Joy can strengthen our resolve, help us unlock creativity, and bolster our resilience. In Fix’s Joy Issue, we explore the importance and power of finding joy in the face of grief, anger, and a changing climate.
Act I: Setting the stage
A group of unlikely characters, including MAMMELEPHANT, a woolly mammoth–elephant hybrid, are about to come to life in a windowless but brightly lit rehearsal space in New York City’s Theater District. Four actors run through their lines, diligently highlighting and hole-punching their scripts before rehearsal begins.
The table read for Mammelephant is alive with laughter. One cast member delivers a joke in the high-pitched, staccato voice of their character, drawing immediate chuckles from the rest of the crew. The room is stocked with plenty of snacks, and a cluster of guitars in the corner hints at musical numbers to come.
Don’t let the jovial nature of that scene fool you; this rehearsal is for a play about the impending climate apocalypse. Mammelephant, the upcoming summer production of nonprofit eco-theater group Superhero Clubhouse, exists in a world where catastrophe is reality: The Arctic permafrost, a frozen tomb of stored carbon, is thawing, threatening to release millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The only hope for preventing this human disaster lies in the hairy hooves of a one-of-a-kind woolly mammoth–elephant hybrid bred to restore this biome to its chilly glory.
Yet despite the heavy plot, Mammelephant is not a tale of gloom and doom. Its characters are not resigned to lives of pain and suffering; they remain hopeful and dynamically alive. The production explores the pleasure that can persist on the other side of disaster and the ways that the human spirit can persevere long after the ice has melted away.
It is the latest player to step onto the stage of eco-theater, an artistic movement that expresses the pain and grief — but also the boundless potential and, yes, joy — of life in the era of climate change. Eco-theater, which arguably dates to the earliest works of human art but came into its own a generation ago, is telling increasingly vital stories about adapting, and flourishing, on a changing planet. By blending science, art, and a hearty dose of imagination, these innovative productions by theater companies nationwide seek to not only educate, but entertain, inspire, and foster change within theater — and the world.
Act II: The premise
Director NANA DAKIN asks the cast what MAMMELEPHANT is thinking in this scene, when the creature is meeting other animals for the first time. One by one, they offer their interpretations of the words on the page. As each inhabits this unfamiliar giant, they share stories of times when they, like MAMMELEPHANT, have felt thrown into an unfamiliar world.
Throughout human history, we have gathered to make art and share stories of ourselves, the natural world, and our relationship to it. In that way, eco-theater is not a new concept; it’s written in our bones.
Given that, you could trace the origins of this movement to drawings on the walls of Chauvet Cave, where humanity’s first known artists sketched the animals that roamed outside. Or, you could look to the Theatre of Dionysus on the slopes of the Acropolis, the ancient birthplace of the modern play, where actors performed Greek mythology on an open-air stage. But theater historian and director Theresa May at the University of Oregon says its watershed moment happened in the early 1990s, when playwrights were creating work in response to both the passage of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act of the ’70s and the budding environmental justice movement.
Within the span of five years, a conference called Theater in an Ecological Age met in Seattle; the Underground Railway Theater in Boston staged an ecologically themed festival; and American Theatre magazine, in a 1992 story pondering how theater can be a political tool, asked, “As the planet burns, what can art do that activism can’t?”
In the 30 years since, dramatists have attempted to answer this question through creative performances that turn the typical protagonist-driven plot on its head. Take May’s play Salmon Is Everything, which tells the story of a mass fish kill in the Klamath River of Northern California from an Indigenous perspective. Or No More Harveys, playwright Chantal Bilodeau’s one-woman (and one whale) show about fleeing abusive power structures and climate destruction to migrate north. Or Burning Vision, a performance by First Nations playwright Marie Clement that travels through landscapes and history to trace the creation of the atomic bomb. Soon, Mammelephant will tell the story of the melting permafrost in the Sakha Republic from the perspectives of the animals and Indigenous Sakha people who call land in northeastern Russia along the East Siberian Sea home.
