IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
A little bit later in the hour, we'll talk with Paul Davies about his new book, "Cosmic Jackpot". But up first - what happens when you mix science with poetry? Sounds like unlikely bedfellows.
Well, my next guests don't think so. Their new performance piece "Seachange" mixes original scientific prose with poetry, and the goal of the piece is to inspire conservation and a new outlet towards nature. Award-winning actress Lisa Harrow and her husband Dr. Roger Payne, a whale biologist famous for discovering the whale song, join me to talk about their show. Plus, what did it take to bring a science show to the stage? We'll talk with the artistic director of Redshift Productions, the company producing "Seachange".
And if you'd like to join the discussion, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 11800-989-TALK. And as always, you're invited to surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com.
Let me introduce my guests, who join me today in our SCIENCE FRIDAY studios in New York. Lisa Harrow is an actress and co-creator of "Seachange". She's also starring in the New York premiere of "Phallacy" by Carl Djerassi and is the author of "What Can I Do? An Alphabet for Living" - a cute little book published in 2004 by Chelsea Green. Welcome to the program.
Ms. LISA HARROW (Actor; Cast Member and Co-Creator, "Seachange"; Author, "What Can I Do? An Alphabet for Living"): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Roger Payne is co-director of - co-creator of "Seachange". And I'm sure his name is familiar to you as the person who discovered something we take for granted today - that humpback whales sing songs - and for his theory that the sounds of (unintelligible) blue whales can be heard across the oceans. He's studied the behavior of whales since 1967, and he is founder and president of the Ocean Alliance. Welcome to the program, Dr. Payne.
Dr. ROGER PAYNE (Biologist; Founder and President, Ocean Alliance; Co-Director, "Seachange"): Thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Megan Halpern is a co-founder and the artistic and producing director at Redshift Productions in New York, whose motto is connecting audiences intellectually, emotionally and spiritually to science, right?
Ms. MEGAN HALPERN (Co-Founder and Artistic and Producing Director, Redshift Productions): Yes. That's it.
FLATOW: Welcome to the program, Ms. Halpern.
Ms. HALPERN: Thank you.
FLATOW: Let me ask you both, Lisa and Roger, what message are you trying to convey with "Seachange", Lisa? Where does "Seachange" come from, the name?
Ms. HARROW: Well, the name "Seachange" is actually a Shakespearean word. It's from one of Ariel's songs in "The Tempest". And it means a profound transformation. And the full title of the show is "Seachange: Reversing the Tide". And that's actually the mission of a piece we just - we are endeavoring to use poetry and science to awaken people's sensibilities to the needs of this sustainably and the importance of that.
FLATOW: Well, and it's a great play on words - reversing the tide.
Ms. HARROW: Yup.
FLATOW: Have many, many different reasons. Roger, how did you get involved in this?
Dr. PAYNE: Well, I married Lisa.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. PAYNE: It was my best step. And I began to go to all the performances that she gave. I saw her do many plays many times, and I began to realize, gosh, what if you could take that ability to communicate, and you could use it with getting across some of the ideas that scientists try always and usually, unsuccessfully, to do? And so I thought, well, maybe we could do something together. And I started writing, and Lisa added some poems, and we both found other poems and kept sort of writing it together.
FLATOW: Now, how did you find Megan Halpern? Megan, how did you find them to produce this?
Ms. HALPERN: Well, it was very much a coincidence. We called Lisa. I got in touch with Lisa when we were producing "Phallacy", thinking that she'd be perfect for the role. My husband worked with her years ago on "Wit". And when she came and read for the part, we said, you're perfect. She said, by the way, I have written this show with my husband that would be right up your alley, and it indeed was. So it was a really perfect…
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Can I impose on you two to read us something or perform something from…
Ms. HARROW: Sure.
FLATOW: The play?
Dr. PAYNE: We'd be happy to.
Ms. HARROW: Yeah, just a little, short piece.
Dr. PAYNE: I'll start. It goes:
(Reading) It is often stated that what makes our species unique is language, rational thought, and the making and using of tools. However, the more we learn about these abilities in non-humans, the more the gap between us and them narrows. Surely, one of our species' most unique features is our limitless capacity for denial, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are wrong. That is what really makes our species unique.
