Conversation about the weather may, as Oscar Wilde once said, be the refuge of the unimaginative, but in Tannis Kowalchuck’s case, the elements were a source of creative inspiration. It was 2012, and the Catskills had just experienced a few seasons of strange weather—a snowless winter, followed by a near-drought in summer, capped by Hurricane Sandy in the fall. Climate change was on many minds, but perhaps not in the same way as Kowalchuck’s, which is understandable, considering that Kowalchuck, the artistic director of North American Cultural Laboratory (N.A.C.L.) Theatre, is prone to thinking outside the box.
“It’s kind of a doomsday scenario that scientists are giving us and the world is starting to wake up but there’s this strange delayed reaction,” Kowalchuck said. “The bells are ringing and the alarms are flashing and people are staring with wide eyes saying, ‘What are we going to do now?’ It’s an interesting human dilemma and I think art has some responsibility to take what’s going on and reflect that back at us.”
N.A.C.L. is a small organization that tackles big projects. Its latest, The Weather Project, may be its biggest yet: a year-long community arts and education project incorporating 25 visual artists, a barbershop quartet, a live band, a handful of local organizations, and more than two dozen children, which will culminate in a one time only outdoor science expo and play on August 9 in Yulan, New York. If climate change is indeed the great challenge of our time, then The Weather Project is perhaps theater’s greatest response—at least north of New York City.
Kowalchuck and Brad Krumholz founded N.A.C.L. more than 15 years ago with the goal of promoting a “culture of creativity.” Its first show, The Secret Storey, was staged in 1997 in the basement of a Mormon church in Toronto. Since then, it’s created nearly one new work every year, including a “carnival-style crime investigation,” a “theatrical extravaganza with stilts,” and a “performance about time travel for children.” Many of the shows are written or directed by Krumholz or Kowalchuck, and Kowalchuck frequently stars in the shows herself. They also often make use of spaces owned by N.A.C.L. in Highland Lake, New York: a theater in a former Franciscan church and, next-door, an artist residence in a renovated 1920s gambrel-style home that once served as a summer resort hotel.
The Weather Project was ambitious from its first conception, but it grew in scope after N.A.C.L. was chosen as one of 80 organizations to receive a $50,000 National Endowment for the Arts Our Town Grant. Newly charged with shaping the “physical and social character” of the community, N.A.C.L. held three community meetings before the launch of the project to solicit ideas from residents. “Because we are a laboratory theater, we don’t know what we’re going to find when we start working. We have a theory and a hope with our experiment, but like scientists, we actually don’t know what we’re going to end up with until we get there,” Kowalchuck said.
Among those in the community who responded to N.A.C.L.’s call is an experimenter in the most literal sense: Elaine Matthews, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan. Matthews also owns a house a few miles from N.A.C.L.’s theater, and after seeing an ad in the local paper about The Weather Project, she wrote to Kowalchuck to volunteer her time and expertise. Initially, she agreed only to fact check the script and provide information that would inform the creation of some dialogue for the final performance, but she was since convinced to try her hand at acting in a small part. “We’re paid by tax dollars,” she explained, “so I think it’s important to communicate with the public instead of leaving the public to whatever happens on television. Especially in the case of climate change in which the public is interested in it and has a role in it, I think it’s important to at least be clear about what’s true and what’s not true.”
Indeed, education has been crucial to the mission of The Weather Project. Weekly workshops at N.A.C.L. have provided instruction in dance, singing, and stilt walking, and Matthews, along with Kowalchuck, has visited schools in the area to teach students about climate change and energy consumption. In February, Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development (S.A.S.D.), a not-for-profit environmental organization that is a partner in The Weather Project, organized a public symposium that enlisted about 20 experts, including farmers, activists, and health professionals, to speak about climate, energy, and sustainability. Adapting a dramatic structure, the event was organized into three “acts,” each beginning with a performance from N.A.C.L. “We usually present at places like town hall meetings and rotary clubs. Collaborating with an arts organization was helpful for us because it allowed us to bring this serious information to a new, artistic audience,” S.A.S.D.’s Carol Roig said.
Of course, N.A.C.L.’s audience is not entirely homogenous, and when it comes to a topic as politically charged as climate change, there are various voices to consider. “We’re not calling it The Climate Change Project. We’re calling it The Weather Project,” Kowalchuck said. “Everyone can talk about the weather. That’s the angle we’re taking. We can talk about this weather as a whole community. We’re being quite sensitive that not everyone’s drumming the climate change drum.”
On August 9, however, everyone involved will present a united front for The Weather Project’s final production. The plot is a Wizard of Oz-style contraption that places a group of young science fair participants in a world altered by climate change on a quest to find an elusive scientist. Brett Keyser, an N.A.C.L. administrator and artist, will play Stu Starkweather, a weather reporter and fanatic. Keyser invented Starkweather himself, and has taken the character out into the real world by delivering short radio pieces on the weather on the local radio station WJFF. “What interests me about science is not so much the facts but the stories behind it,” he said. “With the weather in particular, we hear things about barometric pressure and dew point so often, but we don’t really know what those things mean. Figuring out how to explain these concepts better has been an interesting corridor to walk down.”
In addition to preparing for his role, Keyser has been leading N.A.C.L.’s stilt-walking workshop. Among his students is the man who built Kowalchuck’s barn, a man who Kowalchuck said partly inspired her desire to create a theater experience that could involve every member of the community. When she learned recently that the man had marched on stilts in the local Trout Parade, Kowalchuck said she felt uniquely gratified. “When worlds meet, that’s what theater can do. I just love that. Hearing about that made me think somehow I had accomplished my mission,” Kowalchuck said. “I don’t think I should be disappointed if a hundred people don’t come to the show, because that guy just had the exact experience I wanted to share with others.”
The Weather Project Community Play will occur August 9th in Yulan, NY. For more about N.A.C.L. Theatre and the Project, including how to get involved and upcoming workshop opportunities, visit nacl.org.