Culturebot: conversation with Eva Peskin

Originally published in April 2016 on Culturebot by Eva Peskin.

Culturebot’s Eva Peskin sat down with Jeremy Pickard, founder and Captain of Superhero Clubhouse (SHC), a collective of artists and scientists working at the intersection of environmentalism and theater, about their upcoming performance of Big Green Theater, as well as SHC’s work making eco-theater and the role theater plays in resisting climate change.

Big Green Theater opens with a benefit performance on Friday, 4/22, at The Bushwick Starr, with free performances on Saturday, 4/23 and Sunday, 4/24.

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EP: Very broadly, I would like to talk about the role of culture and culture makers in what is a real crisis. I’m interested in values, and value, and the role art plays in that, and I’m curious in especially this process, versus your other projects, how you see that operating. But before we get into all that, can you share what is Big Green Theater (BGT) and how it relates to Superhero Clubhouse’s (SHC) mission?

JP: BGT is a program that was conceived by The Bushwick Starr (BWS) and developed over the last six years with BWS as producers and SHC as makers. The original idea, which is still in tact, is that we bring environmental education to school-aged kids through playwriting. And what that has blossomed into is a program where we work with fourth graders, fifth graders, and this year we did a workshop with teenagers. The program has a trifecta of goals: to expose kids to the foundational tools of playwriting and the foundations of environmentalism. Another goal is to allow kids to find a medium of expression, to find their voice, and to hear the weight of their words. Often the kids won’t know what that means until they see the play. And the third goal is to enrich the community. Partnering with the community is something that is very important to the BWS, and is certainly one of SHC’s values as well.

The program has two parts: the first part is the classroom session. For three months, after-school, three days a week we work with 15 fourth and fifth graders. And it’s a cumulative process—each week a different presenter or a different experience introduces them to a different environmental topic. Our sort of über-topic this year was the biodiversity crisis and the sixth extinction, and last year it was climate change, for instance. This year we started by going to the Natural History Museum and they learned about biodiversity, generally speaking, and then we learned about climate change, and about insects, and then we had some presenters come in to teach about local fish and the relationship to extinction here in New York — particularly sturgeon, there’s lots of sturgeon plays that came out of that — and also birds. A guy from the local Audubon Society came and talked about local birds and their relationship to temperature change and climate change.

As they’re learning this, they are also writing rough drafts in different pairs and trios of students. And after this first part of the program, they get to choose which of those first drafts they want to see developed and ultimately produced. In this second part of the class of the classroom sessions, they are taking workshops as well. They had a rewriting workshop with playwright Chantal Bilodeau, who is a climate playwright, and a songwriting workshop. This year Julia May Jonas came and did a songwriting workshop and then wrote music based on the kids ideas and lyrics. And then they had design workshops with the designers for SHC. Then they come to BWS and they hear the final drafts of their plays read by the actors who will be performing them, and then they take a break for three and a half weeks while we rehearse, and then they come back to see their plays performed.

The whole process is very holistic. When I talk about eco-theater, when I use that term (which is just a made-up term), what I mean is a set of values. But practically speaking, I mean a holistic approach. In this case, BGT exemplifies this holistic approach to theater, in that they are plays that are one hundred percent connected to scientific, or environmental information. Our first production rehearsal begins with a presentation from a scientist — this year, a biologist who introduced our cast and crew to the topic that the students learned about, so we can be working upon that idea. So our whole process is rooted to these questions and ideas, and is very green — we compost and offer reusable containers to people — but then the production itself, the building and designing, is all deeply green. (It would be another conversation to talk about that word, and I’m using it because the program is called Big Green Theater, not because I like using that it, and I usually don’t.) But, all of the set, costumes, props are found or recycled or sustainable in some way. If we purchase fabric, for instance, it’s probably local hemp (but usually we don’t). Every year our lighting designer Jay Maury, who works at BWS, experiments with more and more efficient lighting. He uses BGT as sort of a laboratory to then install new systems into BWS itself. And I think BWS is probably the greenest theater in New York, just as far as wattage — electricity being used throughout the season. That’s my guess, maybe that’s not true…

EP: That would be really interesting to find out.

JP: Yeah, it would be, and Jay’s a good person to talk to about that. So, for instance he helped us make a solar panel for JUPITER which he’s now implementing for BGT. So some of the lights will be powered by solar panel, but the rest of the lights are homemade, domestic products, or made in his 3D printer, and they’re all LEDs, maybe some fluorescents. So in the holistic approach to theater-making around the values of environmentalism and environmental practices are best exemplified in BGT, mostly because we have the time, resources and people to do it. But certainly that is the case for all of the work we do through SHC.

