A Public Performance Series Aims to Combat “Climate Despair”

On a chilly afternoon in March, the Punjabi tune “De De Gehra” blared as two “swamp monsters” covered in green body paint, fishnets, and shimmery scales danced across the perennial grasses of the Queens Botanical Garden (QBG). The music was punctuated by laughter from passersby, who whispered among themselves in Spanish and Mandarin. 

This is a rehearsal for A Fun Play About How Scary Climate Change Is, a public performance series coming to the QBG’s Climate Art Festival on April 27. Born of six months of rehearsals with actors well-versed in improvisational techniques, the work debuted at outdoor venues across five New York City neighborhoods last summer. 

Sabina Sethi Unni, the organizer and director of the project, employs the medium of public art to combat climate despair. Her prior eco-theater projects include “Rainy Day Play” (2022), an absurdist take on climate disaster that used a talking flood sensor to educate the audience about street flooding.

Unni’s hope is for people to leave the performance with the language to articulate how climate change affects their lives — and the recognition of the beauty of mutual aid in the face of environmental crisis. Her ultimate goal, however, is for the audience to have fun. 

This playful ethos aligns with recent trends in environmental storytelling. With increasing numbers of Americans feeling anxious about climate change, artists like Unni are pushing forward more hopeful climate narratives. According to Unni, although climate despair is an understandable emotion, it can also paralyze people and obscure possibilities for positive change. Her aim is to tell stories about the joy and resiliency of front-line communities, encouraging locals to lean into hope.

A Fun Play About How Scary Climate Change Is revolves around the plight of two swamp monsters (Sabina Sethi Unni and Saskia Naidoo) — affectionately nicknamed “swampies” — desperate to return home after being tossed ashore in NYC during a storm. Defying his misanthropic tendencies, a local writer (Ray Achan) shelters the swampies in his home. As time goes on, an eccentric cast of characters including a park-ranger-turned-drag-queen (Alex Scelso), a hungry seagull (Diana Lobontiu), a stage manager (Raine Higa), and a neurotic makeup artist (Spoorti Hegde) all join efforts to reunite the swampies with their family. 

With the help of several musical comedy numbers, the group comes to terms with how a changing environment led to their situation. 

“The climate’s changing. My friends are changing. And I am changing too,” they sing while Sab the swampie strums a 1987 Japanese synthesizer. 

Halfway through the performance, audience members are prompted to give examples of how climate change impacts their community. “More flooding,” yelled the crowd at last summer’s opening performance in Gowanus, a Brooklyn neighborhood that recently underwent a $54 million infrastructure project to alleviate post-storm flooding that impacted several artists’ studios.

These fourth-wall-blurring devices transform performances into avenues for education. As a component of “Rainy Day Play,” Unni’s last eco-theater installation, performers facilitated a conversation in Rockaway Beach, a neighborhood still reeling from the effects of Superstorm Sandy, about what the local government could do to better support residents’ recovery.

As a community organizer and urban planner, Unni has witnessed firsthand the failures of top-down climate planning approaches. Her belief that “people that live in neighborhoods are often the experts” underpins her approach to participatory theater. 

Most importantly, A Fun Play is intended to spark action. As climate-related disasters become more ubiquitous, Unni views storytelling as a tool for communities to draw connections between catastrophes, understand their causes, and brainstorm tangible solutions. The play also provides a venue for neighbors to build relationships and discuss how they can support each other in times of need. 

These types of conversations are vital in today’s climate reality. Across the country, gaps in government assistance during deadly climate-related events often force communities themselves to take on disaster recovery efforts. In NYC, plagued by street flooding and hazardous air quality, mutual aid efforts have ensured that those who are most affected have access to safe housing and protective equipment. 

The QBG performance presents audiences with a reminder of how interdependent our lives are in the age of climate crisis, illuminating possibilities for community planning and grassroots change.

As described by Scelso the park-ranger-turned-drag-queen during one rehearsal: “There is something so lovely about being so gentle to something for no reason except loving the planet you are on.” 

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