Q: The bottom of the world is an exciting and unfamiliar place to write about. It is certainly clear that your time in Antarctica influenced the setting and texture of your play The Royal Society of Antarctica, but what about your time there inspired the story you settled on telling and the characters that you wrote to inhabit your version of McMurdo Station?
A: One of the buildings I had to clean as a janitor at McMurdo Station was the Science Support Center. From the second floor of that building, there was a stunning view of the Royal Societies – the majestic mountain range across the sound from the base. At the SSC, they had great maps on the walls, and so I often looked at the names of the different peaks. Also, a woman named Pam worked in the building – who had been coming to the Ice for twenty-something years. I once asked her if anyone had been born at McMurdo and she said no, but there had been a close call one winter. I believe all of these things came together to form a curiosity in me of: what would it be like to be born in the most inhospitable place on Earth?
The Dead Seal, the dance move in the play, was inspired by two things I experienced at MacTown. The dance that summer that took the base by storm was the Cat Puke. Picture what a cat’s body does before it pukes – that’s pretty much the dance move. But I wanted to come up with something very Antarctic-themed, so I meshed that idea together with the fact that there’s dead seals out on the mountaintops in the Dry Valleys.
Tamara is based on a real life legendary jano that I was there with. I got to share the play with her during a workshop at Portland Center Stage. Before the reading, I explained to her that she was the inspiration with one big exception – that the character has a big problem with lying whereas my friend was incredibly honest (perhaps too honest). She sat next to me during the reading and it was a blast. Thankfully, she was honored. She likes to be the life of the party.
I interviewed a bunch of the scientists there, trying to find the most fascinating experiment and metaphor. While so many of the projects are vital to understanding climate change, many of them are pretty dull. I was amazed when I learned about the diatoms – the unicellular creatures that star in the play. All of the science described is accurate. It’s so far-fetched, I couldn’t have made it up.
The Biscuits and Honey Butter were amazing. The best thing I’ve ever tasted.
Lastly, the Poop Chair was real. And it was epic. But thankfully, I didn’t have to clean it up.
Find out more about The Royal Society of Antarctica playwright Mat Smart