In these performances, the natural world transforms from background to main character. All of this unfolds in intimate theaters where some audience members are close enough to the stage to feel the tears of a crying whale or the splash of leaping salmon.
May considers the immediacy of eco-theater one of its main sources of power. “The fundamental contract of theater is the willing suspension of disbelief. We come into a shared space and listen to a story that’s not our own,” she tells Fix. “I think that exercises the muscles of tolerance, of understanding, and of empathy.”
Many of these plays also employ music, dance, and humor to help audiences find approachable ways into tricky topics. In No More Harveys, the disembodied voice of Amazon’s Alexa quips one-liners; in Mammelephant, the characters crack jokes at the expense of humans and their endless greed.
Though they still make up a tiny portion of the theater movement, organizations like Glass Half Full Theatre in Austin, Texas, the traveling group Groundwater Arts, and Superhero Clubhouse in New York see the environmental crisis as an invitation to tell new stories from new perspectives — and inspire new thinking along the way.
Act III: The process
Break to stretch. The cast forms a circle, each actor offering a movement that feels good in their bodies at that moment. One actor reaches for their toes; another places their hands on their heart and indulges in a few deep breaths. Everybody is welcome to take their shoes off, grab some water, and do what they need to do before reconvening around the table.
In eco-theater, it is not enough to put on a play that has environmental or climate themes. The production of the show itself must be sustainable.
When Jem Pickard founded Superhero Clubhouse fifteen years ago, in 2007, they saw it as an opportunity to write a new script for the traditional theater industry. “How do we confront and criticize every part of the theater-making process?” is a question Pickard and Superhero co-director Lanxing Fu ask themselves often.
The answer lies in abandoning some of the extractive elements of theater — like its hierarchical power structures, for-profit models, and rushed timelines. From there, troupes are free to build a more regenerative space that’s a joy to reside in.
“It’s all about world-building,” Fu says. “It’s all about people coming together to decide to inhabit and create a new world. What are the rules of that world? What are the rules of how we relate to each other? What are the rules of how we use our resources and our time?”
In Superhero Clubhouse’s world, people from a variety of backgrounds — scientists, visual artists, even, sometimes, elementary school students — come together to put on shows. “We don’t believe in experts when it comes to our new reality, because the problems are so unprecedented. Everyone has relevant knowledge to bring to the table,” says Pickard.
They sit alongside frontline communities and Indigenous wisdom keepers to tell stories of environmental justice and liberation. (Zhanna Zakharova, a cast member in Mammelephant, is from the Indigenous Republic of Sakha.) Everyone is heard, their truths valued, and their opinions honored. Changing lines in the script, for instance, or adjusting the rhythm of a musical number, is welcomed, even encouraged. They act on simple sets crafted from repurposed materials and, of course, they have fun doing it.
“Each one of these processes is a microcosm. We’re practicing the way we want to be on a larger scale,” Fu says. In this way, the self-contained act of staging an eco-play can provide a roadmap for tackling more expansive climate issues. When changing the whole world feels beyond reach, Fu and Pickard find courage in working with their cast to shift what happens within the walls of a rehearsal space or the boundaries of a stage.
It’s a clear display of emergence: the bright theory that complex systems are built out of a web of small, simple interactions. As author and self-proclaimed pleasure activist Adrienne Maree Brown writes in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, “Emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.”
Act IV: The purpose
ERIKA JI, Mammelephant’s music director, guides the cast through the first song of the play. There are a few solo verses, and then everyone sings the final verse as an ensemble, no one voice discernable over the others. They sing a haunting tune of a planet thrown into chaos, but in their sweet tone, it sounds more like a lullaby.