Ms. HARROW: (Reading) I met a traveler from an antique land who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, half-sunk, a shattered visage lies whose frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command tell that its sculptor well those passions read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King Of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
FLATOW: It's maybe - I'm sorry…
Ms. HARROW: Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
FLATOW: It's amazing how the poetry plays off against the science.
Ms. HARROW: That's the idea.
FLATOW: That's the intent, yeah.
Ms. HARROW: Yeah. But it both eliminates the science and also is provocative with the science. And the idea for us was that would be a left-wing, right-wing thing, that the poems would open the hearts of the people and then the facts and the reality could be placed in a way that people would remember it. And that's what seems to be happening here.
FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number - talking with Lisa Harrow, Roger Payne about "Seachange", which is produced by Redshift Productions. Let me ask you, Megan, how did Redshift get going? I mean, to have a production company that specializes in science and the arts - as someone who has been covering science for over 30 years, you don't find - I haven't found many places that say we're going after that audience.
Ms. HALPERN: Yes. Well, Max and I, my partner and I, had this idea seven years ago when we wrote a song together and submitted it to the American Living Room Series at here. And it was accepted, and we said oh, we better write a show around that. We ended up writing a show about the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. And it sort of had sparked in us this inspiration. Science sort of became a muse for us. And everything else sort of followed from there to the point where, really, for us, it's about explaining the universe of science, explaining that body of knowledge to the public, in a way that as this poetry and science does with "Seachange", in a way that can emotionally connect to the audience.
FLATOW: I think people would think that you have - they would have trouble or you would have trouble getting an audience for a science-themed theater or even readings and performances.
Ms. HALPERN: I think if you have a strong enough piece, you can find an audience for it. And certainly, our audience right now tend to be people who are already interested in science, but that is changing. One of our shows - "Galileo: The Emotional Life of a Spacecraft" - was actually a rock opera about the Galileo mission to Jupiter sung from the point of view of the spacecraft. And it was quirky enough, and it was a rock opera. There was wonderful media elements. So it brought in a sort of different contingent of people, and it was - hopefully inspired them to see more shows about science.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Lisa Harrow, you've done more than just perform; you've actually written a little book called "What Can I Do? An Alphabet for Living".
Ms. HARROW: That's right.
FLATOW: And it gives us answers about things that you can do.
Ms. HARROW: Well, the provocative thing about "Seachange" is that it makes the audience ask the question, all right, I'm convinced; now, what can I do? And after a while, we've - when the performances that Roger and I are giving around the country, (unintelligible) in various places - it became clear to me that that's what was needed. We needed to the tools. So I self-published a little book with a friend, like a child's alphabet. And then Chelsea Green, who are one of the biggest publishers of sustainable books in America, happened to be in the next town to us in Vermont, and they picked it up. So I did a big audition for them. And now, I've just had - what - my U.K. edition published in February. But I've also done individual editions for Australia and New Zealand as well. And all they are are just compilations of Web sites where there are reliable - where they have accurate information about all the elements that we need to start living in a closed loop, zero waste, sustainable, conscious, kind of way in all areas of our lives.
FLATOW: Roger, you're still involved in whale research.
Mr. PAYNE: Oh, yes, very much. The Ocean Alliance just finished a trip completely around the world and the boat lasted five and a half years. We came home with samples from 978 sperm whales. These are being analyzed and we're figuring out how badly polluted the oceans of the entire world are, and the results hold up preliminary are horrifying.
FLATOW: I have a deja vu all over again when I hear these things. I remember back in the late '60s, you know, when the ocean - some of the rivers were burning. You remember those days?
Mr. PAYNE: Oh, absolutely.
FLATOW: It almost feels like we are recreating some of the consciousness.
Mr. PAYNE: Yes, we are. We are.
FLATOW: Or it's renewing itself.
Mr. PAYNE: It is. I think it's starting to, yet it has a long way to go. Alas. But I think there is a hope and people are starting finally to realize what the problem is. And I think that when people do that, when they finally figure out what's wrong, they move fast. They move so fast that all you can do is just, sort of, watch.
