• 'Two Degrees': A telling exchange at public conversation

    by John Moore | Feb 08, 2017
    'Two Degrees' in Denver

    Photo gallery: The cast of 'Two Degrees' takes questions from the audience at Perspectives, a panel conversation held before the first public performance of every play. To see more photos, click the forward arrow on the image above. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

    There was an exchange at Friday's public Perspectives discussion that both acknowledged the deep divide in America over climate science while also illustrating just what the DCPA Theatre Company’s new play Two Degrees aspires to do: Start a dialogue among not necessarily like-minded audience members.

    Two Degrees opens just three months after the Pew Research Institute released a major study that found only 48 percent of Americans understand the Earth to be warming because of human activity.

    The play introduces us to a scientist named Emma who is called to Washington to testify – reluctantly – before a congressional committee on proposed climate legislation. Compounding her anxiety: It’s the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. It’s meant to be a human story about both a woman and a planet in crisis. 

    Two Degrees quoteAnd the first chance for anyone to get together in a room and talk about it was at Friday’s Perspectives – an ongoing series of conversations between audiences and DCPA Theatre Company creative teams that is presented before every first public preview performance.

    “We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it,” Two Degrees director Christy Montour-Larson told those gathered at the Conservatory Theatre before last Friday’s first performance. Many in the audience surely took that as an environmental rallying cry. But at least one man in attendance took exception.

    Two Degrees cast digs deep into Boulder ice-core research

    “That is an extremely alarming statement that really is not factual,” said the man, who said he does not consider himself a denier of climate science. “I think there is nothing more certain than that the climate is changing. The question I have is to what degree humanity is influencing the change. I don't consider this to be ‘settled’ science, and there are a lot of us out in the world who feel that way.”

    Playwright Tira Palmquist responded by pointing to research that suggests 97 percent of climate scientists around the world have endorsed the conclusion that humans have played a role in global warming since the Industrial Age. “There is scientific evidence to suggest that what we have done has made an impact,” she said.

    The man remained skeptical, but said he would keep an open mind when he saw the play later that night. Palmquist said the exchange is an example of the proactive role live theatre can contribute to any community. “For me, this is a play about the difficulty we have in having these kinds of conversations,” she said.

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Two Degrees Dramaturg Heather Helinsky said the exchange is what the play is all about.

    “For a play to be a good play, it has to give you characters with different points of view, and this play does that,” Helinsky said. “You don't want a play that just preaches one side. A successful play has to make you want to continue having that conversation after you leave.”

    And here are five more things we learned about 'Two Degrees' at Perspectives:

    NUMBER 1Two Degrees PerspectivesEvery DCPA Theatre Company production has a week of “preview performances” before it officially opens. And Montour-Larson was asked, well, what exactly is the point of these preview performances? Once a production opens, it’s pretty much locked down. But during preview week, the work continues. The designers continue to hone staging details. If it’s a new play like Two Degrees, the cast continues to rehearse line changes by day and perform the play before live audiences by night. “During a preview performance, we add the most important element, which is the audience,” Montour-Larson said. “All of us (on the creative team) are watching the play along with all of you, but I see less of what is happening onstage because I am watching you guys.”

    (Pictured above right: Two Degrees actor Kim Staunton at Perspectives. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)


    NUMBER 2Two Degrees is a ghost story. Emma, the scientist, is grieving the death of her husband. “And anyone who has ever grieved a loved one knows that process takes a while,” Palmquist said. “In Washington, Emma finds herself confronted by a gentleman who reminds her of her husband. And then we go back in time and find another person who reminds her of her husband. And then there is a guy in a bar who reminds her of her husband. For me, that is very much a metaphor for seeing the person you love as always with you, whether it is literal or figurative or metamorphic – or a ghost. Emma is being haunted constantly. And that ghost is not going to go away until that ghost is done with you.”

