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Collaborative theater course focuses on Finger Lakes climate change

Media Contact

Jeff Tyson

A Performing and Media Arts (PMA) course combining climate science, theater and civic engagement will culminate in five “living newspaper” performances at various venues Dec. 1-4.

This Engaged Cornell project is presented in collaboration with seven undergraduate and five graduate students in the “Theater and Social Change: Climate Crisis” course created “Climates of Change” in collaboration with the Ithaca-based Civic Ensemble theater company. The multimedia production incorporates content based on discussions with community members in a series of story circles.

PMA senior lecturer Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. and associate professor Sara Warner led a weekly seminar, in which students read about and discussed climate change as well as theory and practices of applied theater. Throughout the course, Cornell climatologist Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, provided climate science instruction and advising.

Lisa McCullough ‘20, a biology and PMA double major, said the class revealed just how little she knew about climate change. “I think that speaks a lot about how little of our collective knowledge trickles down to the personal level,” she said. “The biggest thing I’ve learned? To be communicated effectively, science needs to transform: from distant and abstract to personal and visceral.”

Sarah K. Chalmers, Civic Ensemble’s director of civic engagement, facilitated the story circles, off-campus discussions focused on the impact of climate change on the Finger Lakes region. The students shared meals and conversation with local residents including those touched by climate change as farmers, scientists, activists or skeptics.

Members of Fossil Free Tompkins and the Tompkins County Council of Governments Energy Committee, earth and atmospheric scientists at Bradfield Hall, and community members at Boynton Middle School and in the town of Enfield were among participants.

The students, representing a range of majors and disciplines, used the story circle format and one-on-one interviews to form an ethnographic profile of diverse local reactions to climate change for the theater project, which will feature five of the community participants and all 12 students.

Mane Mehrabyan ’17 said she saw how her interest in fighting racism fit with fighting against climate change.

“It is going to be women, people of color, people who are poor, who will be drastically hurt more by droughts, floods, rises in heat, than others in our society with more privilege,” she said. The issue is so large it can make people feel “overwhelmed and isolated,” she said, so exploring climate change as a community in this format was important.

Chalmers and Simmons are co-directing “Climates of Change” with PMA doctoral student Caitlin Kane. Living newspapers, a theatrical form using audience participation and other techniques to encourage social change, were popularized in the 1930s by the Federal Theater Project, and presented facts to the public about global politics, race relations, urban housing and other topics.

These performances will dramatize climate science in a similarly engaging and inspiring way, Warner said. “The work of artists and activists, scientists and scholars is to find what's humanly possible. These pursuits involve more than contemplation and reflection; they involve action, and all action changes the world – sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. If we can dream it, then we can live it.”

Performances of “Climates of Change” are Dec. 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m. in the Schwartz Center’s Film Forum; Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Enfield Valley Grange, 178 Enfield Main Road; Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at the Community School of Music and Arts, 330 E. State St.; and Dec. 4 at 1 p.m. in G10 Biotechnology as part of Cornell's 2017 Sustainability Leadership Summit. A talkback with actors, story circle participants, and Cornell Climate Action Advisory Group members will follow each performance.

The project is supported with an Engaged Curriculum Grant.

Spencer DeRoos is a communications assistant for the College of Arts and Sciences.


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