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On Hauling Water: Outdoor Theatre as Re-Enchantment amidst Climate Crisis

“We have a prayer that enchantment be an invitation to relationship, and by that we mean first listening.” ~ Queer Nature

It’s fifteen minutes until rehearsal begins and once again my glued-together 1997 RAV4 is parked illegally—just for a few minutes—on the grassy slope of Powderhorn Park in south Minneapolis. Orren and Remus, our teenage prop master and crew member respectively, volley greetings as they open my truck to unload set items. Across the drought-stiffened grass, director Harry Waters Jr. has already spread out his iconic tricolored parachute—a childhood classic redubbed our “green room space.”

Placed for temptation at the center of the parachute is a Tupperware container of homemade zucchini bread. Our stage manager Asher is pulling out bug spray and hand sanitizer as another vehicle pulls up. It’s Pasha, a community member who has volunteered ride support for members of our ensemble without cars. Almost everyone has managed to snag a piece of Harry’s zucchini bread by the time our music director Carlisle Evans Peck calls for everyone to gather around their portable keyboard for vocal warm-ups. Together, we harmonize through the scales using a phrase that fellow queer performer Qamar Yochanan spontaneously hollered when they passed by our rehearsal one day: “GAYS IN THE PARK!” By that point a cherished ritual amongst us, “gays in the park” was an invocation, a pep talk, a protection spell, and a militant joy practice all in one.

After years of public art production, I deliberately moved my ensemble theatre practice outdoors in 2019. I had no idea how prescient that choice would feel less than a year later. As a white, xenogender, producing playwright moved to explore the innately queer emergent ecologies of dual climate/capitalism collapse, it felt right to collaborate in real time with land and place to develop new work. While COVID may be the reason for many of us to venture outside of our usual edifices now, I hope that what we find there has more profound implications. That amidst this ongoing crisis/adaptation we find not only new “stages” but new ways of working that return us to the life-giving nature of our art form and build resilience for us and our interdependent human and more-than-human communities. In short, I hope we let ourselves feel enchantment, as the eco-philosopher duo Queer Nature so beautifully describes, as an invitation to healing through reconnection.

Two performers in yellow gesturing towards the sky.

Queen Bee by Elle Thoni. Photo by Maxwell Collyard.

I type this as I sit on 1855 Treaty Territory on Anishinaabeg and ancestral Dakota homeland, less than half a mile from where the newly installed Line 3 pipeline makes one of its tenuous crossings under the Misi-ziibi, Wakpa Taŋka, the Mississippi River. After spending the last year responding to generous invitations from Honor the Earth to bring large-scale puppets to northern Minnesota to stand, march, and parade alongside water protectors, I feel the tension between public performance/colonized land more acutely than ever before. How do we as theatre artists and an industry move beyond mere acknowledgments of colonial theft and into active embodied solidarity with Land Back movements?

I encourage my fellow non-Indigenous colleagues to follow and listen to Indigenous theatremakers about how we can decolonize our assumptions about performance, address ongoing misrepresentations and industry disparities for Native theatre artists, and participate in reparations—particularly when we observe the presence of our own discomfort. Just a few writings that have impacted me recently include: Groundwater Arts’ Green New Theatre, We See You, White American Theater, and recent HowlRound essays by Lisa C. Ravensbergen and Vera Starbard (Tlingit Dena’ina).

In the summer of 2019, my fledgling company Wild Conspiracy and I were welcomed as guests at the majority-BIPOC-stewarded Tamales y Bicicletas Urban Farm (TyB) to develop our futuristic honeybee musical, Queen B. Instead of working from the colonial lens of a “blank space” supported by the void-like architecture and perfect climate controls of Western theatre infrastructure, working in and with a place already so full of human and more-than-human life gave rise to a more holistic ethos.

Four actors singing outdoors.

Queen Bee by Elle Thoni. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

The garden’s web of relations reinforced that we as artists held no higher status than the tomato plants fruiting nearby and that if we were going to thrive there, we would need to learn how to participate as part of its ecosystem. What a timely lesson for both the climate crisis and our interlocking crisis of human injustice, both rooted in white supremacy. By the time we opened at TyB, we had spent Saturdays mulching, become friendly with the gardeners, and participated in community harm reduction conversations with their staff. I even adopted one of the stray kittens.

My growing love for the garden freed me from a transactional mindset—a pitfall of viewing land as “resource,” even as artists—and brought me into a more authentic relationship: one of kinship. Part of transmuting the despair of climate crisis is dissolving the colonial myth that our relationships with land inevitably result in us doing harm—a narrative that reinforces the human/nature binary and situates us in an adversarial dynamic. How can our theatre processes actually benefit our land collaborators? Symbiosis is more-than-human solidarity. Inviting audiences into more intimate relationships with land and place through theatre can contribute to a culture-shift away from mass disposability (a prerequisite for extraction) and towards collective care, for the earth and for our fellow humans. It is an act of restoration, of restoring bonds.

Making theatre outdoors during an interrelated pandemic and climate crisis can, to absolutely no surprise, be wildly challenging and unpredictable. In summer 2021, we were finally able to remount our postponed farm tour of Queen B. Set one hundred years in the future post “buzz-extinction” after cities had “domed off” to preserve themselves from toxic air, our ensemble found ourselves navigating circumstances that increasingly resembled our devised world. There was a miserable week when our music director unknowingly exposed our entire ensemble to a breakthrough case of COVID, all while Minnesota skies were hazy with the worst air quality on record due to wildfire smoke from California. On another occasion while on tour at a small farm in southern Minnesota, the region’s summer-long drought came to a spectacular end with a day-long deluge more dramatic than anything we had rehearsed. Just as the land supports the creation of performance, it can also revoke that support at any time. Part of our job as theatre artists is to be humble and adapt.

