EM Lewis and Douglas Detrick discuss Lewis’s play Magellanica, where a team of scientists studying the hole in the ozone layer at a research station in Antarctica confront environmental crisis, geopolitical conflict, and interpersonal struggle. Though not directly about climate change, the play shows that human beings can work together on a global scale to forestall environmental crises.
Magellanica Photo by Russel J. Young.
That’s a real question of the now in which we find ourselves—this divided, polarized moment of anger and division and fear-mongering by a lot of people at the top—is that question of empathy. Do we want to put a wall beyond which we don’t care? Or do we say no, those are people like us, connected to us on the same small blue planet as us, and that we’re in it together.EM Lewis
Welcome to More Devotedly, a podcast for people who see the arts as a force for positive, progressive change. I’m Douglas Detrick.
This is Volume II, and we’re talking, thinking, and making work about climate change.
Just last weekend we wrapped up the live performance for Volume II. It was an amazing experience. Thanks so much to Lara, Joe, Stephanie, Kim and Happi for making it a really successful show. Look out for pictures, video, and audio coming your way soon on our website, facebook, and instagram.
EM Lewis, or Ellen as she asked me to call her, is a playwright, opera librettist, and teacher living in Monitor, OR. I traveled to Ellen’s home in this rural town to talk with her about her play Magellanica, where a team of scientists studies the hole in the ozone layer at a research station in Antarctica in the winter of 1986-87.
I have to tell you that I haven’t seen the play myself. I missed the world premiere in January and February of 2018, but based on what I’ve learned about the play, it was an epic experience—adventure, love stories, magical realism, history and politics all wrapped into five and a half hours of drama, with three intermissions and a dinner break. Like bingeing a tv series all in one day, in real life with a room full of real people, and a dinner break. The inconvenience of having to wear real pants to leave your couch is a fair tradeoff, don’t you think?
The story takes place against the backdrop of a world somewhat reminiscent of the one we live in now. It was a time of relative economic prosperity; Ronald Reagan, a different sort of Republican president who made the transition from acting to politics was in office; the Vietnam War was over, but the tension of the Cold War continued; Black Americans and other people of color remained victims of discrimination of all kinds, but the Civil Rights movement as a powerful, active force in American life was in the past. Like now, it was a time of relative calm, when conservative politics were dominant, and importantly, when scientists were warning the world about impending environmental crisis.
Just as with any time in the past, things are different today despite any similarities. But, when it comes to Magellanica, there’s one difference that matters. When scientists warned the world that the use of CFC’s was causing the hole in the ozone layer in 1986, the world took decisive action.
Climate change is a much more serious and complex problem, but instead of unified action, we Americans are fractured into stasis. I wish that we were debating the merits of the Republican and the Democratic approaches to fighting climate change, but instead today’s Republican party finds it advantageous to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, blocking any action that might address it.
We’ve always had disagreements. But today we have a debate where one side doesn’t acknowledge reality. In that kind of debate, it’s hard to feel like you aren’t going crazy. In that kind of debate, it’s hard to keep fighting without getting lost in frustration, anger or disappointment. It’s hard just to keep paying attention.
Magellanica isn’t directly about climate change, but as audiences watch an international team wrestle with Cold War politics and the extreme difficulty of living at the South Pole as they do their scientific work, we can’t help but compare their reality to our own. Like these characters are stuck in the research station, we are stuck on Earth, and we are stuck in this political conflict, without any possibility to leave. And despite our differences, the problem only grows worse.
As we talk about Magellanica, we talk about humanity’s capacity for cooperation. We talk about the emotional states of these characters, and how Ellen’s own emotional reality when it comes to climate change has influenced her work in this play and elsewhere. We talked about the emotional distress of living in today’s fractured culture, but we also talked about family, gardening, adventure, and discovery. We recognize that we aren’t beyond hope, and we talk about how artists can imagine a world where solutions are possible.
