(originally published on the site Artists and Climate Change on April 11, 2013)
The subversive songstress Nellie McKay says, “You want people to care. I like the idea that music can get into people’s minds, hearts and souls. Then, maybe slowly, a lyric will cause them to start rethinking their lives and choices.”
In the five years since I began working at the intersection of theater and environmentalism, my struggle to find ways to ignite public discourse while maintaining the integrity of my medium has led me to understand the importance of mixing cerebral information with an emotional experience. Simply informing a plugged-in audience does not necessarily make the kind of cultural shifts our world is desperate for; but art can meet this challenge head on, providing visceral outlets to interpret research and ignite change. I call this outlet the “sweet spot”, a place where empathy and intellect co-mingle in such a way to seem synonymous to an audience. Successful “sweet-spotters” like Nellie McKay are proof that finding it is both fruitful and possible, but it’s certainly a hard spot to hit; after five years it still feels like I’m wrestling a finicky squid. But through collaboration, I’ve begun to find answers, inching ever closer to that elusive sweet spot.
Collaborating with other artists
I recently premiered a show called MARS (a play about mining), the sixth in a series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays I am in the process of creating with my company, Superhero Clubhouse. I call it a play, but MARS was really a multi-disciplinary performance event blending dance, live music and graphic art to tell an allegorical story inspired by the history of Appalachian coal mining. The intention of all the Planet Plays is to create new mythologies in order to offer fresh perspectives on important ecological conundrums; in the case of MARS, we were interested in energy extraction and the seemingly inevitable destruction of land and culture that accompanies human progress.
Though I often incorporate music and movement into my productions, MARS was the first time I’ve had a choreographer and composer working beside me from the beginning, not to mention an illustrator and a graphic novelist. The many mediums, both sensual and intellectual, made for a very effective fusion of feeling and thinking. The music was a unique blend of sci-fi and Appalachian folk, evoking a mood that was both familiar and strange; the dancing was personal and emotional, allowing us to communicate internal conflicts without words; the images assisted the storytelling in literal and abstract ways, providing an anchor for time and place; the text existed as both poetry and exposition. In the end, people seemed moved by the visual and aural world, and provoked by the ecological questions that were raised in the narrative.
Collaborating with kids
Each spring, I work with a group of fifth-graders at Bushwick’s PS123 on a project called Big Green Theater Festival*. It’s an eco-playwriting program my company created in partnership with The Bushwick Starr Theater, and it’s awesome. Part 1: students write eco-plays inspired by presentations given by guest scientists and other “eco-experts”. Part 2: my company of adult artists mounts a professional, green production of the students’ plays and performs it for the school and the public during Earth Week.
Fifth-graders are incredible eco-artists. They weave the parts of ecology that they connect with into stories that are at once funny, sad, weird and thrilling. In one of this year’s plays, a newlywed breaks up with her husband because of his obsession with shark fin soup (a traditional and controversial wedding dish in Chinese culture); the husband, in turn, dives into the ocean and joins a dance-off against an army of sharks in order to win the right to kill a shark and make his own soup. With near effortlessness on the part of our young playwrights, the sweet spot was found: the audience cares about the characters, laughs at the situation and thinks about shark fin soup.
Collaborating with scientists
Each fall, my company is commissioned by PositiveFeedback and Columbia University’s Earth Institute to create a site-specific performance in collaboration with climate scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). Because we perform the final product on the LDEO campus (where some of the world’s most important climate research is done) for an audience of families, educators and scientists, this project is a prime opportunity to seek the sweet spot in an arena where the stakes are high and outreach from artists is sought after.
To many people outside the scientific community, the work of climate scientists seems mysterious and exclusive, like Willy Wonka locked away in his factory (except instead of chocolate, the experts inside are experimenting with particles, rocks, trees, ice, invisible gases and other things that don’t taste good). Humans relate best when they feel included and empathetic. To someone only encountering results and not the process or people behind those results, earth science can seem removed and impersonal. Persistent scientist stereotypes (namely emotionless old men in lab coats proclaiming the apocalypse) only work to widen the chasm between human story and science.
A play, on the other hand, is a human story; it exists to be inclusive, to be seen by as many people as possible. Like science, a play searches for truth, but its fictional nature allows it to be expressive and personal in ways science cannot. A play has the ability to open the gates and bring the scientists out into the streets. So for last year’s LDEO performance, we tried just that. Working with seven female climate scientists and incorporating original songs, movement, poetry and storytelling, we made a piece called Field Trip: A Climate Cabaret. Rather than working allegorically, we focused on revealing the essence behind the lives and work of these seven extraordinary women, portraying them as curious, creative and flawed individuals who ask questions, go on adventures and make discoveries.
Time will tell how effective Field Trip is as either a play or an outreach tool– we’re currently seeking opportunities to expand and remount it– but I consider our day of performances at LDEO last fall a “sweet spot” success. Some of this success I attribute to the cabaret medium in which we were working; as Nellie McKay says, “Music makes the cerebral accessible, the subconscious hummable”. But of equal impact were the words and ideas of the scientists themselves. Through the context of theater, we gained an understanding of their work, which was fascinating, but we also got to hear their perspectives on why they do what they do and how they see the world, which was inspiring. We learned to care about science, as if for the first time.