I was never one to believe in “art for the sake for art.” There are simply too many imbalances, injustices, and ignorance in our world (and in ourselves) – it would be a pity to waste our creativity on nonsense. The divorce from the environment, the abuse of Mother Earth and our single-sided relationship to it… these underly much of our suffering. For, what is war but an attempt to control, monopolize, and deplete natural resources? What is the root cause of many diseases if not the toxins we pump into the Earth and our bodies? And what is gender inequality if not a reflection of our skewed attitude towards all things feminine, beginning with Mother Earth?
In 2019, I was invited to participate in Climate Change Theatre (CCTA), spearheaded by The Arctic Cycle in New York City. CCTA is a biennial, worldwide participatory project that coincides with the United Nations COP meetings. It utilizes theatre to bring people together to shed light on climate change issues and encourage communities and individuals to take environmentally conscious action.
It was my first time participating in CCTA. I was asked to write a 5-minute play about an aspect of the climate crisis. The project resonated with every level of my being, as a writer and theatermaker, an ecofeminist and a human being.
Seeking inspiration for writing, I walked among the trees. I am one of the luckier people who live close to nature – in a forest to be exact. If you listen with all your senses, you can hear the song of all that lives. I dialogued with the elements, and from that, The Butterfly that Persisted was born – an ode to Nature, the ultimate warrior that persisted to exist and abound in spite of everything. And to the human being who persisted to envision and strive for betterment, taking action no matter how small.
I wrote The Butterfly as a poem, a lyrical spoken-word poem, with two primary voices – one in “regular font” and the other in “italics.” One voice represents the elements of nature, beginning as a butterfly and morphing into Water, Wind, Mother Earth, and the Thought itself. The other voice is that of the human being.
I was tremendously pleased to see The Butterfly land in more than 24 cities, to places I’ve never been… from Australia, to India, England, Canada and across the US.
I wish I could have seen all the presentations, but that would have been a financial and environmental catastrophe. The great thing about writing, however, is that your words can travel so you don’t have to! Thus said, as a playwright who also directs and performs, I was terribly curious about the process and staging of the various Butterfly editions. So, I contacted the organizers and directors… and I am so glad I did.
The casting and directing was so diverse, it was quite exciting. I had written the play for one feminine voice, suggesting the possibility of a duet or an ensemble. Not only were all these options realized, but in combinations I would not have thought of – and transcending gender.
Faces of The Butterfly
The Butterfly’s first appearance was in Bridport, England, performed by Sally Lemsford as a one woman play, in a street car. I am quite fond of site-specific performances and the new and unexpected flavors that come along with that. I recall an instant when a cat walked onto the podium while I was performing my play Turaab in Turkey. Another time, dancing with bird wings in the Bay Area, the sun shone at the very end of the performance – as if the sky was “working the lights.”
At Iowa State University, The Butterfly was staged as an ensemble piece, with the butterfly in the middle (see photo below.) The organizers had contacted me earlier to ask for a family-friendly version of the play, with three instances to consider. It’s not so straightforward to censor one’s own work, but I’m glad I did it. I even ended up keeping one of the changes for my final version of the play. An unexpected result.
Theater Alliance Kansas staged The Butterfly as a solo reading with the actress rotating the music stand while taking on the different voices. At the National Center for Performing Arts in Mumbai, it was presented as a staged reading with two women.
In New York, Hudson River Playback Theater staged The Butterfly with two females, accompanied by sparse improvised music. This was followed by audience members’ personal stories enacted on the spot, echoing the emotions in the play. Powerful!
The Wilbury Theater Group at the University of Rhode Island cast The Butterfly with one female actor playing the elements and several mixed-gender actors playing the human(s). This surprised me at first. My inclination would have been to cast one human and many elements, as I regarded the human as the one going through a transformation and the elements of nature as “the one and the many.” However, if we look at the butterfly as the metamorphosing being in conversation with multiple humans, it makes the experience universal. Again… another way to look at it – another effect.
Culture*Park Theatre in Massachusetts staged the play with a woman and a man, standing with their backs to each other. Now that would have never come to mind! But oh wow, what a beautiful image. I might have thought of including male voices amongst the elements of nature, but as a duet with a man! But why not? Nature has both a feminine and masculine side – and we have both expressed within us.
Another staging that would not have immediately come to mind took place at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. There, The Butterfly was on stage in a spotlight, and the actor playing the human was seated in the audience, just as a voice. This must have made the audience feel part of the play, part of the problem (and the solutions.) Very nice!
Then there were the Young Womxns Voices in Colorado, whose poster keeps drawing a smile on my face. They represented the humans with three performers standing center stage, and the elements with seven performers appearing around them – as if heard and not seen. A few weeks before the performance, the team had gone on a retreat in the mountains to work while being immersed in nature. “The tone and content of this play unleashed a new maturity amongst the group,” said Sarah Fahmy, who directed the play in Colorado.
This is the ideal scenario, when a written play results in a product (performance) and serves as a process for the actors, and hence the audience. Add to that an environmental initiative… well, it doesn’t get any better!
The Young Womxns Voices took the symbol of the butterfly and made it their own during a Climate Strike on September 20, 2019 on the University of Colorado campus, while 16-year-old Finny Guy declared on the megaphone: “If a dove is the symbol of peace, then a butterfly is the symbol of change.”
Yes. Young people will lead the way to a greener future. I know that with all my heart.
As a performer, I couldn’t resist doing my own interpretation of the play. I presented it as a one-person audio performance, launching with it my podcast ArabWomanTalking.
Finally, I’ve said this before, but I will say it again: Thank you CCTA for a most rewarding experience – professionally and personally. From the theme of “Lighting the Way,” to the process of writing, and the insight that it brought, to seeing The Butterfly spread her wings, to connecting with wonderful people around the world who share a love for the environment and the performing arts – it all leaves me feeling expansive and optimistic. I guess that’s what happens when you talk about something that really matters to you. Always good to remember. When it comes from the heart, it’s usually right on.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Raúl Hernández and Homero Gómez, two activists campaigning for the conservation of monarch butterflies and the woods in which they hibernate in Mexico. Both men were found dead at the beginning of 2020 as a result of their activism. May they rest in peace, and may our world be freed from the greed that is killing Nature and the heroes who strive to honor and protect it.
(Top image: Young Womxn Voices at the University of Colorado. Photo by Beth Osnes.)
Lana I. Nasser is a Jordanian-American writer, performing artist, facilitator, and researcher based in the Netherlands, telling stories on the page and on the stage. Working across genres, wearing various hats. Informed by academic background in psychology, consciousness studies and dreams. Inspired by language, nature and mythology. Working internationally; an award here – a grant there; publications in Arabic and English, and most recently in Dutch. Founder of Aat Theater and Maskan for artists in a forest. An ecofeminist, beginning permaculturist and beekeeper.