Here’s the episode.
Ellen: Magellanica is a five and a half hour long play that is about eight people, scientists and engineers who go to the darkest, coldest, most dangerous place on earth, the South pole in Antarctica in 1986 to find out why there is a hole in the sky.
And that is a poetic way of putting the hole in the ozone layer that was discovered in 1985 86. And in that time period, they were trying to figure out what happened? Why did it happen? Is this a human created circumstance and what does it mean for humanity on this planet.
Doug: I mean, you’re using that poetic language, a hole in the sky, but it was a very real thing. Right. You know, and so, and that hole is still there, but it’s actually shrinking now.
Ellen: Truly the hole in the ozone layer was a success story in human collaboration and intervention to a problem that had been created by our use of CFCs. And they had been in a lot of wondrous and fabulous products that had been created in the 50s like refrigerators and air conditioning units that really helped people a lot. However, some of the chemicals that they were using to do this refrigeration, they were rupturing the ozone layer of our planet, which is part of the protective covering of our planet that keeps some of the bad sunrays from getting to us.
Doug: Well, there’s a parallel there too, to , you know, fossil fuels are incredibly useful.
Doug: And, you know, especially compared to, well, I don’t know, grass energy, what do we have a horse in a pasture, eating grass and then powering things in that way. But so fossil fuels then became this incredible source of energy, those portable, um, very powerful.
Ellen: Absolutely. And that’s what makes it complex problem requiring complex solutions. Part of what I explored in Magellanica was how many different people from different countries around the world needed to be solved by people working together. that is a similar place where we find ourselves today with climate change and the use of fossil fuels is it can’t be fixed by just one country. We do have to work together. It’s a global problem requiring global solutions.
Doug: One of the things that is different when we compare the ozone layer, to climate change, by comparison, it was relatively easy to stop using CFCs. That global agreement was embodied in the Montreal protocol, right? Yes. And so
Doug: that was the only thing that was signed on by every country.
Ellen: Isn’t that shocking but exciting that it happened. And I think part of that successful working together, that successful recognition of a problem, and buy-in that we could work together to solve it is what Magellanic wants to help us posit for the place we find ourselves now is that we have worked together before for the good of all of us. And we can do it again. We can do it again. I want to believe that we can do it again. Yeah,
Doug: it’s, it’s, it is certainly possible and I hope we’ll get there too.
When did you finish the play?
Ellen: February and March of 2017 was the world premier of the play in Portland at artists repertory theater. I started the play about 10 years ago and it took me about five years to write. It’s in five parts, so it was about an hour apart and it’s a five and a half hour long play.
So it was a substantial amount of research. So that means that I finished the first draft of it about five years ago. Uh, it went on to have a couple of readings and development in a couple of places. Timeline theater in Chicago gave me a wonderful workshop that helped enormously as I was trying to grapple with the amount of research that was doing versus the human stories that were carrying the play.
Doug: Sure. Yeah.
Ellen: because. It’s not an essay. It’s not a science book. It’s a story. It’s an adventure story with life and death circumstances and mysteries to be solved and love stories and music. It is all of those things with all of this science and politics and history roiling around inside of it.
Doug: it’s not just the length of the program. There’s also a big cast, right? Yeah. Lots of,
Ellen: a cast of eight, which is not small. It has at least eight different languages represented, including Norwegian, Bulgarian, French, Russian. Chinese. Oh. Because there’s a very international cast.
And the designers were also really challenged because they needed to create both Antarctica during the winter, the eight and a half months of winter when these characters are going to be locked into the South pole research station. So the vast cold whiteness of Antarctica and the cramped, dark, metallic wrenching of this research station where every bit of it has been hauled in the belly of a cargo plane and them too, and deposited there with no help until eight and a half months later when they can be retrieved.
