Every year, the COE awards fellowships to fund summer research opportunities for Wesleyan students across all majors and class years. Liz Woolford ’22 is a theater and government double major whose summer research project focused on developing her theater capstone project: The Party at the Edge of the World, an investigation into the intersection of performance and environmental activism. The project will culminate in a site-specific/immersive piece to be performed Friday, November 19 through Sunday, November 21, 2021 at 8 p.m., here at the COE at 284 High Street.
You’re a theater and government double major. Tell us about your theater capstone project supported by your COE summer research fellowship!
Ten-year-old Georgia lives in a house that was supposed to be underwater, that is sinking, that has already sunk, and that soon will sink for good. The Party at the Edge of the World follows Georgia and a gaggle of ghosts, parents, and friends as they navigate what it means to live life on the brink: of ecological disaster, time, magic, and loss. Presented in a site-specific and immersive format, this is an original play about childhood, togetherness, and how we embrace both grief and joy in the face of the massively unthinkable.
The Party is a play in-development right now! A small group of writers spent the summer synthesizing a semester’s worth of theory and experimentation–the product of our student forum called “Ecological Disasters: Investigation Through Performance.” Armed with the outlines of characters and plot, our tight-knit team of actors and designers will spend the first part of the fall playing and experimenting together to finalize the script. After a short rehearsal process, intimate performances will take place at the College of the Environment at 284 High Street, from November 19 through 21, 2021 at 8 pm.
What prompted you to create a theater piece exploring environmental policy?
As a student of policy, environmental studies, and theater, I have been perpetually unsatisfied with “climate change theater.” Plays mostly fall into one of two traps: either relying too heavily on preachy and educational content about capital E environmentalism, or peddling stories that perpetuate the systems the climate crisis was built upon in the first place. As the “real world” of post-grad life began to rapidly approach, I became increasingly interested in how my two fields of interest could serve each other. What does live theatrical performance offer to environmental advocacy? How do we tell stories that push for the sweeping relational changes necessary to fuel the work of massive societal healing and upheaval? What are the limits and possibilities of this kind of work? And, thus, the Party was born as a capstone project in the Theater Department.
You’ve been working on The Party at the Edge of the World for almost two years now. What was your goal this summer, in terms of moving the project forward?
This summer I hoped to leave with pieces of a script that tell a story of ecological disaster from a personal and visceral perspective. And I am. (Wooo!) It was surprising how challenging it was to transition from a strictly academic and theoretical brainspace to a creative one. After over a year of deep inquiry, reading and evaluating similar works, etc., I sometimes felt hindered more than helped by my level of expertise. It was also exciting to discover that some of the first impulses I had for the play, way back when I first proposed the project, have still been the most exciting paths to follow.
What was the most rewarding part of your experience?
Working with my writing team has been the greatest gift. We are such a collaborative group of folks, all madly in love with each other’s creative brains. That means that we can see the merits and possibilities of another’s writing even when they may struggle to see it for themselves. This has been a process of building and riffing off of each other’s strengths, challenging each other’s tendencies, and recognizing that the best work happens when you pursue joy on the page.
What was the biggest challenge you faced and how did you overcome it?
By the time this play is staged, it will be the product of nearly two years of work. That means that the stakes feel really high. We’ve done so much work to get here, will the play be any good?! Will it answer all of the questions we set out to work through? Will our story accurately embody the theory and values we have come to find so important? But in a creative space, you can’t let yourself be cornered by big questions like these. Paralysis and poor writing comes when you try to force characters and story to bend to your will, rather than giving it the space to feel itself out. Our team pulled heavily from the writing practices of playwright Maria Irene Fornés, whose teachings we all worked with in a course with Professor Katie Pearl last semester. Fornés believed heavily in incorporating chance, randomness, and following into her writing practices.
How did this experience change you, personally, and/or impact your academic or post-academic plans, moving forward?
I have spent my entire undergraduate career questioning if and how I can merge my love of theater-making with my passion for environmental education and advocacy. My capstone project, which the COE Summer Fellowship has helped me to further develop, is explicitly seeking answers to this question. One of my biggest takeaways from this project is a reminder that I am in love with storytelling, and that narratives and myths actively shape the way we see ourselves, each other, and the world around us. (And that THAT is worth pursuing.)
Any words of advice for other Wes students who might be considering applying for a COE fellowship?
The COE fellowship is an awesome opportunity to dedicate yourself to a project that you might otherwise have to put on the back burner. This includes anything that interfaces with sustainability and environmental justice–not just Wesleyan summer lab work.