Oceans

One-woman show’Sea Sick’ dives into the ocean’s chemistry

It’s the job of journalists to cover climate change. But few can turn their coverage into art. Science journalist Alanna Mitchell has done just that with her one-woman show called “Sea Sick,” based on her book of the same name. The show is playing now at Emerson’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box theater.

She joined Arun Rath to discuss the trips around the world she took to learn about the study of the ocean — and adapting it into a performance — on All Things Considered. What follows is a lightly edited interview.

Arun Rath: Alanna, thanks for joining us.

Alanna Mitchell: Hi. Thanks for having me on.

Rath: It’s great to have you. So first off, to set this up, tell us about the original book, “Sea Sick,” and maybe a little bit about the reporting that motivated you to write it.

Mitchell: Oh, well, the book came out in the US in 2010, and I had spent three years — I think I did 13 journeys around the world for that book. I guess I just became obsessed with trying to figure out what was going on with the ocean.

And I just kept getting these notices over my desk about how the ocean was dying, and there were all these sort of When I started the research on it, I was a daily journalist at the Globe and Mail newspaper, which is Canada’s national newspaper. And so I just hooked up with a whole bunch of scientists who were asking questions about the ocean. And I didn’t understand what was actually going on, and so I became obsessed with trying to figure it out.

Rath: And it’s kind of epic, right? I mean, I guess it’s the sort of thing that you can’t just do in newspaper pieces, episodically.

Mitchell: Yes. Well, I suppose I could have but, actually, at that time, my newspaper wasn’t very interested in the topic. So I did most of the research for it after I left the paper to become an independent journalist.

Rath: And give us sort of a thumbnail of the arc of that journey, and we’ll get into it in more detail.

Mitchell: Well, at the beginning, I wasn’t even sure what the issues were. I mean, I just didn’t have any inkling of what was at stake or what we as humans, as a single species, is doing to the oceans. So a lot of it was just intensive shipboard work with scientists as they were taking the measurements of the ocean, doing the basic science of it.

And what I’ve discovered was that, at that time — I mean, this was more than a dozen years ago — it wasn’t common for scientists to look at how the ocean worked as a whole system, or then how the ocean works along with the atmosphere.

What happened was that I would go from one journey — one boat to another — and I would say to the next batch of scientists, “Oh, here’s what I found out.” And they would say, “Really?” It was this whole And I think journalists maybe have to sort of fit together all these pieces of the puzzle, say, “What is this whole picture showing me?” And that’s the book did.

But it took a long time for me to figure out that that was even what I was doing, to be honest. And I didn’t have a clue that I was going to be describing how humans are changing the fundamental chemistry of the ocean, which is what the book ended up being.

A woman stands on stage in front of a chalkboard, gesturing with her hands
Alanna Mitchell performing “Sea Sick.”

Alejandro Santiago

Rath: At what point was it — during the actual writing of the book, or at some point after — did something say to you that this needs to be a performance?

Mitchell: It never, never occurred to me that it could be a performance when I was writing the book or or even after. But the thing about writing a book like that is that people want to hear you talk about it. And so I started giving these talks and, honestly, they were just terrible talks. I had no idea. It’s one thing to run around the world with scientists and ask them the dumbest possible questions and get very gracious answers to them and then figure out how to put that into a book. That’s one thing. But then figuring out how to talk about it, oh, I was just miserable at it.

I mean, I started studying it, right? And I finally realized that the really important parts were the parts about the scientists — their journeys, because they are the heroes in this piece, and they are in love with what they do. I mean, I have notebooks from that original research with drawings from all sorts of the scientists’ diagrams, all carefully labeled. They’re explaining to me how organisms work and how systems It’s really interesting for me now to go back and look at them because I was just so dense. I just didn’t have a clue what I was doing. And they explained it to me, so I had to figure it out.


“What happened was that I would go from one journey — one boat to another — and I would say to the next batch of scientists,’Oh, here’s what I found out.’And they would say,’Really?’”

So I started giving public talks about, about the book — and they were the tales of the scientists. And scientists are intrinsically funny and passionate. And so the talks became better and better the more and more I was able to describe what it was like hanging out with all these scientists in different parts of the world, making these discoveries and piecing together this information.

But that was as far as I ever thought I would go. But I ended up doing a lot of talks like that, and I gave one one time to a group of people that included the then-artistic director of the Theater Center, which is An independent theater in Toronto. And he eventually took me aside and said, “You know, I think maybe we can make this into a play.” And I, being completely ignorant of what that meant, said, “Sure. Why not?” ”So that’s how it all worked. But that was in 2014 that we premiered this play called“ Sea Sick. ”

Rath: I think it was on your website, I saw that you wrote something along the lines of — you love to give talks, as long as there is a lot of audience interaction. And I’m wondering how much that was a part of this, in conceiving it? And is there audience interaction in your performance of this right now?

Mitchell: Oh, absolutely. And this is what I never understood about theater. I think I should have, had I really given it any thought, but I didn’t understand until I started doing it that it is absolutely a conversation. So it’s incredibly intimate I mean, the kind of theater that I do — or my play is — is not a huge stage with thousands of people. It’s a very, very intimate experience, and usually in a theater of fewer than 200 audience members. I mean, And so it’s just this extraordinarily intimate experience. There is an exchange of energy, an exchange of ideas.

And even if people are not talking to me — and sometimes they do. I mean, at different points in the performance, I ask a question. And the audience sometimes respond, sometimes doesn’t, but there’s an interaction at several points. not participatory in that sense, but I say, “Can you see this?” Or, you know, “Can I play something for you?” And they say, “Yeah, yeah” — that kind of thing. And so there’s always And of course, quite a bit of laughter. There are bits of the play, they’re really pretty funny, I guess — I mean, I think they’re funny, anyway. But I think they are funny, I get a lot of laughs.

And I always imagine us sitting around a fire somewhere in a thatched-roof cottage somewhere. I’m just telling stories, and that’s really how I think about the plays.

Rath: How have the crowds been here in Boston? You’re right in the middle of this right now.

Mitchell: They’ve been incredibly responsive — but somewhat sparse, actually.

Rath: They’re catching in at a kind of a rough time in the pandemic, unfortunately.

Mitchell: Yeah. It seems like numbers are bumping up, and we may curtail the run, actually.

Rath: Right. And we’ll give folks the most updated information about how this will be running through the weekend. But it’s still a wonderful thing to have here. Thank you for bringing this to us — and it’s been great talking with you. Alanna Mitchell , thank you.

Mitchell: Thank you so much, Arun.

Rath: Alanna Mitchell is a journalist, author and playwright. She’s performing right now in “Sea Sick,” a one-woman show The Guardian calls “mesmerizing.” It’s running at the Emerson Theater through May 22. This is GBH’s All Things Considered..

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