Dustin Chinn on interspecies conflict, charismatic megafauna, and HERSCHEL

Dustin Chinn (Photo by Elle Abarca)

Dustin Chinn (Photo by Elle Abarca)

On Thursday, February 23, this year’s EST/Sloan First Light Festival will feature the first reading of HERSCHEL by Dustin Chinn. Hearing the title you might wonder whether this will be about the nineteenth-century British astronomer Frederick William Herschel or his sister, fellow astronomer and comet-discoverer Caroline. But you’d be way off. Dustin Chinn’s play concerns heavier, darker matter. His Herschel weighs more than 900 pounds and gained notoriety by terrorizing the denizens of Puget Sound, specifically the vulnerable steelhead trout that stop to rest at the bottom of the fish ladder at Ballard Locks, Washington before beginning their strenuous swim upstream to the freshwater lakes above to spawn. Dustin knows the story better. Let’s hear him tell it.

What sparked the idea for HERSCHEL?

I grew up in Seattle during the 1980s, when the story about a rascally California sea lion was a repeated fixture on the local news. In my dim memory, Herschel was always an adorable “lone wolf” who delighted the locals, more a cute diversion than a menace. Later, my high school marine biology teacher portrayed him as a freeloading beta-male. The sea lion migration reminded me of the grumblings about human Californians moving to the Northwest in the 1990s, a trend that’s accelerated exponentially of late thanks to Amazon, Microsoft et al. You can say invasive species have been in my subconscious for quite some time.  Anyhow, I’d never written a play about my hometown, and it seemed like as good a science-related topic for a Sloan commission as any.

California Sea Lion (Photo: Yinan Chen; used with permission)

California Sea Lion (Photo: Yinan Chen; used with permission)

There’s a fundamental tension in the play: sea lions are inherently adorable. Steelhead trout not so much. Yet the sea lions are devouring so many of the trout at the fish ladder that the species has become endangered – and the sea lion population is booming. It’s only through their declining population numbers that we have any sympathy for the trout. Isn’t this also a problem for biologists in the wild?

One of my favorite biology terms is “charismatic megafauna,” a label applied to animals who’ve become the standard bearers for environmental awareness (e.g., pandas, elephants and tigers). I see it as a “problem” like a pole vaulter on a scholarship might view the football team. Admitting that football props up the entire athletic department doesn’t distract the NCAA pole vaulters from pole vaulting.

That said, big props to biologists who dedicate their studies to animals like leeches and dung beetles.     

Sea lions appear on stage at numerous instances in the play. How do you envision that happening?

Bunraku Company Minosuke-kai perform an excerpt from “Fox in the Inner Garden” in 2013.

Bunraku Company Minosuke-kai perform an excerpt from “Fox in the Inner Garden” in 2013.

Puppets. A variety of puppets. Perhaps Bunraku-style. As long as they convey realistic animal movement. I don’t want a smidge of anthropomorphism when it comes to the sea lion or fish. If this ever gets produced and the sea lion even so much as winks at the audience, I will haunt the production team from the grave.  

HERSCHEL has a lively mix of characters: earnest grad students (one local, one not), a jaded bureaucrat; a grizzled iconoclastic Fed; a salty, local fisherman; and even a few lawyers and a DJ. Is it your thesis that this is the perfect combination guaranteed to not solve a problem? Or simply the right mix to be entertaining?

I’m trying to cast the widest manageable net of human characters because the history involves so many parties. You have both local and national wildlife agencies, Seattle fishermen and Native American fishermen all clamoring over legal rights. Plus, I want to capture a sense of what it was like to live in Seattle after the Boeing crisis in the 1980s but before grunge became a thing. It had this quasi small-town Second City complex while the rest of the country thought we were a regional backwater. 

It never ceases to amaze me how proficient humans are at creating intricate problems without singular solutions, and how substantially they can affect ecosystems. The fish ladder at the Ballard Locks exists because of the terraforming that went in hand with the construction of Hood Canal. 

OK, I have to ask, where does the name Herschel come from?

Sea lion eating salmon at Ballard Locks in 2012. Fans on Pinterest identify him as "Herschel." (Photo by Ingrid Taylar.; used with permission)

Sea lion eating salmon at Ballard Locks in 2012. Fans on Pinterest identify him as "Herschel." (Photo by Ingrid Taylar.; used with permission)

In a flashback set in 1983, Gunnar Jensen, the play's grizzled fisherman, recounts the origin of the name.  He remembers comparing notes of his sighting of this new sea lion with Pete, “the old cuss who’s been opening and closing the locks for quite a spell.”

“And Petey says to me, aye, I seen him too. Don’t he look like that bushy angler, always dipping his rod all over Lake Union? Herschel? And I say aye, that he does.  So we named him Herschel.”

Some journalists state with confidence that Herschel was a specific sea lion, while Jay Wells, who works at the Locks, insisted that it was a more generic term applied to any sea lion spotted in Hood Canal. For narrative ease, I decided to go with the specific sea lion version.

The education that the two young biologists in the play have had really hasn’t prepared them for what they’re expected to do in their jobs. Is that one of the lessons of the play? Should grad students in biology have better training in resolving interspecies conflict?

