I am a professional actor, singer, writer and teacher from New York City and New Jersey. I have performed, written for, and worked with children for several decades. I created shows with New York’s Paper Bag Players, toured extensively with the company, created props/costumes, and led workshops in New York and on the road. In addition, I did television and theater in New York as well as regional theatre productions with numerous companies in the 80s, 90s and 2000s.
My late husband inherited his family home in suburban New Jersey, so we moved into the house in the early 2000s. His parents had been environmentalists and educators in the area during the 50s thru the 90s. They had grown all their own vegetables, volunteered at the local nature center and helped to educate locals about environmental issues. I always had great respect and admiration for their work, so I tried to pick up where they left off.
We adopted a beautiful 10-month-old girl through the foster care system and when she started kindergarten I realized that the kids in our upper-middle class area were not learning how to prepare for climate change or think sustainably. How could they possibly deal with the environmental problems they’d be inheriting? There was practically no public transportation in our area, bottled water use was wide-spread, parents idled their SUVs in front of schools, the food and plastic waste at school was appalling, and environmental education had become practically nonexistent. When our town banned beekeeping, I’d had enough.
I started working on Granny Green’s Green Machine, writing songs, and picture books. I created set pieces, props and costumes from recycled materials. I offered shows as well as arts and crafts programs to help kids learn how to make art or useful things out of their trash.
The idea I wanted to impress upon them was that everything we do affects other things. All the parts of the natural world are connected like the parts of a machine. I hoped that the children would take information home through a song, a story or a treasure. I began presenting the programs wherever possible – in schools, at Earth Fairs, and the youth development organization 4H and scouting events.
I talked to teachers, administrators, and parents about changing things in our schools but I failed to light any fires. I joined a local sustainability group to talk about the issues with like-minded people. There were not many of us at the time, and sometimes it felt like what we were doing was subversive. There were times when I was dismissed or treated like a screwball in my town, but eventually I was asked to join our town’s environmental commission and head our Green Team. We began doing annual town clean-ups, showing educational films, and bringing in lecturers. Soon after, I was invited to write a sustainability column for the local newspaper. We worked with neighboring towns to broaden our scope, but very few of the area’s residents actually came to our events, and we were, from time to time, met with outright hostility.
I have sometimes gotten arguments from parents and educators who say that talking to children about climate change is too scary. I think it’s scarier to keep children in the dark about their future. One of the songs I wrote for the show is The Polar Bear Blues and along with it I describe how the greenhouse effect works. It’s not scary. It’s science with a song.
I try to promote the idea that kids can make changes at home and in school. The theme song of the show is In My Backyard — I can make the whole world greener in my own backyard.
I did an Indiegogo campaign in 2016 to raise funds to publish I Am the Hugger! – a picture book about trees and the many wonderful things they do for us. I will be eternally grateful to my friends and family members who contributed to the publication of the book.
Our taxes got higher and higher, my husband lost his editorial job, and the 2016 campaign and election had a negative effect on the way children were treating our African American daughter. The bullying got so bad that at one point a group of boys chased her down the street with sticks, hurling racial epithets at her. We left New Jersey a year and a half ago and moved to progressive Tacoma, WA where my family lives. I’m slowly getting into the performance and art worlds here and I’m in the process of publishing some new picture books and recording a new album.
Starting over at 60 is challenging, but I don’t plan to stop any time soon. Children need to know the truth if they’re going to help solve the many problems they will face. These days, more and more young people are speaking out about climate change and the environment. Their courage and understanding of the issues gives me hope for a better future.
Brenda Cummings recently moved from the New York City area to Tacoma, Washington. She performed in New York and regional theater, including Mrs. Pierce, My Fair Lady; Mrs. Lynch, Grease (The Papermill Playhouse); Georgette, School For Wives (The Yale Repertory Theater); Adelaide Churchill, Lizzie Borden (Goodspeed Opera House), and Teresa, Don Quixote(Denver Repertory Theatre). Brenda worked with Obie award-winning playwright/actor Jeff Weiss in Hot Keys, Come Clean and That’s How the Rent Gets Paid. Brenda was with the Obie award-winning children’s theatre company The Paper Bag Players, and has presented Granny Green’s Green Machine since 2009.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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