By Sophia Schmidt, WHYY
On a cold, sunny morning at an ice rink along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, a live band plays a ballad. A Zamboni clears the rink, and Sam Rise, a performance artist in a big blue penguin mascot costume, skates out on the ice — hyping the audience up for a show, unlike anything they’ve seen before.
“Are you ready, Philadelphia? Are you excited about drag? Are you excited about climate change?” they shout. “I mean, fighting climate change with drag!”
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The show is a camp comedy about climate change by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, a queer arts organization in Philly.
“The premise of the story is climate change is … such a huge issue, it’s almost as impossible as getting drag queens to skate on ice,” said John Jarboe, founding artistic director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. Jarboe wrote the show with another local artist, MK Tuomanen, along with help from local climate activist groups.
The show runs just a handful of days, starting last week and ending this Saturday.
The protagonist — and antagonist — of the show is Miss Hugh Manity. She wants to stop warming the planet, but she has a hard time breaking away from her “girl gang” of fossil fuels: Mx. Coal, Mr. Oil, and Mx. Natural Gas.
“I’m realizing that maybe saving the climate is going to take a lot of work,” Hugh Manity says.
But these fossil fuel friendships are toxic. They melt a big glacier, pulling away bits of his icy costume until he’s sprawled on the ice rink wearing a sparkly, indigo gown.
Hugh Manity tries to buy her way out of climate change with carbon credits, but that doesn’t work.
Eventually, a character called Nonbinary Parental Guardian Nature tells Hugh Manity she can’t keep making everything about herself.
“Nature is like, hey — just pay attention,” said Jarboe, who plays Hugh Manity. “Just listen to the world around you. Realize that you are part of it, and that you need to work together.”
The Bearded Ladies had its own run-in with nature last week. The group was forced to cancel opening night lin late February, as Philly’s temperature topped 60 degrees, far above normal, and the ice turned too slushy to skate on safely.
“I felt so sad. I was so devastated,” said Rise, who played the penguin and Nonbinary Parental Guardian Nature in the show last weekend. “We shouldn’t be having rehearsals in t-shirts in February, really. And we shouldn’t be having to worry about how to keep the rink solid.”
“I am noticing a difference and feel wildly overwhelmed by it,” Jarboe said.
The show aims to build a “shared space” for both this climate anxiety and climate hope. “Especially for the young folks, the younger generation, who we’ve fracked over,” Jarboe said.
Theater as a space to imagine the ‘impossible’
A drag show about climate change might sound like a rarity, but environmental themes in theater date back to ancient times.
“I could say that all early forms of theater and performance throughout the world were environmental pieces,” said Beth Osnes, artist and professor of theater and environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “Performance was largely to appease, to worship, to acknowledge, to find balance with the natural world.”
In the U.S., plays specifically about climate change began to emerge in the 1990s, said Theresa May, professor of theater arts at the University of Oregon and co-founder of the Earth Matters on Stage festival. Since then, festivals like May’s and other projects have popped up to highlight climate-themed performances.
“It’s not fringe anymore as a topic,” May said.
In contemporary climate plays, actors embody non-human characters or portray current climate impacts on communities in ways that engage audience members’ empathy, May said.
Theater won’t solve climate change, said Lindsay Goss, assistant professor of theater studies at Temple University, but it is a good medium to explore themes like collaboration and creative problem-solving.
“Theater is a space where you build impossible worlds,” Goss said. “Probably what we’re going to have to do in the face of the climate crisis is to build a new and right now seemingly impossible world.”
Comedy can be particularly useful in critiquing our fossil fuel-dependent society, said Osnes, who organizes standup and sketch comedy about climate change at the University of Colorado.
“The court jester, the person who can speak the truth to the king, that person who can expose the foibles of the status quo — that’s been the role of comedy throughout the ages,” she said. “It’s still vitally important today.”
The Bearded Ladies’ show pokes fun at humanity for delaying a transition away from fossil fuels because it will “take a lot of work.”
“We have the opportunities inside shows like this to call people out,” said Rise, the performer. “I hope adults and caregivers in the space who are here with their children could be like, well, how often do I say that about this stuff?”
A drag show to ‘break that system’ and inspire change in Philly
The Bearded Ladies Cabaret is known for its creative, queer projects, including a truck with a beard and eyelashes that offers mobile, socially-distanced shows. The group often uses performance as a “Trojan horse” to explore deeper social issues like gender and racism, Jarboe said.
In the case of climate change, Jarboe hopes the Bearded Ladies’ absurd performance frees audiences to dream about a better future.
“Oftentimes the answers … we’re given are with the lens of colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy — and so how do we break out of that lens?” she said. “We need to be joyous in spite of everything. We need to break that system so we can actually access new answers.”
Organizers hope the show will get people working on concrete solutions. Local advocacy organizations including PennEnvironment, Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, and We Are the Seeds table after the performance, so attendees can learn about local issues and how to get involved.
Rise hopes the show helps shake adults awake, while making kids feel supported as they confront this heavy topic.
“I hope that they walk away from this space today feeling energized and curious and a little lighter,” they said. “And also that we’re here for them, and that they’re not alone.”
Seven-year-old George Treglia found the show funny.
“I think all that was so cool,” he said. “I can’t decide on a favorite part of it.”
Asked what he knew about climate change, George said he didn’t know “anything.”
But his mom, Therese Treglia, said after the climate-themed drag show, “We’re igniting the conversation now!”