SHC’s mission allows us to feature a multitude of different initiatives that are ever evolving, but to distill them a little bit, BGT is one of them. And if BGT expands or evolves, it will be under the initiative of education, and how theater, matched with a more traditional education experience, is transcendent and ultimately more beneficial and offers students arts in school. And we’ve been making these Planet Plays for a really long time, and when we’re done making them, that initiative is eco-plays for adult audiences. And then our other initiatives is theater for young audiences, but made by adults. These are pieces that we have in our repertoire that we can offer if a school asks us to do something. And then also we have this Lab, something we’ve been doing every other month for the last two years. It’s a workshop that brings together environmental experts and theater artists to practice collaboration. It starts with an environmental presentation, and we end with a performance at every workshop. This fall the lab is expanding into a fellowship. It might not be like this in the first year, but we hope it will be an academic year-long program in which a select ensemble of half theater artists of different disciplines and half environmental experts of different disciplines will come together once a month. That fellowship will culminate in an original production, probably around issues of climate change, which they will build together. Our thought is that will become the way in which we make work down the line…

EP: Yeah, because how many planet plays do you have left?

JP: Well, we’re making Pluto over the course of the next year, which is technically the last, but we’re going back to some of the ones we made drafts of in our early years, before we knew what we were doing — or, I shouldn’t say that! Just when we were more youthful. But we’re going back and re-making some of those. For instance, we made a couple drafts of Venus in early years, and the early version doesn’t work as much anymore for the planet play series as it has evolved. So we’re going back and totally making Venus again from scratch, and now it’s going to be about climate refugees and migration.

EP: So is that in response to issues that are more present now than when you started?

JP: Yeah. When I started SHC, nobody was talking about this stuff, not much. I mean, environmentalism has been around forever, and artist have been working with it forever. But climate change, in particular, and the complexities of our global ecosystem — this was before An Inconvenient Truth. I was playing around with this stuff, and I didn’t know anything about climate change, and I’m slow reader and a bad researcher. So, to me, what has been my education has been years of making things in partnership with people smarter than me. And, most importantly, scientists. And then, of course, obviously it’s become a worldwide issue. It’s in the paper every day, there’s a lot more to read now, there’s a lot more exposed, there’s a lot more information. And then something happens like the Syrian refugee crisis and immediately we start hearing about its connections to climate change. Then we go, oh, this was an issue we were speculating about, and a lot of experts had been speculating about this being an inevitable outcome of climate change — a mass migration of people. But now we’re seeing it, it’s not foreign, it’s not fifty years from now, it’s here now, we should be making a play about it.

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EP: It feels like, or I hope that, we’re moving from this personal responsibility model, to a more systemic responsibility model. Our idea of how to be good citizens used to be, like, recycle! And we know that’s just the tiniest little drop of what we actually need to be doing. And then you think of theater as an institution that doesn’t necessarily perceive itself — and I’m not trying to just pick on theater any group, any industry, we’re just starting to be able to think about how we are implicated in climate change in all the different places that we operate. Something I love and respect about SHC is that you demand to operate in a particular way, and there is an aspect of any theatrical undertaking that is a sort of socialization project, or a world-making project. In making a piece of theater, you’re making a world for the people doing it. And you are demanding that it be made in a way that is responsible — I wonder what limitations you’ve come up against? What would your dream eco-theater experience be, versus what are the consistent limits you’ve had to negotiate.

JP: Well, first of all, I don’t think there’s such a thing as preaching to the choir with these issues. With this, it surprises me time and time again how I think that I know as much about something as the people around me are going to know, when the fact is we all know various things at varying levels. And regardless of that, we’re inundated with so much that to sit in a theater and have time to be with these questions, that’s not preaching to the choir, that’s time and space and community.

EP: For processing

JP: Yeah. And part of that is that I’ve yet to have a process where everyone involved is like, “Oh yeah, I know all this stuff, I get it, I understand the complexities, we can just jump in.” And often, I’m one of those people being like, “Oh, right, I don’t know this!” And so I think we are all still sort of stumbling in the dark a bit, and so part of the dream eco-theater process is one in which (and I think this maybe fellowship will lead toward this) theater artists and environmental experts find common ground that we all have a basic understanding of. I think we’re all still in that slowly-waking up phase: oh, this is what we need to say, this is how we should be saying it. That’s what I see when I see other people playing around with eco-theater, I usually see something kind of similar, as far as the approach, the message, the questions, whatever. I feel like that’s just a problem of time and cultural knowledge. So that would be part of it — we would have this baseline place so we can innovate. We don’t need to worry so much about understanding the facts. That’s true for the kids too.

