Temporary Communities in the Era of Climate Change

This piece first appeared in May 2017 as part of The Lark's blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 

There is the sort of community that establishes by individuals living, working, and playing together over many years. And there is another sort of community which is temporary, one that forms fast, usually in the wake of a crisis or unusual circumstances, that suddenly bring strangers together.

Both sorts of communities are necessary in the era of climate change — and by this I mean our time, the current moment, which includes unprecedented amounts of carbon in the atmosphere as well as unprecedented numbers of informed and activated people.

Some of my favorite theater is made by companies of artists who do things together for decades or lifetimes. But it is this second sort of community — the fast-forming, temporary sort — that feels critical in a time of constant change and uncertainty. In the wake of the 2016 election and in the face of massive humanitarian and environmental crises, we are watching temporary communities rise up like never before, reflecting a collective understanding of the immediate need to come together in order to resist.

Since founding Superhero Clubhouse in 2007, temporary community-forming has been my practice, though for most of those years I didn’t know how to embrace it as such. Though I’ve always called it an open-door collective, my original dream was to have a group of artists who chose to commit for the long term, to build the company with me, to devote their careers to a collective vision. In an attempt to achieve this dream, I would apologize to my collaborators when I didn’t have enough time or space or money, ensuring them things would be better in the future so long as we all just stuck together.

Now, I do not apologize. Never in twelve years of living in NYC have I had “enough” time, space, or money. And never have I created a show with the same group of people. The makeup of my community has ebbed and flowed. Some artists (and scientists) did help to build the company with me; some are still around after a decade. I have a co-director and we are working toward a collective vision, and we have a large group of core members who are proud and supportive and helpful. But most of our collaborators are naturally devoted to their own visions, and so they flow in and out of this open-door collective, causing restarts and a lot of trial and error. That’s the whole point.

My dream has shifted: now I want to know how eco-theater can serve the world not only by engaging people in complex environmental questions, but also by providing an arena to practice temporary community-building. I’ve been doing it unconsciously for a decade; now I’m doing it with intention.

In a workshop we run called the Lab, a mixed group of art- and science-based strangers gather in a room for several hours in order to immediately and creatively respond to questions of climate change. They’re there to practice collaborative eco-theater, but they are also practicing the act of fast community-making in the face of a crisis. Prompted by research, individuals are thrust into groups and asked to make something meaningful in a very, very limited amount of time, without a dictated creative process. The Lab begins with a presentation of research, and soon we give instructions to each group: Decide what you collectively care about. Articulate a question to which you do not have an answer; a moral dilemma or trade-off inspired by the research (we call it the “impossible question”). Turn this question into fiction for the purpose of engaging others to think for themselves. Evaluate your process. Lab participants are often eager to continue collaborating with their newly-established community: “What’s next? Where do we go from here?” These are great questions, and with any luck they will lead to that other sort of community. But the Lab is intentionally temporary, and so we intentionally disperse.

In this year's Big Green Theater, our annual production of kid-written eco-plays we make with The Bushwick Starr, we placed our students' brilliant eco-plays within a framework of temporary community-building: A group of strangers walking down an NYC street, stopped in their tracks by news they encounter on their phones, come together in order to work through the big questions that arise as a result of the news, and to take solace in togetherness. Only in moments of acute crisis do people tend to halt what they’re doing and commune with strangers. I'm thinking about 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and the recent presidential election, as examples. When envisioning this year's Big Green Theater production, I wondered what it would be like if we treated the crises wrought by climate change — acute, localized crises like hurricanes but also chronic crises like ocean acidification and environmental racism — with a similar sense of alarm. Our student playwrights certainly don't shy from turning distant problems into high-stakes scenarios. When a sea wall disrupts two generations of turtles trying to lay their eggs further up on the beach, the turtles rally and grab their sledgehammers.

In the Viewpoints training, every new improvisation is a practice in forming a temporary community. At first, individuals bump up against each other, disoriented by the physical, emotional, aesthetic, and experiential differences between them. But very soon, something settles, the choices being made onstage become complementary, and the improvisation starts to feel rehearsed. Even in moments of chaos or confusion, the participants are listening to each other, appropriating ideas, finding moments of unison while also allowing the uniqueness of each individual to shine through. No matter how many times I've watched or participated in these improvisations, it still surprises me how fast our hyper-social species creates culture.

What makes theater such a successful arena for the practice of temporary community-building is the act of making something together. When we collaborate in a theatrical process, even over the course of a few hours, we contribute to a movement beyond simply adding our bodies and voices to the masses. Making theater requires our personalities, our opinions and experiences. A play is an expression of the community that made it. Even when this community disbands, the impact of the process sticks around, altering our way of being with strangers in the world, helping us to feel connected to and responsible for something larger than ourselves.