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When COVID shut Broadway, award-winning actress Jane Alexander went birding

Jane Alexander in Hemeon's Head. Photo credit: David Jeffrey Ringer

  • When the COVID-19 pandemic shut theatres across North America and beyond in March 2020, acclaimed film and stage actress Jane Alexander embraced her love of nature by spending the unexpected time off to enjoy the wild landscapes of Nova Scotia. 
  • Though Alexander is best known for her long acting career, writing, and service as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s, she has been an active advocate for nature and wildlife for decades, including serving on the boards of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Audubon Society, and the Centre Valbio in Madagascar.
  • Alexander spoke of her love of the natural world, her conservation efforts, and more during a recent conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shut theatres across North America and beyond. What’s the receipt of two Primetime Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, and nominations for four Academy Awards, and three Golden Globe Awards to do?

For Jane Alexander, an acclaimed film and stage actress who is up for her eighth Tony Award nomination later this month, the answer was simple: Embrace her love of nature by spending the unexpected time off to enjoy the wild landscapes of Nova Scotia. 

“After the Broadway play I was in, ‘Grand Horizons,’ closed in March 2020, I drove home and have spent the past 18 months walking the beaches, the trails, the bog edges and forest, marking the daily changes in nature: spring’s arrival, raging storms, the comings and goings of birds, a Bobcat stalking a Snowshoe Hare, animal tracks, the names of mushrooms and so on,” she told Mongabay during a recent interview. “I wrote of these things in my journal, and took pictures of most everything—life in its abundance while the virus crept into the lives of human beings the world over bringing death and sorrow.”

Birding on Cape Sable. Photo credit: Jane Alexander

Though Alexander is best known for her long acting career, writing, and service as the chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s, she has been an active advocate for nature and wildlife for decades, including serving on the boards of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Audubon Society, and the Centre Valbio in Madagascar. Later this month, she will present the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award, which recognizes prominent individuals who lend their voice to wildlife conservation efforts, at the Indianapolis Prize gala.

Alexander said her acting career has also afforded her opportunities to explore places that she otherwise would not have had the chance to visit.

“The environment has intersected with my acting career insofar as it allowed me to bird wherever I was on location for a movie or a play,” she said. “All I needed was a pair of binoculars and a bird guide. Essentially, I became self-taught as a naturalist because scheduling a human guide while working was problematic.”

Nova Scotia Forest and Bog. Photo credit: David Jeffrey Ringer

But it is Alexander’s long history in Nova Scotia–including participating in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and volunteering as a Piping Plover guardian–that has enabled her to observe first hand how the environment is changing.

“My place of wonder and peace would have to be my home in southwest Nova Scotia,” she said. “My friends in Nova Scotia and I are united in our love of the natural world and the commitment to protect her.”

“The rising tide is encroaching the coastlines faster than we thought.”

Alexander spoke of her love of the natural world, her conservation efforts, and more during a recent conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JANE ALEXANDER

Mongabay: How did you become interested in environmental issues?

Jane Alexander: I became interested in the environment from a very young age. One of my earliest memories, when I was less than two years old, was sitting in shallow coastal waters on a Nantucket beach picking up Sea Cucumbers, which had washed in by the droves.

As a girl I spent many hours outside, mainly in trees, examining insects and looking for creatures. My mother named the backyard birds for me in my suburban Brookline, Massachusetts, home. My dad made me a pair of balsa wood wings I could strap on and hurl myself off rocks and dunes in an attempt to fly.

Piping Plover on Louis Head. Photo credit: David Jeffrey Ringer

Birds became a lifelong passion because they achieved lift-off in so many beautiful ways.

Mongabay: You’ve had a very successful career as an actress – stage, film, and TV – and author. Has your interest in the environment intersected with your arts career and vice versa?

Jane Alexander: The environment has intersected with my acting career insofar as it allowed me to bird wherever I was on location for a movie or a play. All I needed was a pair of binoculars and a bird guide. Essentially, I became self-taught as a naturalist because scheduling a human guide while working was problematic.

I gravitated toward films that let me explore nature on my days off in places like New Mexico or Hawaii. I always hoped I’d be asked to do a film which had a great wildlife theme like “Gorillas in the Mist,” but I never got cast.

Crane counting in the Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan. Photo credit: Jane Alexander

I adored Western movies but all I did as a prairie wife was hang laundry it seemed, except for playing “Calamity Jane” in a CBS TV movie, which I also produced. It was terrific to ride and shoot and do my own stunts on the Arizona desert and see lots of great snakes, lizards and raptors.

In my most recent Broadway play, “Grand Horizons,” I was impressed that the sound engineer incorporated birdsong for the Pennsylvania/Delaware area of the play’s location. I vetted the calls for her and the playwright, delighting in the accuracy of her research and hearing them during performance.

Mongabay: What can efforts to protect nature and wildlife learn from the arts and entertainment sector?

Jane Alexander: Well, nature films have made a world of difference educating people about wildlife and their needs. Sir David Attenborough alone should be given the moon for all he has showed us about the earth, the oceans and the creatures we live with. His films are simply extraordinary.

Today there are thousands of nature films, some better than others, but most highly entertaining as well as educative. Producing a great feature film about wildlife has been more difficult. I tried to sell Hollywood on Alan Rabinowitz‘s amazing book “Jaguar,” but the studios had not made money on big exploration films about wildlife so they turned to outer space instead.

Mongabay: Do you see opportunities to rally arts and entertainment to better support environmental advocacy?

Jane Alexander: People in the entertainment world, particularly actors and directors, are environmentalists at heart. They are humanists because human beings and the situations they find themselves in are the stories we are selling.

