pearl’s ocean filibuster explores human-ocean relationship

Katie Pearl watches a photo shoot for Ocean Filibuster, which will open at Wes on May 4.

Ocean Filibuster, a performance developed by Assistant Professor of Theater Katie Pearl, co-artistic director of the Obie-winning company PearlDamour, explores the complex relationship between humans and the ocean and centers around the debate between two fictional rivals, Mr. Majority and the Ocean, as they launch into a battle which will determine whether or not the Ocean will be abolished. The project draws together the work of scientists and creatives to generate a dynamic story which illuminates the urgency of our current environmental crisis. The Wesleyan performance of Ocean Filibuster will take place May 4-6 at the CFA.

Hi, Katie! What was the initial process of creating Ocean Filibuster? How did you determine the key themes for this project?
Katie Pearl: I was commissioned through Harvard’s College of the Environment to create an environmental project. I think we’re in a moment where the science world is realizing the importance of partnering with storytellers and storytellers are realizing the importance of partnering with scientists and breaking down those boundaries to more effectively reach people.

At Harvard there were all of these amazing stories playing out in the labs, but they stayed in the lab. The question was how do we get these stories out to people? They reached out to me to create a project about the environment.

Speaking with researchers at Harvard was fascinating. What we encountered were people who were deeply enchanted with the ocean. They loved it. Most of them also grew up in close relationship to the ocean. They talked about growing up as surfers, or scuba divers, or being fisher people. One of our first lunches was really formative for the project. We were at a table with the scientists and they were telling us about their individual research. They described the ocean as a giant human enabler. Think about codependent relationships. There’s the person who’s exhibiting bad behavior, problematic behavior, and then there’s the enabler that allows that person to continue with that behavior. That’s the codependency trap. What we realized is that we’re in that kind of relationship with the ocean. The ocean has been so good about absorbing our bad behavior for hundreds of years now, and it’s allowed us to continue these behaviors without having to feel the effects and the impact of that behavior until now.

We asked the scientists, what do you want our audiences to learn or walk away with? What do you want to wake up in our audiences? There was this long pause and the scientists looked at each other, looked down. Then, finally, one of them said, “wonder.” We were so taken by that. He didn’t say he wanted them to walk away learning about the rising temperature, or ocean acidification, or death of coral reefs. He wanted them to fall in love with how incredible the ocean is, and then, by extension, begin to consider their relationship with it.

There’s this term that’s starting to be used, a “wicked problem.” A wicked problem is a problem that is so complex that it cannot be addressed via one lens or one field alone. The climate is a perfect example of a wicked problem. I am at a point where I see theater as the technology of bringing people together, and if I can use theater as the location for this conversation to happen, I can bring different perspectives together.

What have been some of the highlights of this process so far?
We’ve toured this show. Every time we do the show, we collaborate with local environmental organizations to create an interactive experience for the audience to have during the intermission.

That means every place I go I get to learn about a really specific local issue. In Cambridge I learned about Cod habitats. In Miami we learned all about the coral reef system. In Houston I learned about how all of the waterways around Houston are connected. Here in Connecticut, I’m learning so much about the rivers in town because the closest we get to the ocean is the Connecticut River downtown. The rivers in town have a number of issues, like a shocking amount of acid, invasive plant species, and storm runoff. I’ve also learned here in Connecticut how easy it is to get involved in state and local legislation. I’m learning about what you can do to help the environment just from inside your own home.

Was there a real filibuster that inspired this project?
Yes. Lisa D’Amour and I began working in Austin Texas, where a woman named Wendy Davis filibustered a bill that was trying to decrease access to abortion. She showed up in her suit and skirt and pink sneakers and spoke for 11 hours. What was so astonishing is that at the beginning of the filibuster you saw her speaking to an empty chamber, and then more and more people started coming. By the end, citizens filled the state house and they were standing in the chamber and in the balcony and outside in the rotunda and on the floor.

In the Texas legislature there are rules, and you have three strikes during your filibuster. Close to midnight, the people were actually shouting so loudly that she got her third strike. In Texas, the Republicans claimed they took a vote, but by the next day it was clear that somebody had falsified the record and they hadn’t taken the vote until after midnight. So in retrospect, she actually had succeeded.

How did you go about developing a character for the ocean?
The characterization of the ocean had a lot to do with who we cast. We’ve really long admired a performer named Jenn Kidwell. She’s a Philadelphia-based actor. At first we wanted the ocean to be glamorous. Then we thought, why would the ocean be glamorous? We were drawing from tropes of Mother Nature. What we realized was more interesting to us about the ocean was its unpredictability and its changeability. So we talked with Jenn about allowing different parts of her personality to come out during the show.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
One question I’m interested in pursuing is how we tell stories about the climate. I think there has been an assumption that hearing about the climate is a downer; it’s a depressing story, or it’s just going to tell us more of what we already know. I think there are a million other ways forward. Ocean Filibuster is our company’s attempt to take a different perspective forward.

I also want to mention half the cast are Wesleyan students. The ocean ensemble is made up of six students who appear as different characters throughout the show: Oluchi Chukwuemeka ‘26, Sissi Foldessy-Stiegemeier ‘26, Danielle Nodelman ‘24, Jackson Palmer ‘26, Hudson Wang ‘26, and Connor Wrubel ‘25. Four other students are part of the CT River Project, a mini lab during intermission that is a result of a COE Student-Faculty Fellowship grant: Liang Liang ‘26, Shekinah Mba, Cindy Wang ‘26, and Alice Yi ‘23. What we’re really excited about, as a cast, is that there’s a moment to acknowledge how the performers on the stage are mirrors of many of the people in the audience.

Today, climate change is a part of the world we’re living in. I’m hopeful that this semester, thinking about art action and climate will plant seeds for these conversations to continue. We need to continue to acknowledge this “wicked problem.” Every discipline on campus can look at the relationship between humans and the environment, and this is one way to do it.