Convening with Theater Art Climate Geeks

I am on the train from Boston to Washington traveling from one climate change gathering to another. I’m off to the Citizens Climate International Conference and Lobby Day to learn more about climate change policy in Washington, to c0-facilitate a workshop on Telling Better Climate Stories, and to serve as a volunteer lobbyists speaking to a US Senator from PA and a US Representative from my district in PA.

My mind, heart, and notebook are filled up from the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change gathering convened by HowlRound in Boston. 30 theater professionals from North America, South America, and Asia gathered to talk about climate change theater and to explore next steps in creating projects, resources, and ideology for the work we do.

This post serves in large part as a space to park ideas that emerged through our convening, the reflections they sparked in me, and resources I want to explore further. I hope you find these musings helpful too. Note: so much happened so quickly, I do not always remember who said what. HowlRound has posted a video archive and other resources connected to our convening.

In the introduction to the Inner/Outer conversations, the facilitator stated a concept that I found meaningful: Dialogue is a substance.

Early on in our group discussion Chantal Bilodeau, one of the masterminds behind this gathering (and a featured guest on Citizens Climate Radio) said, Perhaps humans will go extinct and something better will emerge.

This chilling thought immediate got me wondering, Are humans the new Neanderthals?

Una Chaudhuri of NYU referenced Amitov Ghosh and The Great Derangement throughout the weekend. Most notably she reminded us on how modernity is a delusion. We have lived with the mad notion for the past 400 years that we are the controllers of the earth. We now have an opportunity to return to earth–to become earthlings again.

She also spoke about the need to decolonize our minds, which got me thinking of the need to decolonize our imaginations. Our imaginations have been hacked by the climate denial narrative. Climate change communicators give presentations that almost always contain a section that once again asserts that reality is real: “See! Climate change is really happening.” The traditional environmentalist playbook points us towards individual actions of lowering personal carbon footprints. But what if we throw both out? What if we liberate our minds and imaginations from the patterns and constructs passed down to us–the talking points above along with self-centered, wasteful, racist, classist, heterosexist, human-centric thinking?

Hearing Una and then reflecting on this, I was reminded of Doris Lessings’ Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, a print collection of lectures that helped me liberate my own mind from years of anti-gay ideology.

Una is very much involved in the work of Climate Lens.

Climate Lens

a network of theatre makers and culture workers ​who ​pursue an imaginatively expansive approach to the phenomena of climate chaos, seeking new perspectives that include but also move beyond questions of politics and policy–and beyond expressions of fear, anger, and despair.

Una Chaudhuri also told me about Meet the Climate posters created by As she explained the concept to me, I was reminded yet again about the importance of whimsy in this climate work. With slogans like, “Spend Quality Time with an Insect,”Gobble the Landscape,” and “Bored? Talk about the Weather,”  along with the  simple black and white images, these posters blend the silly with the serious.

Someone gave the definition of performance as twice behaved behavior. I see a reference of it in Richard Schechner’s 1995 second draft of his Performance Studies Handbook:

And, of course, each of these performances enact specific sequences of events. More often than not, these sequences tell a story, as in drama, the Mass, and the seder dinner. Or, as in sports and games, the events separate out winners from losers,forming a temporary and contested hierarchy, just as initiation rites separate out adults from children, the married from the single, even the living from the dead, creating distinctions and hierarchies of a more lasting kind.

Thus performances mark identities, bend and remake time,adorn the body with costumes, and provide people with behavior that is “twice-behaved,” not-for-the-first time, rehearsed, cooked, prepared.

We had a discussion about Hope and Despair. On a spectrum we were asked to put ourselves on the line between these two common climate change binaries. I found myself resisting these two poles; in my work I have taken myself off of this spectrum. It is not helpful. I remember hearing the hosts of the podcast, No Place Like Home, talking about the hope/despair setup. What is needed is not hope but courage.

I decided to create a new space for myself–Determination. I aspire to live without the push and pull between hope and despair and instead to embrace that place of determination no matter how I feel and how grim things may look.

With the suicide of Anthony Bourdain breaking as we began our convening, the idea of climate change as a global act of suicide (and homicide) came up in discussion. For episode 22 of Citizens Climate Radio show, author Claire Vaye Watkins speaks about how she associates climate change with suicide in her mind and how as a species we are experiencing a collective suicide.

Jayeesha Dutta, “a tri-coastal, Bengali-American artist, activist, and strategist, currently serving as lead strategist for StoryShift at Working Films” turned us towards the Just Transition movement and shared the principles and praxis they have created at StoryShift. These include:

Based on the adage “nothing about us, without us,” storytelling needs to be developed by, or in partnership with, those whose experiences are being shared. Creative collaboration centering the experiences and aspirations of communities is a feature of many long standing traditions in art, journalism, and storytelling. However, this work is often undervalued, or dismissed as aesthetically inferior in the fine art world and mainstream media. Intentional support of queer, disabled, black, indigenous, people of color and/or women -led media making is critical to ensure community histories, traditions, languages, and truths are honored, celebrated, and accurately represented with beauty, power, and authenticity. (Click here for the full document and to learn how you can signal your agreement of these principles.)

I do not remember who said it, but I agree that the Act of Making Theater is a rich and rewarding one that can create community, stimulate imagination, and bring about change in and of itself.

In the beginning of the second day of our convening, we had time for reflection. In gatherings like this there is rarely time to quietly think, so I was grateful for a moment where the facilitators asked us to think radically about what we want to do with theater. If resources were not an issue, what do you dream of doing?

I wrote:

I envision an audience weeping. Emotional breakdown in a Tent Revial. Conversion. Commitment> “Come down to this altar and give your life to this new earth.” Repent! Find mercy, freedom, and new life. Rumbling from the earth all nature groans> Lay down your arms. Turn from your sinful ways. Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.

