A Sea Change:
An Interview on the
Theater of Sea Level Rise
This image of multiple suns sets a scene for a Chinese myth about changing climate, as told by Jennifer Fu, Head of FIU Library’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Center in the April 2017 “A Sea Change.” Photo: Charity Johnson. Illustration: Nicole Betancourt.
A Sea Change is a multifaceted theatrical experience primarily motivated by the global rise of sea levels and the search for solutions. By exploring aspects of global sea level rise through an immersive experience that incorporates dance, art, poetry, history, journalism and even virtual reality, A Sea Change features the work of Florida International University (FIU) students, faculty, and staff who are dedicated to addressing environmental challenges. Conceived and directed by FIU theatre professor Philip M. Church and produced by FIU journalism professor Dr. Robert Gutsche, Jr., this illuminating journey has been put in motion with the help of dance choreographer Crystal Patient; musician Orlando Garcia, who has composed over 140 musical works; and choral director Kathryn Longo. Special guest, environmental artist Xavier Cortada, will join the cast on stage with an intriguing interactive project that involves the entire audience.
Luciano Cuneo: Why did you create A Sea Change, and why now?
Phillip M. Church: The gathering issue of climate change and rising sea levels is so urgent that the single voice, while effective, can perhaps be better heard as a united front with the support of others. All institutions of higher learning, such as FIU need to demonstrate their collective concern for the changing earth. We can do this best by sharing the research and exploration already taking place in various colleges and departments. We can also offer a platform for people with other talents to express their concerns and solutions. Historically, the arts and sciences have cohabitated in synergistic harmony for hundreds of years, so it seems only natural that we put artists and scientist/researchers together on stage to bring about some of that same synergy.
Robert E. Gutsche, Jr.: We have been working in Journalism + Media for several years on creating meaningful environmental communication about sea level rise and climate change in South Florida. And as journalism used to be – and some may say still is – a type of performance for audiences, turning to theatre as a stage for public communication, to me, was an exciting, if not natural, progression. And while our performance can’t – and doesn’t – address all issues of global climate change, my hope has been that this performance creates an immersive platform for beginning, or advancing, discussions around the impacts of change on our communities.
LC: What is unique about A Sea Change?
PC: The fact that various disciplines are moving together beneath one umbrella of concern. While educational institutions encourage interdisciplinary research, I feel sometimes not enough is done to bring disciplines and colleges together, possibly because disciplines have their own agendas and deadlines to take care of and this keeps people very busy and separated. Interdisciplinary activities were quite germane when the university was young. An interdisciplinary culture is essential to keep faculty, students and staff connected through a like-mined awareness of the important issues in life. If we unite our intellectual and physical resources we can make a huge difference in bringing about change. We are, after all, creatures of habit and some of those habits are not necessarily helping sustain this planet. The “sea change” that is called for in this project can only happen if we begin to change some of our personal habits and in the process become more caring of the well-being of others and the deficit we bring upon all of us when we waste and abuse energy.
RG: This is truly an endeavor where faculty, staff, and students worked alongside one another for a year to put their interests together, to challenge one another as scholars and colleagues, and to gain a common purpose to interact with a wider community through the arts. What other university is doing this? What other place but FIU can we take our diversity, our voices, our expression, and our intellect surrounding pressing issues in our own back yards and put it to public scrutiny?
LC: This project involves more than a dozen FIU departments and community organizations. What kinds of obstacles did you encounter? Which collaborations worked best?
RG: The challenge of multi- and interdisciplinary efforts seems to always be communicating in the same language, maintaining the rigor and accuracy of the field-specific arguments and assessments. From the start of this effort, however, we found that using the language of expression through visuals, music, dance, and a recognition of scientific fact made the collaboration easy. The hard parts have surrounded ensuring cohesion between the various aspects, among the variety of voices. FIU is nothing if not eclectic. But with this project, putting expression at the center of the conversation empowered each unit, each voice, each approach in ways that reinforced other voices. Architecture came to reinforce environmental science. Robotics reflected the power of technology harnessed by human condition and agency. Journalism, design, dance all coalesced to talk about the care we have – or that we want to have – for our shared environments.
PC: We are really learning a lot by being introduced to the work of other disciplines. Those of us who work in theatre very are fortunate – we are constantly challenged to delve into multiple subjects and traditions to understand the worlds in which the playwright’s characters exist. I can only imagine that by putting all these interdisciplinary elements together on stage in public, the audience, through the visceral experience of live theatre, will receive certain insights into the issues of climate change in slightly different ways than they might reading a report, or watching a documentary or the evening news.
