Emerging a Strategy During Crises

This month in Persistent Acts, I reflect on my growth since the development and production of my undergraduate thesis in theatre five years ago and on how, in light of the current crises, this led me to develop an emergent strategy curriculum to build authentic relationships.

When I set out to write this piece in April, the U.S. was in a different place. Since then, the country seems to have traveled back in time; the racism pandemic is manifest once again, and calls for police abolition are the norm on my social media feeds. I stand with Black environmentalists, including Mary Annaïse Heglar, Leah Thomas, and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, to demand an end to police brutality and a flourishing of intersectional environmentalism. The fight for climate justice must also be a fight for racial justice.

I too have been traveling back in time to unlearn my white supremacist tendencies, like holding onto perfectionism or my sense of urgency, and to reconnect to my past work. About five years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis, Existing on Earth and Stage: Exploring Human Relationships with Ecosystems Through Performance, and developed a production, GAIA: an eco-theatre project. In my research for my thesis project, I met Jeremy Pickard of Superhero Clubhouse and Chantal Bilodeau of The Arctic Cycle. That fall, I moved to New York City, and soon after started writing for Artists & Climate Change. I’m realizing now how much of an emergent time these past five years have been for me – how much I was growing, learning, changing.

I’ve also been finding solace in podcasts like Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us. Brené is a social worker and researcher, and each of her podcast episodes ends with her sign off: “be awkward, brave, and kind.” Through the various crises I’ve encountered over the past five years, I’ve come to lean into courage, vulnerability, and resiliency, so my own tag line these days is: “be courageous, vulnerable, and resilient.”

Cou·ra·geous (adj.): not deterred by danger or pain

When I wrote my thesis, I was surrounded by friends. It was the end of college, a tumultuous time for me, and a threshold from one phase of my life into another. Around the same time, my nuclear family as I knew it fell apart. My parents divorced after about twenty-five years of marriage, my brother graduated high school – all “normal” life events that happen in families over time. Add to these events chronic mental illness, and there was a seismic shift in my family dynamics that I could not have prepared for. I had to figure out how to support at one point my mother, and at another point my brother, from a distance. The rupture of my nuclear family as I knew it was part of my emerging experience in New York City – and feels reminiscent of this emergent time of the novel coronavirus and the racism pandemics.

When I was healing from my parent’s divorce and settling into a hectic New York City schedule, I started seeing a therapist. This mental health professional supported me in finding tools to manage the crisis that my family was going through. I harnessed my courage to take on family responsibilities and wade into uncharted territory as a child of someone with bipolar disorder. These days during the pandemic, I’m drawing on my courage to encounter each new day as an opportunity, a fresh chance to make a better world from my corner of the city. These are also vulnerable times, and just as I faced uncertainty during my family’s crisis, we are facing uncertainty in this year’s global and national crises. Add to that the climate crisis, and my existential antennae are a-flutter.

Chart by David Hillis

Vul·ner·a·ble (adj.): susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm

Fortunately, my friends in the climate theatre community have been holding space for me and for one another. We’ve checked in on each other, offered opportunities for paid work when possible, and have generally held space for our mutual existence and understanding of how unprecedented these times are. I’ve also been spending more time in organizing spaces, particularly with Sunrise, the movement of young people for a Green New Deal.

Right now in the U.S., we are all living with many problems, from the oppressive, systemic forces of capitalism and racism, to the isolation, anxiety, and depression that impact folks individually, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In “The Negro and the American Promise,” a conversation that aired on Boston public television, James Baldwin sums up the moral dilemma of Black people in America:

that one is a little bit colored and a little bit white, and not only in physical terms but in the head and in the heart, and there are days – this is one of them – when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it.

This brings me back to my role in the arts, the theatre, where I feel moral dilemmas on a regular basis: Is this really what I want to be doing with my life? Do I have what it takes to “make it” in theatre? These questions remind me of why I love theatre in the first place: community and collaboration. I started out as a stage manager in middle and high school, supporting a team of artists on a collective vision for a production. Big shoutout to my public school education in the Parkway School System of suburban St. Louis, Missouri for having drama departments (and fostering arts education in general)! I so loved working as part of a team, and listening to the different needs of each artist on a production. By the end of high school, I wanted to try out directing, which I spent my college years experimenting with. I could not have done what I did in college without my advisor William Fisher, who understood my eagerness around environmental issues and encouraged me to take anthropology courses. My curiosity about the study of culture has been expanding ever since.

My undergraduate thesis production was a culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation as a theatre artist. At the same time that my production was going up, 350.org was organizing the People’s Climate March around the world. It felt like fate. I have realized since that all of the sources for my production itself are white men – every piece of found text that made it into my script was written by white guys. How could my environmental show, in which I ask big questions about humanity, have such a narrow focus? I was young, which is no excuse, and I make it my mission now to make work that gets to root causes of injustice and that is intersectional. I work to decolonize my work in the theatre.

Re·sil·ient (adj.): able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions

During the COVID-19 lockdown, I spent time with adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. This workbook, subtitled “Shaping Change, Changing Worlds,” has led me to Octavia Butler – creator of some of the most lush and nuanced world-building I’ve ever encountered in sci-fi/cli-fi. From adrienne maree brown and Octavia Butler, I’ve continued my process of unlearning colonized behaviors and language. I’ve been finding the vocabulary of sustainability, of what is possible when we, humans, remember our inherent nature: to strive for survival. To thrive, to be resilient, to move through the world with courage and for me, to return to the goal of my thesis: cultivate a better world with people I love.

In the early days of the pandemic, I set out to reflect on my creative output, and ended up generating a structure for how I make my work – for now that’s my writing, my social media posts, my facilitation of groups of people in my workplace. I’m working on adapting my curriculum to be a tool for others who may be feeling stuck when it comes to leading with clarity, transparency, and authenticity. I’ve seen a number of guides coalesce in response to the pandemic, and my offering seeks to support leaders to be courageous, vulnerable, and resilient, and to build authentic relationships. May we all remember our authentic humanity as we continue to navigate these turbulent times.

Photo from GAIA: an eco-theatre project. Credit: Madeline Carey.

Additional reading:
Theatre Post-Pandemic by Chantal Bilodeau
Covid Artist Activation Guide from The Center for Cultural Power
Creative Responses to COVID-19: USDAC Listening Shareback from U.S. Department of Arts & Culture
Mapping Our Social Change Roles in Times of Crisis by Deepa Iyer
If you care about the Green New Deal, we need you to join the Movement for Black Lives by Sunrise Movement

Recommended Listening:
Yikes Podcast
Mary Annaïse Heglar’s Hot Take Podcast

(Top image: Gaia, photo by Madeline Carey.)

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.

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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, Superhero Clubhouse, and Blessed Unrest. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE 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.

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