Creating Street Theatre & Dance

I am still up here in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate NY creating and thinking with a group of diverse and accomplished artists about arts, politics, science and activism relating to the climate crisis. There are many areas of focus in this “Climate of Change” residency but one thing I wanted to write about was the experience of creating a street theatre piece, collectively designed and performed by the artists here, called a cantastoria. We created it in anticipation of 350.org’s ambitious undertaking, beginning with a presentation at University of Vermont, which was the trial run for a speaking tour across the USA starting November 7, the day after their Presidential election.

A cantastoria is an Italian word meaning “sung story” and the concept is to create a series of large banners that impart a story. The banners are suspended from a frame created by affixing a single horizontal pole across the top of two handheld vertical poles. The canvas banners hang from this structure and when flipped over the top, they continually reveal the next banner. What they yield up is a series of pictorial representations about the narrative of the street theatre. The singing part (canta) is not really singing per se, it’s more like storytelling with a loud voice. But at the Blue Mountain Centre, we have lots of musical talent present so real singing was a welcomed addition to the voice of the storytelling. Anais Mitchell and Tem Blessed rocked that out.

But what you see when watching the cantastoria is a series of 7 banners that depict Do the Math—a story being disseminated by 350.org about the climate crisis on tour. The story is effectively a call to arms, saying we got some real numbers in front of us that bring into focus the core of our problem relating to the climate. The numbers offer a direction for our activism and they run something like this:

2o is the maximum amount of atmospheric warming that can occur before we fundamentally change the hospitable conditions for life as we know it on this planet.

565 gigatons is the maximum amount of carbon that can be burned before reaching our limit of 2o increase in global warming.  

2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon that has already been identified and claimed by fossil fuel companies. They are already making money on it and are banking on its extraction.

That’s where the math gets really scary. Facing us is the reality that the fossil fuel industry owns this amount of carbon which it considers to be part of its inventory, which just hasn’t been pulled out of storage yet (which translates to mean that it just hasn’t been ripped out of the Earth yet). Do the math, and when you do you’ll see that’s 5 times the 565 gigatons of carbon that should be our maximum that can be burned before exceeding 2o of warming. Is that clear? If not then go back and read this paragraph again or click on the link to 350.org and watch our cantastoria, which breaks it down for the 99%.

What I decided to do with my contribution for the cantastoria was to enact the solidarity required by people to fight the fossil fuel industry. I created a Square Dance called Do the Math, which is multiplicative in form, and imagines a world we will live in when people work together again to determine the course to a live-able future. Why a Square Dance? Well for many reasons but the clincher was when I woke up in the middle of the night with a set of verses in my mind that told the story of Do the Math through references to the movements of a Square Dance, I knew it was right.

What makes the idea function is that the narrative of Do the Math and the Square Dance Calls themselves interweave. What makes it fun is that the verses are written in a rap style. Tem Blessed, one of the artists here at this residency, jumped to the task with skill and humour to call our dance with a hip hop flare. And, as the 7th page of the cantastoria appears, Tem calls all the dancers into a square, “not a rectangle, or triangle… a square over there.” Four of us respond to the call and we perform the dance, accompanied by live music. And then when it’s done, we break out of our square, go to the audience and grab three new willing participants to join our next square of 4. Do the Math!

4 times 4 equals 16!

And that’s how many people dance the next time through the square dance. If you add only one more repetition of the form, you see that the number multiplies again but this time by 16. I can’t figure out what 16 times 4 equals in my head quickly but what I know is that it represents a formula for accelerating the growth of our movement. By leaps and bounds, we spread social unrest that makes fossil fuel tycoons (who earn, get this, $100,000 per day) quiver in their boots. And one other thing, let’s save the planet for tomorrow but have fun doing it today, cause we are building a future society that needs to meet some real huge challenges. I hope to see a society that is governed by principles where people can dance together cooperatively, eliciting a whole lot of laughter.

I gotta thank the oganizers of 350.org for making this gathering of artists possible and to David Solnit for spearheading the cantastoria project while we were here. And a huge thanks to the creative artists involved in this project who were democratic enough not to shoot my idea down right away as ridiculous, corny, or cumbersome. They took it seriously in a not too serious way and where that led really made the closing of our cantastoria humorous, participatory and impactful.

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