    NUMBER 3Two Degrees has changed since it was presented as a reading at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit last February. And it has changed more since the election in November. “After the Summit readings last year, we were given this big packet of responses from the Denver audience members,” said Palmquist. “But as I was gearing up to make my revisions, I thought, ‘I don’t think I can re-write this until I know the outcome of the election.’ ” So she waited. Because the energy in the room would be quite different depending on whether audiences would be attending Two Degrees at the start of a Clinton Presidency compared to the start of a Trump Presidency. After Trump’s victory, she said, “We now have a White House that has said it is going to dismantle some of the things the Obama administration did in terms of climate-change legislation. And so for me, the engine of the play became a little more ratcheted-up. The environment in Washington (for a person like Emma) is not so friendly."

    NUMBER 4Two Degrees Jones TheatreTwo Degrees is the first mainstage offering to be held in the Jones Theatre (the DCPA Theatre Company’s smallest venue) since A Boston Marriage in 2004. That posed some unique challenges for Scenic Designer Robert Mark Morgan - not the least of which is that the story has 11 scenes in 10 different locations. “The Jones is a three-sided ‘thrust’ stage, so it’s a little like Florida,” Morgan said. “And it’s just a different show if you are watching from the sides than if you are watching from the front, so it's a tricky thing for us to make sure the entire audience gets the same story.”

    NUMBER 5From the start of the rehearsal process, the cast and crew have adopted what they call a two-pronged “daily action plan.” Helinsy and Stage Manager Karen Federing provide the team with a link to relevant reading on climate change, and suggest a proactive daily step each person can take to make a positivel impact in their daily lives. Over the past month, the cast has studied the work of the League of Conservation Voters, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, EarthJustice.Org and Denver’s own Snowriders International, among others. “The idea is to infuse our storytelling with a sense of urgency,” Montour-Larson said.

    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.


    Video bonus: Your first look at Two Degrees


    Ticket information

    Two DegreesEmma, a climate change scientist, is invited to share her findings at a Senate hearing that could define her career and her cause. But if she can’t overcome her tumultuous inner struggle, her dedication and sacrifices may not be enough. Two Degrees was developed at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit.

    Through March 12
    Jones Theatre
    ASL and Audio-Described matinee at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 5
    303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

    Previous NewsCenter coverage of Two Degrees:
    Tira Palmquist on Two Degrees: Grief for a husband, and a planet
    Two Degrees
    cast digs deep into Boulder ice-core research
    Two Degrees
    heats up conversation on global warming
    Two Degrees: Five things we learned at first rehearsal
    Colorado New Play Summit Spotlight: Tira Palmquist, Two Degrees
    Video: Look back at 2016 Colorado New Play Summit
    2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics

  • 'Two Degrees' cast digs deep into Boulder ice-core research

    by John Moore | Feb 03, 2017
    'Two Degrees' in Denver

    Photos from the 'Two Degrees' field trip to the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at CU-Boulder (INSTAAR) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. All photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter. To see more, click the forward arrow on the image above.

    The actors' visit to Boulder brought them face-to-face with the scientists - and the science - in their world-premiere play.

    By John Moore
    For the DCPA NewsCenter
     
    The cast and creative team from the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming world premiere play Two Degrees took a recent field trip to Boulder and learned about a whole lot more than climate change.

    Fun stuff like: Polar bears in the Arctic can smell you from 100 miles away. That the oldest discovered ice on Earth is more than 800,000 years old. And that disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong was busted by the same science used in ice cores.

    Two Degrees Field Trip. John MooreSeriously.

    The stripped Tour de France winner was caught blood-doping, and what nailed him was isotopes, said scientist Bruce Vaughn, who should know.  He’s got the most distinct business card from Boulder to Greenland: Stable Isotope Lab Manager at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at CU-Boulder. Or INSTAAR, for short.

    “The steroids they were using were synthetic, so they have a different carbon isotopic signature than the ones your body would produce,” said Vaughn, who could give Bill Nye a run for his isotopes when it comes to his enthusiasm for science.