Doug: man, I mean, there’s like endless metaphor there for the situation that we’re finding ourselves in with with climate change. there’s a Russian scientist there and the American scientist are kind of butting heads and, yeah, so there’s the, there’s like the international global kind of story that’s happening. There’s also all the, personal stories that are kind of interplaying with that too,
Ellen: Well, it was, it was great fun to write. It really was, I’m a geeky English major, and, uh, so researching. All of the science, but also the history and these different countries from which my characters came and what the world was like in this particular moment in time was fascinating because I was alive in 1986. I’m older than that, and I kind of remember all that. I was pretty young, but it was an interesting moment in history. Uh, we were still in the cold war and had been for a long time, although we were approaching the tipping point of that. We were in the midst of the Reagan years, but in the wake of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, all of these things affect the characters.
Uh, the central argument of the play is what happened to create this hole in the sky, and it’s held in the bodies of two of the scientists who happen to be, uh, an American climatologist a female american climatologist and a male Russian climatologist. So that felt very right to bring these characters who distrusted each other the most and make them the ones who had to navigate this question of what had happened and what we could do about it.
Climate and Politics
With president Trump, we’re seeing how one individual’s view of the world can change the world when he has access to so much power. Yes. I think it’s worth noting that this is the day after the house of representatives impeach the president. So it is a historic moment that’s worth noting. Yes.
Even though the play itself is not directly about climate change, you conceived of it in the context of the United States pulling out of the Paris climate accord, of the Trump presidency and about this kind of worsening crisis of climate change. You know, I think the reason that I wanted to talk to you was to talk about that idea of that struggle between the personal and the international perhaps, or the personal and the political So in this little microcosm of the world, this little group of people that are trapped in a box in the, like the worst place in the world.
Doug: how did you see either one characters or like all of the different emotional States of these characters impacting the work of the group and the wellbeing of the group?
Ellen: Well, there is definitely a complex web of human connection between all of the characters. Uh, there is a growing love story between, uh, two of the characters. That’s part, that’s part of the story that we reached toward each other in times of crisis. More than ever, right? It’s a natural human thing. There’s a real connection that happens between my oldest and youngest characters, and that is intensified when the youngest character finds out that her father has died.
He has a heart attack while she’s there in Antarctica at the South pole station. Her first instinct is, I have to go home. And she can’t go home. She can’t be with her family. She can’t have the support of the family.
And I think that’s one of the things the play is talking about is putting a personal face on a global crisis and saying, this is a person over there who’s like me, even though they’re from a different country, but look at, they’re like me and I’m connected to them, and we have this in common with each other and they drive me crazy because they do this, but I need them because of that. And they’re in crisis. And how do I feel about that? How far does my empathy stretch? And I think that’s a real question of the now in which we find ourself, this divided, polarized moment of anger and division and fear-mongering by a lot of people at the top is that question of empathy. Is do we see the other people as connected to us, similar to us, as important as our own selves and our own family members, and how far do we want to reach? Do we want to put a wall beyond which we don’t care or do we say no, those are people like us, connected to us on the same small blue planet as us, and that we’re in it together.
Doug: do those interpersonal conflicts it affect the objective reality that they’re all there to reveal and discover, right?
Ellen: all of the characters are separately pursuing their own scientific questions. Two of the eight are specifically talking about the hole in the ozone layer, but at the end of part four, there is a test, a scientific test that requires them to go out and actually do a balloon test. they talk about the fact as well, ships are safe and Harbor, but that’s not what ships are for right. Yeah, we are scientists. We are here to do the science. This is what the science requires.
Where are we right now?
Doug: Can you tell us more about the place that we’re at right now, including the, the building that we’re sitting in and then, and the property that we’re on right now?
Ellen: Well, I’m a fourth generation Oregonian. I was raised right here on the farm that I’m living at again now in a little farming community called monitor. And. Uh, my great grandparents bought this farm when they came out in the 30s, from Wyoming, and it’s about a 15 acre farm and was a beautiful place to grow up. I climbed all of the trees. I helped my dad put in the garden. I helped my mom pick berries and put up jelly and dig potatoes that we would keep through the winter and had that real small farm experience growing up. That is going away in a lot of troubling ways, but I was lucky to still have it to grow up with that.
