How my climate change musical became a GOP talking point
Posted June 15
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is scheduled to go to Capitol Hill on Thursday morning to defend draconian cuts to his agency's budget and climate programs. I will be checking my ears for burns.
That's because last month, when White House budget director Mick Mulvaney presented Donald Trump's 2018 budget proposal and was taken to task for targeting climate programs for cuts, he pivoted to a GOP talking point decrying a nearly $700,000 Obama-era grant from the National Science Foundation for a climate change musical.
I'm the target of that talking point. I wrote that musical, "The Great Immensity," along with Michael Friedman, who wrote the songs. My theater company, The Civilians, together with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre and the Public Theater, produced what was the first major American play about climate change in 2014. Leaving aside the fact the NSF grant, which began in 2010, is ancient history, singling it out for attack reflects very current threats to both climate science and the arts under the Trump administration.
My point is not to defend our project. Explore it yourself if you're curious. My point is that the administration's willful denial of climate change imperatives and its attempts to silence art are actually related.
The White House budget proposal cuts federal cultural agencies' funding 87%, while also nearly zeroing out climate change-related spending. That's hardly a coincidence. To confront climate change, we need all the storytellers threatened by Trump's agenda -- artists, scientists, educators and public media. That's why the White House budget seeks to censor them, and why Congress needs to restore their funding.
Politicized art-hating is again on display in the flap over a new Shakespeare in the Park production of "Julius Caesar" with a Trump-like lead. Donald Trump Jr. asked in a tweet, "how much of this 'art' was funded by taxpayers," and Fox News identified it as a "tax-funded play," though the National Endowment for the Arts said none of its funds went to the production. But after right-wing media got hold of it and a social media campaign fanned the flames, corporate sponsors Delta and Bank of America duly withdrew.
My play isn't Shakespeare, though I'm honored to share this kind of targeting with "Julius Caesar." My case throws into sharp relief the political agenda behind defunding art that some powerful people don't like. It's an appeal to twin contempt for climate science and public support for the arts, a coded invitation to ridicule both.
I can hear in my head the derisive tone detractors take: A climate change musical? Sad, tap-dancing polar bears? Wistful songs of rising sea levels? But there's an ulterior motive, because the criticism isn't really about the play. Those complaining know virtually nothing about it. It's an expedient scapegoat so they can avoid tough questions about defunding climate programs and dismissing scientists even as climate change accelerates.
For the record, "The Great Immensity" was a research-intensive arts and science partnership that sought to put current scientific information about climate change into a compelling form for a wider audience. Regional musical theater productions usually cost anywhere from $800,000 to $1.3 million. Our NSF grant gave partial support to two productions, one at the Kansas City Rep and one at the Public Theater, plus education and public engagement programs over the four-year grant period.
Meanwhile, instead of helping transition to clean energy jobs, the Trump administration has doubled down on subsidizing and deregulating the fossil fuel industry. It prioritizes short-term gain for the wealthiest over making American life more secure, equal, just or sustainable.
At the same time, it eliminates funding for art and research it doesn't like -- a dangerous but effective approach straight from the playbooks of authoritarian regimes. The controversial artwork, the inconvenient scientific truth, the voice of principled dissent are all true measures of democracy. Under this government, they're under systematic attack.
Our grant has been a favorite punching bag of the right-wing media and congressional Republicans before, and I've said nothing.
But it's time to speak up now in defense of theater and its public function. It may reach fewer people than film or TV, but theater is uniquely powerful. It gathers people together and enacts a story, giving a heightened experience of reality that can change minds and lives, as people who have seen "The Great Immensity" have told me it changed theirs. There is a growing discourse that wants to portray theater as unworthy of public support. Yet the stories we tell are the basis of our values and how we vote, live and understand ourselves as a society. That's as public as it gets.