    Isotopes, it turns out, are forensic smoking guns. They are unique atomic differences in water molecules that record past climate changes over hundreds of thousands of years in ice cores. It was a tool first conceived by the father of ice-core science, Willi Dansgaard. In the atmosphere, isotopes can act like a red dye tracer, revealing the sources of and sinks of greenhouse gases.

    “There is no problem so big it can't be solved with isotopes," said Vaughn, only half joking. He is convinced that ice buried 2 miles under the surface of the earth is telling us that we are on a path to ecological catastrophe.

    (Photo above and right: Director Christy Montour-Larson and cast feign being locked in a locker where 1,000-year-old ice is kept at minus-10 degrees. A photo of the cast touching the ice is shown below. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.)

    The cast’s Boulder tour covered INSTAAR and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR. They got a crash course in climate history, ice-core research and what that means for our changing atmosphere. “You may hate me by the end of the day," Vaughn joked. Instead, there were hugs all around. When Vaughn let his visitors touch a 1,000-year old ice-core sample, they immediately melted into awestruck 8-year-olds.

    Two Degrees Field Trip “To have the opportunity to touch something that is 1,000 years old is just extraordinary,” said actor Kathleen McCall.

    Vaughn says these precious samples prove the rise in global temperature since the Industrial Age is linked to the rise in manmade greenhouse gasses. “They are in lock-step,” he said. “No one can argue that.”

    Two Degrees, written by Tira Palmquist and directed by Christy Montour-Larson, introduces us to a paleoclimatologist named Emma who is called to Washington to reluctantly testify before a congressional committee on proposed climate legislation. At NCAR in Boulder, the cast was introduced to Marika Holland, a very Emma-like paleoclimatologist who is just as unenthusiastic when called upon to testify before politicians about her area of expertise.

    “That kind of thing makes me nervous, to be perfectly honest,” Holland said, “because it’s very confrontational – and I am not a terribly confrontational person.”

    Two Degrees Field Trip QuoteHolland has a PhD in ice-core research and has spent 25 years studying how and why the climate is changing so rapidly, and what that means for the Earth’s future.

    Holland and dozens of global collaborators have been charting rapid sea-ice loss, rising global temperatures and the impact that is having on plant and animal life around the world. Hundreds of species are going extinct every day, and dwindling ice sheets are profoundly affecting the survival of polar bears, seals, penguins and more.

    More dramatically Vaughn warned that future sea-level rise is a serious probability. Some projections show parts of Miami and other Florida areas under water in 2100. If that happens, an estimated 9,200 structures will be lost and 1 million homes will be below average high tide. That puts 26 hospitals, 213 schools and seven power plants at risk. Total value of the endangered property: $390 billion.

    “And it is human activity that is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. That is not for debate,” he said. “And the decisions we make today have irrevocable implications for the future, so we have to act now.”  

    There are few political issues as polarizing as climate change, which hurts the souls of climate scientists because, to them, this is a human issue, not a political issue. People in the insurance industry, oddly enough, are the ones who "totally get it," Vaughn said. “That’s because they have the most to lose.”

    Two Degrees Field TripBut politicians are another challenge.

    “It’s not that they are intimidated by the science,” said INSTAAR Research Scientist Anne Jennings, who specializes in the study of ocean sediments. “I just think they find it inconvenient, like Al Gore called it. This information gets in the way of commerce.”

    Telling someone you are a climate scientist in this heated political environment can certainly bring a dinner party to a halt, said Holland, a mother of two who would rather spend her time more peacefully on the ice or in her lab. When people discover Vaughn’s profession, he added, the inevitable, incredulous first question that tends to follow is something along the lines of: “Do you really believe in climate change?' Which makes him say: “Are we really having this conversation in 2017?” Just not out loud.

    “No, what I really say is, 'I don't believe in climate change any more than I believe in gravity. Because it’s not a belief system. It's physics,’” Vaughn said.