Doug: You mentioned that of the characters in the play, it talks about things that are worth saving. Yes. If you think about this place, what does one of those things that’s worth saving?
Ellen: Oh. My vegetable garden. I love doing the vegetable garden. I was away for a long time. You know, I went to graduate school down in Los Angeles. I lived out in New Jersey for a while, but when I moved back home to our family farm about five years ago, I started doing the vegetable garden again with my dad and it’s a gift from end to end. I love ordering the seeds from the seed catalog in January. It’s like
Doug: the most hopeful thing you can possibly do
Ellen: is it’s full of possibility. I draw a map because I’m just, I like to.
I think about how to put the cabbages. My dad Doesn’t know what to think of me sometimes, but I say, dad, if we have red and green cabbages, we have to do a red one and the green one, a red one and a green one, because it’s pretty that way. During the summer I like the weeding of the garden and the planting of the garden, the weeding of the garden, the process of looking at the plants when you’re weeding and saying, Oh, how you doing? You have enough water? Are you okay?
Do I need to throw a few more. Seeds in here do it. I have more seeds of radishes. You’ll always have more season. And then taking that straight into the kitchen and we have a basket. We have a vegetable basket, and so on, summer and fall days. In the evening, it’s going out into the garden with a basket and saying, what are we going to have for dinner tonight?
And picking your own food and bringing that into the kitchen and cooking it and eating it with my family. And that’s something that is rare and beautiful and feels life affirming.
How did you feel when you understood how serious climate change could be?
Doug: this idea of climate change, can feel very abstract when, you know, I’m looking out your window and there’s not storm surge knocking your house down. Yeah. And like, you know, the farm is still here and it’s still working out and, but for, you. Personally. Um, you know, what was that moment like for you when you felt like this climate change thing is serious?
Ellen: it’s a tough thing to pin down for me when climate change specifically was something that entered my consciousness as a true thing. But I think. Mortality is the center of it for me. And I wrote another ecologically focused play called song of extinction a number of years before I started Magellanica. And then I wrote Magellanic , which is both of them are about ecological issues, but also` both of them are about mortality, and I can trace back my interest in this subject of climate change to my preoccupation with mortality. And that goes back probably to the death of my husband and losing someone very suddenly and unexpectedly when you’re not very old. I mean, maybe you’re not ready for it ever. Probably. You’re not ready for it ever, really. But I certainly wasn’t. And. Suddenly the whole world seemed more precarious and I felt more vulnerable than I ever had before end I looked out at the world through different eyes than I had before. And my own challenge. Was trying to stop being fearful long enough to reach out to other people. And my trying and failing continues to this day and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It’s scary to be human and to love other people. When we know that we will lose them. And this is, I know, very personal territory to be delving into, but I think it’s connected because I think it’s difficult for all of us to think of ourselves as finite. And baked into my art is my own questions about the universe.
And. We like to imagine ourselves going on forever and our world going on forever. And when we imagine those things, I think sometimes we fail to take care of ourselves and our planet in ways that we really need to. And because it’s so impossible to imagine it all going away. Yeah. And so it was very philosophical and spiritual, but you know, we’re artists.
This is what is. We ask these big questions and I feel like we’re not so far away from scientists who are also asking big questions of the universe. We’re all asking, how does this work and what is my place in it and how do I keep going? And. How do I keep going knowing the truths about the universe.
This thing that we have is precarious, but it’s also beautiful and worth trying to figure out how to take good care of, how to be good stewards of this beautiful place in which we find ourselves. Yeah. And good neighbors to each other. And I mean, neighbors, all of us on this planet,
Doug: right. Yeah.
Ellen: I have a very inclusive idea of neighbors.