LC: Describe your biggest challenges.
RG: The hardest part, for me anyway, was to understand our desired, intentional, targeted audiences. We know the FIU community of scholars and communicators are aware and interested in the issues of climate change. We also know that our students are aware of global changes to regional environments. And, we know that FIU has strong collaborations with civic leaders and stakeholders on this issue. But, the question for me has been, “What do they do now?” My hope is that this project takes people beyond awareness, even beyond expertise of specific areas of climate change. We need to find ways to engage knowledge with action, and after talking with core leaders in sea level rise and climate change work at FIU, which I have been doing for only a few years now, I sense the interdisciplinary approach to identifying challenges and solutions needs a bit of fresh perspective and energy. The second hardest part, though, is how to create a call to action, and if that is an intention of our work. I don’t think we will know that until after the performance is over, its recordings spread across the internet, and as shorter versions of “A Sea Change” are performed in local schools. What will people do with this performance, the dance, data, visuals and voices?
PC: Biggest challenge? The sacrifice of time. It is not easy to ask people to volunteer time. It has become for many such a valued commodity. Yet, we have found participants who are making it work. They are committed and have signed on to join their voices together to make a statement and hopefully to provide some solutions for the future.
LC: What is the greatest threat that people in South Florida face from sea level rise?
RG: Forced migration. It’s as simple as that.
PC: Wealth is a huge threat. Condo towers are still being planned. McMansions are still an investment at the water’s edge. While such examples of waterside development continue to rise, how can we expect anyone to get alarmed by the rise of water even in the face of incontrovertible facts?
LC: What can be done to address climate change right now?
RG: We really need to question the degree to which we communicate solutions and realities. The Miami Foundation, a respected local institution, has published “suggestions for effective sea-level rise communication in Miami-Dade,” which seems representative of problematic and potentially dangerous approaches for addressing the challenges to and of South Florida. With tips that “We need ‘the opposite of panic’” and that “Skepticism inhibits action,” the 2016 report sets a tone that while, in its own words, “We’re all in this together,” it overlooks the large swaths of Miami-Dade County that are perhaps unable to make economic investments in our collective futures, or who lack the disposable time to join the conversation. More troublesome, the report indicates that, “Skepticism about the capacity of city/county officials to prioritize this and handle it is high,” articulating that “economically-vulnerable communities especially feel disconnected from decision-making. And many feel powerless in the face of entrenched commercial and political interests.” Yet, this statement ignores the powers that be and the status quo that shapes perceptions of inaction and the realities of a lack of trust of authorities for just cause. Indeed, a few pages later in the same report, a local business owner reveals how many of today’s sea level solutions are pointed to the wealthy. As one individual is quoted as saying. “This is an actual business opportunity if approached the right way.” Perhaps true, but what is also needed is a coherent and inclusive conversation of who wins and loses in this changing climate.
LC: To what degree can immersive technology – and theatre – change our mindset and tactics for addressing rising seas?
PC: In many respects we are growing far beyond the living experience when we watch the news or read blogs or hear the sound bites of information squeezed in between commercials. Yet, at the same time we are desperate to know what is taking place throughout the world. I think perhaps a consequence of our rush toward globalization has resulted in a neglect toward our own immediacy – our own personal environment and community for the sake of a more global identity. In some part theatre can redress this. Without a doubt theatre is a powerful tool and cannot be put in the wrong hands. Don’t get me wrong, film cannot be dismissed, but theatre provides that immediacy of living, a visceral experience that we do not receive when observing people’s stories from the comfort of our living rooms or the insularity of our iPads. Just the experience of witnessing a living act shoulder to shoulder in rows of seats with other human beings, hearing the coughs and sneezes, the laughter and at times the tears, is reconfirmation – that we are not alone, that these issues that we face in life and that are now reflected to us from the stage or film can and must be shared together. Yet, for many that experience is vanishing because it is just too convenient to grab the news (climate change et al) on the run from one mission to another. We should remember, the living experience of which we speak began thousands of years ago when the storyteller recounted the news of his hunting adventure in a circle around a fire that was cooking the meat. We continue to hunger for such food in our need for connection.
RG: In the end, we need to find ways to bridge knowledge-to-action gaps. It’s not enough for people to “know about an issue” – even to learn about new challenges (ie. racialized forced migration, massive development despite rising seas, personal and group influences on climate change through behavior and capitalism). We have to decide to do something about our problems.
For information on “A Sea Change,” including performance dates, visit eyesontherise.org/aseachange.