The example, I always think(ph) of this as, when the Soviet Union imploded and the Berlin Wall came down, and all the United States government could say at that time, basically, was, you know, sort of, came down to, gee whiz, look at that. Look at the walls coming down. I mean, nobody had anything to say. It all proceeded so fast. I think once people see what the problem is with the environment and take it in and take it on board, then I think they'll shift and they'll shift fast.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. Lisa, your bio says your career started with the Royal Shakespeare Company playing Olivia in "Twelfth Night" opposite Dame Judi Dench.
Ms. HARROW: That's right. Yes. Yes. Yes.
FLATOW: You've come a long way.
Ms. HARROW: Well, I have. Yes. On the back of a whale. Oh, no. No. Not really.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Now, yes I grew up in New Zealand then I went to England on a government for my - a scholarship from my government. And yes, I started with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is my childhood dream. And then I worked in film and television and theater ever since. But the interesting thing was, to me, meeting and marrying Roger and suddenly encountering his whole other world in which to become involved. And it's slowly consuming my life.
I mean, I run an institute now and we're working on getting "Seachange" out into the general public. We want to have some real impact on the way people chose their candidates because we want people to really start demanding of any candidate for any office that they have an environmental platform. And we think "Seachange" is a very good tool to awaken people to the need for that.
FLATOW: Do you think the political climate is right now for…
Ms. HARROW: Well, it feels like it. I mean, there's a - we just come from a wonderful meeting with architects and engineers and visionaries about vertical farming, building these great tall buildings, which would grow crops and produce food, and - living - being hydroponically using water that's being got from a gray water system, from the wastewater of a city. I mean, talk about a zero waste closed loop system - that would be fantastic. So people are really, I think, beginning to wake up and take this situation seriously.
FLATOW: Well, we have to take a break. We're going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about the "Seachange", to talk with Roger Payne, Lisa Harrow and Megan Halpern, take your questions and calls.
Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Maybe you want to see "Seachange". Maybe you can't make it to New York. Maybe it's going to go in some other place and you want to see it. We'll find out where you might be able to see it around the country. And other things are going to be happening over the air at Red Shift Productions, what they've got in mind. So stay with us, we'll be right back. Don't go away after this short break.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
My guests are Lisa Harrow, actress and co-creator of "Seachange". And she's with us here, also writing - oh, she's an author and she wrote "What Can I Do? An Alphabet for Living". Roger Payne, co-creator of "Seachange", biologist and founder and president of the Ocean Alliance. Megan Halpern is co-founder and artistic and producing director at Red Shift Productions in New York.
Our number 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones to Kris in Tucson. Hi, Kris.
KRIS (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi there.
KRIS: Thank you for taking my call, and thank you for having the best radio program on the air.
FLATOW: Well, you're very kind. You're welcome.
KRIS: Where can we find some of more of these productions that Megan and her partner have made? Where can we find the scripts, the authors, things like these?
FLATOW: Lisa? Roger?
Ms. HARROW: Well, Megan should answer that first.
Ms. HALPERN: Yes. Well, redshiftproductions.com is our Web site. There's a lot more information available there as well as CDs of the music that we've written and we've created so - and that's also available in iTunes.
KRIS: Okay. Next question: Have you considered being guest honor to science fiction conventions around the world? I think you'd be very popular.
Ms. HALPERN: Guest of honor where? I'm sorry I didn't quite catch that question…
Ms. HARROW: At science fiction.
KRIS: Oh, have you considered going to science fiction conventions as guests of honor, like world car(ph)?
Ms. HALPERN: Well, we would go anywhere if we were invited. That will be wonderful.
Mr. PAYNE: That's why they hook - the invitation got lost in the mail.
Ms. HARROW: I was just going to give you our Web site, too, which is seachangeinstitute.org, which has the information about the piece and also where were our upcoming performances and where we have performed it. We haven't published anything yet, although we're actually almost reaching that stage now. But our problem is Roger keeps changing because as more information comes along, things keep needing to be added and stuff. So we've never quite managed to get in the three years we've doing this piece, to get a script that we could say, ah, finally that's settled.
KRIS: Right. That'll be a work in progress, cost and updates.
Ms. HARROW: Yes. But check out the Web site.
KRIS: I saw it.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Kris.
Ms. HARROW: Thank you.
KRIS: Thank you.