Doug: Yeah. Well, that’s, I mean, that’s the important thing I think, is that there has to be like that emotional shift where we, expand that definition of what a neighbor is. going back to that idea of like, did these interpersonal conflicts, did they change the science?
And they did maybe, because they were all so mad at each other. Maybe they’d never went outside to go put the balloons in the air. You know that because they couldn’t trust each other.
Yes. And, and we’re in that situation as a species, you know? That lack of trust is hurting us. Yes. but then at the same time, and the president is like the prime example of this. He is taking that distrust and using it to his advantage, um, to great political instrument right now,
Ellen: personal financial advantage. He’s building walls in every way he can at a time where we need more than ever to be reaching toward each other and working together for solutions to the crises that are in front of us and fanning the flames of fear of the other.
And that hurts, hurts to see someone setting fire to the beautiful, reaching toward each other that we’re capable of as humans. Ah, it’s devastating. It’s emotionally devastating to live in this moment now where large, powerful political forces are trying to drive us apart and turn us in directions that feel so far away from where we need to be going. Yeah. It’s. It’s a scary time. you know.
Doug: We talked just very briefly at the very beginning about how, these fossil fuels that we’ve been depending on for 150 years or so now. there is a good reason why we have depended on these things, but now that we know that they’re killing us we have to make some hard choices. And, uh, the reason I’m thinking about it is that is because, you shared a personal thing, which I appreciate, and I, you I lost my mom to cancer it’s actually in the winter of 2016
it was much easier for us to kind of, you know, one on one with her as she was sick and, and, and as a family, like to each other, like between my brother and sister and my dad. Um, you know, it was much easier to, make jokes, and have fun, you know, despite the circumstances, which is good and it’s necessary and it’s important. between just my mom and I they were kind of just precious few moments where we really were both at the same time, kind of acknowledging to each other like the reality of what was happening. And, you know, getting to that moment where we’re acknowledging that terrible reality was really hard.
I wish that we had been able to get there like a little sooner, you know, in her process. we eventually did, but it was, really hard and she was very sick by then. And, you know, the, the parallel for me is just that, we, we, we have to acknowledge like how difficult this is and how, how there is, you know, this is no small Thing that we’re asking both economically, politically, this is the hardest thing as a species that we’ve ever done. Yeah. And look, the ozone layer was easy in comparison, and that
Ellen: was incredibly difficult. Right. You know,
Doug: so, I mean, you know, so I think that for so many people, there’s that paralysis of like, it is so hard to make these choices, these hard, hard choices that we are going to make or increasingly will be made for us, and that we want to have the opportunity to make a choice anymore. You know? anger is a really important force. You know, politically and culturally, and artists are just as good at, you know, anchoring that as anyone else. So
Ellen: we can focus that anchor like bosses. Yeah, definitely. And no, I, I, I agree. This is a lot of large and overwhelming emotions that come with acknowledging the truth of where we are. And it takes a lot of courage to let’s say this is where we are and it is not a good place and it’s only gonna get worse unless we do something about it.
And the powerlessness is so difficult. Like what agency do we have in this world personally and politically to make any change at all? I find myself in the politics of America today, caught in that trap of feeling very powerless and very small. Yes, and I hate that. I hate that. I’m like, no, I can’t feel that way because, because if we all feel this way, then we’ll never get to that better place.
And I don’t believe that I don’t have any power, except sometimes I do believe that I don’t have any power. I go back and forth about what power I have in this world. But then I, I look at leaders and, uh, Gretta, uh, I’ll say his front of time magazine as she was, um, look at that young woman. Look at that very young woman or who is saying enough, no more.
She’s angry and she’s doing something about it. And she is helping to pull the rest of us forward philosophically into the idea of working together towards a positive future and helping us understand that there are things that we can do. And. Telling us that the time is now. It’s not tomorrow. It’s right now that we need to take action and
And that, that the, the stasis is unacceptable. Absolutely damaging and dangerous. And. Yeah.
