By Ross Travis
“Welcome to the cosmic sideshow, where you human cockroaches are the main act.”
Thus begins the sardonic diatribe of the eternal Harpy from the land of mythology in Tempting Fate, my satirical sideshow entertainment reflecting the house of mirrors called climate change. This original one-man bouffon show, in which I play 32 characters, balks at the science, bemoans the social impacts, and screams in horror at the political divide. You find yourself laughing at the grotesque hyperbole and the fantastically fecund characters bedecked in disdain and hubris. You see Mother Earth talk trash to those who bite her tit while suckling her life-giving abundance.
Tempting Fate, which premiered at Little Boxes Theatre in San Francisco in May of 2019, is the third work produced by my company, Antic in a Drain. The company’s mission is to combine circus and bouffon to develop extreme characters and tell stories from the fringes, igniting dialogue and change within communities around ignored or taboo social issues. Over the last six years, my work has satirically skewered humankind’s exploitative relationship with nature. My primary modus operandi is a traditional, grotesque, satirical form of physical theatre called bouffon, which was codified from many traditions (including the medieval Feast of Fools celebration, the satyr plays of the ancient Greeks, and the shamans of Native American tribes) by the French theatre provocateur Jacques Lecoq in the fifties and sixties.
My calling to create work about the interactions between humans and the earth springs from a childhood growing up in the nature of rural Colorado, and from the way I’ve seen humans neglect and burden the earth and its creatures throughout my life. I have lived in San Francisco for the last ten years, and have seen first-hand how coastal communities in the San Francisco Bay Area (and around the world) are threatened by climate change. What I saw and learned while living in the Bay Area sparked the creation of another work of mine, Bucko: Whaleman!, a swashbuckling spectacle that plunges a satirical harpoon into the heart of manifest destiny and white privilege from the bow of maritime history and literature.
We are currently feeling a surge of the effects of climate change: out-of-control wildfires, island nations displaced due to flooding and superstorms, and a global pandemic of a novel coronavirus. I am terrified and deeply sorrowful about the issue; how are there those who still do not believe in climate change? Political, corporate, and religious leaders use the word of God, misinformation campaigns, and capitalist rhetoric to indoctrinate their citizens and divert their attention. In order to understand the points of view of these influencers and their constituencies, I must empathetically dive into their perspectives and approach what I find through a humorous lens.
But I’m an equal opportunity offender. Great satire is not black and white like agitprop. Great satire leaves us dwelling on the complexities of our complicity. So I also take a plunge into my own bias and the ways in which the political left is also apathetic or hypocritical. Bouffons have no allegiances and no alliances, they are free agents, funhouse mirrors, alien inquisitors. Imagine, if you will, a group of pleasure seeking, fun loving aliens landing in the middle of a war zone in Syria. “Oh! This is how they have fun on this planet!”, they say to each other in their alien tongue. They then begin to act out the atrocities they see before them like children at the playground. The humans stop and see their own behavior being replicated before them in all its grotesque hypocrisy, they laugh at the absurd portrayal of their actions, they empathize with the plight of their foes, they weep in catharsis.
With this in mind, I do my best to adopt a neutral perspective and soak up as much as I can from all sides of an issue. During my research and development period, I take a head-first plunge, conducting interviews with experts, listening to podcasts, reading books and articles, and watching documentaries and films. I try to become as much of an expert as I can. Then I find what games I see being played and identify who all the players are, who is complicit and in what ways. I replay these games and scenarios for the audience through grotesque characters, gratuitous ritual, song, and ecstatic play.
In Tempting Fate, the characters include a tempestuous harpy straight from the land of mythology, bringing an ominous reminder from the gods; a former oil executive, now a sustainable farmer at a Climate Changers Anonymous meeting (struggling with the difficulty of his new off-the-grid life in a yurt with a backed up compostable toilet); and a liberal cheerleader for team Human, trying to keep her squad positive as they get clobbered by team Climate Change (who are kicking international climate change through team Human’s goal posts and uprooting the lives of millions of their fans).
I question whether or not someone can be truly changed by a piece of theatre, but I dream that they might be. Bouffon is the theatre form I’ve found with the greatest potential to make people examine their most firmly held convictions and biases. It’s my belief (scientific proof pending) that the laughter elicited by the comedy in a bouffon performance opens the audience so that when the tragedy of the material is presented, they are more apt to consider new perspectives. The emotional rollercoaster of this form, the extremity and vulnerability that it requires, the fact that no one is safe and every perspective will be challenged (even the creator’s) can be very humbling and disarming. This is perhaps exactly what we need when we have all retreated to our tribes and armed our “bubbles.”
Tempting Fate will be touring nationally and internationally as soon as the quarantine restrictions are lifted and it is safe enough to do so.
(Top image: The Harpy, from Tempting Fate. Costumes by Lydia Foreman, masks and puppets by Ronlin Foreman, written, created, and performed by Ross Travis, directed by Ronlin Foreman. Photos by Eric Gillet of Shoot That Klown.)
Ross Travis is an award-winning actor, creator, bouffon, physical comedian, and circus performer (specializing in Chinese pole), who has studied with world-renowned master pedagogues, including Dodi DiSanto, Giovanni Fusetti, Ronlin Foreman, Stephen Buescher, Dominik Wyss, and Master Lu Yi. Ross has developed three shows: The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth, which won the Artistic Risk Award at the Vancouver Fringe Festival and received two nominations at the 2016 Theatre Bay Area Awards, winning for Outstanding Costume Design; Bucko: Whaleman!, which premiered at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in 2017; and Tempting Fate, which was nominated for seven 2019 Theatre Bay Area Awards, winning for Outstanding Creative Specialties for mask design.
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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