Princeton Atelier, PEI Project Makes Off-Broadway Debut

Ilene Dube for PEI ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

It’s a musical. It’s also a multi-media performance piece and a contemporary thriller. There’s tango, a love interest and continent-hopping environmental intrigue. Both entertaining and informative, The Great Immensity is at the nexus of science and art. The groundbreaking investigative theater group The Civilians uses the production to focus on the quintessential question of our time: How can we change our society to solve the enormous environmental challenges we confront?

The play came to life in 2010 at Princeton University in a novel collaboration involving the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) and the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Atelier program and went on to receive a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—a rare grant to an arts organization from a sponsor that customarily funds science, engineering and mathematics projects. The Great Immensity will make its New York City debut April 11 at the Public Theater Lab, after a 2012 run at Kansas City Repertory.

The project was developed by PEI Barron Visiting Professors Steven Cosson, theater director, and Michael Friedman, composer/lyricist, founders of The Civilians. Several years prior to coming to Princeton the two were rocked in the wake of a massive container ship while on a small tourist boat in Panama. They saw the ship’s name painted in Chinese characters on its hull: “The Great Immensity.” At the time, they did not know that it would become the perfect metaphor for climate change, but the seed had been planted and a title was born.

That visit to Panama occurred before Cosson and Friedman even knew they were working on a play about climate change. “I was interested in the scale of natural or geological time versus human cultural time,” said Cosson, who first visited Barro Colorado Island (BCI) as a teenager, volunteering for a science research project. “It’s a very special place, a preserved tropical rainforest in the middle of the Panama Canal, and the only people there are scientists and those who support them. The thought was to go and talk to scientists about their work, asking big questions about the future of the planet and the environment, and how they personally understood their place in the world.”

Cosson and Friedman interviewed trappers, shippers, indigenous community leaders, polar bear tour guides and politicians on BCI in the Panama Canal and in the city of Churchill in the Canadian arctic, where the shift in climate has already affected the ecosystems. To get a sense of the daily lives of the scientists, Cosson and Friedman ate with them and fully immersed themselves in the culture.

The connection between PEI and The Civilians was made through past Lewis Center Chair Paul Muldoon, recounts PEI Associate Director Katharine B. Hackett ’79. “We reached out to Paul to identify someone working at the intersection of science and the humanities. He invited us to meet Steve and Michael. From that point on, it was all about bringing the resources of the Lewis Center and PEI together with the talents of Michael and Steven.” Friedman was familiar with the Lewis Center, having been a 2007 Hodder Fellow, but this was the first time The Civilians was in residence in a science-focused academic center such as PEI.

The fall 2009 semester was spent on research, and in the spring 2010 semester the plot, theme and music were developed during the Atelier course and the play was minimally produced by the Lewis Center as a work-in-progress at the McCarter Theater Center’s Berlind Theatre in Princeton. Actors from New York performed alongside students to allow the creators to see what they had achieved thus far.

As Barron Visiting Professors, Cosson and Friedman interviewed botanists, paleontologists and climatologists at Princeton to explore themes of climate change and biodiversity loss. “They were concerned about having accurate information to communicate science to a theater audience in ways that were compelling and insightful,” said Hackett. “They didn’t want an exaggeration; rather they wanted it to be frank and real. They didn’t want the science to be intimidating and dry, but to resonate and be credible on a level the audience could understand and absorb, drawing their own conclusions.”

Cosson and Friedman never felt it was a challenge to present the science in an entertaining way. “The scientists we interviewed were incredibly interesting. We’re just trying to tell a story about people deeply concerned about climate change,” said Friedman. “We were looking for the details that theater can do well.”

“The Atelier provided Steve and Michael the structure of a Princeton class with undergraduates and space and time and the University’s resources—both in environmental studies and in musical theater—to develop the piece,” said Stacy Wolf, Director of the Princeton Atelier. The Atelier brings together professional artists from different disciplines to create new work in the context of a seminar/workshop with Princeton students. A painter might team with a composer, or a choreographer might join with an electrical engineer. Multi-disciplinary collaborations include Princeton students as participants in the new work and as developing artists in their own right to create something never done before.

