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Raw Materials: Interview with Roger Payne & Lisa Harrow 



Payne and Harrow have combined their talents into a performance piece entitled SeaChange: Reversing the Tide, which explores the ecological challenges we face through a combination of scientific information and dramatic readings. In my 2008 interview, they talked about how SeaChange came to be. My questions are in italics. 

 

Payne: What I realized very early on was, if you're a mere scientist there's no way in the world you can communicate like that to the rest of the world. So suppose you could take that ability to communicate and get it talking about some of the questions that are crucial for humanity to know about. So I began to try to write something, and I thought one of the ways to do this would be a combination of poetry and science. Because Lisa doing poetry is -- you've never heard anything like it. And it has a power, I've watched its effect on people. It has a power which is just shocking. So I started writing and we started choosing poems. We gave our first performance here in Woodstock, which I thought was a disaster. It was far too long. But it's gotten very good. And now it has a real impact on people. 

The fun part, I can tell you as a scientist, is to share the stage with somebody of this ability. Because it's shocking ability. The only person you can compare her to, in my mind, is Judi Dench -- with whom she used to act all the time. She has played opposite Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Peter O'Toole, these are leading roles opposite all these people. Sam Neill, a whole bunch of others, Patrick Stewart. 

Sometimes when you combine genres, you get neither -- or a lousy version of both. How do science and art work together in your piece?  

  Harrow: The first thing you have to understand is that science is actually art. It's the same creative process. 

The miniutiae of science, of going through the details and statistics, you could say that's like an actor taking a text and examining it in detail and building their character through the text. But particularly, Roger is a very creative scientist because he's a musician. And he's also an exceedingly fine writer. So the scientific ideas are beautifully written. 

We had to make it an hour long, it can't be any longer. And we're dealing with the entire problems of the Earth and some solutions. So it's a huge amount of ideas to pack into one hour. And half of that is poetry. So it requires someone with enormous ability with language and metaphor and writing to do that. In that sense, it's woven together. It tells a story. It's not spasmodic. People ask if we can cut it, because they want a half hour, or they want a segment. But it's so intricately woven that one bit literally connects with the other. 

Payne: It's in its 53rd draft. Literally.

Harrow: That's how thorough we have been. And it's a mindful journey. You begin out on the ocean, you begin with the whales. You then go through ecosystems, using the whale as a metaphor. And then you get to the stories we tell ourselves of man's superiority to every other thing on Earth, is that the correct way of being? And at global warming, you hit the bottom. 

It's despair. It's really bad. And then it turns. From the turning point, which is done with a poem called 'Weaving the Tapestry,' it goes up through natural laws into sustainability, and then back to the whales, outer space, and Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot. 

It has a story. So in that sense, the science is very artistically presented. 

Payne: And you can make it absolutely applicable. One of the things I point out is the fact that we live in a world ruled by denial. And then at that point, Lisa does 'Ozymandias.' I mean, it's as though it's written to make that point. 

Harrow: We do a couple of chestnuts. That's one, and the other one is 'The Road Not Taken,' which everybody knows. But suddenly in this context, I can't remember the number of times people have said to me, 'You know, I've never heard that poem before. I mean, I've heard it, but I've never really heard it before. 

Payne: You're not giving credit where credit is due. It's Lisa's reading. They've never heard it that way before.

 

 Lisa, before meeting Roger, how concerned were you about environmental issues?

Harrow: Not. I mean, no, let me put it this way. I grew up in a beautiful green country. Green meaning green color, like Vermont. And I was aware of the wild world, and I did love going out to the beach, where there was nobody else. 

So the natural world was something that spoke to me. But I'd never actively engaged in anything. I had done one thing for Greenpeace once before, I'd been asked, because I was a New Zealander and a personality, to deliver a petition to 10 Downing Street about mining in Antarctica.  And I'd gone with a bunch of Greenpeace people and knocked on the door of 10 Downing Street and presented the petition, and some butler had taken it and said, "Yes, we will give this to Mrs. Thatcher." And I took the number 88 bus back home and thought, "Well, I've done my bit!" 

What really happened was, when I married Roger, he brought into our lives the whole of this whale world, and ocean world. 

The first thing that hit me was the problem with fish. Overfishing. I'd never known about overfishing. The things he'd be talking about, and the people who were coming to our house and talking about it, and it wasn't "Save the Whales," it began to be "Save the Fish." So I began becoming aware of how one had to live on this planet. So when Roger came up with this idea, it seemed like a natural thing to do. 

To me, it's been a gradual evolving. Now, I get very naggy about it. 

 

The passion of the convert. 

Or the awakened. I'm not a convert. I've been awakened. It's a very different thing. And that's what SeaChange is all about, it's about awakening people to a better way of being. The only way of being, if we want to survive as a species. 

Email me at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com