As Right As You Can Be in the Moment -- an interview with award-winning science journalist Alanna Mitchell

Alanna Mitchell would not describe herself as either an artist or a scientist but she touches both those spheres with grace, rigour and integrity as a science journalist who has turned playwright and performer. I met Alanna on the advice of Franco Boni, the artistic director of the Theatre Centre, someone whose advice I would always take.

I met Alanna just after she performed her solo play "Sea Sick" at a fundraiser for the Theatre Centre. And with true journalistic instincts our interview began by her asking me a question.

photo of Alanna Mitchell courtesy of alannamitchell.com

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ALANNA: So what's your project about?

LUCY:  The big project I'm doing with my company is pure dance -- 8 scenes interwoven,  looking at the time it takes light to get from the Sun to Earth. Each section is about 8 minutes 17 seconds long, and looks at a different aspect of the behaviour and properties of light in space. Also at the metaphors that are embedded in the scientific language describing it.

We're looking at as it is in space, but not so much within the Sun or here on Earth, but the journey between.

ALANNA: You're talking about the visible light not the whole electromagnetic field?

LUCY: Yes, the visible light, although some of imagery around electromagnetism is so compelling that it has made its way in. It's also about the length of time, 8:17, the awkwardness of this length of time. What is necessary to be said in that amount of time? The main component is light: human bodies and light and how do we embody those aspects of physics that we encounter everyday but we don't think about?

In companionship with the stage project, I'm doing a series of interviews with scientists and people involved in science who explore, understand or work at its intersection with art. I want to connect my work as a dancer and choreographer to something bigger than just the art form. I have always been excited by science.

Our production will be happening at the Theatre Centre in January 2020 and it was the artistic director there, Franco Boni who recommended I contact you. When I read about your work, and then read The Spinning Magnet, I felt absolutely certain I needed to meet you!

You have a long history with the Theatre Centre with "Sea Sick" and the new project of translating other research into a play?

ALANNA: Yes. I got an Ontario Arts Council grant [for writing the second play] just as I was in the midst of writing The Spinning Magnet. I just need a month to sit down and work on it.

LUCY: Well, we've jumped to the middle of my questions but this is one of my biggest curiosities: how do you turn a non fiction book into a play? What is that writing, development process?

ALANNA: I've never really done that before. Sea Sick is a non fiction play based on the journeys I did for the research of my book. Compressed into 5 or 6 stories instead of 13 in the book. It really developed from a series of talks I gave about the book. There were all these great tales. It's storytelling. Franco heard one of my talks and asked me to make it into a one woman play. I had no idea what that actually meant. At all.

It is more complex than I imagined. What I wrote for the play is more philosophical and less scientific, trying to find the larger meaning in the science. There's a line in the play: "Science can only take you so far. You need art to explain things, make you care about it."

My whole play, the thesis is about that.

LUCY: I'm sorry i missed it when you performed it recently.

ALANNA: I'm trying to make people fall in love with the ocean, then draw them through a way to care about how it has changed. I used to give the punch line before, but I realized working with Franco that you don't give it all away up front. You have bury the lead, as they say in journalism. The theatre people I worked with didn't really know the world of journalism so they kept asking why, why, why. Why do journalists do it this way?

It became the philosophical underpinning of the play.

So the book is only about half the play and the rest is from research I did for a book on Darwin.  It's a lot of fun adventures.

2015 trailer on Sea Sick the play

LUCY: The play is the experience of everything that led you up to the play.

ALANNA: Right. One of the central things  in the play is when I turn my back on the audience and write figures on a blackboard. And it stemmed from being in rehearsal with Ravi (Jain, director) and Franco and I had to explain things to them, there happened to be a blackboard in the room. So even the experience of making it the book into a play became part of the play.

I didn't start out thinking I was going to turn it into a play.

LUCY: It seems like a natural evolution from writing an article to a book to a play to a performance. Although giving a talk is a performance.

ALANNA: It is. Someone asked how is the play different from a TEDtalk and I said "Because it's a play." That is its intent.

Alanna Mitchell's TEDxtalk in Calgary 2011

LUCY: It's great that it's had such a life. Touring and such.

ALANNA: I don't do any of that -- Franco has made it all happen.

LUCY: He's an amazing force.

ALANNA: I know. He's changed my life for the better. Not because of the play but because of the process.

LUCY: He's changed mine too and I'm sure I don't know him as well as you do.

ALANNA: This other play I'm writing is a fiction play. It started being based on a book I wrote about cancer. It swiftly changed into something else. The ideas are rooted from that book, but it's quite a different thing. It's hard because I'm writing fiction which I haven't done before. Fiction based on scenes I've witnessed.

