Arts & Theater

The Speculative Ecologies of The Unreliable Bestiary

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When we started making these shows fifteen years ago, the Bestiary took pleasure sliding in the slippery results of the scientific method. Seeking answers and objectively establishing facts through tests and experimentation takes time. Capitalist society’s acceptance of what has been learned, and adjusting and changing its understanding of the world, seems to take even longer. There are things that were once thought to be true, but are no longer true, like this excerpt from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (77 AD)… 

Elephants bloud is exceeding cold, and therefore the dragons be wonderfull desirous thereof to refresh and coole themselves therewith, during the parching and hote season of the yeere … these dragons are so big withall, that they be able to receive all the Elephants bloud. Thus are they sucked drie, untill they fall down dead: and the dragons again, drunken with their bloud, are squised under them, and die both together.

Then there are things that sound like there is absolutely no way they could be true… but, actually, they are. The United States of America men’s 2014 World Cup starting eleven weighed a total of 849 kg/1872 lbs. Large male polar bears can weigh over 771 kg /1700 lbs. The largest polar bear ever recorded stood 11 feet high and weighed 1002 kg/2210 lbs… that’s 153 kg/337 lbs more than the entire 2014 United States men’s soccer team.

Really? That’s amazing. 

2006’s film An Inconvenient Truth contains many predictions. Most of them have come true. Mountains are on fire, islands are drowning, but evangelicals don’t seem to be haling Al Gore as a prophet. With the grim march of global disinformation, it feels less fun to play with the truth than it did fifteen years ago. Building moments of uncertainty where audiences wonder, “Really? Is that true?” used to be part of the game, but now it feels like you have to spell it out: “My friends? This is not true. Do you understand what I’m saying? Can you see that it’s not true?” 

Is it true that micro plastics have been discovered in the freshly fallen snow of Antarctica and the bloodstream of newborn Italian babies?

Yes. It is true.

If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you better use it in the second. Right? The audience sees the gun. It’s a threat we understand—direct, immediate, easy to care about, easy to believe. It’s hard to care about slowly melting glaciers, hard to worry about the quiet cancer cluster, about the suffering that happens off-stage. It’s hard to worry about the invisible, slow degradation of the earth’s living systems. If you haven’t personally experienced something, maybe it doesn’t exist? Why does the extinction of non-human creatures on the other side of the world matter? This question comes up with all the Bestiary performances—how to create stories that have the clarity of the gun as opposed to the insidious creep of climate change and petrochemicals. These days, even if it’s clear as a bell, it might not be believed to be true. 

Well, Chekhov’s guns seem to be everywhere and we’re in the second act. But guns are only one of the problems. A “black elephant” is a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem visible to everyone that no one wants to address). In 2014, environmentalist Adam Sweidan pointed out that there was a “herd of environmental black elephants” on the brink of stampede: global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, massive freshwater pollution, and mass extinction. Sweidan said, “When they hit, we’ll claim they were black swans no one could have predicted, but, in fact, they are black elephants, very visible right now.”

Like water and air, the human imagination is elemental to natural systems.

So, here we are, 2024. This environmental herd is in full stampede. Naomi Klein has said, 

We live in a time of multiple overlapping intersecting crises. We have to figure out how to multitask, which means we need to figure out how to lower emissions in line with what scientists are telling us. And we need to do it in a way that builds a fair economy in the process. Because if we don’t figure out a way to deal with climate change that doesn’t ask people to choose between the need to put food on the table… and the need to safeguard the living systems on which all of life depends, we’re going to lose.

This moment requires varied tactics and voices from all quarters. The Unreliable Bestiary’s small local voice is finding ways to talk about the elephant in the room. Through our rich, emotional stories of animals, climate, and people, we’re creating experiences that subtly draw out the connections between wildly disparate local and global dots, experiences that continue to illustrate how the personal is political. By making environmental, psychological, social degradation tangible and present, by linking these stories to cultural origin myths and our fantasies of the future, remixing them, rewriting them, weaving them from whole cloth and telling them in unusual contexts—we hope to remove our audiences from the daily grind and wake them up. Like water and air, the human imagination is elemental to natural systems. It transforms things. We work with humor and the absurd; music and silence; people and wonder. Our live performances quietly insist on re-enchantment and the dismantling of the status quo. 

And that’s where I should leave it. Stick the landing, cue the swelling string section, and we all go home recognizing that that’s the bit that is supposed to be hopeful (with the understanding that maybe it’s not).

But…but… is it enough? Of course not. What’s enough? Is this how you change “The Story?” Does any of this cultural chatter actually matter? Is it true that our performances and plays and stories are needed as much as science-based-policy? Sometimes it feels like it, sure. But sometimes after spending all day telling students that what we do matters, and it’s not a great day, and I don’t believe myself for a second, I go home and pull the sheets up over my head at 7:30pm. Fuck. There’s so much that feels hopeless. 

But I’ll get up the next morning. Let’s all get up the next morning. And start again.



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