Bag & Baggage Theater Productions Shakespeare Hillsboro Oregon

Pissed-off Prophets & Climate Catastrophe: The Broken Planetarium’s ‘Live! Prophets! Live!’

New cabaret musical continues Laura Dunn’s comic commingling of theater, music, and social issues.

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Mikki Jordan, Laura Dunn in Live! Prophets! Live! Photo: KJ Johnson.

We were warned. She told us that unless we believed her and changed course, disaster would strike. We didn’t listen. 

She was Eunice Newton Foote, a feminist and scientist who in the 1850s warned that injecting massive amounts of carbon dioxide might derange the climate that our lives depend on. 

She was Cassandra, mythical Trojan princess and prophetess who told her compatriots, among many other things, that accepting that wooden horse was a bad idea.

And she’s the protagonist of Portland playwright, activist and musician Laura Dunn’s new musical cabaret, Live! Prophets! Live!, running through August 14 at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater.

Over and over again, for at least four decades, climate scientists and activists told us that our cars and our cows and the other carbon-spewing products of industrial capitalism were placing our civilization — our lives — at grave risk.

We didn’t listen. Well, many did, but not the power brokers who could actually prevent it, the fossil fools and frauds who cared more about amassing even more morbidly obese petro-fortunes. And now we’re seeing and feeling the results — and it’s only going to get worse.

It’s enough to drive any sensible species to despair, especially if one member is a longtime climate activist, and a mom with two young kids. And yet Laura Dunn keeps fighting — and even wilder, she makes the fight fun. 

Dunn is also an artist — poet, singer/songwriter, dramatist — who for the past decade has almost annually made musicals unlike any others in Portland, offering needed doses of lithe, lively, frequently funny charm and imagination. Even when they wobble, her shows never bore.

But how can anyone — even Dunn — make humanity’s self-inflicted destruction … funny? And why? 

From Folk Music to Folk Theater

Dunn grew up in Corvallis and left a couple decades ago for college, a Master’s degree in poetry, and various peregrinations (Ireland, Ecuador, California). A chance encounter when she was between homes swept her off to New York, where she fell into the city’s legendary folk scene, reciting poetry in coffee houses and other venues. In time-honored folk fashion, she started setting her words to music and formed an acoustic band. A couple of her bandmates also worked in theater, asked her for an original song for an upcoming performance, and then cast her as a sea witch, which in turn led to more theatrical adventures.

“This is all the greatest things in one place,” she thought, “making music that tells a story, making art together with other people, not alone in my basement writing poetry.”

Laura Dunn

As much as she enjoyed making theater, though, Dunn eventually found her naturally ebullient, almost elfin persona unsuited to New York. “I still smile at people on the street,” she says, her grins going unrequited. “I kept wondering, why is everyone in New York so angry?” After a decade away, missing Oregon’s verdant allure, she returned in 2013, thinking, “This is my natural habitat.”

Fresh Approach

Oregon was, but theater wasn’t, not yet. Dunn didn’t know any theater people here, didn’t have a theater degree. When she formed her production company The Broken Planetarium shortly after she arrived in Portland, “I felt like an outsider,” she remembers. “I still feel like an outsider.”

In fact, she’s never confined her art to theater, publishing poetry in various journals and a chapbook, Spider Blue (Dancing Girl Press), releasing three full-length folk albums with her band The Ghosts of Xmas Past, and, in 2015, winning a coveted Oregon Literary Fellowship from Literary Arts.

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Outsiderness can be a benefit as well as a burden. Dunn insisted on “making sure there’s at least a couple of newbies and listening to their voices,” she explains. “I want people who’ve never made theater in every show. They have no hang-ups about what theater should be.”

Theater outsiders also frequent Clinton Street Theater, better known for films, music and comedy performances than plays and musicals. That’s a big reason why Dunn chooses to produce her musicals there.

“[Clinton’s] a place I feel comfortable,” she explains. “You can drink, holler, go to the bathroom whenever you want. I want the audience to feel like they fit in. We can charge a lower price for tickets, so it’s more accessible. It attracts a neighborhood crowd.” When she lived nearby, she’d often see audience members later on the street.