Mammelephant will make its worldwide debut July 21 and run through August 6 at the 122 Community Center in Manhattan. After that, there is no saying where it will go. It could, like Salmon Is Everything, continue on as a shapeshifting play that is adapted, performed, and taught throughout parts of the country. Or it could have a more limited run. It could go off without a hitch, or there could be a mishap or two. And, of course, by traditional theater standards, it could flop.
Pickard and Fu aren’t getting too caught up in chasing outcomes. “If we’re building a better society, we’re going to stumble and stumble and stumble and slowly get things right,” says Pickard. “This approach doesn’t always lend itself toward a perfect, beautiful product. … Sometimes it’s like, ‘This is where we landed.’ It’s a really long game we’ve been playing for 15 years, and we’ll continue to do so.”
After decades of working in theater, often alongside Indigenous knowledge keepers, May also values the artistic process as much as the final product. Within the larger environmental and climate movement, she sees theater-making as a community-building force. She finds fault in the old Broadway adage that “The show must go on,” as it only perpetuates the idea that we must rush through the work of envisioning to present a final product. “Sometimes, things take longer,” May says, referring to the long-range thinking of her Indigenous collaborators. “Some work takes generations.”
Regardless of the play’s future on stage, Pickard and Fu hope it lives on in the minds of those who engage with it. “Building imagination as a skill and a muscle is something that’s not heavily encouraged after a certain age in this country, at least in my experience,” notes Fu. “But it is one of our most powerful political tools.”
While most of the climate stories we consume end in disaster and pain, eco-theater allows us to dream up an alternative that is joyful, dynamic, engaging, and vividly alive.
Act V: Curtain call
EMMA LOEWE, the writer, steps out of the rehearsal space into the city of New York in the year 2022. It’s a hot day and she’s closing in on the unbearable shuffle of Times Square, but the air feels less suffocating than usual. In her head, she’s still having fun exploring the tundra.
One way to measure the success of a play is to consider the reaction of its audience. Ecologist and choreographer Jamē McCray’s laughter is infectious as she recounts her first time watching Salty Folk, Superhero Clubhouse’s musical about oysters attempting to repopulate New York Harbor. Though eco-theater deals with heavy, even existential, topics, her smile suggests that it doesn’t intend to instill dread or spread doom. Instead, the genre is rooted in what Superhero Clubhouse refers to as tangible hope.
“Apocalypse is a privileged narrative,” the clubhouse’s manifesto reads. “Much of life on Earth and many communities are already facing the worst of climate change, with no option but to adapt. Hope is vital, but it must be tangible; it must be grounded in the abundance of knowledge that exists and work that is happening.”
McCray, who now sits on the board of Superhero Clubhouse, finds tangible hope in the fact that the group’s plays — fantastical as they may seem — are rooted in scientific solutions. (The plot of Mammelephant is inspired by ongoing experiments to resurrect the wooly mammoth with preserved DNA samples and use the animal to restore climate-ravaged ecosystems in Siberia.) She considers this intersection of art and science a uniquely hopeful, even joyful, place to work.
“In dance and theater, you’re in the space of imagining. You’re in the space of ‘everything is possible.’ And when you add scientific knowledge to that, you can ground your imaginings in something concrete,” McCray reflects. “You have that kernel of ‘Hey, we can actually do this.’ I think that’s a really great space to be.”
Although they are solutions-oriented, these plays do not exist to convince people to take one action over another. Instead, they pose challenging questions for the audience to grapple with in a safe, uplifting environment. After all, the process of imagining a new world is complicated, Pickard notes. “Let’s be gentle with each other as we do it,” they suggest. “Let’s find joy as we do it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story used the the term ‘Yakut people’ instead of the preferred term ‘Sakha people.’ The story has also been updated to more accurately reflect the plot of the play Mammelelephant.
Explore more from Fix’s Joy Issue:
- Laughter is the ultimate unifier. Can it work for climate action?
- How climate organizers are making joy part of their toolkit
- A conversation with Brooklyn-based eco-rapper Hila the Killa