“The Princeton Atelier isn’t a residency,” continued Wolf. “It’s an interdisciplinary course with Princeton students for artists to develop collaborative work but also teach a class. The Atelier provides a no or low pressure environment to make new work—the stakes are intentionally low to allow the artists free exploration. Part of the value of the Atelier is letting the artists do their work with the students in their own way—it’s what makes this program special.”

With The Civilians, “scientists learned from artists and artists learned from scientists. Both disciplines are shaped by the questions they ask, the methods they use, how they rely on experimentation,” said Wolf, who observed rehearsals and talked with students about their experience in the class. Students from all disciplines can apply to participate in a Princeton Atelier course. Ateliers intentionally have no prerequisites in order to attract students from across the University. “It’s challenging to cross fields but incredibly fruitful.”

The story of The Great Immensity centers on Phyllis, searching for her husband, Karl, a nature documentary producer. While on assignment on a tropical island, he disappears. Phyllis learns about a mysterious plot surrounding the upcoming international climate summit in Paris. As the days count down, she tries to decipher the plan to stop it in time. The play weaves the interviews with scientists into the fictional tale alongside the struggle to survive polar bear attacks, tundra buggies and snakes—all while grappling with the harsh and seemingly hopeless realities of climate change. The story is enhanced with video interviews from Karl’s hard drive, revealing dire data about the outlook for the human race. Musical numbers bring environmental research to life, and climate-change polling percentages become lyrics for a tango.

The music helps convey humor and pathos. “Songs are a great way to get across data that might, in another context, seem dull or like too much information,” said Friedman. “Reports of climate summits or global inaction are terribly depressing but a jaunty song can help get this across to an audience, who will be entertained while absorbing important information.”

Because the play takes place in international locales, the music is eclectic. “I try to let the story tell me what it should sound like,” said Friedman. For “Snow Plow,” a song about the aftermath of a snowfall in Churchill, Friedman decided a Beach Boys-esque style was appropriate.

The tale does not end when the curtain comes down. There is a website (, featuring a video gallery of interviews with climate scientists that Cosson and others gathered in their research, an audience forum where theatergoers can discuss the experience, and multiple blogs on issues related to the play’s topic.

“The website gives the audience a chance to learn more about different strategies and policy scenarios for combating climate change,” said Cosson.

“There are environmental organizations that you can participate in or connect with. And thanks to the NSF grant, we can do pre- and post-show events where scientists or other professionals deepen the context. At the Public, we have a partnership with to help people get involved. The goal is to inspire everyone who sees the show to know they can participate in an active way,” he explains.

Established in 2003, the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron ’74 Visiting Professorship in the Environment and the Humanities enables PEI to forge closer ties between environmental studies and the humanities and social sciences at Princeton. Barron Visiting Professorship appointments are made jointly in PEI and the academic department that most appropriately represents the appointee’s disciplinary background—in this case the Lewis Center for the Arts.

Current Lewis Center Chair Michael Cadden notes, “Art isn’t about art. It’s about the world. We welcome opportunities to work with colleagues across the curriculum to revitalize art with the content they explore in their disciplines.”

The Civilians was founded in 2001 by Cosson (Friedman is founding associate) and has created 12 original works that have been produced Off Broadway and in more than 40 cities nationally and internationally, at theaters such as The Public Theater, Center Theatre Group, La Jolla Playhouse, A.R.T., HBO’s U.S. Comedy Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, London’s Soho Theatre, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Fringe First Award, 2006).

Among those interviewed by Cosson and Friedman were (Frederick D. Petrie Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and PEI Director) Steve Pacala, (Albert G. Blanke Jr. Professor of Geosciences and PEI) Francois Morel, (Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Chair) Dan Rubenstein, (Eugene Higgins Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) Jeanne Altmann, (Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and PEI) Michael Oppenheimer, (Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and PEI) Lars Hedin, (Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering) Robert Socolow, (Ira W. Decamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values) Peter Singer, (Senior Climate Modeler in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) Elena Shevliakova, and (then Lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program and PEI) Xenia Morin.