Stilt walkers, dancers, two bands, actors, a swarm of children, flying dove puppets. A river, storms, a tsunami, clouds.
These were the characters of The Weather Project, an outdoor performance about climate change created by NACL Theatre and featuring more than 75 professional and community performers. The show went up Aug. 9 at a ball field in Yulan, N.Y., a rural town 100 miles northwest of New York City.
The Weather Project was conceived and directed by Tannis Kowalchuk, the co-founder and artistic director of NACL—an ensemble based in Highland Lake, less than five miles east of Yulan, since 1997—with the aim, she says, of “doing something big, flinging open the theatre doors and getting the community involved, not just as spectators but as participants.” Kowalchuk could not have known that just six weeks after the Yulan performance, climate change would be the impetus for one of the largest public protest marches in history, with 400,000 people marching in New York City on Sept. 21, 2014.
Highland Lake is in Sullivan County, part of the Upper Delaware River Region, an area dotted with small towns. The bucolic setting has a strong arts community, but also holds a country-life mentality—potlucks, penny socials, county fairs, fall-harvest festivals and tractor parades bind its citizens together. Even though city dwellers have flocked to the region recently years, many have lived here for generations. It’s a safe bet they’ve never seen anything like The Weather Project before.
The NACL ensemble (North American Cultural Laboratory) is known for producing professional, edgy, collaborative and devised original works—its recent STRUCK, for example (created by Kowalchuk and ensemble members Brett Keyser and Ker Wells, with text by Kristen Kosmas), was designed to bring audiences on a nonlinear journey along with the protagonist (played by Kowalchuk) as she experiences a stroke. “Our plays are adventurous and complex,” says Kowalchuk. So it was unlikely, in a way, for NACL to produce a community play.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 2013 Kowalchuk put the word out that she wanted to involve the community in creating and performing a new show. “People signed up and they didn’t even know what the show was—and it was not Mary Poppins,” she quips. Indeed, many members of the community, even those who had joined the cast, were a bit unsure, their minds filled with questions: Just what was The Weather Project?
The impulse for the show had come to Kowalchuck the previous winter, which saw very little snow; she was feeling concerned about how climate change was affecting her family’s vegetable farm, Willow Wisp Organic Farm in Damascus, Penn. She asked her husband, farmer Greg Swartz, about the changes he had noticed in his 15 years of farming in the area, and his observations included later frost dates, more frequent flooding and warmer temperatures. After Superstorm Sandy ravaged the area and the polar vortex followed on its heels, people were talking about the weather with intense interest, and Kowalchuk was listening.
Talking about the weather connects us all: Together we take misery in brutal heat, or delight when the snow melts and spring shows its first signs. Kowalchuk wanted to capitalize on that bond. “We need to talk about climate change with this community and not start with ‘Climate change is bad, let’s freak out together,’ but with understanding what climate change is and what can we do about it,” Kowalchuk felt. Her approach took the discussion in a positive direction, so that audience members would understand that they could all contribute to preventing climate change in some way.
The Yulan performance attracted between 600 and 700 audience members. The weather conditions were perfect, and the rural community witnessed a performance in which their own friends and families told stories about climate change.
At the outset of The Weather Project, three science students (played by local teens) exhibit a climate change project at a science fair—their presentation for the judge (played by NASA scientist Elaine Matthews of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies) is filled with numbers and data. Suddenly, a storm, portrayed by six stilt walkers, blows in, carrying the students away. Transported to a far-away land, the group embarks on a Wizard of Oz–like journey, narrated by Starkweather (played by NACL company member Brett Keyser), a kooky weatherman. The students meet the Cloud Collectors, the River Dancers and the Solar Munchkins, who live in a world powered by solar energy, and head off in search of the Great Scientist; on the way they encounter a Japanese rice farmer (who rides in on a tsunami) and the Fossil Fuel Gang (an evil but likeable group who remind us that we all use fossil fuels to drive, heat our homes and power our electronics). When they finally reach the Golden Garden, where they find the Great Scientist at work among her bee hives (performed by Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble), the kids ask the climatology guru what they can do about climate change. The message is simple: Use less.
The stilt storm sweeps in again, and the show’s 50-person ensemble joins in a climactic whirlwind of stilts and kabuki streamers, as the students get transported back to the science fair. This time, when asked the final question by the judge, they don’t expound on numbers and data—they share what they have just learned: “Ask yourself who and what you love. Ask yourself what you are willing to work and fight for. Ask yourself how far you’re willing to see into the future. Keep searching.” These are the final words of the play.
“People really felt the magic that night—it was a rare, incredible performance that all of this community came out to see,” says Kowalchuk, who was initially worried that the show’s topic would be too complex to boil down to a cogent message. But the play’s final lines echo the themes that emerged from initial improvisations that Kowalchuck and scientist Matthews conducted: “Tannis looked at me and said, ‘What is the one thing you want to say?’ I just said, ‘Live with less.’ That’s my message,” Matthews confirms.
The Weather Project was supported by a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant of $50,000, and the list of collaborators stretched from the Town of Highland to local schools, environmental groups and civic and arts organizations. The show generated other events, including a two-day climate change symposium organized by project partner Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development—which Kowalchuk considers “the play’s research period, where so many dynamic ideas were generated and we began to educate ourselves”—and weekly workshops for dancers, stilt-walkers, actors, singers and children. Kowalchuk managed the project’s many collaborative relationships with the help of NACL dramaturg Mimi McGurl and collaborating writer Mark Dunau, a former playwright from New York City who has been organic farming in a neighboring county for over 20 years.
“This is going to inspire other communities—this is the spirit we need, of communities coming together around climate change,” says Kazzrie Jaxen, a professional musician who was part of The Weather Project’s chorus. A touring version of the play (details not set at press time) will hit the road in 2015, and NACL is making a documentary film about the project with the Brooklyn-based production company Decades Out. Kowalchuk is also developing a Weather Project template to build new theatre collaborations with other communities around the issue of climate change.
The topic is often talked about in complicated, serious, even morose tones—but Kowalchuk is convinced that more can be accomplished by broaching it in an entertaining way. “As a theatremaker, my tendency is to keep humor in the rhythm of a play, no matter what it’s about,” she posits. Matthews shares similar thoughts: “The subject didn’t get simplified to the point of just entertainment—it was amazingly scientifically correct.” Humor, playfulness, creativity and a colorful cast of characters came together in The Weather Project to address a subject of urgency and consequence. It was this juxtaposition that made the show—like the weather itself, and the giant Sept. 21 demonstration calling attention to the science of climate change—something to talk about.
Isabel Braverman is an editorial assistant at the River Reporter.