Looking for the Ending (Or is it the Beginning?)

This week on HowlRound, we are exploring Theatre in the Age of Climate Change. How does our work reflect on, and respond to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding? Canadian science writer Alanna Mitchell is an inspiration. We crossed paths at the Mount Royal University conference Under Western Skies 2: Environment, Culture and Community in North America in Calgary in 2012. Since then, I have been avidly following her transition from the page to the stage.—Chantal Bilodeau

Let me say right up front that I never harbored secret dreams of working in the theatre. I never wanted to be onstage. I confess to evanescent musings about someday writing a script, or, more likely, a screenplay for, say, a sitcom, or a music video, or a no-budget film. These were not high aspirations.

I mean, I’m a journalist who writes about science! I used to go to a play and watch the performers in much the same way I might have watched a heart surgeon at work in an operating theatre: it was marvelous, transcendent, incomprehensible. It seemed to me as though actors were capable of doing something effortlessly that I felt I could not do, even with the utmost exertion.

And then I met Franco Boni, artistic director of The Theatre Centre in Toronto. He heard me give an off-the-cuff talk about my book Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis to a UK-based group called Cape Farewell, which aims to bring artists and scientists together to spawn a cultural response to the high-carbon world we’ve created. Franco wondered if I would make the book into a one-woman play. And perform it. And that, as they say, was that.

I remember the first meeting over coffee with him and Claire Sykes, who works with Cape Farewell in North America. (The brilliant Ravi Jain would later join Franco and me to create the script and he would help Franco direct.) I wouldn’t have to memorize, would I? Oh, no, said Franco. Will it be broadly the same as the Sea Sick talks I’ve been giving for years? Oh, yes, said Franco. And then, to his credit, he demurred: Of course, we’ll have to have a new beginning and a new ending. But not much more than that.

I was hooked. I had absolutely no idea how profoundly different it would feel to be in the theatre, performing. Different, I mean, because instead of sitting in my garret imagining how people might respond to my writing—as I am now—I would be standing onstage feeling the energy field of the audience, the power of the experience we were sharing.

It was, as I discovered, a conversation. I could never have imagined that.

How do you tell people that life as we know it is in terrible danger, and then leave them with something profound and catalytic, without a scrap of preachiness or self-pity?

The process of making the script should have alerted me. Franco, Ravi, and I were closeted in a cold room on Queen Street West in Toronto with only chalk and a blackboard. I was trying to explain not only what I had found out during the research for my book, and the one I wrote before it, but also why I had wanted to know. Every time I thought I had explained it enough, either Franco or Ravi would look me straight in the eye and say: There’s more. And I would excavate more and more deeply into topics I hadn’t thought about for years—if ever. What is science? What is journalism? What is art? How do they feed each other? Why?

Of course, when it came to the ending, we were stuck. The basic narrative ended up being straightforward: I, the gormless storyteller, am on a quest to figure out what our species is doing to the chemistry of the ocean and why it matters. I travel the world meeting famous and charming and terrifying scientists who explain some of the pieces, which I then put together into a whole. (The blackboard, which we transported to the stage, features prominently here.)

We stumbled through a beginning, which Ravi, with his comic genius, did the first drafts of. But the ending just wasn’t there. I mean, how do you tell people that life as we know it is in terrible danger, and then leave them with something profound and catalytic, without a scrap of preachiness or self-pity? 

We had some ideas. These were things I was secretly thinking about, researching, painfully writing down, often amid tears. It felt like every line was impenetrable poetry, not fit for human ears. I was embarrassed about what I wrote. I couldn’t understand why it meant so much to me. Franco and Ravi did not laugh, however. I kept expecting them to tell me to buck up and go back to my keyboard and start over.  

a woman giving a speech on stage
Photo by Chloe Ellingson.

It was clear even during the first performances that the ending wasn’t perfect. It was a little glib. In retrospect, I think it was because I had not understood about this conversation that would happen with the audience. I hadn’t known how much I longed for the conversation.

We’re in the third ending now. It’s better. Here’s the radical thing: It’s about forgiveness. It’s about whether we are capable of having a species-wide conversation about the high-carbon world we’ve created together. It’s about whether we can stop with the mindless anger and blame and guilt and despair and leap over it all to get something done.

Forgiveness is a tricky topic, we’ve found. Dreadfully unfashionable. Members of the audience simply didn’t know what it was. Christian? Modern? Hocus pocus? In the third ending, I define it. Forgiveness runs like a drumbeat through all human faith traditions over time. More than that, it is part of an age-old psychological release for the one who forgives. It is saying: Yes, I’m in pain. No, this should never have happened. But I can leave the pain behind and move on.

Ultimately, forgiveness is the resolution of grief.

And so what if, in a mad bid to give ourselves permission to evolve away from the carbon patterns that are threatening us, we could forgive ourselves for all the ways we’ve helped screw up the planet? What if we could forgive each other? What if we could forgive our species? I think it would help spring us from this paralysis of guilt about what’s happening to the world.

Oh, and just for the record. In the end I did have to memorize the ruddy thing. All 10,000 words. In a row. Yeesh.

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Thoughts from the curator

How does our work reflect on, and respond to, the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding?

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change

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