LUCY: I found it extraordinary when I saw your website you've written about the Franklin Expedition to the arctic; I made a work about Shackleton's last Antarctic expedition. You've written about cancer; I made a work based on imagery of cancer cells and solar flares. You've written about climate change and habitat loss; I made a work last year on that very theme. I've also been connected to Darwin and evolutionary theory, you wrote about Darwin. I immediately felt very connected to you.

ALANNA:  These are the big themes of now.

LUCY: No doubt...How did you get into environmental or science journalism? Is that what you intended?

ALANNA: No. I was a financial journalist in the beginning. That was just because I got a job at the Financial Post. There weren't a lot of jobs when got out of journalism school. For me it's all about the learning. I need these learning curves. I realized that early on. I didn't know anything about finance. So i was there for three years.  Then I got a job at the Globe and Mail. I was their social trends reporter. It was science in kind of a way. It was statistics. I happened to be able to read numbers like I read words and the statistics made sense to me in this really deep way. It was a really good fit. There was a rigour there that I really appreciated.

Then I went out to Alberta to as part of the Globe's bureau out there. I went with a one year old and a 4 year old. And there were all sorts of stories out there.....My father was a biologist and worked on the prairies, so I grew up out there. There were all these familiar spaces and creatures. It was a great opportunity to see how things had changed.

And because my ad was a bio I was always really interested in science....this was my parent's social crowd, professors. I like scientists. I like the wild creativity in their work. Their passion to figure things out for the first time. To describe scientifically and with rigour this extraordinary world we live in and beyond. I have always loved it. This extravagant creativity.

When you go back to time of Faraday -- how did they even come to be able to see that stuff?

It was controversial in Calgary at that time to write about anything scientific, anything environmental. And to bring up climate change was just a no-no. I went there in 1994 and stayed til 2000. It was a challenge to get those stories across. I realized it was the best story going. It was urgent. I was interested in not just science, but systems. Planetary systems. And it's scientists and mathematicians who are defining that. How do these systems work? How did it all become capable of working together?

The topics I'm drawn to have gotten more esoteric. I'm not sure I'm happy with that. A lady I know who is in her 80s was a big fan of Sea Sick (the book). She asked me what I thought about my book Spinning Magnet and I said I think it's the best book I've written so far.  She said "You know I couldn't read it. It was just too hard."

I was gutted. Absolutely gutted.

It was the most intellectually challenging book I've written. I was thrilled that I could understand some of this science that I never thought I would understand.

The most creative book I've done so far, intellectually and emotionally. Maybe not as immediately relatable.

LUCY: The consequences-- for lack of a better word -- of the Spinning Magnet are a bit scarier because it is not at all within our control. With oceans, we see how we might change our behaviour and improve the situation.

ALANNA: Me, I'm not much of an activist. I don't want to tell people what to do.

LUCY: My activism is my work. For a lot of people that isn't activism, but for me it's how I can contribute with my best skills. I'm not good in crowds so rallies and protests are out of the picture. The best thing I can do is take my 20+ years of making and performing dance, work with the artists I care about and explore ideas that seem urgent and important to me. My activism has to be my work.

ALANNA: Me too. I used to go to protests. But I don't feel like I want to anymore. I am more passionate about the issues than I was in my 20s. The activism in me now is explaining. And that is a very radical act. Without understanding things I can't want to change them. I want to give people the numbers

LUCY: I want to give people something to feel. Even if they can't put a name on it I don't really care if they clap. I care if they talk. With my show about Shackleton, I measured its success not by cheers at the end but by the fact that by the time the dancers and I emerged into the lobby after each show, most of the audiences were still there talking about it. Trying to figure it out. I had two friends take me out for drinks after to settle an argument about which one of them had the right interpretation.  The best thing was, after they told me their theories, I said "You're both right. But both of our interpretations never crossed my mind before now!"

ALANNA: That's the goal. To keep the conversation going. When was you Shackleton show?

LUCY: January 2016. I started from John Geiger's book the Third Man Factor.

ALANNA: He was my co-author on the Franklin book.

LUCY: Of course!

So we were looking at Shackleton's experience of the "third man" through the lenses of religious experience, neurological phenomenon, and something more peculiar or metaphysical.

ALANNA: Dees John know that you did that?

LUCY: Yes, I invited him to the premiere. He couldn't come but asked me to keep inviting him. Hopefully we'll do it again. The neurological side was thrilling.....the mysterious edge of how the brain works and what is consciousness. It gets dark. They don't know everything but there are points of light....

You have talked about the value of the intersection between art and science. It's been talked about a lot but in the arts it is often expected that the intersection will be a technological one. But for me it's human: science is done by human beings.

ALANNA: It's the cultural impulse to do science and to do art. I think they are facets of each other.

