fbpx Agri-Culture in Climate Change | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Agri-Culture in Climate Change

I call myself a “perfarmer” because I am both an organic farmer and a theatre artist, producing at the intersection of agriculture and art. For most of my life I made devised theatre in small non-traditional ensembles. I performed with Primus Theatre in Winnipeg, Canada and was co-artistic director of North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL) Theatre in New York. Then about fifteen years ago, I had an opportunity to immerse myself in an agrarian life. With my husband Greg Swartz, I started a farm specializing in organic vegetables, herbs, and cut flowers called Willow Wisp Organic Farm in northeast Pennsylvania.


A few years into farming, extreme weather events started to become more and more frequent. Of course, farmers are always tuned into the weather—it dictates everything. But we were experiencing more heavy rain and floods in our Delaware River valley, temperatures were less predictable, and growing cycles started to noticeably change. Everyone was talking about the weather. I remember one farmer in our area recounting how, when he started farming in the eighties, tomatoes were not possible to grow because the season was too short. Now everyone can grow tomatoes in our region—in fact, our USDA growing zone has since changed from 5B to 6A.

Conversations with other small farmers inspired me to dive into climate science research. In 2012, while working as artistic director with NACL Theatre in Highland Lake, New York, I received a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant for a two-year community climate change project called The Weather Project. The project included a science symposium, a visual arts exhibit, and the creation of a devised theatre performance directed by me with a community ensemble of one hundred. Elaine Matthews, a NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies climate researcher, was my science advisor throughout the project. The final performance of The Weather Project was a huge event attended by over six hundred people and performed in a ballpark near NACL Theatre. The level of engagement and buy-in from my community was outstanding and revealed to me that this was the kind of theatre I needed to do.

Three performers with mesh parasols walk in front of a large fabric sheet.

Isabel Braverman, Corinna Grunn, and Claire Livingston in The Weather Project conceived and directed by Tannis Kowalchuk and produced by NACL Theatre. Text contributions by Mark Dunau. Science consulting by Elaine Matthews (NASA GISS). Costumes by Karen Flood and the ensemble. Photo by Jonathan Charles Fox.

Around this time, we were moving our farm to a larger thirty-acre plot (our current location) with beautiful river bottom soil that borders the Delaware River. On the new land, Greg and I put in more greenhouses to increase shoulder season production, and we installed a massive solar array on our barn roof supported by “slow money” investments from a solar co-op in our area. We held public events and farm tours around the solar project, attracting community groups, businesses, schools, even politicians to the farm.

With a theatre producer’s eye, I observed how accessible and attractive the farm was to a broad population. This was not the usual theatre crowd. The range of people coming to our farm spanned age, politics, and economics. It was a magnet! Their curiosity about the crops, the soil, and organic methods coupled with their happiness to walk the land got me thinking about what an artistic practice on our farm might look like.

If we brought theatre to the farm, would we attract a wider audience? What would telling stories about climate change and our relationship to the earth mean if experienced at a local food source? And could it be a potent vehicle for calls-to-action for both the doers and the viewers? I wanted to see.

Farm Arts Collective

In 2018, I moved my artistic practice from NACL Theatre in upstate New York to a greenhouse theatre on Willow Wisp Organic Farm. I founded Farm Arts Collective with a mission to create an agri-cultural hub where art and performance intersect with agrarian and ecological ideas. Through four pillars of life-sustaining practice: Farming, Art, Food, and Ecology, I set out to design programs that connect people to food, nature, creativity, and thoughtful living.

One of my first goals as artistic director of Farm Arts Collective was to train and create a local professional theatre ensemble. I offered free weekly trainings in collaborative performance skills and attracted an eclectic mix of local performers, musicians, writers, and community members—farmers, carpenters, activists, and architects, who had never acted but wanted to learn.

