At 10am the rope is released, the horn blasts, and the ferry is off. It's only an 8-minute ride, but it has become a necessary moment of exhale and check-in. Everyone who will take part in the day's rehearsal is together, floating in a void that is no longer the city and not yet Governor's Island. It allows us to begin rehearsal on time, and with clarity.
In Studio B of Building 110 on Governor's Island, we hug. We train a little, in Suzuki or clown. We read a scene made by an artist in a far away city. One of my co-directors, Harry Poster or Hannah Wolf, leads a discussion about the scene, how it fits into the larger story of our play. Sergio Botero, a Columbian environmental scientist at Rockefeller University and a performer in EARTH, connects something in the scene to research he is familiar with: "This city is a hot topic right now, because of the drought: either it will become a leader in the way it revolutionizes food and water technologies, or else it will collapse." We get on our feet, and start to create.
The 20 people working with me in the studio are some of my favorite artists in NYC. There are new superheroes, and some I have known and worked with for years. They are each bold, independent, multi-talented generators. Together, we are a medley of languages and cultural knowledge (both artistic and geographic). Where there are differences, we celebrate. Where there are confusions, we try to articulate. Now, at the end of our second week, the ambitious nature of our experiment-- the amount of material, the amount of unknowns, the amount of “cooks in the kitchen”-- is beginning to cause anxiety, and sometimes frustration. As in the world, much of our process is about trying to get along, to meet each other, to find common ground. It is my job to keep us together, and there are days when I am better at this than others. But when we step away from the pressure of the studio and board the ferry back to the rest of our lives, an ease takes hold again, as we gain perspective from the nebulousness of the harbor. Long ago, the estuary below us teemed with life. Not so long ago, the skyscrapers in front of us remind us of the other end of the human spectrum: nature, but also innovation. We are tiny, destructive, miraculous cosmic mutations.
At home, I Skype with my sister in Australia. She is nearly 8 months pregnant, and one of EARTH’s Satellite Artists. She shows me her latest sonogram, and dares me to find the face. I scan the terrain of the photograph as if decoding a topographical image from the Mars Rover. Finally a face appears, with strange sunken eyes. “It looks like one of those Magic Eye pictures, doesn’t it?”, she says with a mix of wonder and pride. She still seems surprised to be a mother. I’m still surprised that she is a mother.
Carl Sagan, whose Voyager Golden Record project inspired EARTH's process and structure, was known for his trademark combination of skepticism and wonder. He was a sober researcher and an outspoken critic of "psedo-science", yet he spent his career on the somewhat quixotic quest to find alien life. The Voyager Golden Record (VGR) was a serious project led by some of the world's leading experts, yet it was arguably the most romantic endeavor that NASA has ever funded. Created in a short amount of time with scant resources and no internet, the project was imperfect, subjected to the limited knowledge and personal interests and biases of the handful of experts on the VGR team. And yet it stubbornly exists, if only as a gesture, somewhere outside our solar system.
For me, the VGR is not so much a representation of humanity's greatness as a symbol of our imperfection. The items included on the record-- music, sounds, greetings in different languages and images of Earth-- are impressive and moving to peruse, but they don't intrique me as much as the process that went into creating it: the record that was strapped to the Voyager spacecraft was the result of a small group of people attempting to gather something global and tether it to themselves.
Like the Golden Record, we approached our September development of EARTH as an imperfect time capsule, an attempt to make the global personal, using the people, time and materials available to us. For me, this not only meant filling the process with some of my favorite artists in the world (literally) and making space for them to express their personal relationship to questions of population, but also making space for my own personal journey.
One prominent piece of our set was a battered, squeaky recliner that I have had with me since birth; my mother nursed me in this chair, and I've dragged it with me from high school sleep-overs to college parties to my New York apartment and now onto our stage. My pregnant sister, who was first represented in our initial EARTH showing last June when she revealed the sex of her baby live (via Skype; she lives in Australia) in front of our audience, has since written a letter to her unborn child-- a time capsule of sorts, describing her hopes, fears, and the state of her mind and body at 34 weeks pregnant. In September, we staged my sister's text as if her adult daughter, sitting in the battered recliner, was reading the letter for the first time.
After the September performance, my parents hosted a picnic on the lawn across from our studio, a delicious meal made entirely with vegetables from their garden or from the Syracuse farmer's market. During the week leading up to the performance, as we prepared EARTH, my mom prepared our food: harvesting, chopping, grilling, calculating, measuring... following receipes and following her gut... worrying and dreaming and looking forward. Without knowing it, my mother became a Satellite Artist; her response to my prompt ("Hey Mom, make us a picnic to celebrate EARTH") added to our exploration of population without comment, but with food. Cooking unwittingly became a piece of theater, and my mom's art became part of the show.
At the same moment, my dear friend Anne Zager (an original co-conceiver of EARTH) was in Minneapolis, being a doula for her friend's birth. The baby could have been born any time in mid-September. In fact, he was born on September 20, the same day as we birthed EARTH.
The environmental and political questions associated with population are tremendously complex; the personal questions are equally complex. It was moving to me, this September, to get amongst all the complexities and grapple with them alongside my family, and the extraordinary artists and audience I keep bragging about. The questions are not easy; nor was our September process. With Superhero Clubhouse, I am always interested to explore how theater (process, content and production) can be a laboratory for how we might live in the world. EARTH's content revolved around the topic of population, yes, but our process was also about collaboration and limitation. How do we get along despite differences, in the name of creating something bigger than ourselves? How do we collaborate when-- as is typical in NYC-- so many of our ensemble members are not available to rehearse every day? How do we communicate across borders of language, deadlines, time zones and internet restrictions? When we are not in the same room, when we are not on the same page, when we need different things, how do we move forward? International summits on climate change ask a lot of the same questions. So far, these summits have produced stalemates and frustration-- but also, progress. As Andrew Revkin stresses in his recent NY Times article on the People's Climate March, and as Anne Bogart writes at the conclusion of her seminal book A Director Prepares, we must act now...and also, we must be patient. Summits are happening. People are marching. Perspectives and paradigms are shifting, and we are slowly starting to work together.
In this regard (and in many others), our EARTH development process was a big success. It wasn't perfect, but it was an attempt, a step forward, a microcosm of global change. We have learned an immense amount, both from our collaborators and our audience, whose attention and feedback were essential. And now, upon the foundation of this year's experiments, we move forward, heading towards a premiere in NYC at the end of 2015.
Perth, Australia is a mining town with development on the rise, record-hot summers and an environment at risk thanks to climate change and a shortsighted prime minister. But in a few weeks, my niece will be born there, which makes me smile with wide eyes. I am filled with sobriety and wonder, gravity and hope.