Ahead of its Irish premiere in Belfast, Canadian journalist Alanna Mitchell talks about turning her book Sea Sick into a powerful one-woman show
Being a performer never crossed the mind of Alanna Mitchell when she was growing up. One of four children of a scientist dad and artist mum, she was studious and bookish and had subsequently forged a successful career as a business journalist and author writing about science and social trends and specialising in environmental investigative reporting.
However, after giving a talk to a group of people in Toronto, to publicise her eighth book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, she was approached by a theatre director who told her that it should be made into a play — a one-woman play, with the one-woman being Alanna.
Said play makes its Irish premiere at The MAC in Belfast on October 16 and 17, as part of Belfast International Arts Festival.
Speaking from her home in Toronto, Alanna explains how it all came about.
“When the book was published in 2008, it became something that people really wanted to hear about, so I started giving public talks,” she says.
“Franco Boni, director of the Theatre Centre here in the city, was in a group of people I had been talking to and when he approached me and suggested a play, I was like, ‘Oh, Okaaay …’ without having any idea of what that would involve,” she laughs.
“But we set to it along with another theatre director, Ravi Jain, and the three of us worked together to craft the book into a play. It was first staged in 2014 and nominated for a Dory (an annual Toronto theatre award) that same year.
“Since then, we’ve toured the play all over the world, but it’s never been to Ireland before, so Belfast is a real first.” She continues: “We all know about climate change, but the carbon load in the atmosphere also really affects the oceans and that’s something that scientists hadn’t really understood very well before.
“Obviously, as the book was originally written back in 2008, things have changed and there has also been Covid-19, so the play has been changed and updated to reflect and include that.
“Although, the facts are still the same — if life in the sea were to vanish, life on earth would soon follow.”
To write Sea Sick, Alanna joined the crews of leading scientists in nine of the global ocean’s hotspots to see first-hand what is really happening around the world. From the impact of coral reef bleaching to the puzzle of the oxygen-less dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, or the shocking implications of the changing pH balance of the sea.
“I spent three years travelling with scientists trying to understand the human as well as the carbon effect on our oceans and the picture that emerged wasn’t good,” she says.
“The play is about three of those effects — our seas are becoming warm, breathless and sour.
“Warm because of fossil fuels producing too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; breathless because of ocean-destined fertilisers creating algal blooms which deplete oxygen levels in the water column, and sour because of carbon dioxide diffusing into the water and producing carbonic acid.
“The oceans are the main medium of life on this planet, so when they are affected, the whole life system of the planet is affected.”
Alanna (60), lives in Toronto with her husband, charity fundraiser James Patterson. Although you can hear the fire in her voice as she talks about her work, otherwise she’s softly spoken and self-effacing, and it’s hard to imagine her on stage, alone, delivering a show.
“I was terrified at first,” she exclaims. “It’s just me on stage for 65 minutes. It’s not something I thought that I would ever do. I had never even done amateur drama or anything like that — and I never wanted to.
“However, we were great talkers in our family. There was a lot of discussion and debating and things like that. My family is of Irish descent so there’s also a storytelling gene in there,” she laughs. “And I look on the play as essentially telling a story.”
Admittedly, it goes against all of her journalistic instincts to be central to a story, but as she wrote the book as an outsider on a quest for knowledge, the play allows her to take the audience on a journey of discovery with her, rather than simply deliver a lecture.
When you look at Alanna’s family background, it’s not surprising that she progressed from business to science and environmental journalism.
Her late father George Mitchell, who passed away in 2017, aged 91, was the Canadian province of Alberta’s first wildlife biologist and was one of the world’s experts on the pronghorn antelope.
He was a long-standing member of the Wildlife Society of America, which recognised him with a distinguished service award in 2014.
Says Alanna: “I grew up in a very tiny place called Regina in Saskatchewan, a province bordering the United States that’s known for its flat prairie landscapes.
“I cut my teeth as a journalist reporting about complex equity and debt deals with The Financial Post. And while that fascinated me, after three years I felt that I wanted to write about other things people were doing.
“That led me to spend 14 years at Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, where I became immersed in social statistics that show us the big picture of how people are acting as a society.
“Eventually, I was posted as a correspondent to Alberta for the paper, where I discovered science issues. After that, I was hooked, and have been writing about science and society ever since.
“Looking back now, because my father was a scientist, I always had a scientific way of looking at the world. My mother Constance was an artist, so the whole thrust of my life has been marrying science and art.
“Growing up, we spent a lot of time outdoors and a lot of time camping.
“The prairies are very, very flat and there’s a joke that if you lose your dog you don’t have to worry because three days later you can still see where it is.
“It was quite a scholarly household. Dad also taught at university. There were a lot of ideas — it was a household of ideas and an unusual and fascinating childhood.”
Alanna reveals that being the daughter of a scientist and biologist did lend itself to more than a few hilarious situations that seemed perfectly normal to her and her siblings growing up.
“Dad had this incredible need to understand how the world works biologically and spent much of his life doing field work with animals and finding stuff out,” she says. “He was one of the early ecologists in Canada and also did a whole lot of interesting work in the prairies.
“He brought his work home a lot too,” she laughs. “One of his studies of the pronghorn involved determining how many adults compared to yearlings compared to new-borns there were in an area, and the best traditional way to do this was to examine wear and tear on teeth.
“To get the incisors out cleanly, dad boiled every mandible in a pot of water for 45 minutes. At some point in the process — post-skinning or post-boiling, I suppose — he would hang the jawbones on the back fence to dry.
“One day my mother got a sniffy phone call from a neighbour. She was having people for dinner. Could the mandibles please be removed from the fence?”
Saskatchewan is one of two landlocked Canadian provinces, so how did Alanna become fascinated with the oceans?
“My paternal grandmother lived on the west coast, and we would spend every summer with her,” she says.
“Like on the prairies, we spent a lot of time outdoors in nature discovering things and exploring. Through discovering and seeing first-hand the fieldwork of scientists over the years, I could see that the oceans are the true lungs of the planet, so if we kill the oceans, we kill the planet.”
With more and more people becoming aware of climate change and environmental issues, is she optimistic about the future? Are we taking things seriously enough?
“Not nearly enough,” she says. “But there’s movement and I think some of the movement is going in the right direction. I’ve never seen this level of public discourse and passion about the environment in all the years that I’ve been writing about it. But we still haven’t gone far enough and that’s the problem.
“Covid-19 was and is horrible, but it’s also shown us how we can work together.
“The importance of next month’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow,can’t be underestimated.
“This is a hinge moment for human civilisation. It’s right now. We will either make this story end one way or another way. This is the moment that matters.”
Sea Sick by Alanna Mitchell is at The MAC on October 16 and 17 as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com