An Irresistible Revolution: One Alumni’s Art-Based Change
A conversation with Earth Commons research analyst Ashanee Kottage and Common Home editor Madhura Shembekar
Ashanee Kottage (SFS ‘22) is a Post-Baccalaureate Fellow at the Earth Commons and the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. She is a scientist and storyteller concerned about the security of this earth and the security of its people. She recently performed “We Hear You—A Climate Archive” at COP27, a global climate change conference organized by the UN. “We Hear You” is a global performance project that commissioned 77 youth storytellers to share their stories about the climate emergency. She is working towards decolonizing conservation, effective science communication, and marrying rigorous scientific research with empathy, embodiment, and performance. Currently, she is building on the work of SURYA and helping with the premiere of “We Hear You” in 2024 in Sweden.
MS: What has been your personal journey with performance and environmentalism? Were there any particular experiences during your time at Georgetown that shaped the way you engage with performance, the environment, or both?
AK: My personal journey with performance and environmentalism has been interesting. I’ve always been a storyteller. The first time I ever performed, I was three. Everybody in my school was introduced to public speaking, singing, dancing, and acting from a young age, so that’s something I’ve done my whole life.
Regarding environmentalism, it’s kind of ironic, because growing up in Sri Lanka, I was surrounded by such a beautiful, biodiverse environment, and in a way, I think I took it for granted. I didn’t necessarily learn much about my particular environment until I arrived at Georgetown. Because I was in the SFS, I knew I would be reading, writing, and engaging with my public speaking skills, and critical thinking skills. So, when I was thinking about what extracurriculars I wanted to do, I wanted to do activities that weren’t competitive and were different from my classroom activities. So, I auditioned for a bunch of plays, and I was so lucky to get a lead role in one of the plays during my freshman fall. This formed my connection to the theater. But, I didn’t want to professionalize this connection or “academize” it, I wanted it to stay sacred–something that’s fun and a hobby.
Then, in my sophomore year, there was this awesome production called “On the Lawn” by LubDub Theater Company, which is a theater company founded by some Georgetown alums. They collaborated with Georgetown’s Theater Department on the play. The play was entirely devised, meaning it was written from scratch by the performers themselves. I hadn’t really done theater like that before, but when I walked into the audition room, I had such a good time and fell in love with the team. Huge shout out to Caitlin Cassidy, who is one of the founders of LubDub and a Georgetown alum; she was such a warm presence and so is the other co-director, Geoff Kanick, and I just knew I wanted to work with them.
It was this amazing experience of getting to do this thing I love to do, which is writing and performing, and telling stories. And I got class credit for it? That blew my mind a little bit. And this story we were telling was a climate story. We were talking about the implications of the American lawn for climate change and the legacy of lawns. So, I was communicating climate science through storytelling. This was really the first time I had thought about that intersection, and I never looked back.
MS: Along the same lines, The Lab and Earth Commons recently hosted SURYA: A Convening of Earthly Storytellers and collaborated on Ferry Tales, a series of performances celebrating the Potomac watershed. What inspired these collaborations?
AK: My position at the Earth Commons and at Georgetown is in collaboration with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which is an inaugural position, so it’s very new and exciting. SURYA came about from us thinking about what this work already looks like, who is doing work like this, what they think work like this should look like, what resources they need, what ways we can help each other, etc. We were trying to imagine forward and think about what our next steps for this collaboration would look like. SURYA was such an inspiring gathering, and I met some awesome folks.
As for Ferry Tales, the Kennedy Center was doing a River Run festival from the time between Water Day and Earth Day, which coincidentally was also during the month of Ramadan—so, a very auspicious time. We were commissioned to do this project called Ferry Tales, and we were the only project that was doing something about D.C. and its bodies of water. Ferry Tales was also devised in that we interviewed key stakeholders of the Potomac and the Anacostia, including a former Anacostia Riverkeeper, an Indigenous leader who had learned knowledge about the Potomac, and scientists. Almost everybody we interviewed were women.
So, that’s what inspired Ferry Tales, and again, it was awesome to work with Caitlin Cassidy, Robert Duffley, Jan Menafee, and Julia Beu. All four of them and I are Georgetown alums. It was also awesome to work with professional theatremakers at the Kennedy Center and see how that process is, including the pros and cons of working with a huge institution as a tiny project.
MS: In your opinion, what does performance art contribute to conversations about sustainability and the environment that other mediums of art may not?
AK: I think performance art is so uniquely powerful in capturing your conscience. For example, if it’s TV or film, you can always pause it and you are very in control of your environment, whereas live performance means that you are watching it in a room with other people. You are feeling their energy and you can’t pause, rewind, or fast-forward it. Your conscience is completely present in that moment, and that presence is really, really powerful.
One of my friends says that theater is biology because it is the most alive thing. Every aspect of it is alive: the actors are performing live, the set is moving, the crew is moving the set every single day, and every prop is positioned by someone every single day. That aliveness is awesome because it’s a constant state of collaboration. After a TV or film or visual art, once you’ve created it, you’re done and you can present it to an audience and have some degree of distance from it, whereas with theater, until a show closes—or even after a show closes—you’re still feeling the aliveness of it, and it’s incredibly collaborative. Someone said to me that when you’re trying to make change, certain things capture the mind and certain things capture the heart, and the best and most mindful changes are always influenced by the heart—you can’t get to the head without going through the heart.
Toni Cade Bambara says, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” And that’s another thing with live performance, the beauty of it really is irresistible. When you are in the audience watching a performance, you can’t help but look.
Performance uniquely contributes to the conversation about climate change because I feel like climate change and environmental issues can feel very abstract, scientific, and data-centric to a lot of people and to the mainstream, but performance really centers the person and their story. For example, with the wildfires in Maui, you can see pictures of the wildfires and read statistics, but the most compelling, tragic, moving, inspiring news and media that came out of it, to me personally, were the individual stories of local residents and how they were coping. It adds a significant personal element to this issue that has been deeply politicized.
MS: In your speech at the Sireus Conference this year, you briefly discuss the ever-present climate anxiety many people face today. How does climate performance address, alleviate, or simply acknowledge this anxiety?
AK: I think live performances are connected to our ancestors and oral tradition; the way we have passed down knowledge and addressed problems by talking to each other and sharing those stories.
And particularly with climate anxiety, the “We Hear You” project is about acknowledging the state of the world we’re living in, and I think that adds a degree of solidarity between people. Storytelling around this topic is not just about trauma and hardship but also about things getting better and things that are working.