Walkabout Theater’s ‘A Persephone Pageant’ Reimagines the Demeter Myth as a Parable About Climate Change

Hallie Palladino

(Featured image: Obsessive Eye Photography)

Walkabout Theater just finished a tour of their their newest devised piece, A Persephone Pageant. My children and I caught the recent Chicago performance on the grassy lawn behind The University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The family friendly pageant, co-directed by Jessica Thebus and Thom Pasculli, incorporates original text by Sarah Ruhl and Morgan McNaught and features choreography by Kristina Isabelle, music by Mark Messing and puppets by K.T. Sivak and Jackie Valdez. The play updates the Demeter myth imagining Persephone as Water and Hades as Greed, remaking the story into a contemporary parable about climate change.

I was invited to the show by Rescripted’s own Founder/Editor in Chef, Regina Victor who had gone into rehearsals as the dramaturg, but soon found a role emerged in the show for them as a narrator. I caught up with Regina over morning coffee at Steppenwolf (where they are currently doing a year long artistic fellowship) just before their final performance. We conversed at length about devised theater, civic dramaturgy and the challenges of incorporating their extensive research about climate change into a family friendly theatrical performance.

H.P.: What was the genesis of A Persephone Pageant?

R.V.: It’s a project that Jessica [Thebus] and Tria [Smith] had been working on before Walkabout.  There was already text from Sarah [Ruhl], which may have been performed before this iteration. Walkabout’s approach was to take Sarah’s text and create etudes, response pieces. The ensemble all contributed elements that are in the final performance, and in that way it’s a truly devised piece.

H.P. In the show there are two actresses doing the Demeter role. One is on stilts doing movement, the other on the ground speaking the text.

R.V.: Yes. We wanted to show the duality of the human component as well as the spiritual component by having one on the ground and one on stilts. We did not do the same for Hades. Hades emerges as a human being, a singular person already on earth. That’s how we differentiate him from the other gods who are organic and multi-conscious. They speak together and move together. Whereas Hades, he has to steal things from other people to get taller. As his costume came together a decidedly Trumpian note emerged. All the metallic accents sort of echo Trump Tower. His rise is unsettling because it starts so innocently. Humans just want a shelter form the cold and from the rain. The problem is when you get too much of a good thing how does it spiral out of control? I think that’s connected to my feelings about the economy. The invisible hand that controls us, even though we created it. That’s how I think of Hades.

 (Cooper Forsman, Alex Rodriguez as Hades, Willa-Marie O’Donnell, Photo Credit: Evan Barr Photography)

H.P.: The play ends on a hopeful note however.

R.V.: Yes, we tried to incorporate Hades into the happy ending. We decided not to kill him off. That’s too easy. We can’t necessarily undo everything we’ve done. But we can use our powers for good. We can use technology to fix a lot of the damage we’ve done to the earth. For example, old subway cars are lowered into the ocean to create artificial reefs, meant to correct damage we’ve inflicted on reefs through pollution.

H.P.: And what was the creative process like?

R.V.: The way Walkabout does it is a bit magical. We all brought together our various components and skills and suddenly we looked up and we had a show. The way the script specifically came together was the text from Sarah [Ruhl] we had was mainly Demeter’s speeches when her daughter is kidnapped, and the searching for Persephone.

Morgan McNaught (they/them) had the difficult task to fill in scenes based on the physical pieces we’d created so far. We had the ending where Zeus [a giant puppet] falls apart [when the humans appeal to him for mercy]. We had the opening dance for the gods. We didn’t have words for certain events, but we knew what had to happen. Morgan came in and wrote down everything they saw. We talked on the phone about what we thought the thread of the story was and what was important to preserve in the tone of Sarah’s writing for continuity’s sake. I think that was the hardest thing Morgan had to do was match somebody else’s tone and style while still writing for themselves, they are a really dexterous writer. Not precious about language at all.

The other half of that was lots of meetings between me, Thom and Jessica. Jessica actually wrote the very first narrator scene. And then we went and edited it together. Morgan wrote words for the Lake Aria with all these technical facts about Lake Michigan (“Since 2000, over 34 billion gallons of raw sewage have been dumped into Lake Michigan”!), and I created a melody for it that Mark Messing, our Music Director, finessed into a track. I wrote the melody and words for the final chunk of that Aria, Alex brought Hades’ song, Everlasting Light into the room on the very first day. So it’s all very conflated in the best way, everyone has created something in the show.

