Alanna Mitchell is not an actor. It’s one of the first things she tells you in 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 written for the New York Times and The Globe & Mail, has done TV and radio documentaries for CBC, and has published two books about the dire state of our oceans: Invisible Plastic: What Happens When Your Garbage Ends Up in the Ocean and Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis. Then what is Alanna Mitchell doing on a theatre stage, presenting a one-woman show?
A compelling speaker – watch her Ted talk here – Mitchell grew up in the Canadian prairies listening to her father’s stories about Darwin. Then some years ago, after spending much of her career trying to understand what was happening on land, she embarked on a journey to discover what was going on in the ocean. The real story, as she puts it. What she uncovered became her book Sea Sick, a sobering look at the chemical changes taking place in the liquid part of our world. Sea Sick was awarded the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment in 2010. Now four years later, Mitchell has brought it to the stage.
Documentary theatre is not a new form. Companies like Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Tectonic Theater Project and The Civilians often create pieces based on interviews that are presented verbatim. Along the same line, artists like Anna Deavere Smith (Fires In the Mirror), Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (The Exonerated), and Nilaja Sun (No Child) have created iconic plays based on documentary material. But what these plays have in common is that they all sprung from theatre artists’ imagination and were performed by trained actors. They are very much of the theatre. Sea Sick, The Play, however, sprung from a journalist’s passion for the environment and is performed by an untrained actor. At its core, it lives in a different place; it just happened to have made its way to the stage.
Does it matter? Yes. Not because of the quality of the script (it’s great). Not because of the quality of Mitchell’s performance (she’s great). But because a line was crossed. We are very much a society of “experts” and while there are advantages to that, there are also drawbacks; 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 finding a doctor who can look at the big picture and see you as a complete system is another story. The same is true for universities; they 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 that encourage cross-over, for the most part, artists stick to their areas of expertise.
Yet as 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 – across disciplines, across geographic boundaries, across ideologies. And in order to do that, we have to be willing to listen and meet people where they are. Even if that means crossing a line we normally wouldn’t cross.
I saw a workshop of Sea Sick this past February as part of York University’s Staging Sustainability conference. For about an hour, I listened to a journalist tell me stories about red tides, spawning corals, blobs, Australian biologists, and submersible dives. I reflected, I laughed, I cried. And in the process I learned about ocean warming and acidification, the consequences of fertilizer runoff, 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. Here’s a woman who, even before she wrote the book, uncovered something so big that it totally overwhelmed her: “I feel like I’m just this little kid from the prairies, who dreamed too big, hit a story she couldn’t handle. I feel like I’m never gonna be worthy to tell this story.”
Yet not only did Mitchell write the book but she climbed on a stage to tell us the story. She showed, on a small scale, that it’s possible to transcend one’s own fears and self-imposed limitations. She showed that you can stretch yourself to meet people where they are – in this case, in a theatre – and still be who you are. “Science gives us knowledge, but not necessarily meaning. Art gives us meaning. And it’s meaning that we respond to. It’s meaning that I care about.” Sea Sick is the story of an ocean in crisis, but it’s also the story of a woman who bravely stepped out of her knowledge silo to tell us about it.