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EP: Something this work makes me think about is the value of storytelling, and I know that’s something that’s very important to you. It’s very important to tell stories around this stuff. But it also makes me think of the way that we are socially coded to tell stories in a certain way, like about good versus evil. It’s definitely partly from human history — we’ve always told these kinds of stories — but it’s particularly coded now in a capitalist, industrialist framework, which is the undercurrent of most of climate change. And so that’s a layer in the way that even kids understandhow to tell stories. I wonder if you think about process as a story, and how we might be getting at other kinds of storytelling that might resist the late capitalist human…ugh. I don’t know how you do that!

JP: Two things: first, sort of the simple story structure, before the process-as-story, the fiction itself. The thing that drives me nuts about popular, animated movies trying to make strong female characters is that it’s usually just the same shit, the same story, and it’s like, “Look! This is a Strong Female Character!”

EP: And that person is succeeding by a definition of success that is not resisting or changing the world, actually, and even by succeeding it’s making the world even more what it already is.

JP: In a similar way, when you see disaster movies, or movies that kind of come close to issues of climate change, there’s still a formula and a code that we’re still locked to.

EP: We can’t imagine a new way of having culture and being together, we just redo it after everything has been wiped away. That’s what I got out of Jupiter, that we don’t know how to really do something different.

JP: That’s definitely something that we talked about a lot with that piece. And there’s a little bit of flaw in that, because we hoped the ending would be more open and hopeful, and I think most people had that response — the ending of that play was that we’re doomed to repeat ourselves. It’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just a moment of, “Oh, that’s one step away from what we were thinking, but yeah…” We’re locked in. And to me, this is an issue of time. I think actually, the root of climate change, of all of our environmental problems, is our perception and experience of time. And that’s also a problem of our storytelling, sort of in reverse. Chantal, who led our rewriting workshop, wrote a series for Howlround last year, and in her intro she said something that stuck with me. She said you can’t write plays about climate change, they have to be climate change. I think what she means by that is that it’s not an issue, it is. That’s the world we live in. To me that’s maybe an open doorway towards what are our new stories, and what are the ways we tell them. That’s also why it’s sort of annoying for me to say I make eco-theater. It’s nice because it gives me a set of limitations, it’s helpful for a lot of reasons. But really, it’s not a thing, it shouldn’t be a thing. 50 years from now we should look back at the plays made between now and then and go, “those were plays from the era of waking up to climate change.” Not that they were about climate change, but that they were from this time. And I think that requires so many different things — including understanding how we are complicit in it, or connected to the web that is the reason why it happened, to understand what we’ve inherited, most importantly, our consumerist culture, our tendency towards convenience and laziness in ways that our ancestors maybe weren’t so much. Or maybe they were, but regardless. now we are able, in the more privileged parts of the world, to make a choice about that. Those are things that are really interesting to me: are we able to, and how do we break out of our sense of time? And are we/how are we able to break out of our sense of laziness, for lack of a better word.

EP: Yeah, you think about what are the apparatuses through which we experience and tell stories? Because for most people it’s not theater, it’s not live. It’s through television and mass media, mostly. So even the mechanisms through which we tell/experience stories are really convenient, and sometimes rich and complex and really interesting, but they are not supporting a different value system on a functional, social level.

JP: That brings me back to BGT! To me, theater is not something that is necessarily what you put on stage, but the fact that it is in this environment. Theater is context, to a certain extent. What’s neat about these kids is that they’re appropriating all these different things from the stories they know, mostly coming from pop culture. So, from Star Wars, from Disney tv shows, from cartoons, from online, from slang and colloquialisms, from what they hear their parents talking about. And they think cinematically, because they haven’t had this experience with theater before, and I don’t have a problem with that. Because what happens when we go down that route is that we put it on stage, and because it’s theater, it’s something new and transcends all of that. It’s like a different story. Even if we were to take a tv show word for word and put it in the theater, I don’t think it would necessarily be a very good play, but it would be its own thing. There’s something about that that’s really interesting with the kids. It’s part of the reason that I think theater is such an important tool in fighting the environmental crisis, by which I mean changing our value system, changing our culture, changing how we be together—that’s the context of theater. That’s what we’re doing there.