FLATOW: Have a good weekend. What kind of things change? What do you update? Give me an idea.
Mr. PAYNE: Well, I mean, two weeks ago, I'd never heard of a vertical farm, for example, now it's part of the show. So it's that kind of thing. And, you know, we had a wonderful example that's just absolutely terrific, which involved the Ford Motor Company, and then Ford began to crumble and collapse. So that didn't seem like such a good example and we had to modify that slightly, but there are happier occasions.
Ms. HARROW: Oh, we introduce green roofs, too. I mean, we - in a big way because I suddenly got passions about green roofs. But also, it's a question of, sometimes, we have do a 45-minute version so that it gets altered. And just the way - I mean, just refining the wealth of ideas that are in this that -Roger has half an hour to present his and I have half an hour because - but shared equally because of the poetry. So it requires a tremendous amount of polishing and polishing and polishing to get as much information through in shortest time as possible.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Megan, do you ever take these shows on the road and your production?
Ms. HALPERN: We would love to. I think that - I know that "Seachange" plans to tour after this and plans to go around the world. We also have plans. We'd like to get our work out there to a wider audience than just New York.
FLATOW: Right. Right. 1-800-989-8255. Sabrina in Santa Cruz. Hi, Sabrina.
SABRINA (Caller): Hi.
FLATOW: Hi there.
SABRINA: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. And I wanted to find out - my daughter who is 6 has, for the last two years, started an organization just for kids to get them involved in using their artworks to bring awareness to ocean issues and cleaning the beach and the ocean lines. We live in Santa Cruz, California, and I wanted to find out, are you doing anything, working with the younger kids to get them involved, to get them to bring the voice to a lot of these issues that we have?
Mr. PAYNE: Well, we just gave a talk yesterday, as a matter of fact, which had, I think there were 140 children at it. And we begin - for the first time, we get a feeling of how much of what we're doing works with kids and how much doesn't. Surprisingly, a large amount does because it's pretty challenging and we use examples of - a lot of people would have thought, oh, heavens that will never work, but it does I think. And we would love to do that. Nothing would be more pleasing.
Ms. HARROW: One of the parents I have is to - I've registered the Web site, What Kids Can Do, but I haven't actually had the financial backing to create the Web site yet. But for exactly that reason - because in my book I have a whole section on what young people are doing. And if your - does she have a Web site for what she does yet?
SABRINA: She does. That's greatkidscare.com.
Ms. HARROW: Greatkidscare, because I can put that up on my "What Can I Do?" Web site. And I'm about to start another edition of the What Can I Do, so I can put her in under the young people. So - but we - as far as - she working with them, no we haven't done that but I will do my best to get the information about our Web site as much as I can.
FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Sabrina. 1-800-989-8255. So Lisa, have you traded in? Are you now an actress who does conservation or a conservation who does some stage work.
Ms. HARROW: I'm a human being who does both. I mean, that sounds very tripe, isn't it? But actually, you know - yeah, I'm seriously looking - as Megan said, we wanted - we do want to take "Seachange" with us in the tide around America and I want to create sustainability fares that would be in conjunction with the show. Of course, all of that requires funding, so we are now in a search for funding…
FLATOW: We know all about those problems.
Ms. HARROW: …to do that. We know all about that. I might be joining your fund drive. But, I mean, I'd still do work, I'm doing "Phallacy" and - but that means 10 shows a week instead of eight. But it is certainly true that for me my passion is now the environmental work that I am doing with Roger. And I think it's wonderful that through my abilities in acting, we are able to work together. I mean, who knew a whale biologist and an actress could actually share an off-Broadway stage. I mean, unheard of.
FLATOW: And Roger, what changes have you had to make to adjust to this kind of life?
Mr. PAYNE: Well, you know, I've just - it's been selfish and wonderful. I've had an opportunity to fulfill dreams that I had never thought would happen. And I've worked still very strongly with the Ocean Alliance who's doing work and is always looking for funding as well, so I help them find funds whenever we find that somebody who might contribute to it. For instance, we're trying to analyze the results we got from around the world. And I haven't been able to do it. Once we have, we'll be able to give a background or we'll able to say what is the background level of pollutants throughout the entire world, of the oceans.
Ms. HARROW: So we're just very busy.
