Narrative Stage Favorites

* Scholar in Residence Diana Lempel shared some of her favorite moments of the Narrative Stage at a presentation on December 11, 2014. *

Let’s start off with something from the very first year of the festival. You’ll hear Kirsten Bendiksen, and her daughter Tove, who asks the first question, Deb Shrader, the founder of Shore Support and now the president of the Fishermen’s Tribute Fund, and Ellen Skaar.

This recording is special to me, because it shows how the festival is such a community affair. They’re asking each other questions, bringing their husbands up on stage, getting all teared up and then laughing as if there’s no audience at all.

It’s also special to me because you hear that husband and wife relationship between Deb and Ronnie Shrader. Laura and I made a house call to the Shrader’s over the summer, to photograph the heart-shaped scallop shells and historic artifacts that Ronnie brings home. “It seemed he’d just find them,” she said, “like little hearts in the sand just for me.” Deb first mentioned the shells on the Narrative Stage, and I knew I had to photograph them.

This is the thing about the festival, this is the thing that I learned about the fishing community here in New Bedford. I could play your hours of fascinating, and upsetting, and angering tape about the politics of fisheries management and the economic consequences of regulations. People on the stage say some pretty tough stuff. But what I hear, when I listen back, is a community that’s changing with the times, and still knows where it came from. That’s scared, maybe, of where it’s going, but has the networks and knowledge to get there, if they can make use of them.

What I’ll do today, then, is share some of my favorite stories and conversations that let you hear what I heard, putting present day experiences next to memories. So that you can hear what I’ve heard.


Here’s another moment from the first year of the festival. Kirsten invites Arlene Ricard onto the stage, impromptu.  She’s the daughter of Walter Snyder, the oldest fisherman in New Bedford.

Did you hear how both Kirsten and Arlene tell their fathers’ stories, as if they were theirs? That happens a lot. That says to me “we’re in this together.” Your stories are my stories.


Jim Dwyer and Paul Swain are fixtures on the festival stage, and they remember a time when “we’re in this together” wasn’t just a family thing – it was organized. I heard snatches of this across the years – that something has been lost, not just because of regulations, but because the waterfront itself doesn’t have the solidarity it once did. Ellen Skaar even said once that fishermen were “easy targets” because they are so disorganized. Fishermen are out at sea, not home at meetings, people say. Wives, like Deb Shrader, have always picked up some of that slack. But maybe it’s also that there’s not a “system.”

You’ll hear Paul Swain first, and then Jim Dwyer.


In a panel on new technology in the industry, Lou Lagace talked about how digital photos and email on the boats make repairs so much easier. You can snap a picture of something on the boat that is beyond your own ability to repair, he says, and by the time you get into port, the part will be waiting for you.

A handshake business. That’s what Jim Dwyer said about the old auction house, too.


Justin Tonnessen and Tor Bendiksen are part of the new generation of leaders in the industry. Their fathers worked together, and now they work together; Justin is a scallop boat captain, and Tor is a gear manufacturer. They know who to ask when they need help because they grew up around the experts.

Justin speaks first in this conversation from 2009.


Now that you’ve heard him speaking as a man, I can’t resist sharing with you Kirsten Bendiksen’s story about Tor being born. I’ve heard her tell it in person and in the archive, and I think this is my favorite.

Being in a fishing family is unique, says Kirsten and many others. You have to roll with the punches.


Skip Barlow decided early in his career that he wanted to stay in inshore fisheries, so that he could spend more time with his family. “That ends up being what it’s all about for most fishermen,” he said on the Stage once, “kids and family.”

He tells a story about the birth of his first son, too. It was actually the first thing I listened to as I began this project.

In an oral history interview, Skip Barlow’s now-wife, Diane Flynn, says that none of their children are on the water any more. We heard Ellen Skaar say that she isn’t sure that she would have wanted her son to stay in the industry, if she had the choice. Fishing’s a hard life, Justin Tonnessen reminded us.


In this next clip, Captain Chris Wright talks about introducing his son, Chris Jr., to that hard life. This, hands down, is my favorite moment from all years of the Narrative Stage. It just feels like family.


What’s it like to be a fisherman’s kid, when you don’t think your future will be on a boat? That’s how Tove Bendiksen starts another wonderful panel, called, “Daughters, Mothers, Wives,” from 2007. She’s followed by Charlotte Enoksen, and the music you’ll hear is a performance from a conversation about the Norwegian community, from 2006. It’s a church song, called “I am a Sailor,” and it just felt right to include it here. Finally, Betsy Pye.


When I started planning for this presentation, Laura said to me, “So many people say that the fishing industry’s dying. Is it?”  That was the challenge she gave me to think about.

Here’s what I think. The work is changing. The gear is more technical, the boats are bigger, there are fewer owners. Like ports around the country, there’s pressure to turn waterfronts into places for living, and shopping, and dining. To bring in recreational boats and increase tourism. In 2010, when catch shares were implemented in the groundfish industry, I heard new fear and urgency in people’s voices. They’re commoditizing a public resource, people said. “I’m scared as heck,” said Reidar.

Stories, though, are also a public resource. They’re passed down like customs and festivals. The rituals of a fishing family are like the ritual of any other culture: there are the summers on the boat, the waits for your father to come home, the first real commercial trip, the taking over of the family business, whether it’s shoreside or on the water. The Narrative Stage made these private, family stories public, gave fishing culture to the whole city, because there are fewer and fewer families passing them down at home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s