A Theatrical Revolution of Hope

And if you are here,
And you are one of the Seven who run this world
You are not alone
I have come to bare my heart before you.
I have come to greet you.

—Bare Spaces by Angella J. Emurwon

This was the opening of our 2017 Climate Change Theatre Action production, The Spaces Between Us, which I produced as part of the 2017-18 Brandeis University Department of Theater Arts Season. The cast took the stage one at a time to greet the audience.

But as part of the same project in 2015, this was how we started our production:

… I know. I mean, I get it, I do… it’s hot. It’s, like, seriously hot out today and the first thing I hear… not five minutes outside my building… “it’s global warming.” (makes a face) I mean, come on… please. It’s summer! It’s always hot in the summer! How you gonna blame that on anything but it’s the summertime and it’s hot in summer.

A wonderful monologue by Neil Labute, An Average Guy Thinking Thoughts About Climate Change pits a climate change denier against reality. He rants, he calls us stupid, gullible and whiny. And his only real concern seems to be getting his Chipotle.

We didn’t let him conclude his hysterics. Not yet. We cut him off, mid-rant, and ushered in other plays to shout facts and fear at our audience: The last polar bear alone on an ice floe; parents wrangling over whether or not they should kill their own children rather than let them encounter the end of the world. We clamored louder than Labute’s Man could. And then we allowed him to come back on stage.

The guy looks up at the sun overhead. Squints. Looks back at us. Shakes his head.

I mean, come on! (beat) Global warming? (beat) Whatever…

He opens his bottle of water and finishes it. Crushes the plastic and tosses it to the ground. He wanders off. The stage gets brighter and brighter and brighter…

The end. Don’t be that guy. That was our mandate. We were frustrated. We were angry. We needed the audience to be our hope, and we would overwhelm them with unvarnished truth and terrifying circumstances until they took up arms and gave us the hope we needed.

So how did we go from this to “baring our hearts,” a much more hospitable opening?

I remember one tenet from my undergrad Introduction to Sociology class (sorry Professor ????): “The miserable don’t rebel.” The masses don’t revolt when conditions stay the same. They don’t riot when conditions get worse either. They revolt when an indication of light reaches into the mine, an omen of opportunity that summons the strength to exact reformation. Revolutions require hope!

And in the fall of 2017, we were miserable. Way more than we were in 2015. We had just been through, well, the election and we were now living in a country that had just elected the “Man” from Labute’s play to our highest office. And yet, in our deliberations over which plays to perform, the desire to provide hope that would lead to action was palpable. We would offer our audience that spark, that bit of light that they needed to incite a revolution.

We realized that we had to be the purveyors of hope. We welcomed our audience. We received them into our home, our circle. “I have come to bare my heart before you.” We bared the hearts of two scientists. Their budgets cut. Their labs closing. Ready to acquiesce. But rather than quit, they plant a tree.

“Start Where You Are” by E.M. Lewis. Featuring Emily Bisno and Lilia Shrayfer. Directed by Alex Jacobs. Photo: Mike Lovett.

We comforted the audience: the scientists won’t give up. Of course, they won’t. But along with these hopeful pieces, we wanted to include plays that provoked the audience to action. We sought out plays that gave agency to the audience to engage with the text. We performed Appreciation by Katie Pearl, a piece that encouraged the audience to clap for a multitude of devastating events brought about by climate change: Let’s clap for the one white rhino left in the world; a round of applause for the waters flooding back into their original waterways. Like the best activist theatre, it was fun, and funny, and you are clapping and laughing until you are really uncomfortable doing so. It feels gross, but you are required to clap for the play to succeed. So you do. And by the end, the audience is still clapping, but it is faint and painful. And we all want it to stop.

“Appreciation” by Katie Pearl. Featuring Sara Kenney. Directed by Raphael Stigliano. Photo: Mike Lovett.

OK, the audience is primed for participation now. So we decided to up the ante even more with The Rube Goldberg Device for the Generation of Hope by Jordan Hall. This play turns the audience into a Rube Goldberg machine. Every audience member is given a strip of paper with an instruction, like this:

  1.  (Stage-Manager) If everyone closes their eyes, and takes a deep breath, turn out all the lights.
  2.  If the lights go out, begin to cry, loud enough that everyone can hear you for about ten seconds.
  3.  If someone begins to cry, say “Shh! It’ll be okay.” Repeat this until the crying stops.
  4. If someone says “It’ll be okay”, wait about five seconds and then hiss loudly: “It was never going to be okay.”
  5.  (3 people) If someone hisses “It was never going to be okay,” start making noises like those of traffic in a big city (cars WHOOSHING past, horns HONKING, feet STOMPING, etc.) Don’t stop until you hear “Donald Trump.”

When it works, if it works, it is a progressive current that carries the audience on stage for a dance party. Complete audience participation, leaving-your-seats-coming-on-stage-audience-participation. I won’t lie, opening night we were clutching on to each other, dreading what would happen, or not happen. But when the two performers climbed onto rehearsal cubes at the end of the play, surrounded by a dancing audience, we were ecstatic (and relieved.) The audience gazed up at the actors, still dancing, while the performers delivered a substantive promise of hope.

“The Rube Goldberg Device for the Generation of Hope” by Jordan Hall. Featuring Gabi Nail, Joelle Robinson and Ensemble. Directed by Brandon Green. Photo: Mike Lovett.

A: When I think of how improbable it all is, that a planet should have formed in just the right place, with rocks, and water, and one perfect, circling moon – like the biggest symphony of ball bearings you ever saw. How improbable it is that rock and water could catalyze into life—like the littlest symphony of ball bearings you ever saw. That life evolved into fish and moss and dinosaurs and bees and a species of bipedal primate with a brain that happens to generate the tiny electrical storm of consciousness. That this species could come to their own extinction, see their selfishness and say STOP! That we can stand together in this moment, letting nothing but a few words, written by a small woman far away, start us dancing, dancing in the face of it all –

B: And of course, maybe it won’t work. Maybe it’s silly, and redundant. Maybe we’re doomed –

A: But I like to think that the things we put in motion can be bigger, and more complicated than us, and yet very, very simple. I’d like to think that at any moment, one tiny act might be the start of the Rube Goldberg Device that saves the world.

And maybe it is silly. And maybe it won’t work. But our experience with this show is a testament. This is how the revolution will start. With stories. With people in a room baring their hearts. With the one ball bearing rolling down a tube that will launch a revolution.

“I have come to bare my heart before you. I have come to greet you.”

(Top image: Bare Spaces by Angella J. Emurwon. Featuring Emily Bisno, Geraldine Bogard, Peter Diamond, Gabi Nail, Joelle Robinson, Lilia Shrayfer, Daniel Souza, Zain Walker and Alex Wu. Directed by Brandon Green, Alex Jacobs and Raphael Stigliano. Photo: Mike Lovett.)

*   *   *

The production team for The Spaces Between Us included: Gabi Nail, Daniel Souza, and Hannah Uher (artistic collaborators); Brandon Green, Alex Jacobs, and Raphael Stigliano (directors); Aislyn Fair (scenic design); Anthony Fimmano (lighting design); Eleanor McKnight (costume design); Alicia Hyland (sound design), and; Tong Li (stage management).

___________________________

Alicia Hyland has been so grateful to have been a part of Climate Change Theatre Action over the last two years (and surely beyond!). At Brandeis University, Alicia is the Executive Director of the Senior Festival and the Academic Administrator for the Department of Theater Arts. She has also taught several courses and directed readings of new and existing plays at Brandeis. Alicia received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and has had work placed in a variety of literary magazines, including Mason’s Road and Fwriction Review.

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