Alanna MitchellÂ is not an actor. Itâ€™s one of the first thingsÂ she tells youÂ inÂ Sea Sick, The Play, which she recently performed at The Theatre Centre in Toronto. In fact, Alanna Mitchell is a science journalist and author. She has writtenÂ for theÂ New York TimesÂ andÂ The Globe & Mail, has doneÂ TV and radio documentaries for CBC, and has published two books about the dire state of our oceans:Â Invisible Plastic: What Happens When Your Garbage Ends Up in the OceanÂ andÂ Sea Sick: The Global OceanÂ in Crisis. Then what is Alanna Mitchell doing on a theatre stage, presenting a one-woman show?
A compelling speaker â€“ watch her Ted talkÂ hereÂ â€“ Mitchell grew up in the Canadian prairies listening to her fatherâ€™s stories about Darwin. Then some years ago, after spending much of her career trying to understand what was happeningÂ on land, she embarked on a journey to discover what was going onÂ inÂ the ocean. TheÂ realÂ story, as she puts it. What she uncoveredÂ became her bookÂ Sea Sick, a sobering look at theÂ chemical changesÂ taking place in the liquid part of our world.Â Sea SickÂ was awarded theÂ Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment in 2010. Now four years later, MitchellÂ has brought itÂ to the stage.
Documentary theatre is not a new form. CompaniesÂ likeÂ Nature TheatreÂ of Oklahoma,Â Tectonic Theater ProjectÂ andÂ The CiviliansÂ often create piecesÂ basedÂ on interviews that areÂ presented verbatim. Along the same line, artists like Anna Deavere SmithÂ (Fires In the Mirror), Jessica Blank and ErikÂ JensenÂ (The Exonerated), and Nilaja Sun (No Child)Â have created iconic playsÂ based on documentary material. But what these plays have in common is that they all sprung fromÂ theatre artistsâ€™ imagination and wereÂ performed by trainedÂ actors. They areÂ very muchÂ ofÂ the theatre.Â Sea Sick, The Play, however,Â sprung fromÂ a journalistâ€™s passion for the environment and is performed by an untrained actor. At its core, it lives in a different place; itÂ just happened to have made its way to the stage.
Does it matter? Yes. Not because of the quality of the script (itâ€™s great). Not because of the quality of Mitchellâ€™s performance (sheâ€™s great). But because aÂ line Â wasÂ crossed. We are very much a society of â€œexpertsâ€ and while there are advantages to that, there are also drawbacks;Â we tend to live isolated in our knowledge silos and have a fragmented view of the world. The health system is a good example of that phenomenon. You can find a specialist for the most obscure disease, but findingÂ a doctor who can look at the big picture and see you as a complete system is another story. The same is true forÂ universities; theyÂ are incredible repositories of knowledge but the people who work in those universities often have no idea of what is happening next door. And although the arts have new hybrid categories such as multidisciplinary arts and interdisciplinary arts thatÂ encourage cross-over, for the most part, artists stick to their areas of expertise.
YetÂ asÂ a cultural norm, knowledge fragmentation is no longer viable. The scope and complexity of climate change, and the interconnectedness of all its different manifestations, call for a coming together of skills, brains and hearts. We have to learn to work together â€“ across disciplines, across geographic boundaries, across ideologies. And in order to do that, we have to be willingÂ to listenÂ and meet people where they are.Â Even if that means crossing a line we normally wouldnâ€™t cross.
I saw a workshop ofÂ Sea SickÂ this past February as part of York Universityâ€™sÂ Staging SustainabilityÂ conference.Â ForÂ about an hour, I listened toÂ a journalist tell me stories about red tides, spawning corals, blobs, Australian biologists, andÂ submersible dives. I reflected, I laughed, I cried. And in the process I learned about ocean warming and acidification, the consequences of fertilizer runoff,Â climate change science, and mass extinctions. I learned about the power of forgiveness, about the fact that the pieces of the future are still in motion, and about having the courage, as Mitchell did, to cross a line. Hereâ€™s a woman who, even before she wrote the book, uncovered something so bigÂ that it totally overwhelmed her: â€œI feel like Iâ€™m just this little kid from the prairies, who dreamed too big, hit a story she couldnâ€™t handle. I feel like Iâ€™m never gonna be worthy to tell this story.â€
Yet not only did MitchellÂ write the book but sheÂ climbedÂ on a stage to tell us theÂ story. She showed, on a small scale, that itâ€™s possible to transcend oneâ€™s own fears and self-imposed limitations. She showed that you can stretch yourself toÂ meet people where they are â€“Â in this case, in a theatreÂ â€“ and still be whoÂ youÂ are. â€œScience gives us knowledge, but not necessarily meaning. Art gives us meaning. And itâ€™s meaning that we respond to. Itâ€™s meaning that I care about.â€Â Sea SickÂ is the story of an ocean in crisis, but itâ€™s also the storyÂ of a womanÂ who bravelyÂ stepped out of her knowledge silo to tell us about it.
Filed under: Theatre
Artists and Climate Change is a blog by playwright Chantal Bilodeau that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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