EP: I’ve had this feeling for a long time, and not to say it’s not happening already, but on as large a scale as we can, we need to rediscover the value of theater. And theater itself needs to rearticulate its value.

JP: What I’m interested in is for people to consider the complexities, to live in questions. That’s what I want — a society of people who live in questions…Really what it’s about is consciousness, because that’s what changes culture. But it’s tricky, because when you say we’re making work about these issues, most people that come to us interested in that specifically have a passion about activism. And I have no problem with activism, but I don’t think that’s theater. I don’t think that’s how theater can function best. Maybe we use the word theater to describe activist events, Bread & Puppet is an example, and I’m not saying that’s not theater. But theater, in the way that I’m defining it, is not activism. It’s a place where we commune around a question so we can think about it more. So we can go away and have it be more a part of our consciousness, and thereby allowing us to be more comfortable with questions and complexities beyond that one particular question. That’s what’s tricky about it. It’s hard for me when we do a lab — like, our lab in December was on extinction and people were crying. And I understand, man, we’re talking about fifty percent of the world’s species dying, many of which we hold dear to our hearts…

EP: We do and we don’t though

JP: Exactly. And that’s the point! Let us cry, but not while we’re making theater. Or fine, cry, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about us wondering, why are we crying yet we also do all of these things — we’re crying while we are living in this structure. Granted, we were born into it in this country, this excessive capitalistic, individualistic cowboy community. We didn’t choose that, but we are a part of that, and we think that way, and it’s hard for us to break away from it. And so to go back to your question about how are we telling stories and what stories are we telling, I think that’s a red flag for me when we make work. If we’re making work upon tears, it’s not going to be the kind of eco-theater that I want to make.

EP: I always feel that the people for whom theater is the most useful are the people who are making it, so I’m trying to think of as many different ways as I can to have the process be what I’m spending the most time on, and be the actual part and parcel of the thing, because that’s where you get a truly different experience of time. And I think SHC has a very unique sense of process, in terms of using different drafts, and returning to things — it seems like a more anthropological scope of time.

JP: And also, process is the thing that I think is impossible, that we’re chasing after. If we’re working upon our ideals or our values, then we’re chasing after that process that we will never really find. The reason why it’s impossible is because it’s the microcosm of the larger society trying to make stuff. It’s impossible because we happen to have consciousness, we happen to like to make things. And we like to make stuff together, but we’re also fiercely individualistic, with very different tastes, very different interests, very different approaches. And yet, we’re trying to make something together and trying to get along with each other. And that encompasses everything — the moments where you’re like, this means fucking nothing, all I’m doing is for naught. And sometimes you’re doing all this work for one moment, when I have more people who I don’t know, usually, who are meeting this, and I don’t know what that means. To a certain extent, if that’s the metaphor, the audience doesn’t make any sense. It’s like you have a town or a community that makes this really unique thing, and then this other community comes to it and they’re like, I have no idea what this is, I’m not a part of it. It’s not actually like this [meshes fingers together], which is strange.

EP: That’s a really great metaphor, it is really strange. I guess it gets back to the point of how are we telling stories and who are we telling them to.

JP: And for.

EP: And how are we including the people who are receiving them in the process, which is really hard.

JP: So, for instance, part of the success of BGT is that their families are really proud of them, and the school is really proud of them. The other students are like, “Whoa, you wrote that play?!” Building on that, we’re going to be doing this project called The Living Stage in partnership with University Settlement in the coming year, and we’ll be working with this community of seniors at the Meltzer Center in the Lower East Side, and also kids, both building this living stage — a permanent public performance space that is also a community garden. So we’ll be making that with this community over the course of a year, but then also we’ll be making a performance to premier in that space with them. And similar questions come up in my head when I envision what this will be like. It’s sort of BGT-like, but what’s neat is that they get to have a voice in creating the structure, the space itself, so that’s interesting. Who owns the space, and is the space the thing?

EP: And since they are the ones witnessing the whole process, it’s clear who the piece is for. It makes me think that we have a quite colonial perspective on audience-ship, which I’d never thought of before. This idea, “I’m going to watch this and it’s going to mean something to me!” or “It’s supposed to mean something to me!” But really, it’s important to be witnessing things made by and with your people. It’s about decentralizing and de-homogenizing our structures of storytelling.

JP: Yes!