She’s received suggestions to produce in more traditional theatrical venues, “but I don’t know if I would feel as comfortable going to those places myself,” she says. Both in her New York days and now, “I want the shows we make to feel like they’d appeal to the same audience as the concerts” she used to play with her bands, she says — not only theater insiders.

Heavy Subjects, Light Touch

In fact, Dunn’s background as an open-mike musician and performing poet might contribute to her instinct for maintaining audience engagement. 

“When you’re up there doing a lot of sad-ass folk music, there’s a lot you have to do to make [audiences] feel safe and maintain a level of engagement,” she muses. “I don’t feel like the audience is obligated to listen to me. I’d tell jokes in between songs. Most of what I want to do is make people laugh. In life, that’s my apocalypse tool. [in her shows,] everyone is being made fun of, mostly myself too. Humor is the best way to be honest and true, and stories can land in people in a way that makes them feel safe. We need theater to have a place where we still feel safe.”

Safe needn’t mean superficial, nor fun frivolous. Despite their comic antics, Dunn’s shows are often driven by serious concerns about a civilization bent on self destruction.

“I’m the teacher everyone talks about death with,” in her day job teaching K-12 literature, philosophy and theater, she says. “These are subjects we don’t talk about enough. People won’t talk about them if they don’t feel safe.” When audience members encounter tough issues wrapped in humor, she says, “you don’t have time to block it with all your trauma.”

Dunn tackled tough subjects even before making theater. She worked in environmental protection organizations in college, and in an anti-global warming group in Montana “where you could get beat up protesting coal trains,” she remembers. 

Her company’s very name unintentionally suggests theatrically observing a particular broken planet, a civilization on the brink of self destruction wrought by late stage capitalist greed. Its actual origins are both more prosaic and more evocative. 

“There was a studio behind my house that my friends and I used to gather in to share art once a month,” Dunn explains. “It was remodeled in a strange way with lights in random places. In an insomniac fog, I imagined maybe the person who lived there before us used it as a planetarium, and now it was broken, and that’s a great place to make art.”

Her fight — and her fears — have intensified since returning to Oregon, where she’s noticed how different the climate already seems since her childhood here, and especially since becoming a mom.

She remembers testifying or supporting other environmental activists while nursing her babies at City Council and other public meetings, then later bringing them to protests with groups like 350.org and Extinction Rebellion nearly weekly, when their bedtimes prevented her from nighttime organizing gatherings.

“Since I had kids, I felt even more protective of them,” she says. “I almost feel like I have an obligation to mama their rage.” So when she decided to create Live Prophets Live, with its theme of dire social warnings unheeded, she thought “How could I be writing about anything else?”

Pissed-Off Prophets

Although several of Dunn’s works, such as her poignant 2016 folk opera Atlantis, had touched peripherally on global roasting, her friends were surprised that she hadn’t yet written anything directly addressing the coming climate calamity, inasmuch as “I was preoccupied with it to the point where I annoy all my friends,” she says. “I’m that person now when my friends have kids, I’m like, ‘Why would you do that, knowing what you know now?’ You have this person you love more than anything you thought possible, and you know their future is about to be obliterated.” 

But how to approach something so dire in a way that works dramatically, musically and even, gulp, comedically? Dunn turned to a favorite trick that had served her well in previous productions: combine a myth or fairy tale with a contemporary issue.

The Anthropocene power structure’s refusal to renounce or reform its old polluting ways despite imminent doom reminded Dunn of Cassandra, granted the gift of foresight, yet whose warnings of destruction were ignored or disbelieved, until catastrophe struck. “Climate activists have been saying forever that we have the information and we have the solution,” Dunn says. “The problem is being heard.” 

Hannah Edelson, Live! Prophets! Live! Photo: KJ Johnson.

The pandemic (along with aid programs and grants) granted her the creative space she needed to create a theatrical response to the climate catastrophe/Covid double whammy, which illuminated deeper crises that she wanted to explore. 

