The Persistent Acts series takes a look back at this year, through theatre about intersectional issues, and how these productions held space for vast emotions.
I’ve made it an annual habit to recap my experiences at the theatre, highlighting the climate themes (whether explicit or not) in a few of the plays I’ve seen that year. You can look back to my 2016 and 2017 years-in-review, which have sparked my Persistent Acts series. This year, as in the past two, I want to consider some of my stand-out theatrical experiences, in reference to climate.
My annual review kicks off with one of my favorite devising ensembles, Gob Squad. I’ve been following this British-German collective for years, and have seen their work in The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival in New York. I left that show, Before Your Very Eyes, with a bounty of emotions and reflections. I expected no less from War and Peace at NYU Skirball. Gob Squad sets their show in a turn-of-the-19th-century Russian salon, playing on the words and cultural references of Tolstoy’s behemoth novel. At one point, we collectively shout a word from the novel’s closing sentence. They also invite audience members to sit onstage with them throughout the play, and interview these individuals about life’s timeless questions, including war, peace, and existence itself.
The four Gob Squad actors don various costumes to represent characters from Tolstoy’s novel, as well as Russian historical figures and contemporary celebrities. War and Peace breaks open time and space: throughout the 90-minute experience, Gob Squad leads us through Russian history from Tolstoy’s time up through today, and beyond. Towards the end of the piece, we journey with the actors to a time on Earth when humans no longer exist, and nature has taken over. Tying everything together, Gob Squad plays back a recording of the final sentence of War and Peace, compiled from their previous showings. I had never felt so connected to a global theatre-going populace.
Besides its pure humor and unashamed theatricality, what I love about Gob Squad’s latest production is how it puts the more-than-human world on the stage. From the beginning of the show, War and Peace intentionally reminded me of my humanness, as we breathed, took our pulse, and recited a word together. As the show culminated, I was again reminded of my humanness, but in the context of the more-than-human.
Gob Squad situates Tolstoy’s novel within a historical and cultural context. They also use War and Peace to position human existence within the greater context of geologic time and the non-human world. In other words, they put human life in perspective. For me, Gob Squad’s show was an opportunity to unplug from the hustle and bustle, my routine. Because I had such an enjoyable time along the way, I left the theatre with a buoyancy, a positive recalibration of my priorities. In a capitalist system that tries to tell us what we should value and how, War and Peace was a radical experience. Though the piece was not explicitly about climate change, Gob Squad posed a question that we should all be asking in the face of climate chaos: What kind of world do we want to live in?
Another international theatre troupe, The Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, came to New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse with The Fall. This play, about student protests at the University of Cape Town, South Africa (UCT) asking for the decolonization of the university, respect for black students, faculty, and workers, and truly free education, landed this past March. In the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the power of youth was fresh in the news cycle. Throughout The Fall, the characters (based on or played by the students organizing for decolonization at UCT in 2015) unpack cycles of oppression, the poverty that many of them have experienced, and what that means about their role at university. For example, some came to school in Cape Town, but needed to send money back home or take a leave to care for sick family members. In addition to dealing with their personal struggles, these students came together as part of a larger struggle aiming to decolonize a history and culture forced onto them. In this case, that culture is English, European, white and Christian, and has traditionally depicted Black Africans as savage, subordinate, and unimportant. The students were not just fighting against this oppression, but also for justice across boundaries of race, gender, sexuality, religion, and class.
Through dialogue, music, and footage from the actual protests, the actors comment on the financial aid system that locks them into poverty and the existent racist structure. The result is not a replication of the uprising, but a reflection of Cape Town’s history and recent past. By accident, The Fall played in New York while high schoolers from Parkland, Florida were on (inter)national news, speaking truth to power and reinvigorating a national gun reform movement. The events of Cape Town in 2015 are not direct parallels to this year’s mass shootings, but what I want to highlight is the power of young leaders. In another indication of young change-makers, a cohort of youth with Our Children’s Trust is suing the U.S. government for the constitutional right to a clean environment. This group has been arguing through the courts since 2015, and are persistent in taking their case to the highest court. I am hopeful for our collective future because of youth leadership in South Africa, the U.S., and around the world. These high school and college students are organizing for a future that is intersectional and that is equitably sustainable for all life on earth. Human-induced climate change does discriminate, but the movement to an alternative future must not.
These diverse productions inspired me in different ways to ask questions about our status quo and dream up a more equitable future. Through Gob Squad, I found a jubilant reflection on our human situation, and during The Fall, I experienced how decades of frustration can manifest in truly revolutionary ways. I am grateful for these theatrical experiences, in the way they held space for me to feel what I was feeling – spaces we need more and more of in the face of mounting natural disasters and political upheavals. Because my theatre experiences were so rich this year, I’ll be back with a Year in Review Part 2 next month. Stay tuned!
This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.
(Top Image: Gob Squad’s War and Peace. Photo by David Baltzer.)
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 Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.