Jaguar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

That said, the entertainment world is dedicated to social issues first and foremost in my estimation, and it is hard to get them on board for every issue needing attention. They simply don’t have the time. But they will respond at the voting booth, in their own backyards and with money when they believe in a cause.

Mongabay: What was the inspiration for the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award?

Jane Alexander: I was first contacted by Michael Crowther, who conceived of the Indianapolis Prize for field biologists when he was CEO of the Indianapolis Zoo. He wanted a generous monetary prize to accompany Oscar-like prestige at a big gala for biologists. I was traveling the globe with some of these men and women at that time, and they were my all-time heroes. I immediately agreed to emcee the event in 2006. It was an amazing event where the top scientists in field biology came together at a gorgeous gala with many films scrolling on the walls about the animals they were studying.

I attended every Prize event afterward, and in 2012 they surprised me with a brand-new award named for me: The Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award. It was such a great honor and impelled me to write my last book, “Wild Things, Wild Places,” as well as articles and essays. Sigourney Weaver received the second one, Harrison Ford the third, and now the Prince of Monaco the fourth. I’m so proud they are on board also.

Mongabay: Do you have a favorite place in nature that serves as an escape or refuge for you?

Jane Alexander: My place of wonder and peace would have to be my home in southwest Nova Scotia. It is on the bold Atlantic Ocean surrounded by a pond and a bay as well.  I do North American Breeding Bird Surveys there, participate in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, the longest running community science project at over 120 years.

Jane Alexander in Hemeon’s Head. Photo credit: David Jeffrey Ringer

I also volunteer as a Piping Plover guardian, monitoring these beautiful endangered birds during nesting season, a precarious time with many predators, and rising seas.

Mongabay: The pandemic shut down Broadway and stalled a lot of film and TV production. What has kept you busy over the past year-plus?

Jane Alexander: In the early Covid year after the Broadway play I was in, “Grand Horizons,” closed in March 2020, I drove home and have spent the past 18 months walking the beaches, the trails, the bog edges and forest, marking the daily changes in nature: spring’s arrival, raging storms, the comings and goings of birds, a Bobcat stalking a Snowshoe Hare, animal tracks, the names of mushrooms and so on. I wrote of these things in my journal, and took pictures of most everything—life in its abundance while the virus crept into the lives of human beings the world over bringing death and sorrow.

Mongabay: You spent a lot of time on the beaches of Nova Scotia. Could you tell us about what you’re doing there?

Jane Alexander: My friends in Nova Scotia and I are united in our love of the natural world and the commitment to protect her. The rising tide is encroaching the coastlines faster than we thought. There is a lot of work to be done to halt imprudent coastal building, to understand also how to mitigate the flooding and adapt to the enormous changes we already see coming.

Mongabay: You served on the board of Centre ValBio, a group that does research and conservation work in Madagascar. What drew you to this work led by Pat Wright?

Jane Alexander: I met Patricia Wright when she won the Indianapolis Prize. She was so welcoming and fun to be with. In 2014 I took my twin grandsons, Mac and Finn, who were 11 at the time, to Madagascar on Pat’s invitation. We stayed in Centre ValBio with some of the research scientists and walked with them and with Pat to see the remarkable Lemurs, frogs, bats and insects that populate this unique island.

Jane Alexander and Patricia Wright in Madagascar. Photo courtesy Jane Alexander

I served for several years on Pat’s advisory board for the Centre ValBio subsequently.

Mongabay: Big cats seem to be another area of focus for you. Why big cats?

Jane Alexander: Alan Rabinowitz was studying Jaguars in the Coxcomb Basin in Belize when I went to visit him while researching a movie script I had written about a female biologist tracking Jaguars in Belize. We became lifelong friends, and after that first encounter with Jaguar tracks and coughs in the night, I became enamored of the big wild cats of the world. Alan went on to co-found Panthera with Tom Kaplan to save the cats. I currently chair the Conservation Council.

There has historically been tension between the traditional conservation sector and Indigenous peoples, despite sharing some overlapping goals. But there are signs that big conservation groups and governments are now recognizing the role these communities play in maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems. I understand that you’ve been working with boreal forest conservation in partnership with Indigenous guardians. Can you tell us about that work?

Jane Alexander: I’ve lived long enough to have witnessed field biologists change from pure research of an animal to the dedication of its protection. A colonialist approach has given way to an embrace of Indigenous knowledge in many parts of the world. Indeed, it is the only way that earth’s creatures are going to survive—by letting the communities that house them take care of them. The outside world may give education, health care, all sorts of tools to aid in this endeavor, but in the end, it is those who live on the lands and seas who are the stewards in perpetuity.

The Boreal forest of Canada is one of the largest tracts of lands on the globe. It is also arguably the greatest carbon sink on earth. It is home to 300 species of breeding birds and billions who use its resources during migration. First Nations people have occupied Boreal forest lands from the beginning. They have lived with the land, its waters, its extreme weather for eons, as they have lived with the Caribou, the Bear, the Wolf and the Raven. They are the stewards; they are the Guardians. The Canadian government and many NGOs are recognizing this now and beginning to formally compensate them for their service on behalf of all of us on earth in this time of climate change.

Mongabay: What do you say to young people concerned about the current trajectory of the planet?

Jane Alexander: The young people today do not need any convincing about the state of their planet, or what needs to be done. We just have to listen to them, as family members, as mentors and as teachers. We have to help them find the professions that will give them the most purchase on their climb to a better world. That may be in law because environmental regulations are paramount, or in teaching because education and enlightenment are vital, or in science because new ideas constitute hope. I have faith in them.