August 6, 2014 —
TOWN OF HIGHLAND, NY — Whether the weather cooperates or not, an event of epic proportions will storm into Yulan, NY this weekend, raining down upon the Yulan Ball Field in the Town of Highland, on August 9 at 6:30 p.m. as The Weather Project Community Play premieres.
Stilt walkers, dancers, singers, Cloud Collectors, Solar Munchkins, Sound Painters, the Fossil Fuel Gang and meteorologist Stu Starkweather will tackle the challenge of climate change in a Wizard of Oz-like journey.
The free one-time-only outdoor performance is the culmination of a massive year-long community arts and science exploration that included residents, artists and scientists in dialogue about the subject of the weather.
It’s something that director Tannis Kowalchuk of NACL Theatre has anticipated for a very long time—most of her life, in fact. From the days when, as a child, she organized theatrical programs for her neighborhood, to today, as the artistic director of the acclaimed NACL Theatre based in Highland, Kowalchuk has nurtured a desire to involve her community in the process of creating theatre.
“As humans we all need some kind of collective creative experience to be happy and connected,” said Kowalchuk. “That’s what makes for a successful extended community. I feel my own personal happiness is very much a result of having the opportunity to make theatre and be a creative being.”
In 2012, while thinking about NACL’s next show, Kowalchuk became preoccupied with climate change and the idea of inviting all members of her community to join NACL in making a play about the issue. “I desired to instigate a conversation, and at the same time, to offer the experience of collective creation to as many people as possible,” said Kowalchuk. “And so The Weather Project was born.”
Never before has the scale of Kowalchuk’s vision been so massive. With a cast of more than 30 professional actors and community members ages four and up, in addition to other non-acting participants and a year-long series of workshops and other activities focused on the science of climate change, Kowalchuk has found herself at the center of a whirlwind of creative energy.
“The most challenging and gratifying part has been organizing well over 50 people’s schedules and helping to illuminate each person’s vision for their contribution in the arena of acting, singing, dancing, stilt-walking, writing, music-making, design—all the elements that have gone into this collective Herculean production,” she noted.
The challenge of bringing science into the conversation was solved by the unexpected appearance of research scientist Elaine Matthews of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who portrays the role of the play’s scientist.
After reading about the project last year in The River Reporter, Matthews emailed Kowalchuk to offer assistance with the science of climate change. Kowalchuk seized the fortuitous offer. The pair would go on to participate in a public presentation followed by discussions about climate change, a series of educational visits to schools and a climate symposium organized by the Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development.
So why did the NASA scientist get involved? “For a long time, I’ve been a strong advocate for scientists paid with public dollars to contribute to the public’s understanding about our research. When you strip off the insider jargon, and just talk about climate, people get it, kids get it, and they always have interesting and thought-provoking questions and comments.”
And how well did a scientist fit in with a collection of creative types? “I really do think differently than most of the people participating in The Weather Project, but we have developed a wonderful and interesting bond, and we communicate really well,” said Matthews. “That’s largely because NACL creates and nurtures an environment where ideas have a chance to develop, where everyone’s contributions are listened to and considered.
“Another aspect I’ve really enjoyed is the creative and collaborative nature of our work together. I’m used to people sitting in their own offices all day, staring at computers; discussions occur when needed; and competition is common. There is often very minimal social interaction, so work people can remain strangers even after many years. The dynamic and interactive work of a community effort like The Weather Project play has been a wonderful albeit daunting experience for me. I very much look forward to contributing to development of a version of the play and program that can go into schools and other public venues to educate and engage all sorts of people in the serious work of dealing with climate change,” concluded Matthews.
Another important partner is the Town of Highland, whose participation was called for in a hard-won grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Supervisor Andy Boyar attended planning sessions and remains enthusiastic.
“The Town of Highland has been very pleased to be involved with The Weather Project,” Boyar said. “We are excited about the grand finale event, the culmination of a full year’s inquiry into ‘weather.’ The presentation will be informative, provocative and fun. There will be plenty for young and old alike, so this will be a terrific family event, rain or shine.” Audience members will be seated under a pavilion and are encouraged to bring picnic food and refreshments to enjoy during the show.
Preceding the performance, an expo featuring info booths, community organizations and artwork created by regional artists using recycled windows will kick off at 5 p.m. Play “The Energy Challenge” game with Catskill Mountainkeeper; enjoy interactive arts with Beautiful Traditions; visit The Rookery for a “TalkTail” with Heron’s Eye Communications; learn about passive house systems from Buck Moorhead and how to make compost from Hospitality Green. Sabrina Artel’s Trailer Talk, Natural Contents natural foods, Apple Pond Farm, Delaware Highlands Conservancy, the Youth Economic Group and many more participants will ply the public with useful, thought-provoking and frolicsome (face painting, photo booth) information and activities.
While the full-scale production will be a one-time event, Kowalchuk is considering taking a more compact version on tour. “This is a project that I intend to keep alive for as long as there is a reason to,” she said. “This impulse to include my community in a theatre-making production is one of pure gratitude for the life my family and I have here. I just want to contribute something that I really love—theatre—and make this place even better. Theatre makes life better.”