LUCY: Through the Enlightenment they became separate from each other and from "regular people". Do you think this is changing, art and science being more integrated with community and daily experience of culture?

ALANNA: No I don't think  that's happening. Not fundamentally. It's almost becoming more entrenched. As the two groups become more and more under attack. There is public discourse about it but no meaningful movement about it.

All things under attack journalism, science, art -- all descriptions of truth. Women's words -- are they true? Are they capable of being true? It's all intersecting right now. It's fascinating to think about why.
Is that what happens when you have a sort of proto-fascist regime? It's happening about rights. Human rights, are they valid? do they even exist? All that is under attack. How is it even possible that a child held at a border can die of exhaustion and dehydration?

How does that even happen?

It's a time when the exploration that you're doing, Lucy, is so important. We need some sort of social, cultural acknowledgement that truth -- art, science, truth -- matters. There are facts. And they make a difference.

L I feel sad that I have to have this conversation with my kid....I'm sure I'd have to have it regardless of the situation politically right now -- but he comes home and says "my friend says this is true." And I tell him in fact that is not true. But insists that it must be because this particular friend is loud and insistent that he knows better and more than my son and therefore what he says is true.  I have to try to explain to him that the person who speaks the loudest is not necessarily right. And just because he keeps saying "I'm smart" or "I'm right" doesn't mean they are. Frequency and volume of declaration do not make it true.

ALANNA: That's what my next play is about. Truth.

LUCY: I need to read the book!

ALANNA:  I should have brought it for you.

LUCY: Oh, that's ok. I'm a big fan of library.

ALANNA:  It helps me too when you check it out from the library! But errors do happen in media. You can make errors in good faith. Miss a fact-check, make a spelling mistake.  We are held as journalists to a high standard that you can't always get to.  There's honest mistakes, there's outright lying and then there's propaganda. Trump is a propaganda. the impulse to propaganda is very strong right now.

LUCY: We have such good tools for its dissemination right now.

ALANNA: and also for challenging it!

LUCY: I feel hopeful about that actually.

ALANNA: Is this helpful for you?

LUCY: Of course. Every conversation is helpful. Wherever the conversation goes is interesting and it branches from the initial proposal of art and science I'm interested in living in that intersection. It's bigger than my research or one scientists' research. It's way bigger than that.

I'm interested in hearing about your process -- do you see journalism as an art form?

ALANNA: No. No I don't. I never thought of myself as an artist. My books are literary non fiction, so I started to think of myself a little more as an artist, but the basis is journalism. Journalism is the fundamental practice. The whole process of putting things together and figuring out narrative....Well I think of the Spinning Magnet as most creative book because of the way the structure worked, the way it went together. There's a lot of science in it but trying to figure out how to tell the story...It felt incredibly creative intellectually. There was a principle of finding hinge moments when the science changed and things were different. They were important to find narratively.

The play  both the writing and the conception of it and the performance, are all elements of creative and artistic.

It's very different to do talks on the material of Sea Sick now. I don't like to do them any more. I prefer to do the play.

LUCY: Interesting, why is that?

ALANNA: The play is about me and I'm a tool. I'm a way of letting people into the information. I'm a narrative technique. It feels as though the information is almost incidental to my quest in the play. We 're in it together in the play. It's very intimate. There's the flow of energy.

It happens a little bit to a thinner degree in the talks. It feels like it's about the information. I'm telling people about myself to give myself credibility.

LUCY: Do you think that is equally determined by how you approach the material and how the audience is in the different formats?

ALANNA: I think so. They come to a talk not to hear that much about me. but in a play people are there to be immersed, they want to go on a journey. The talks are not as emotionally invested.

LUCY: Not from either side, I suppose.

ALANNA: I'm invested but I don't have the same expectations. With the play I expect a lot from the audience. It can be devastating or have a really intense emotional experience.

LUCY: In a solo performance you have to create a lot of energy because there's no one else there to give it to you but you also have to carry a lot of the energy of the audience. You have to take the load they are giving you and you don't always know what that's going to be.

ALANNA: My play feels like 10 hours non-stop.

LUCY: I can imagine. I did a 45 minute solo dance in October and after the first performance, I thought 'whoa I forgot how different it is to rehearse this, giving me all in a room by myself, versus absorbing or deflecting the energy of the audience." And then add to that the physical demands of dancing.

ALANNA:  Depending on the theatre, it can be harder to fill that room with energy.

LUCY: I love talking to someone about the energy in the room. It sounds kind of silly to some people, but it's a real thing.

