51 Alanna Mitchell - Sea Sick (Chloe Ellingson)ResizedMRSW

Alanna Mitchell performing a scene from the stage-adaptation of her investigative book ‘Sea Sick’, at Toronto’s Theatre Centre. photo credit Chloe Ellingson

The Creators: Alanna Mitchell

A conversation with creator Alanna Mitchell, science journalist, performer, and author of ‘Sea Sick’

A\J: What compelled you to move Seasick from a non-fiction work into a play?

A\J: What compelled you to move Seasick from a non-fiction work into a play?

Alanna Mitchell: It was totally unexpected. I gave a talk to a bunch of artists who were interested in exploring issues of climate change, with a group called Cape Farewell. There was a convening of artists and scientists exchanging ideas. In the audience was the artistic director of the Theatre Centre, Franco Boni. He approached me and said, “I think this could be a play, a non-fiction play performed by a non-performer.” It just breaks all the categories. So I said yes, and that was the start of this extraordinary journey, because I had never imagined myself as a performer, ever. It’s quite different from what one does as a journalist. 


A\J: This seems to be something that is coalescing in certain environmental movements. The Papal Encyclical feeds into that, and the social ecology and biotic community are connected in these conversations and documents. That speaks for some to a a spiritual energy that comes from that connection of love. Could you speak to that?

AM: It goes directly to that whole question of what makes us human. That’s what it’s about. I’m talking about appealing to our better nature rather than our worst. The thing that was so difficult of course was how do you write an ending for a play like Seasick? I kept coming back to this idea that I could not shake, and the idea was forgiveness. It’s not necessarily a religious concept but it’s also a psychological concept. What is forgiveness but the resolution of grief. So I talk at the very end of the play of this quest for forgiveness for our own species’ actions, and it seems to me it’s slowly in moving past this terrible grief and paralysis, anger and blame, guilt and despair, that you actually can get to a point where you can really reach a new ending, where all possibilities are open to you. It feels to me that that’s the place to aim for because the blaming and guilt and despair isn’t getting us where we need to go. That to me revolves around faith and spirituality.


A\J: How does nature impact your art?

AM: I think there’s a draw for all humans to the ocean. It’s our amniotic fluid, the same chemical composition as the ocean. Our blood plasma is a chemical replica. I wrote about this in my book – it is the ocean that the creatures we evolved from evolved in. There is something about the majesty, the mystery, the enrapturement of being enveloped in that ocean that is tremendously appealing to most people.


A\J: There is a universal symbiosis we all have with oceans, but in terms of your own art, do you have a special connection with non-human nature, to help you get through these performances? 

AM: What it is for me is trying to remember what it’s like to be in the prairies, because that’s where I come from. This is ancient ocean, it was a seabed, that’s why it’s so flat. There’s a big chunk in the play about the prairies, about being there. I talk in the play about being able to sum up moments when I was there, but it somehow gives you a different sense of yourself, to be in the prairies. It’s not that different from being on stage, in this bright light with these deep shadows. I call it a ‘remorseless light’ in the prairies, but it is that in the prairies as well.


A\J: Your book has done a lot to raise awareness, but do you think people making that connection between climate change and how it affects the oceans?

AM: I don’t think so. I think there’s a greater awareness, but I still talk to people and they have absolutely no idea of the effects of the high carbon world we’ve created in the ocean, and the connections between that and extinction


Stephen Bede Scharper, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is an associate professor with the Centre for Environment at the University of Toronto. He is author of Redeeming the Time: A Political Theology of the Environment and co-editor of The Natural City: Re-Envisioning the Built Environment.