    “You can have your own opinion, but you can't have your own physics."

    Two Degrees Trump TweetMcCall asked Holland how she reacts when, say, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted out his belief that global warming is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese.

    “First I get angry, which isn't necessarily the most productive response,” Holland said. “When someone tells me, 'You lie; you are part of the hoax,’ it does feel very personal. Your integrity is being attacked.

    “I think of myself as a very honest person, and I am raising my children to be honest people. I love my work, and I try to educate people when I talk about it. The fact of the matter is, there is a great deal of uncertainty about what we do. For example, I would say we are 100 percent sure that sea-ice loss is occurring; that greenhouse gas emissions are causing dramatic changes in our climate, and that we humans are responsible for those emissions. That foundation of information is incredibly solid.

    Two Degrees Field Trip Quote“But if you want me to tell you whether humans are responsible for, say, 50 percent of the sea-ice loss, or 80 percent of the sea-ice loss, that is a much more complicated question, and that is where the uncertainty comes in.”

    Vaughn said the discussion now really should be directed toward children, “because it’s the next generation that is really going to have to deal with this,” he said. Holland most enjoys talking with school groups because, she said, “they are not deniers or skeptics. They’re curious.”

    Trump’s election has the local scientists worried, given his stated opinion on climate change, and that the Boulder institutes are funded by U.S. tax dollars.

    “There has been a lot of discussion about defunding climate science,” Holland said, “but we don’t know yet exactly how it will play out.” Senior Scientist Bette Otto-Bleisner, head of NCAR's Paleoclimate Modeling Program, is concerned about the larger distrust of science and medicine that seems to be growing among some Americans. “We are living in a very anti-science moment right now,” added Palmquist, the playwright. 

    More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

    Despite the gloomy ecological forecast, the cast and crew left their Boulder field trip eager to get back into the rehearsal room with a renewed focus. McCall said it was a gift to be playing a rare female paleoclimatologist and to have a real-life one just like her character living and working just 30 miles north.

    “The biggest thing I got out of watching Marika was how composed and still and confident she is in her science,” she said. “This is not a hunch to her. Having that base of knowledge gives her a solid center.”

    Actor Jason Delane Lee was especially interested to learn more about the mindset of climate skeptics, because he plays a substantive contrarian in Two Degrees. Actor Robert Montano called the field trip “confirming.”

    “This has just made everything so much more clear,” Montano said. “Everything these scientists told us is written in Tira’s script. They match.”

    Added Lee: “You can argue about a lot of things. But you can’t argue the science.”


    John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

    Two Degrees Field Trip
    Photo by John Moore.


    Video bonus: Playwright Tira Palmquist talking about Two Degrees


    Our video with 'Two Degrees' playwright Tira Palmquist, at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit. Video by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

     

    Two Degrees: Ticket information
    Two DegreesEmma, a climate change scientist, is invited to share her findings at a Senate hearing that could define her career and her cause. But if she can’t overcome her tumultuous inner struggle, her dedication and sacrifices may not be enough. Two Degrees was developed at the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit.

    Feb. 3-March 12
    Jones Theatre
    ASL and Audio-Described matinee at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, March 5
    303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

    Previous NewsCenter coverage of Two Degrees:
    Two Degrees heats up conversation on global warming
    Two Degrees: Five things we learned at first rehearsal
    Colorado New Play Summit Spotlight: Tira Palmquist, Two Degrees
    Video: Look back at 2016 Colorado New Play Summit
    2016-17 season: Nine shows, two world premieres, return to classics

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ABOUT THE EDITOR
John Moore
John Moore
Award-winning arts journalist John Moore has recently taken a groundbreaking new position as the DCPA’s Senior Arts Journalist. With The Denver Post, he was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the US by American Theatre Magazine. He is the founder of the Denver Actors Fund, a nonprofit that raises money for local artists in medical need. John is a native of Arvada and attended Regis Jesuit High School and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow him on Twitter @moorejohn.

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