ALANNA: Oh it's real. It's totally legit. There is energy and when I researched for Sea Sick, I learned that ocean water is incredibly conductive of energy. It's a survival mechanism, so that if you are an animal in the ocean the energy gets translated to other beings. It's communication. It's true in the air, but air doesn't conduct energy as easily. It's denser or harder. but it's there.

LUCY: I recently learned about electromagnetic fields of the organs of the body, dancing with this idea I have been overwhelmed by the intersections between myself and the other dancers

ALANNA: Your fields were interacting.

LUCY: It was almost....

ALANNA: Unmanageable.

LUCY: Yes, I actually couldn't perform if I stayed in a place of constant awareness of that. It's a good tool. We've been working with it in  8 minutes 17 seconds, the dancers improvised with this idea and they got stuck. There were so connected they couldn't pull themselves away from one another until I said "Ok you have to find a way to split." One of them imagined herself a blackhole and they all fell away from each other.

It makes you think if you could people on a daily basis to consider this a little, we might be more compassionate.

ALANNA: Or at least realize that we're all made of the same stuff. We're made of the same fields.

LUCY: It's not even really that special that we're in this shape!

ALANNA: We're all just fields that are everywhere in the universe. So what if one's skin is brown or religion is Islam.

LUCY: Small details. It makes sense as cosmology and evolutionary biology are co-mingling. An evolutionary universe.  In your interactions with scientists for your research -- is there anything that has surprised you about scientific process or approaches?

ALANNA: Two things. One is the consistent rigour. I knew that but it is always so pleasing to know and to witness it across all the different disciplines. To see the adherence to rigour and reproducibility. It's impossible to be a good scientist and be sloppy. There's something very life giving to me about that.

The second is how many prejudices there are in science. Things that are fads. I was with a scientist involved in micro-planting, nano-planting, tiny plants and it was a deeply unfashionable thing to look at then. Those creatures were not interesting. This scientist broke new ground. But it was a battle for him to get funding. So he went into industry to stay in the academic fields.

A lot of the science I'm interested in is that edge -- the people looking at what we don't know. The world that exists deep in the crust of the earth with all these creatures that just exist but barely move, eat or anything. We are augmenting the life down there by dumping stuff like petroleum.

How did they get there, were they always there? Where do they come from?

LUCY: Fascinating.

ALANNA: They are part of the biogeochemical cycle of the whole planet.

LUCY: Freaky and wonderful at the same time.

ALANA: The deep carbon observatory -- they are trying to understand more about it..... It's the questioning I'm drawn to. That's what artists do. It makes it hard to describe and write.

LUCY: That aspect of questioning is important It's come up in all the interviews I've done so far. The rigour of the questions. It may seem that the arts have a little less rigour.....

ALANNA: But the rigour is that it has to work for an audience or it just doesn't work. Sea Sick is a story. It's just a story, an ancient form. And i'm not an actor, I'm just a storyteller and somehow that works.

LUCY: It must be hard to trust in that sometimes, or at least in the beginning.

ALANNA: It still is. It's my big terror.  I'm a big ham. I'm Irish. I love to tell a story. One of the ways I got through in the beginning was to say "this is just an experiment".

LUCY: And you have to repeat experiments to see the patterns.

ALANNA: And everyone is going to be different.

LUCY: My professional training was mostly this is how you do it, this is the shape you have to make. but at the end a new wave was happening where it was finding yourself inside the technique. My early days performing were so rough on the ego because you were taught to expect the same result each time....it was when I started to do acting that I was really liberated.

ALANNA: But there's still a script and I worked hard on it and I hate it when I miss a word or flip a line around.

LUCY: One of the most important things I learned from working in theatre was that if you forget your lines, but you know why you need to speak, you'll figure out how to say  what you need to say. I tried to take that into dance. Giving myself that permission.

ALANNA: To screw up.

LUCY: Actually it led me to not screw up as much.

ALANNA: Sometimes the stumbles don't matter but sometimes they really do.

LUCY: And then you have to let go of that.

ALANNA: The space time continuum warps when you're performing.

LUCY: A friend of mine describes it as being so present you are absent.

ALANNA: Interesting. When I get to half way mark of the play, I often can't believe I've done all the other stuff already.

LUCY: Every show i have a mark in the show that's either technically or emotionally hard and i just have to get there and then --

ALANNA: Everything will be ok.

LUCY: And sometimes it comes so quickly and sometimes it feels like forever to get there. It varies from day to day.

ALANNA: Another way artists are like scientists. You are always putting yourself on the line. You have to put your research out there. you have to get published.

LUCY: And possibly be wrong.

ALANNA: You have to be as right as you can be in the moment. Some of the basics that we used to talk about even in the 2000s are no longer the way we talk about matter now.

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Art + Science interviews are made possible with the generous support of the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship program, administered by the Ontario Arts Council.







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