Friday, August 21, 2009

FringeNYC 13: The Antarctic Chronicles

Men Wanted

For Hazardous
Journey,
Small wages
Bitter cold,
Long months of complete
Darkness,
Constant danger,
Safe return doubtful.
Honour and recognition in
Case of success.

Men Wanted is my favorite prose poem. Of course, it's not really a poem at all, it's the advertisement Ernest Shackleton placed in The Times in 1913 when he was in search of men to accompany him on an expedition to journey to the South Pole. The best part is that he received hundreds and hundreds of responses.

I'm a little obsessed with Antarctica. I've mentioned this before here on this blog when I went to see Werner Herzog's remarkable documentary. Most people reading this know I wrote a play called Antarctica about two teenage girls and their journey to a fictional continent of ice and snow called "Antarctica" and their search for something else, for something that would make their lives different, better. For reasons I don't entirely understand, an inordinately large part of my psyche is taken up by dreams of a landscape that is so beautiful and severe it looks like another planet.

This brings me to Jessica Manuel's The Antarctic Chronicles, a show in which she tells of the year she spent in the icy south after answering the modern equivalent of Shackleton's Times advert. I loved this show, but I've been sitting on this review for days now because I'm having a lot of trouble writing about it. There are so many thematic parallels between Manuel's non-fiction, but stylized account, and my fictional play about a pretend Antarctica, that it just feels a little uncanny to me. Both pieces are about very young American women who feel lost and at loose ends and view Antarctica as a path to a new self and a meaningful life. Both pieces use the phrase "there are no polar bears in Antarctica" repeatedly. In both, girls are driven nearly mad by the brutal environment. But hers is real and mine is not, so enough about my play and on to hers.

Jessica Manuel spent a year in the McMurdo Station on Ross Island where she worked as a fuels operator, lived through a winter of darkness and monitored the color of her pee. She also saw the sun set and then rise again in the space of a minute, went from FNG (fungie, i.e. Fucking New Guy) to pro with "ice time", made crappy yet hilarious films, drove a rig, fueled planes, visited the Russian station, fell in and out of love and changed her life. That's it I guess, I mean what draws people like me to the idea of travel - as a catalyst to life change. In my play Magda says if they travel to Antarctica "it will change everything". For Jessica Manuel it did, she found a sense of self and a purpose that was lacking. The show itself is huge amounts of fun - hilarious and self-aware.

Winston Churchill thought Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 was a waste. The Pole had already been located by Amundsen and Scott, who died there. He went anyway and encountered disaster, but pulled every single person who went with him out alive. He was revered by his men, and rightly so. His story is extraordinary and inspiring in the most old-fashioned heroic sense. I firmly believe that there are things in the world worth doing and that the world in the the early 21st century is both vast and tiny. The age of exploration is mostly over, but one's life can still be altered by journeys to icy lands. As Ernest Shackleton once said: "We all have our White South."

After my show Antarctica closed in FringeNYC 2007, a male acquaintance told me that he enjoyed it, but he thought the story of Polar exploration was essentially a man's story. All I can say is that he doesn't have any Ice Time whatsoever.

Because it took me such a ridiculously long time to write this piece, The Antarctic Chronicles has closed in NYC. But hopefully she'll remount it again.

(photo: Zoee B)

1 comment:

heather said...

Love the advertisement poem, love that droves of men applied for the job. Reminds me of my favorite quotes from Shaw's Heartbreak House: "I was ten times happier on the bridge in the typhoon or frozen into arctic ice for months in darkness than you or they have ever been."