The Butterfly That Persisted…
Climate Change Theater Action 2019 (CCTA) concluded on the winter solstice. Over 200 events were presented in two dozen countries, reaching more than 20,000 people…and counting. The events included performances and public action, with ‘encores’ being presented in the coming months [Here for details]
CCTA is a biennial-worldwide participatory project of short plays that coincides with the United Nations COP meetings. It utilizes theater to bring communities together to shed light on climate change issues and encourage communities and individuals to take environmentally conscious action. Founded in 2015, CCTA is a collaboration between The Arctic Cycle, the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and Theater Without Borders.
It was my first time participating in CCTA. The project resonated with every level of my being, as a writer and theater-maker, an eco-feminist and a human being.
I was never one to believe in ‘art for the sake for art.’ There are simply too many imbalances, injustices and ignorance in our world (and in ourselves) that it’s a pity to waste our creativity on nonsense. The divorce from the environment, the abuse of mother earth and our single-sided relationship to it… these underly much of our suffering. For what is war but an attempt to control, monopolise and deplete natural resources? What is the root cause of many diseases if not for the toxins we pump into the earth and in our bodies. And what is gender inequality if not a reflection of our skewed attitude to all things feminine, beginning with mother earth?
Seeking inspiration for writing, I walked between the trees. I am one of the luckier people who live close to nature – in a forest to be exact. If you listen with all your senses, you can hear the song of all that lives. I dialogued with the elements, and from that, ‘The Butterfly that Persisted’ was born: An ode to nature, the ultimate warrior that persisted to exist and abound, in spite of everything. And to the human being that persisted to envision and strive for betterment, taking action no matter how small.
I wrote The Butterfly as a poem, a lyrical spoken-word, with two primary voices – one in ‘regular font’ and the other in ‘italics.’ One voice represents the elements of nature, beginning as a butterfly and morphing into water, wind, mother earth, and the thought itself. The other voice is that of the human being.
I was tremendously pleased to see The Butterfly land in more than 24 cities, to places I’ve never been… from Australia, to India, England, Canada and across the USA.
I wish I could have seen them all, but that would have been a financial and environmental catastrophe. The great thing about writing however is that your words can travel so you don’t have to! Thus said, as a playwright who also directs and performs, I was terribly curious about the process and staging of the various Butterfly editions. So, I contacted the organizers and directors… and I am so glad I did.
The casting and directing was so diverse, it’s quite exciting. I had written the play for one feminine voice, suggesting the possibility of a duette or an ensemble. Not only were all these varieties done, but in combinations I would not have thought of – and transcending gender.
Faces of the Butterfly
The Butterfly’s first appearance was in Bridport, England, by Sally Lemsford in a one woman play, in a street car. I am quite fond of site-specific performances and the new and unexpected flavours that come along with that. I recall an instant when a cat walked onto the podium while I was performing my play ‘Turaab,’ in Turkey. Another time, dancing with bird wings in the bay area, the sun shone at the very end of the performance – as if the sky was ‘working the lights.’
At Iowa State University, The Butterfly was staged as an ensemble piece, with the butterfly in the middle (here in photo.) They had contacted me earlier to ask for a family-friendly version of the play, with three instances to consider. It is not so straight forward to censor one’s own work, but I am glad I did it. I even ended keeping one of the changes for my final version of the play. An unexpected result.
Theater alliance Kansas staged the Butterfly as a solo- reading with the actress rotating the music stand while taking on the different voices. At the National Center for Performing arts in Mumbai, it was presented as a staged-reading with two women.
In New York, Hudson River Playback theater staged The Butterfly with two females, accompanied by sparse improvised music. This was followed by audience members’ personal stories enacted on the spot, echoing the emotions in the play. Powerful!
The Wilbury Theatre group at the University of Rhode Island cast The Butterfly with one female actor playing the elements and several mixed-gender actors playing the human(s). This surprised me at first. My inclination would have been to cast one human and many elements, as I regarded the human as the one going through a transformation and the elements of nature as ‘the one and the many.’ However, if we look at the butterfly as the metamorphosing being in conversation with multiple humans, it makes the experience universal. Again… another way to look at it – another effect.
Culture Park Theater in Massachusetts staged the play with a woman and a man, standing with their backs to each other. Now that would have never come to my mind! But oh wow, what a beautiful image. I might have thought of including male voices amongst the elements of nature, but as a duette with a man! But why not? In nature, there are both, feminine and masculine- as we all have both functioning within us.
Another staging that would have not quickly come to my mind took place at the University of the Sunshine coast in Australia. There, The Butterfly was on stage in a spotlight, and the actor playing the human was seated in the audience, just as a voice. This must have made the audience immediately feel as part of the play, as part of the problem (and the solutions.) Very nice!
Then there were the young Womxn’s voices in Colorado whose poster keeps drawing a smile on my face [featured image.] They represented the humans by three performers standing center stage, with seven performers representing the elements appearing around them – as if heard and not seen. A few weeks before the performance, the team had gone on a retreat in the mountains, to work while being immersed in nature. “The tone and content of this play unleashed a new maturity amongst the group,’ told me Sarah Fahmy, who directed the play in Colorado.
This is the ideal scenario, where a written play results in a product (performance) and serves as a process for the actors, and hence the audience. Add to that an environmental initiative.. well, can it get better than that!
The young womxs took the symbol of the butterfly and made it their own, during a climate strike on September 20th 2019 at the Colorado University campus, where a 16 years old Finny Guy declared on the megaphone: “If a dove is the symbol of peace, then a butterfly is the symbol of change.” ” [report here]
Yes. Young people will lead the way to a greener future. I know that with all my heart.
As a performer, I could resist doing my own interpretation of the play. I presented it as a one-person audio-performance, launchig with it my podcast: ArabWomanTalking.
Finally, I’ve said this before, but I will say it again. Thank you CTTA for a most rewarding experience– professionally and personally. From the theme of ‘lighting the way,’ to the process of writing and the insight that brought, to seeing The Butterfly spread her wings, to connecting with wonderful people around the world who share the love for the environment and the performing arts. It leaves me feeling expansive and optimistic. I guess that’s happens when you talk about something that really matters to you. Always good to remember. When it comes from the heart, it’s usually right on.
This blog entry would not be complete without mentioning Raúl Hernández and Homero Gómez, two activists campaigning for the conservation of monarch butterflies and the woods in which they hibernate in Mexico. Both those men were found dead at the beginning of 2020 as a result of their activism. May they rest in peace, and may our world be freed from the greed that is killing nature and the heroes who strive to honour and protect it. [read BBC report here]
Photo credits on this page:
Young Womnx Voices [cover image] Photo from ralley: By Beth Osnes.
Iowa State University Butterfly by Britney Walters