A year into founding Farm Arts Collective, COP 25, the United Nations’ annual climate conference, was held in Madrid, Spain, and scientists unanimously warned the global community that we had ten years to take significant action to reduce greenhouse emissions and transition to renewables if we wanted to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. I was both inspired and freaked out by this timeline. As a mother of an eleven-year-old, farmer-artist, and community organizer, I knew I had to do something—but what?

In 10 Brecht Poems, an anti-war performance that I made during the United States occupation in Iraq, my co-actor Leese Walker and I pose a question: “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?” We answer: “ACT!”

Right—theatre. In response to the climate scientists’ ten-year timeline, I proposed to the collective that we create one new play every year from 2020-2030 and call the project Dream on the Farm. I proposed initiating the project with this question in the face of climate change: How do we imagine our future? What are our dreams?

Dream on the Farm

The collective agreed to my proposal to build a decade-long series of climate change plays. I would direct using devised theatre methods and we would create each play collaboratively.

We started to build our first play in winter 2020, but when COVID hit, we moved rehearsals to zoom. Throughout the pandemic, our farm operated as an essential business—our farm team continued to work, we delivered food to pantries, and customers came directly to the farm to pick up pre-made vegetable bags. At Farm Arts Collective, we eventually moved rehearsals outside and in person, masked.

Outside in a field, performer leans away from another stilt-wearing performer.

Ace Thomas and Gregg Erickson in The Extinction Event, Play #1 of Dream on the Farm, conceived and directed by Tannis Kowalchuk, produced by Farm Arts Collective on Willow Wisp Organic Farm. Created in collaboration with the ensemble. Text and dramaturgy contributions by Melissa Bell, Mark Dunau, and Mimi McGurl. Music by Rima Fand and Doug Rogers. Costumes and props by Sue Currier and Ace Thomas.

In August we presented our first Dream on the Farm play titled The Extinction Event for audience-pods of twelve people on our farm. We performed scenes five consecutive times, moving the small audience pods around the land to see each scene. The play was a fantastical journey across the farm, a story about Mother Nature who calls an extinction event—a dinner party, to bear witness to our delicate and endangered existence on earth. The performance featured the ensemble in roles that included an endangered frog that emerged from the Delaware River, a samurai praying mantis on stilts, a spider storyteller, and other nature-based characters who told tales of environmental struggle and trauma in facing extinction. The site-specific ambulatory experience brought our community together, and for many it was their first cultural activity since the start of the pandemic. The outdoor farm location made an in-person pandemic performance possible.

When an audience member watches a scene about the threats of climate change on a farm that provides their food or livelihood, the play’s message hits close to home. We need to protect this land, and this river, and the means to grow this nutritious local food.

In 2021, we created The Scientists. This performance was a study of the micro-cosmos and the macro-cosmos. In this absurdist piece, a white rabbit referee sets up a boxing ring and brings the deceased American scientists Carl Sagan (astronomer) and Lynn Margulis (evolutionary microbiologist) back from the afterlife to duke it out with research. Each scientist takes an audience group on a journey across the farm, stopping at locations to observe a singing microbe on the compost pile, a violent hydrosphere on stilts, a mysterious and beautiful fungus dancing on a log, and the atmosphere struggling to breathe in a greenhouse. The play concludes with the scientists’ return to the boxing ring to present their findings.

By setting these climate change performances at a local food source, we have an opportunity to illustrate what we have to lose. Willow Wisp Organic Farm provides food for thousands of people every week. It provides local jobs and supports families in our area. When an audience member watches a scene about the threats of climate change on a farm that provides their food or livelihood, the play’s message hits close to home. We need to protect this land, and this river, and the means to grow this nutritious local food.

To further remind us of this connection between healthy land and healthy food, we conclude each performance with a shared meal for audience and performers. The dinner (cooked with produce from the farm) is prepared by me and a hired cook. Our farm has an excellent kitchen where I also cook a daily farm lunch for our farm crew of fifteen workers. On show days, members of the Farm Arts Collective and volunteers help me and the guest cook with dinner prep. After each performance, a meal service for about one hundred people is served, buffet-style, by the performers and volunteers in the venue right after the curtain call. Everyone—cast, crew, volunteers, and audience—eats together. It is an opportunity to convene, talk about the play’s message, the land, the food, and digest the experience together.

