Climates of Change


Set in the New York Finger Lakes, USA

Cast & Production
Cast & Production


CLIMATES OF CHANGE is a Living Newspaper about global climate change. A collaboration between Civic Ensemble, Ithaca, New York’s community-based theater company, and Cornell UniversityClimates of Change brings together students, climate scientists, and citizens of the Finger Lakes.

Climates of Change follows Zola Richard, a recent college graduate and highly sought-after chemical engineer originally from Tompkins County. She returns home to find the family farm faces foreclosure after several poor growing seasons caused by extreme weather. While Zola struggles to plan her own future, she sees the impacts of other people’s choices, both on our society and the planet. Ultimately, she must make a decision that may determine the fate of her family and their farm.

Funded by a grant from Engaged Cornell, our pilot production was developed in a course, Theatre and Social Change, in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. Co-taught by Sara Warner and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., with assistance from Caitlin Kane, the class taught applied theater techniques that enabled students to conduct interviews and participate in Story Circles, a form of community-based dialog, under the tutelage of Civic Ensemble’s Sarah K. Chalmers. The class studied earth and atmospheric science with Toby Ault and his graduate mentee Grace Liu. In the fall of 2017, students took all of this material and began to devise the script. Community members, many of whom had worked with Civic Ensemble in the past, joined the development process, contributing to the collaboratively devised script and rehearsing roles in the play. Climates of Change was staged on campus and across the community, with each performance followed by a moderated discussion.

Why global climate change?

Global climate change is arguably the most pressing issue of our time, and it is a particularly charged topic in the Fingers Lakes region of New York, where in recent years hydrofracking debates, factory farming, agricultural pesticides, toxic waste storage proposals, renewable energy initiatives, tourist industry expansion, and development projects on and near Native American sovereign territories have created deep divisions among residents. Our scientific understanding of climate change is quite solid, though it is often ignored by capitalists and politicians. Less studied and less understood are the social consequences – the impact global warming will have on our families and communities.

As a land grant institution, Cornell University was built on the concept that what is happening in the world matters to and affects what happens in our labs and classrooms. We strive to make sure that what we do at the university, and out in the field, matters to the world and shapes it for the better. With this collaborative project we encourage audiences and actors alike to see the imminent and future threats associated with climate change as well as the many possibilities for agency and activism.

What is a living newspaper?

Originating in Russia and Germany at the turn of the 20th century, Living Newspapers gained prominence in the United States in the 1930s, as part of the federally funded Works Progress Administration. Under the auspices of the Federal Theater Project (FTP), which employed out-of-work artists and journalists during the Depression, to create and stage plays on the social issues of the day, ranging from agricultural and medical problems to race relations and the urban housing crisis. Living Newspapers eschew conventions of commercial theater in favor experimental techniques designed to promote critical thinking and prompt social action. Given the proliferation of fabricated stories, and their sobering political consequences, we feel it is time to revive Living Newspapers.

What is a story circle?

The Story Circle is a technique crafted by Roadside Theater, a community-based arts organization in Appalachia, intended to foster a safe and intimate space for difficult dialogues. People have to feel comfortable in order to share their stories. Story Circles encourage deep listening, verbal expression, respect for every participant’s story, and an appreciation for the cultural gifts and talents of diverse groups of people. Civic Ensemble uses Story Circles in a variety of different situations and settings in their community-based work.  We conducted Story Circles to collect narratives from people who are involved with or who recognize that their lives are being influenced by environmental issues/climate change.

Story Circles were conducted at the following locations and with the folllowing groups:

  • Ecovillage
  • Fossil Free Tompkins
  • Tompkins County Council of Governments Energy Committee
  • Cayuga Nature Center
  • Tompkins County History Center
  • Tompkins County Farmers
  • Groton, NY
  • Enfield, NY
  • Lehman Alternative Community School
  • Akwesasne Freedom School
  • Boynton Middle School
  • Cornell Scientists at Bradfield Hall
  • Southside Community Center


Engaged Cornell
Engaged Cornell
At Cornell, community engagement means faculty, staff and students partnering with community members to address global issues. These collaborative relationships create opportunities to research, teach and learn at home and around the world.
Cornell PMA
Cornell PMA
PMA leads students from all disciplines through artistic and scholarly explorations of live performance forms, such as theatre and dance, and mediated forms, such as cinema and television. Students are challenged to think creatively, critically and historically about the world around them as they identify and interpret the power of image, sound, gesture and movement and cultivate their own artistic and academic voices.
Civic Ensemble
Civic Ensemble
Civic Ensemble creates theatre that explores and explodes the social, political, and cultural issues of our time. We bring audiences of different races, classes, and experiences together in a public forum on the American experiment.
Cornell CALS
Cornell CALS
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is a pioneer of purpose-driven science and Cornell University’s second largest college. We work across disciplines to tackle the challenges of our time through world-renowned research, education and outreach. The questions we probe and the answers we seek focus on three overlapping concerns: natural and human systems; food, energy and environmental resources; and social, physical and economic well-being. The Cornell CALS experience empowers us to explore the boundaries of knowledge, supported by the leading minds of today and surrounded by the leading minds of tomorrow.