Ellen: Um, I don’t teach very often, but I do once in a while, and a couple of weeks ago, I was teaching playwriting to some sixth, seventh, and eighth grade kids. Oh, that is great. Oh, it was
Ellen: Anything can happen in their plays.
Let me tell you.
Doug: It does. I’m sure
Ellen: it does. Uh, but one of the things that, um, their teacher had brought to them as a focal point for, uh. For their writing that they were supposed to write plays about was this theme taking a stand? And I was just so impressed by that theme. Well, that’s a fantastic thing.
Not only is it very much very theatrical, it’s about someone doing something now present tense on the stage, but it’s all so. Encourages them to think about what’s important to them. And so I asked them, okay, well this, this theme is taking a stand. What in your life and world. Do you feel like it’s important to take a stand about?
And we had a young person talk about bullying, and that’s a very personal and individual thing, but that affects a lot of people. Um, especially young people today and, uh, had gun violence is another thing that came up, but a little boy. Talked about not being sure that the world was going to still be here when he grew up.
And he put it just about like that. And it’s kinda devastating when you sit there and look at a seventh grader telling you that he’s not sure that there’s still going to be a world for him. And I took that to heart, These aren’t easy questions. One of the reasons why I felt like Magellanic CTCA.
Was important was because it was talking about a climate crisis that we did come together as a global community to solve with the Montreal protocol with changing our actions. All of us and committing to that change and it worked. And that model of successfully working together for change that it made the world better for all of us is important to note in this time when a lot of us are losing heart.
Yes. And facing a challenge that is a hundred times bigger than that one and more complicated. And in a time that feels even more divided. Yeah. And so I want us to succeed. I don’t think someone can be an artist and not be a person with a certain amount of hope in the possibility of the world continuing and going forward.
And. If not fixing it’s problems, at least facing its problems. And I want us to do that. I want us to make things better and to reach toward each other and to make the world a better place.
you’re asking me big questions. I’m feeling emotions,
but it’s real. I think a lot about this stuff. .
Doug: well, don’t let it get you down, not to rage. It’s going to get you down some, you know, I think that that’s like, that’s what we, we need to be honest about it and we need to, you know, just be honest about that, that feeling of powerless, feel powerlessness, um, you know, all being that, that honesty is so important.
Yes. Yeah. The honesty is, is, is critical, I think.
Ellen: Yeah, definitely. And also not letting ourselves get isolated in it to share the fact that we don’t. No, what agency we have in the world right now to share with the fact that we’re depressed and overwhelmed and that the politics are getting us down and to, to not allow ourselves to be isolated in our fear because we’re not alone in it.
We’re not the only ones feeling this way. And. Even just understanding that we’re not the only ones feeling this way gives us more power over those feelings and more agency to take action, I think. Yeah. I think,
Doug: yeah, I think, you know, raw, raw artists go out there and go out there and be honest and show the rage, you know, show the hope.
You know, I think we have, we have the hope. We have the despair. We have the rage. We have the fight. We have the party. Hopefully the parties there too. I don’t, gosh, don’t forget the party.
Doug: right. Yeah. So, well, this has been really, really fun, Ellen. I really appreciate you taking the time and thank you so much.
Thank you so much Ellen.
I produced this episode, and the music you heard was composed by me and performed by Joe Kye right here in Portland, OR.
Up next on More Devotedly I’ll be talking with poet and educator Craig Santos Perez. He shares his own personal awakening to the climate crisis and how he and his students at the University of Hawaii are responding.
Thanks so much to Jenny for her support, and to Kim Gumbel for her indispensable help in dreaming up this project. And to Lindsay Jordan Kretchun for designing the show logo. And thanks to Portland Oregon’s Regional Arts and Culture Council for supporting this episode and the live show.
What you’re doing is beautiful. Can you do it more devotedly?