Without tipping too much of my hand or overstepping my authority, I would say that conservation is a human-created problem with tremendous logistical barriers. From my understanding, getting the funding just to put a biologist in the field where they can stare at animals all day is a trial in and of itself. I have no idea where the resources for resolving interspecies conflict would come from.  

You specify in your play that the main character Maynard be “hapa,” that is, partially of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, and that the “grizzled iconoclast from NOAA” be black, with the rest of the cast white. Why these specific casting instructions?

It’s a balance of representation and historical accuracy. The impression that many people have is that Seattle’s an overwhelmingly white city. There’s a lot of truth to that if you focus on who’s got the money in town – and if you spend all your time along waterfront property. But my Chinese American roots might go as far back as the late nineteenth century. And if you grew up in Beacon Hill or Rainier Beach it’s a much different makeup than, say, Ballard, which has been Seattle’s center for Scandinavian immigrants.

I want to put actors of color to work and in the foreground. Maynard is hapa because she’s a proxy for the Seattle that doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s not a huge stretch to imagine an Asian American University of Washington grad student who got lost in the shuffle. The grizzled iconoclast was partially based on an African American driver’s ed teacher who was always coaxing me to gun past the speed limit. He was a chopper pilot during the Vietnam War and it’s a semi-homage to him.

That said, I’m not going to ignore that most of the local media as well as local Fish & Wildlife were white. Seattle’s not San Francisco, even if we do steal hella slang from the Bay. 

Steelhead trout photographed through the viewing window at the Ballard Locks Fish Ladder (Photo by Ingrid Taylar; used with permission)

Steelhead trout photographed through the viewing window at the Ballard Locks Fish Ladder (Photo by Ingrid Taylar; used with permission)

At one point in the play Maynard quotes a wonderful line from Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder,” “down these mean streets, a man must go who is not himself mean . . .” but she trails off before getting to his choice description of the nature of the detective: “He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” Do you see a commonality between gumshoes and scientists?

I get the impression that both careers require a tremendous amount of endurance and patience for relatively few “AHA!” moments. You’ve got to cultivate an obsession for your subject to the point where you know how to spot abnormal patterns. I don’t think hygiene is high on the priority list for those jobs, either.

How do you feel about sea lions now after writing HERSCHEL? And steelhead trout?

My prior prejudice was that sea lions were loud, smelly pests. But this play made me realize that they’re crafty escape artists following their biological imperatives. As far as the trout goes, I had no idea they were that adapted for survival, and how many roadblocks humans have thrown against their survival. Plus, if you visit the Ballard Locks during spawning season, they are really quite beautiful to look at. Maybe I’ve just developed a greater appreciation for hydrodynamics.

What kind of reading did you do in order to write HERSCHEL?

Maddalena Bearzi’s Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist gave me my initial insight on what general field work with marine mammals might entail.

Some of my primary articles on the real Herschel incidents include:

“Consumes Entire Run of Steelhead: Sea Lion Eats Trout into Endangered Species” AP report in The Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1985

“A New Plan to Hoodwink Herschel” by Tom Blood, The Seattle Times, August 17, 1994

”Northwest Sea Lions Teach Humans the Folly of Fighting Mother Nature” by Craig Welch, The Seattle Times, September 7, 2008)

“Herschel and the Steelheads” by Priscilla Long, American Scholar, January 9, 2013

There was also a rather extensive 1988 NOAA report that I was going to read entitled “Results of the 1986-87 California Sea Lion-Steelhead Trout Predation Control Program at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks,” but that was the point where the research was getting into the way of writing.

I’m sad to say that after contacting local Seattle TV stations, none of them have retained footage of the Herschel stories.

Did you speak to any marine biologists? Ichthyologists? Anyone who works on protecting endangered species? Did you use a consultant?

I haven’t spoken to any marine biologists or conservationists but am quite curious how they’d respond. The closest I’ve gotten to someone firsthand was an interview with Jay Wells, a Program Director at the Ballard Locks, who had a few anecdotes that made it into the draft.  Most of my recent impressions of field work are from Science Twitter.     

No consultants were harmed in the writing of this play.

Reports on the website for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Management indicate that controlling the sea lion population continues to be a problem. Has writing this play led you to any solutions you’d like to recommend?  

For the record, I see controlling the sea lions as only slightly less Sisyphean than managing New York City’s rat population. These are far more savvy and dedicated people trying to wrangle extremely efficient predators that don’t exactly keep office hours. I’m just a guy with a BA in English whose last job was in advertising, so I’m the last person anyone should come to for a real solution.

What’s next for Dustin Chinn?

I’ve started two new plays. One is about the evolution of Vietnamese noodles, tentatively called Colonialism is Terrible, but Pho is Delicious. The other is an Amadeus-style meditation on the “Settlers of Catan” designer Klaus Teuber. Other than that, wondering when I should go to Madagascar. I just dove with bull sharks in Mexico and the next marine animal encounter on my bucket list is swimming with whale sharks.

The 2017 EST/Sloan First Light Festival runs from January 30 through March 30 and features readings and workshop productions of ten new plays. The festival is made possible through the alliance between The Ensemble Studio Theatre and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, now in its nineteenth year.

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