FLATOW: I'll bet. A few minutes to go. Tim in Panama City, Florida. Hi, Tim.
TIM (Caller): Hi. I want to thank you for taking my call.
FLATOW: Go ahead.
TIM: I'd like to also echo the semblance of your first caller. I think you can have the greatest show. I think you should be on four days a week and the other one should be only one day a week.
FLATOW: Well, thank you for the compliment.
TIM: But I think this is a fabulous concept because just like the movie back in the '80s "Aliens", nobody can hear you in space or scream in space. I sometimes think that we live in a vacuum down here, also, about the scientific community. And the poets have been the great communicators to the centuries, and this is a marriage made in heaven right here. If they can get this out to the people, that's what matters.
Ms. HALPERN: We have done it down in Sanibel, Florida. But if you want us - if you have a way of getting us to you, I mean, go on to the Web site seachangeinstitute.org and you'll be able to link there and email us and get information. And we're happy to come wherever people want us.
Mr. PAYNE: Let me just…
TIM: I would love to have you folks down here. I will definitely go in your Web site and see what I can do.
Ms. HALPERN: Roger wants to say…
Mr. PAYNE: I'm just going to add it seems to me that, you know, what is news broadcasting about. It's about interesting things. That's what radio is about and there is so little science and I don't know - I've known almost nothing in science that isn't interesting. I'm always - it absolutely amazes me that thousands of stories go by and to think somebody like Ira Flatow to bring it out to the world, I wish there were 20 like him.
FLATOW: Well, I'm jealous of all you people. I mean, I'm an old ham from, I suppose, a lot of place. I never actually made us, you know, this is how I act out. This is my stage, you know, and I'm very jealous about what you all do. And Megan, I'm - you know, I get kudos here because you've taken a, you know, the chance of bringing science to the theater here.
Mr. PAYNE: Theater here.
Ms. HARROW: Absolutely.
FLATOW: And there not many people who do that.
Ms. HARROW: No.
Ms. HALPERN: Well, it's really a passion for us. I don't think that there's a greater muse that we've found in our work. I don't think there's anything that's spoken to me personally more that's evoked - And I say this a lot -evokes solace and wonder. And those are the two emotions that I find come more from science than from anything else. And that's, sort of, why we do it.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do you think you can ever - tackle anything like quantum physics or whatever?
Ms. HALPERN: We have actually, a little bit. We did a comedy, an improv comedy, called "Happy Hour at the Event Horizon". That was created entirely with scientists and improv actors over a year, and then produced. And it a battle between Einstein and Niels Bohr at the edge of a black hole at the end of their lives. So we did tackled quantum physics and we'd happily do it again.
FLATOW: And Lisa, how much longer will your production be running for?
Ms. HARROW: Well, "Seachange" will be showing next Sunday…
Mr. PAYNE: This coming Sunday.
Ms. HARROW: …this Sunday coming at 7 o'clock at the Cherry Lane Theater and then the following Thursday, the 7th of June, at 2 o'clock at the Cherry Lane Theater. And after that, that's - we don't do anymore here in New York. But we are doing it in other places.
Mr. PAYNE: They're posted on the Web site.
Ms. HARROW: It's all on the Web site.
FLATOW: If you like "Seachange" and you want to, you know, see Lisa and Roger - a terrific combination on stage - I suggest that you go to the Web site and check it out and I want to thank all three of you for taking time to be with us today.
Lisa Harrow is actress and co-creator of "Seachange", starring here, also in "Phallacy" by Carl Djerassi…
Ms. HARROW: Yes, I did. (Unintelligible) in "Phallacy."
FLATOW: We had Carl Djerassi on.
Ms. HARROW: And Simon, my co-star.
FLATOW: And he was terrific also. She's also author of "What Can I Do: An Alphabet for Living". Roger Payne, need no introduction or, well, say goodbye. Anyhow, co-creator of "Seachange," biologist and founder and president of Ocean Alliance and Megan Halpern, co-founder and the artistic and producing director at Redshift Productions in New York. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.
Ms. HALPERN: Thank you.
Ms. HARROW: Thank you.
Mr. PAYNE: Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: We're going to take a short break…
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FLATOW: …as the music butting in indicates in changed directions.