As this year sprints to a close, I’ve been thinking back on what all has happened in the world, the country, the city I live in. And then I have to take a breath. Slowing it down in my mind, I reflect on the outside world: the fears, the confusion, the urgency. Then I reflect on the experiences I’ve had inside a theatre, and how so many of those experiences drew together events and questions from the world at large, putting them into conversation with theatre audiences.
Most of the plays that I’ve seen are not about the planet’s climate. The plays that I’m reflecting on inspire me to address climate change more intersectionally, using tactics that reach audiences not only on environmental questions, but also around political and cultural considerations. What follows is not an exhaustive list, nor a series of critical reviews, but rather some standout theatrical experiences of the past year, and how they are fueling me onward.
Early in the year, I worked with Superhero Clubhouse and Kaimera Productions on a mounting of Jupiter (a play about power) at La MaMa. Jupiter begins with the crash of the electrical grid, orchestrated by a god-like figure who has exiled himself to a spaceship outside Jupiter. The character Humanity, named for the world’s people that she represents, communicates to this figure-in-the-galaxy on the continuation of life on Earth despite the loss of (electrical) power. This iteration of Jupiter took on issues of energy resources through both the narrative and the production elements: part of the stage was lit by a solar-powered lighting grid, with projection screens tracking the power usage throughout the show. The solar-powered element set a precedent for how New York City theatres can incorporate sustainable practices into their productions, and into the onstage action, showing that climate-conscious choices can be woven into the world of the play itself. In Jupiter, the characters are not only debating power in terms of energy, but also in political and social terms. Who has the power to decide how we get and use energy? Through an offer of audience participation, Jupiter bridges the actor-audience divide, and calls upon an individual’s agency. In everyday life, I’m striving to pick up such offers to put my own agency into play.
Less overtly climate-change themes were woven into The Foundry Theatre’s O, Earth, produced at HERE Arts Center. Casey Llewellyn’s reimagining of Thornton Wilder’s American classic Our Town put the characters and the narration into an intersectional perspective. Gender, race, sexuality, and celebrity were categories of identity that the characters played with in their vignetted scenes, all the while contributing to an ensemble space for, and with, the audience. To me, the juxtaposition of seminal Our Town characters (the Narrator, two coming-of-age lovers, and Wilder himself), icons of gay culture (Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson), and contemporary figures (Ellen DeGeneres and Portia DeRossi) posed questions about how we live our personal histories through our daily lives. How are we spokespeople for the communities that we come from, or not? And how do our social and cultural identities interact with the land that we live on, with the space that we come from? The layered storytelling, paralleling and then diverting from Our Town, was an epic journey, and the fearlessness with which the narrative delved into the surreal is exciting to me. We’re in surreal times. We can use the theatre as a space to explore alternatives to the oppressive status quo, with absurdity and humor. Through this space, I found myself invigorated by social and cultural leaders of the past. The care and value with which O, Earth treated the people – characters, actors, audiences – that took part in the production was refreshing. The balance of the intimacy of individual experience with a broader human scope is a tactic necessary in plays addressing any social topic, including climate change.
The largest-scale show I encountered this year, by far, was Taylor Mac’s 24 Decade History of Popular Music at St. Ann’s Warehouse: a 24-hour marathon musical extravaganza, with each hour dedicated to a decade from 1776 to 2016. Taylor Mac began the first act by recognizing Indigenous people who were and continue to be displaced physically and politically by “Americans.” The marathon ended with Taylor’s invitation to reconvene the next day, the Monday in October considered to be Columbus Day, to continue the conversation. The “conversations” in between the opening and closing moments of Taylor Mac’s performance included questions on the history that we Americans tell ourselves: Who is the history about or for? How has art intersected with American history? What is the role of an individual in a national history? These questions ran through the whole 24-decade performance, but within each hour, Taylor wove in particular ideas based on the hour’s social, political, and artistic themes. This 24 Decade History was not explicitly about climate change, but both the structure of the performance and its content led me to consider my relationship to climate change in new ways. By considering each decade of American history from alternative perspectives, Taylor called out oppressive systems and subverted artistic, political, and social status quos. With that length of 24 hours, I considered the elements of duration, stamina, and preparation as related to any one individual, but also, to communities, particularly those building movements for justice. As the movement for climate change mitigation continues, I am considering tools to build and maintain stamina for the duration ahead.
The closing of one year – of one presidential administration – is a time conducive to reflection. But once we’ve gleaned the lessons from the past, we continue the work. The work of the coming years, at least from what I’ve learned, has got to be more tangible and more urgent. I’ve observed storytelling tactics, performative elements, and intersectional approaches that can assist in the pursuit of change, leaving audiences with something useful – a thought, question, action item. Referring back to the thoughts, questions, and actions inspired by local and international artists, I am hopeful, even as treacherous times loom ahead. Onward.
Want to share your concern for climate change with a climate change denier in a political position of power? US Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology – and climate change denier – has a one question survey on his website about congressional priorities for the year. Help make your concern heard by selecting Other and write in “climate change mitigation”.
Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is a co-organizer with Climate Change Theatre Action. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The Food Plays, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.