H.P.: And how about the movement elements?

R.V.: Kristina [Isabelle], who does all of the stilt movement, doesn’t choreograph to music. You can dance her movement to any song, so its very flexible. Then Mark came in and brought music, and it’s just this weird, delightful, inspiring stuff. The music really helped us guide the movement and mood of the piece, it influenced my Lake Aria melodies for sure. The whole piece layers like a piece of music.

(Leo Pasculli, left, and Regina Victor, right, Photo Credit Evan Barr Photography)

H.P.: And you didn’t know at the beginning you were going to be performing the role of narrator?

R.V.: Walkabout thinks of themselves as a performance company. They specialize in spectacle, and they do it very well. I came on to help with script and story. I liked warming up with them and one time Jessica heard me singing, and told me to just jump into some of the ensemble stuff. Eventually it grew into the narration. Since Thom was also directing he wanted another person to balance his narrator role so he could step out and watch things. It’s been really fun, the part kept growing as weeks went by. My friend came and said, “You didn’t tell me you were one of the leads!” (though a narrator is arguably not a lead). And I said I didn’t really notice how involved I was in the show until about a week ago!

H.P.: How does writing for young audiences impact the content of the show?

It was important to Jessica the show be family friendly. She’s a mother. She wanted to create a work that would inspire audience members to have a conversation with their kids about environmental justice. Children can relate to this character of Water/Persephone which has been kidnapped, and understand that stealing from the Earth beyond your needs is bad.

My style of theater is theatrical jazz, something can be happening in your body and something can be happening in your voice, like in Jazz two instruments playing the same song. We’re jazzily thinking about climate change and mythology. The hardest part for me was making sure not to overload people with information. Some of my research made it into the Lake Aria. For instance loopholes in regulations, or backing out of the Paris Agreement. Other stuff we put on the dramaturgical boards (designed by ensemble member Alex) for people to read about after the show.

H.P.: And then Hurricane Harvey happened in between performances.

R.V.: Jessica and I had a conversation about the scene with Demeter where she’s creating havoc in the world. “The people suffered, the earth suffered, cold, heat, famine, hurricanes and earthquakes.” She was like, “You can’t throw that away. I really want people to understand the direct correlation between hurricanes and global warming.” It’s really immediate and the show made it even more immediate for me. Especially reading about the flooding in Nepal and India that has affected 41 million people killed 12,000. All the articles say it’s from rising temperatures generated by human activity. We didn’t want to shy away from that.

The ending focuses on the little things we can do now. It’s not that militant. It’s about eating one less meal of beef a week. Recycling, joining adopt a beach. Even something like not doing laundry during a rainstorm will make a difference. Chicago is build on that “dilution is the solution” theory. A theory that a little shit in the lake won’t kill us.

H.P.: Meanwhile, every sip of water we drink comes from the lake…

R.V.: I know, but their idea was from a time when we were producing much less waste. The sewage plants are designed to overflow into the lake if they reach capacity. All the water flows out in two separate pipes from your house but it all comes together at the sewage plant.

The sewage water from your house will also be running out into the lake when there is already overflow.

H.P.: On a project like this do you think of yourself as practicing civic dramaturgy? And if so how does that differ from other types of dramaturgy you do?

R.V.: Well there is civic dramaturgy and then there’s cultural dramaturgy, and there’s dramaturgy as a research and author related discipline. Cultural dramaturgy is more about bringing your personal experiences. Civic dramaturgy is far more about audience engagement. Getting your audience to take action. Oracle for instance had a show, Good Friday, about sexual assault and campus violence. They provided all these wonderful resource guides and counselors on site, ways to report, places to volunteer. They really thought through how do you take action for yourself and others. We wanted to have that kind of thorough civic engagement mindset with this project.

Climate change is something I’ve always been personally interested in but I’ve never been deeply invested from an advocacy point of view. Most of my work has been in the areas of sexual violence and racism. For this project I got to talk to a bunch of experts like Karen Hobbs at the NRDC, and Anja Claus at the Center for Humans and Nature. Figuring out how to make that complex information easily digestible was most of my job. Just parsing through, deciding what details can people hear on stage, cultivating a reading list and encouraging people to take action.

It’s easy to trivialize. But our hope with this show is to bring it to the forefront of people’s consciousness in a way that allows people to make small but meaningful changes.

H.P.: Where’s your next performance?

R.V.: Ragdale Center in Lake Forest IL.

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