living unglamorous lives and trying to survive the strains and stresses of their everyday family-lives.” Adding to the concept of the “unglamorous,” Fisher mentions that he “grew up on a flower farm and started working there when I was 12. People would say, ‘Flowers? That sounds so beautiful’ as if it was this color-filled paradise. From our side it was about dirt and fertilizer and tractors. It was just work. I guess I understand the people who ‘get by’ in life better than those who ‘have it all.’”

In The Shuck, which refers to both the tough shell of an oyster as well as the skilled action of cleaving it to get to its succulent meat, Fisher projects that the play “is about people, including those we love or admire, and what happens when they are suddenly deemed worthless and contemptible; it is about abandonment and what it takes to let certain people and certain life-circumstances go; and it is about oysters.”

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(Excerpt from Scene 7 of THE SHUCK. It’s 1974 on The Baby Gail, an old run-down oyster boat sitting at a rickety dock. GAIL, who is 20 years old and pregnant, is talking with her estranged mother, the captain of the boat. Until yesterday, they had not seen each other for seven years.)

 

GAIL

I haven’t felt anything… here (hand on belly) in five days.

CONSTANCE

(pause) Sometimes those little sonsabitches don’t move much. Just along for the ride. You know?

GAIL

Last week it felt like I had a damn longshoreman haulin’ in cargo inside of me. (beat) And then nothing.

CONSTANCE

Sometimes they just don’t move much. (beat) You like flounder?

GAIL

Are you listening to me? I got nervous. I never had a kid before.

CONSTANCE

The kid’s alright.

GAIL

I got scared.

CONSTANCE

He’s alright. (beat) Stay for breakfast. I’m gonna fry some flounder. You like flounder? A lot of people think that because that fish is so ugly, that it don’t taste good.

GAIL

What’re we talking about fish for? It’s been five days, Ma!

CONSTANCE

But they’re wrong. Flounder is good fish. Even though it looks like trash fish from the outside.

GAIL

I never had a kid before, Ma! He stopped moving around, and I was like-

CONSTANCE

Did you say “he”?

GAIL

Yeah. I think it’s a boy. (pause, surprised by CONSTANCE’s interest) I’m going to name him Jack. After President Kennedy. He’s the first president I remember, when I was little. And I always thought he was so… dignified. I want my son to be dignified.

CONSTANCE

Jack is a good name. Strong name.

GAIL

But I don’t know what he’s supposed to feel like, Ma. Five days ago I woke up, next to some guy I didn’t really know… in a room I could barely remember. (beat) But when I opened my eyes, something felt different. And for a moment I thought, this is not the place for someone as dignified as my little boy. (beat) So I put my hands down here like this… (she does) to let Jack know, I was sorry. But… I felt empty. (pause) Do you remember when I was a little girl… I was a chubby little thing? I always had that belly that stuck out from under whatever I was wearing. That little yellow shirt with the bumble bee on it and the ruffles around the bottom. I loved it so much I wore it after I had grown too big for it. And my fat little belly would stick out. (beat) When I was lying there in that bed, with my hands on my belly… It just felt like that. Like the empty belly of a little girl. (pause) So I got out of bed, and I just… I needed somebody who could… tell me what it felt like. And so I just started to walk, and I kept going until I made it here, to the Baby Gail.

CONSTANCE

(pause) You’re alright. Your boy’s alright.

GAIL

But what does it feel like, Ma… to carry a child?

CONSTANCE

(pause) It hurts. (pause) Stay for breakfast.

 

“The Shuck,” by Shawn Fisher, at Salt Lake Acting Company’s New Play Sounding Series, March 5, 7 pm. free and open to the public.

 

 

Matt Morris lives in Salt Lake City with his dog as companion. Most of his days are spent studying the art of writing. When he is not writing he is usually using simple walks as bookends for his days. Matt is originally from England but has spent his life in the U.S. in both Utah and North Carolina. He is also a former student at the University of Utah.

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