“We were all stuck in our houses, and things were happening to us, and you can’t see what’s happening to me, you can’t hear what we need to survive,” Dunn explains. “It wasn’t just climate change or Covid, but also the way we can navigate this new world of community care when it involves so much risk. This show is about what it’s like when you realize, ‘did you think you were going to be the one to see the end of the world?’ I’m not a climate scientist, and I don’t have all the answers about how to survive. I’m just a playwright. I try to braid global issues to one person’s story.” 

In Live! Prophets! Live! that person is a contemporary Cassandra, a 21st century biologist who finds herself in the underworld, alongside a collection of wise and “increasingly pissed-off” prophets from throughout history. There she finds a camaraderie born of the shared experience of not being listened to, the attentive community she lacked on earth, including a badass Hildegard of Bingen (the divinely demented medieval German abbess/healer/mystic and, here, wisecracking bandleader, who outwitted popes and emperors), along her contemporary, legendary Chinese poet Li Qingzhao; another mystical visionary, Joan of Arc; the fabulous Seattle Afro-futurist author Octavia Butler; a rocker rejected by the paleo-rock band Journey; that prescient scientist Eunice Newton Foote; even Chicken Little. 

What happens next you’ll have to find out by joining their righteous, raggedy band at this production, which director Corinne Gaucher has staged in an “end of the roadhouse” that looks a lot like Clinton Street Theater. The actual band (cello, banjo, piano, accordion, ukuleles galore, and percussion) is directed by Kristin Gordon George, an award-winning singer, songwriter, teacher and former Portland Peace Choir director who founded and now leads Resonate Choral Arts.

“We got a diverse group from all over the scene,” Dunn says, “from Red Yarn from my kids’ music shows to Jack Maybe and Forest Veil from the indie scene in town. I would describe the music as ‘Indie Roadhouse.’ I use the songs as a scaffolding to write the script. The songs boss me around.” 

Natasha Kotey, Live! Prophets! Live! Photo: KJ Johnson.

Fittingly, as she does with all her shows, Dunn built her own community to make the show happen, reaching out to long time musical and theatrical collaborators and their networks — and of course the requisite fresh voices. “For almost half of the [10] songwriters, this was the very first song they wrote!”

Songs comprise the building blocks of Dunn’s characteristically whimsical, unruly script, stippled with sly humor, egregious puns, hints of domestic discord and even violence, songs that veer from buoyant to heartbreaking, as in Dunn’s own “Other People’s Breath:” 

Once upon a time / his breath was my lifeline. Then to keep each other safe / we had to stay inside / but what if it’s not safe / inside his mind?

Oooo silence like a house someone left / Ooo I need other people’s breath / Ooo silence like a letter from the dead / Oooo I need other people’s breath

Once upon a time / love grew like cypress vines / and those vines were our intertwined lives. / Now I listen for a song of how to survive.

Art Makes it Matter

Dunn somehow cobbles time and energy to create shows like Live! Prophets! Live! while working a full-time job, maintaining her activism to protect the planet and the next generation, and single-parenting two young children, each of whom she was carrying while working on major productions. She says she has no choice.

“I’ve always written because I had to,” she says. “I don’t know how you survive anything without making art. It’s just what I do, but I sure wish it was easier. Every year I feel like, ‘how am I gonna keep doing this?’ I always think like ‘this might be the last show.’”

Victoria Spelman, Emma Chang, Bobbi Kupfner, Live! Prophets! Live! Photo: KJ Johnson.

She’s focusing on building a more active board of directors to avoid burning out the enthusiastic supporters who’ve helped her realize her singular visions. No matter what it takes, she plans to keep trying. Not only can’t she stop making art, she also can’t stop working to protect humanity from its own folly — to make us listen to the wisdom we’ve so long, and so dangerously, ignored. And she sees making art as part of her activism. 

“I don’t know how people think about anything else” besides our destruction of civilization and so much of the natural world, she says. “How do we make it matter to people? Without the arts we don’t have the fire. We also need some political will, but I feel like the arts make it matter.”

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Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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