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Alanna Mitchell reflects on eight years of Sea Sick

October 3, 2022

By Alanna Mitchell


I’ll never forget that first performance. It was a Wednesday evening in March, eight and a half years ago, the grand opening of The Theatre Centre’s first permanent home after a $6.2-million renovation. The whole day had been a celebration – complete with speeches and raucous cheering – to launch this bold Canadian incubator for theatre. I remember the feeling of jubilation that something new was being born on that day.

None of it offset my fear. Here was I, a journalist, performing a non-fiction play that I had crafted with months of help from Franco Boni, who was then the theatre’s artistic director, and Ravi Jain, who founded Why Not Theatre. The play, loosely based on my book Sea Sick, takes the audience on a journey around the world with scientists to see what carbon is doing to the ocean. And while I had years of experience reporting stories and telling them in print, I had no faith that I could pull off this theatre thing.

I remember standing backstage, quaking, as the audience flowed in and staff had to put out yet more seats to cope with the numbers. I considered making a break for it out the back door. And while I had years of experience reporting stories and telling them in print, I had no faith that I could pull off this theatre thing.

Photo by Chloe Ellingson (2014)

Franco found me then – he had just had a haircut, I recall – to say that whatever happened on stage that night, he was proud of us and what we had done. It was permission, liberation. I walked on stage a few moments later and, well, all these years later, I keep doing it. One of the proudest moments in my life was realizing earlier this year that Sea Sick is included in the anthology 100 Plays to Save the World, edited by Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare, published by Nick Hern Books in the U.K. 

Photo by Alejandro Santiago (2021)

The play has changed a bit in all these years. I’m grateful to the Inuk singer Susan Aglukark, whose thoughts now inform part of the ending, and to Franco Boni and Aislinn Rose (The Theatre Centre’s artistic director) who have unstintingly helped me shape and reshape the ending. We’re on version five. 

I’ve changed. That opening night the theatre’s lobby was filled with my mother’s paintings, specially made for the occasion. My father sent words of encouragement from his nursing home. Both are dead now. The planetary crisis has deepened. I keep updating the figures in the play, and none of them are going in the right direction. Audiences have changed, too. They are hungrier for a way to move through this awful time, more tentative about whether we can. 

I remain hopeful. For one thing, a lot more of us know what’s at stake in this huge, uncontrolled planetary experiment we are in. Governments know it, too. More than 100 of them have pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2040. That’s not to say that they have plans to get there; they don’t. But I like that they’re talking about it en masse for the first time because without widespread policies to move us away from carbon, we cannot return the planet to health.

Meanwhile, scientists, ever practical, have been devising road maps to wean us off carbon. Most of the technology already exists. You start with stripping carbon from how we make electricity and then electrify as much of the economy as you can.

This is a moment in human history that calls for tenderness. For honouring the messiness our species has wrought. For fashioning a narrative that convinces us that survival is still possible. It’s time.

Sea Sick is running at The Theatre Centre from Oct. 5-8, 2022.


A few resources for further information: 

  • All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, eds. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, Penguin Random House, 2020
  • Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, Britt Wray, Alfred A. Knopf, 2022
  • 100 Plays to Save The World, eds. Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare, Nick Hern Books, 2021
  • Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Suzanne Simard, Allen Lane, 2021
  • Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans, Sylvia Earle, Texas A&M University Press, 2021
  • Blue Hope: Exploring and Caring for Earth’s Magnificent Ocean, Sylvia Earle, National Geographic, late 2014
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert, Henry Holt, 2014
  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, James Hansen, Bloomsbury, 2009
  • The Weather Makers: how we are changing the weather and what it means for life on Earth, Tim Flannery, HarperCollins, 2006
  • Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life, Nancy Knowlton, National Geographic, 2010
  • Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, Alanna Mitchell, McClelland & Stewart, 2009

Alanna Mitchell is an award-winning journalist, author and playwright who grew up in the Canadian prairies and now lives in Toronto. She is a pattern-thinker who is fascinated with systems in society and with the intersection of science and art. She has written five books, two-and-a-half plays, some radio documentaries and a lot of magazine and newspaper articles. She has been on tour for much of the past 12 months performing Sea Sick, the play, across Canada the U.S., Europe and the U.K.