Taking on the Immensity of Climate Change through Song

Trey Lyford, Damian Baldet, Dan Domingues, and Cindy Cheung reenact 40+ years of climate summits. | Photo via The Public Theater, © 2014 Richard Termine

You’d be hard pressed to find another musical like The Great Immensity, with songs about “charismatic megafauna” — popular, large animals like the polar bear used to garner support for environmental campaigns — and supporting roles for hacktivist group Anonymous. The show, running through Thursday, May 1st, at The Public Theater, is a theatrical approach to climate change and our inadequate personal and institutional attempts to confront it. The issue-based nature of the show is characteristic of The Civilians, an investigative theater company that’s taken on topics as diverse as community tensions around the Atlantic Yards development, the evangelical movement in Colorado Springs, and divorce. To create The Great Immensity, a team from the company, including artistic director (and writer and director of the show) Steve Cosson, conducted interviews with scientists and activists internationally.

I approached The Great Immensity with a particular concern for the show’s message and its potential to move people to action, rather than an interest in the quality of the production. The show aims to create a sense of urgency, with its narration of the last days of now extinct species and a sadly accurate history of the lack of progress across 40+ years of climate summits. Here at The Architectural League, we have been exploring similar subject matter through The Five Thousand Pound Life, an ongoing initiative that seeks to imagine a viable American future in light of the urgent challenge climate change poses to our environment, economy, and society. It was through this lens that I watched: as someone who considers himself informed on climate change but still exploring what role he should play in stemming its worst effects.


Dan Domingues as a port manager in Churchill, Manitoba | Photo via The Public Theater, © 2014 Richard Termine

The very act of putting artistic skills and creativity to work tackling social issues is laudable. And I respect The Civilians’ appreciation of the scale of the problem — the title itself seems to acknowledge that the show is but a small act in approaching a gargantuan problem. At times, however, I found the company’s approach to the issue was misguided. In its focus on charismatic megafauna, the show dwelled far too much on this outdated tactic of environmental movements — “Save the polar bears” sadly has not led to much progress on the climate issue. The show also takes place in distant places: Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. These locales provide ample examples of the costs of climate change, but such costs are easier to disregard as far away, geographically and temporally, because the settings are so removed from most audience members’ lives. New Yorkers know the costs are, in fact, close to home — we experienced Irene, then Sandy — but that reality needs to be driven home more strongly than through a brief mention of destruction on Staten Island in one song.

Throughout, I was also struck by the almost complete absence of economics as a matter of concern. As climate change intensifies, it will bring increasing economic disruption, an argument that might actually move people who are otherwise complacent to acknowledge the urgency of our future challenges. That was rather noticeably lacking.


“The Next Forever,” a song from The Great Immensity | Lyrics and music by Michael Friedman, footage by David Ford

What I saw as shortcomings in message also led me to wonder who the intended audience was. People who choose to see a play on climate change are likely to be a self-selecting group. I don’t need convincing that climate change must be confronted full on, and I’m skeptical that many of my fellow audience members brought significantly different perspectives. Would this play “flip the switch” for a climate change skeptic? Is it supposed to? I would answer no to both. And if the intended audience are people who already accept climate change as a dire challenge, will the show move them to action beyond filling their “little blue recycling box,” which its final song makes clear is not enough?

The show advocates for direct action protest as a necessary tactic to spur movement on climate change. However, some of the activist characters were difficult to relate to and did not provide particularly motivating models for action. The use of characters representing the hacktivist collective Anonymous in a key scene felt particularly alienating. While effective at times, the strategies of real life members of the collective are highly controversial and sometimes quite destructive. Do I see myself as a collaborator with Anonymous, depicted (faithfully) as eccentric, possibly sinister, and rash? I can’t say I do, and I don’t believe that most people can.


Chris Sullivan as a documentary filmmaker communicating with members of Anonymous | Photo via The Public Theater, © 2014 Richard Termine

I did find one portion of the show particularly moving. While in Churchill, a local recounts the story of a nomadic First Nations group that was confined to a small settlement by the Canadian central government. Like many such groups in Canada and the US, their society, based on freedom of movement and traditions and codes linked to that lifestyle, collapsed. All that remained were shells of lackluster buildings and a plaque recording everyone who had died there. The strife that’s to come with unmitigated climate change — permanent drought, drowning cities, mass migrations — and the pressure that these changes will put on our societal bonds are especially troubling. The parallels with other societies who’ve undergone such shocks to their way of life are worth considering, as the show notes.

Regardless of how effective its message is in moving people to action, The Great Immensity is worthy of praise for its ambition and role in bringing conversations about climate change into mainstream art practice. And it certainly is entertaining: the teasing of an American for his optimism that technology will be a savior is the kind of intellectual humor that I happen to love. Despite my qualms about the nuances of its message, ultimately I did leave with renewed concern for what will come out of the next UN Climate Summit, to be held in New York in September, and how I can personally push for a binding agreement on emissions reduction in the near future. For that reason, I encourage you to go see The Great Immensity. I hope you feel similarly concerned, and moved to act.

Jonathan Tarleton is a writer, activist, and urbanist with aspirations to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment. He is a former editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus and has made his way to Brooklyn from his roots in Georgia and North Carolina. Follow him @jttarleton.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.