Rev. Yolanda from the Old Time Gospel Hour

I imagined a climate-themed Tent Revival. Both absurd and sublime tent revivals are spectacles. I remember my days in Pentecostal and Fundamentalist church and the revival meetings designed to “save souls” and lead people to rededicate their lives to the Lord. What would this look like related to climate change?

I envisioned the New Beginnings Tent Revival lead by fictional characters, Rev. Josiah B. Simpson. Music provided by The New Earth Singers. Special ministry by Mother Phoebe Bloom, and semi fictional drag personas, Elizabeth Jeremiah, and Rev. Yolanda. It is time for that New Time Religion!

Here are some books and resources I want to remember:

I am so excited about the artists I met-courageous creators who care deeply. These include:

    • Xavier Cortada, who uses visual art, performance, comedy, and ritual to engage his audiences with ecological issues.
    • Elizabeth Dowd and Climakazi Miami,

  • Rob Davies, “a physicist and educator whose work focuses on synthesizing a broad range of Earth Systems science through a lens of human systems sustainability and planetary boundaries.” We had a candid and frank conversation about climate change, one that once again jarred me to see the risks we face and the devastating effects humans have had on the planet. With Rising Tide, Rob’s talk is accompanied by a chamber orchestra and visual art to help people better understand climate change.
  • M.J. Halberstadt, a fellow climate comedy theater queer. M.J. is a playwright and academic whose career I will follow closely.
  • Abhishek Majumdar is a playwright, director, and scenographer based out of Bangalore. His insights into outdoor theater and drawing on traditional site specific performance stirred up a longing to travel to Bangalore.
  • Grisha Coleman reminded me to live in my body, be in my body, and move my body. Her kinesthetic excercise got me thinking about my need to get back to reflections on broken bodies, something I did back in 2014 when I first began to formulate art around climate change. An artist intention I now have is to return to the exploration of broken bodies and the experience of living in, living with, and living on broken bodies. 

I feel deep gratitude for the organizers of the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change convening and for my theater colleagues who live in this strange, risky, painful, and potentially creatively explosive intersection of climate change and art


This post has 4 Comments

  1. Terri on June 13, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    Peterson Toscano, thank you ever so for you post.Much thanks again.

  2. Ryan Hagen on June 23, 2018 at 10:05 am

    Hi Peterson,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post! I hadn’t considered the intersection of climate change and art much, but do agree that it has the potential to be quite important and may be a way for people to look at climate change in ways they haven’t before…I also have a couple

    Quick question:
    You wrote, “The traditional environmentalist playbook points us towards individual actions of lowering personal carbon footprints. But what if we throw both out? What if we liberate our minds and imaginations from the patterns and constructs passed down to us–the talking points above along with self-centered, wasteful, racist, classist, heterosexist, human-centric thinking?”

    I may just be missing something, but could you please explain what exactly is being proposed in place of lowering personal carbon footprints? Are you saying those shouldn’t be a focus?

    Just hoping for some clarification.

    Thanks again!

  3. Peterson Toscano on June 23, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Ryan, thank you for reading and for leaving a comment. Thanks also for the question.

    Yes, I am suggesting we stop placing so much attention on having people change their individual carbon footprints. While not insubstantial, these efforts are grossly in adequate to address the pollution problem we have, particularly in a time of a rapidly changing climate. We need bigger, bolder, systems change. This will require collective action to change how we get our energy and to expand the options we have.

    By putting so much of the emphasis on individual behavioral changes in our homes and lifestyles, we distract people from the larger societal, governmental, policy, and businesses changes that need to take place. Yes, we all need to reduce, but people grow content with their own efforts and wait for others to catch up. Instead we need to change the system.

    Example: A university, which is like a small city or a large town, can have a sustainability group that encourages people to carry water bottles, take shorter showers, walk or use public transit. They may get some people to make temporary or even longterm changes. Something radically different happens though when they use their efforts instead to change the way the university operates for everyone. So if they used collective action, public education, and lobbying efforts to get the dinning hall to ditch their trays and have a tray-less dinning hall. By doing so an institution reduces food waste by up to 25-30% plus an enormous amount of energy and water is saved because trays will no longer need to be washed and sanitized at high temperatures. This is a single change that is long-term and it affects everyone on the campus–if they care about reducing waste or not. There are of course co-benefits–saves money, lowers the caloric intake, etc.

    I wrote about this at the Huffington Post: I Confess: I am a Climate Change Hypocrite.

    Would love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Ryan Hagen on June 27, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    Solid article and thanks for the thoughtful response!

    I’m mostly with you – the great majority of our focus and effort should be placed on changing the larger system via the collective efforts of individuals. I do think individual actions are valuable too though and shouldn’t be belittled. Some reasoning: They are a way to lead by example, publicly show to others what is possible and that something matters enough to you to change your behavior. This influences your friends, family, and others you don’t even know – social networks and how behavior/actions move through them have been proven to be quite powerful. Individual actions do get more people thinking about sustainability and the climate challenge we find ourselves faced with today. And they show up through lifestyle choices that people notice without you having to say a word. Individual action, in my mind, is a way to get more people curious and involve – a form of social proof. Lastly, once you figure out a lifestyle change, it can be somewhat automatic – you don’t really spend additional time on it anymore…I think it also helps relieve cognitive dissonance a bit.

    Overall though, I do agree. If someone is going to spend time on these issues, most of it should go towards larger efforts of effecting systematic change. If it is all, or even mostly going to individual actions, we will not be nearly as effective as we need to be to reverse climate change ASAP!

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