Exploring Climate Change on Stage d


To some people, science and theater are two totally unrelated areas. But for The Civilians, an investigative theater company based in Brooklyn, New York, theater sets the stage for addressing hot-button issues like climate change.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), writer Steve Cosson and composer Michael Friedman are currently developing “The Great Immensity,” a play set to debut in the 2011-2012 theater season featuring songs and video that focus on climate change and conservation.


“The Great Immensity” tackles deforestation, extinction, economic challenges and cultural shifts brought on by climate change in two very different locations:  Churchill, a community in arctic Canada, and Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal.

“I want the audience to gain some comprehension of the enormity and complexity of nature, the environment, the issues that we face,” Cosson said.

International Plot Twists

The play follows Phyllis as she traces the steps of her photojournalist twin sister Polly who has gone missing while on a trip to meet with scientists on Barro Colorado Island.  Her search leads her aboard The Great Immensity, which takes her to Canada where she discovers the immediate impacts climate change is having on the polar bears and people of Churchill, Manitoba. There she meets a group of students from every nation of the world and together they hatch a plan that will make the older generations realize the threat of climate change.

“A lot of what our [The Civilians] work does is not take sides in issues, but more explore why certain things happen,” Marion Young, managing director with the theater company, explained. “Maybe in that exploration people will begin to take the issue of climate change more seriously than they are.”



The idea for the play was born several years ago when Cosson and Friedman were awarded grants to interview scientists studying the very different environments of Barro Colorado Island and Churchill, Canada, both of which are already being impacted by climate change. These real-life interviews find their way into the play as the sisters interact with both locals and researchers they encounter.

The play gets its name from a massive, Chinese cargo vessel Cosson and Friedman observed while on a much smaller tourist boat in the Panama Canal. The huge ship serves as a metaphor for the impact of climate change on the Earth. “Whatever the point of entry into this subject [climate change], these issues are extremely complex, and it stretches the brain to think about them. It's like being in a little boat while a great ship goes by,” Cosson said.

The Polar Bears and People of Churchill


As the story winds its way through High Arctic Canada, the audience is introduced to the environmental, economic and cultural changes brought about by climate change. Churchill is the site of the most southern polar bear population and an important arctic shipping port. The town’s economy revolves around two industries: polar bear tourism and shipping.

Young points out that there’s a lot of discussion in the play about how climate change will be both curse and blessing for the people of Churchill. “There’re a lot of conflicting questions of the economy versus the polar bears and the natural world in Churchill. While the shipping part of the economy has the potential to grow exponentially if more shipping lanes open up because of climate change, but the other part of the economy—polar bear tourism—might disappear completely,” she said.

Drawing from Real Life

Cosson relies heavily on the information he gathered from dozens of interviews conducted with the town’s residents and brings the interviews to life through the characters on stage. In the play, the characters learn about the unsuccessful relocation of the Sayisi Dene to a desolate village outside of Churchill, and how the culture of the Inuits, so closely tied to the land and sea, will be impacted by climate-driven environmental changes.

The play also incorporates climate models. Cosson weaves in the work of a climate modeler he met in Churchill to show changes in the ice cap. “We use projection and video a lot in the play,” Young points out. “We run through his actual models showing what’s happened to the polar ice caps, basically taking people from the 1900s to the present and into the next century.”

The mixing of creative script writing, compelling music, personal interviews and scientific tools (like computer models) is done to connect audiences with the issue of climate change and help them explore their own thoughts on the issue.

Connecting Science and Theater


The 2010-2011 season marks The Civilians’ tenth year of bringing investigative theater to audiences in New York and across the country.  Their mission is to connect theater to the real world in a concrete way. The plays produced are almost always based on the information gathered from hours of interviews or based on primary research sources like first-hand documents.

“Every play we create is dedicated to real-world inquiry,” Young points out. “The goal is to deeply connect theater and contemporary society and the issues dominating contemporary society.”

In addition to the play itself, the writing team is planning a number of additional multimedia tools to help audiences explore climate change in more detail. As part of the NSF grant, the group will produce online content, podcasts, videos, organize workshops, and host community education and outreach events. The team will also develop high school and middle school curriculums to guide students through developing their own versions of environmental theater.

With “The Great Immensity,” The Civilians hope to add theater’s voice to the issue of climate change by bringing its immediate impacts on the people and ecosystems of Churchill and Barro Colorado to audiences thousands of miles away.

“Through the experience of watching this play, I hope the audience will learn to ask: What role can theater play in climate change and our response to environmental crises? We Americans care about the environment, and we generally comprehend these big, complex systems. So if we do care and understand, you'd think it would cause us to act to prevent climate change—make the positive changes necessary to preserve the environment,” Cosson said.

—Alicia Clarke