Four actors holding flowers above their heads.

Queen Bee by Elle Thoni. Photo by Maxwell Collyard.

While there are macro challenges to making theatre outdoors, the risk factors are different for each artist and are disproportionately higher for people who are systemically discouraged from taking up public space—BIPOC, queer/trans artists, artists with disabilities, artists who have experienced houselessness, etc. Police presence, harassment, lived or generational memory of exertion in extreme temperatures, and bodily needs can arise at any time. My experiences thus far have taught me the value of proactively planning for these possibilities and designating a few onsite personnel to bottom-line de-escalation efforts and/or be available to support colleagues when access needs arise. Practically, I also recommend having the basics on-hand at all times: water (yes, ask everyone to bring water, but always have extra), hydration tablets, sunscreen and aloe, bug spray, and whatever else your team has identified as essential—fruit juice, an EpiPen, etc. Like climate change, not planning for these scenarios only makes them worse when they arise and perpetuates inequity in our artistic processes.

Particularly when producing events in outdoor spaces with few built-in amenities, audience accessibility is a key consideration. This topic could be its own series! Here are a few takeaways from my experiences with outdoor theatre production:

  • Terrain: Are you counting on your audience to navigate unpaved or uneven terrain to get to your performance site? If so, how are you communicating this in your promo materials? Is there anything you can do in advance (mow pathways, cover divots, remove manure—seriously) to make terrain more accessible?
  • Bathrooms: Bathrooms are an accessibility issue. Are they present and if so, how far are they from your performance site? Will they be accessible during the time of day/year you are performing? Is there at least one mobility accessible bathroom?
  • BYO_: Even when you advise audiences to come prepared, some people miss the memo. If asking audiences to bring their own seating, can you have a few spare camp chairs on hand for people who forget/need soft seating? We also keep a small audience stock of umbrellas, sunscreen, and bug spray (a pro tip from Mixed Precipitation’s Picnic Operetta) as well as a water cooler and cups. I try to avoid plastic water bottles at all costs.
  • Whatever you do, communicate: Whatever you’re able to provide in terms of accessibility, be as clear and as detailed as you can be in your promo and ticketing materials so that people can get the most accurate gauge of whether or not your event meets their access needs.

While theatremaking outdoors places unique demands on our attention and organization, I wouldn’t be writing this if it didn’t also offer some of the most boundless moments of beauty; when suddenly, the world around you conspires to offer a glimpse of majesty. One of my mentors, Sandy Spieler—who, for over forty years, directed the much-beloved MayDay giant puppet parade and spectacle in south Minneapolis—would say that we do all the work of MayDay so that at the precise moment when thousands of people are watching, a heron can take flight. Some of my most transcendent moments of performance were also the most impossible to plan: dancers sharing the stage with stands of sunflowers in full bloom, a blazing sunset improvising a duet with a performer's song, a rainbow providing the perfect archway for a character's final exit. These moments remind us of why the miracle of life is worth celebrating through storytelling and reanimate the magic that drew me to theatre in the first place.

Four actors performing outdoors.

Queen Bee by Elle Thoni. Photo by Bruce Silcox.

During our rehearsals for Queen B in Powderhorn Park, we became accustomed to park-goers pausing to witness and enjoy our process. At some point, one of us would quietly make our way over to the onlookers, offer them honey sticks, and share that this was an informal rehearsal. To most people, it didn’t seem to make a difference; it was still a spectacle. As neighbors who had witnessed so much over the course of the last two years—pandemic lockdown, the police murder of George Floyd, uprisings that had households keeping buckets of water handy in case of fire, and entire encampment communities being inhumanely bulldozed in that very same park—sharing public space together, laughing, and applauding, felt like a gift. It was a gift to renew our relationship with places that held stuck or painful memories and to find joyful ways of embodying, “We are still here.”

And we are. I am grateful to be one of many Twin Cities-based theatre practitioners alchemizing grief through outdoor site-based performance, including: the emergent Lake Street Truth Collective, combating gentrification with an array of cultural programming in an abandoned lot; New Native Theatres 2021 production of Yvette Nolan’s The Unplugging at the former site of Migizi Communications, a Native youth media organization whose building was lost to fire during the uprising; and the hilarious yet poignant antics of Latins on Ice, an all-Latine comedy group whose inaugural show invited audiences to join them on frozen lakes in south Minneapolis.

As we look into an ever-unknown future, I take comfort in knowing that we as people, and as theatre artists, are far more resilient than the white capitalist infrastructure that has become mainstream-synonymous with “theatre.” And working outside of that infrastructure calls us to new ways of remembering how to be with one another. It requires us to throw out white cishetero patriarchal assumptions about the characteristics of “professional theatre” and instead revalue and re-center care as a foundation for creative collaboration, not a distraction from it. For my part, I’ve learned just as much hauling water and talking with neighbors as one of the “gays in the park” as I have from any kind of formal training. Theatre, for much of its history and practice, has existed outdoors and at the center of public life. It is a survival art as ancient as community itself and, with any hope, we can reunite with each other now to doula ourselves into the future, one moment of impossibility at a time.

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