We generally do not conduct a typical post-show question and answer period. Rather, we let conversations happen between people at the meal, although sometimes a collaborating environmental group has an opportunity to present or talk briefly. The ensemble and I move around during the post-show meal, greeting, thanking, and speaking with the audience members to answer questions and get their feedback.

In the first two years of Dream on the Farm, we had, luckily, dodged cancellations due to inclement weather even as the summers were becoming noticeably wetter and storms more intense. In 2022, thinking that maybe our weather luck was about to run out, we staged that year’s show inside our greenhouse theatre. The performance, Tavern at the Edge of the World, was a dystopian story set in the year 2062 in a tavern located on a farm struggling with extreme growing conditions. The story centered on a community dealing with extremely harsh conditions and civil violence. That summer, temperatures were hotter than ever and performing in our greenhouse proved to be a challenge for everyone.

A man in a police uniform sits on a stool on stage with four performers behind him.

Gregg Erickson, Ginny Hack, Jess Beveridge, Bobby Skotch, Colette Ballew and Annie Hat in Tavern at the Edge of the World, Play #3 of Dream on the Farm, conceived and directed by Tannis Kowalchuk, produced by Farm Arts Collective on Willow Wisp Organic Farm. Created collaboratively and performed by The Farm Arts Collective. Text and dramaturgy contributions by Hudson Williams-Eynon, Mark Dunau, and Melissa Bell. Music composed by Doug Rogers. Costumes by Sue Currier. Lights by Tony Giovanetti and Ace Thomas. Stage management by Cami Pileggi.

Tavern at the Edge of the World was an experiment. We did not walk the land in the show, and the story was less episodic, leaning more into traditional play format. In talking with various audiences at the meals afterward, I learned how important the farm contact was to the audience experience of Dream on the Farm. They wanted to interact with the crops, the soil, and the landscape like they had in past performances—they missed a beloved character.

In 2023, we brought the farm back as the central character and created The More Things Change. The performance centers around a multi-generational farm family that is made a huge offer to sell their land to a billionaire eco-theme park developer. The offer pitches the family into a crisis as they consider their options in the face of climate change and financial stressors. In the end they decide to sell the farm—an ending that shocked our audiences but also resonated as so much farmland in our area has met this fate. Watching another farm disappear and a family break apart brought tears to audience member’s eyes. Last October we were invited to perform the play as part of the Prelude Festival 2023. Our show was scheduled in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, very near to our farmstand at Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market, but we were sadly rained out and had to cancel.

Performers in white with floral headpieces stand in a field.

Melissa Bell, Pheonix Murns, Annie Hat, Rebekah Creshkoff, Tiffany Esteb, and Kris Kurtz in The More Things Change, Play #4 of Dream on the Farm, conceived and directed by Tannis Kowalchuk, produced by Farm Arts Collective on Willow Wisp Organic Farm. Created collaboratively and performed by The Farm Arts Collective. Text and dramaturgy contributions by Mark Dunau and Melissa Bell. Music composed by Doug Rogers and band. Costumes by Chris Barkl. Stage management by Cami Pileggi.

I sometimes feel producer anxiety about audience fatigue with a subject that can feel depressing and hopeless. And we are doing the Dream on the Farm series for an entire decade! Yet as an artist and farmer I crave this confrontation with the issue. I am thinking and living climate change every day on the farm. We are on the frontline, and so I invite community to witness and participate in this confrontation with us. 

To keep a wide community base engaged, and to attract new visitors, Farm Arts Collective seeks to find points of connection with events such as free family farm tours, Juneteenth celebrations, Lenape First Nation events, and farming workshops from cover crops to sauerkraut. If someone comes and has a great time at a flower pick and design workshop, they are more likely to come back for an immersive play on the farm (even if it’s about climate change).

Another contributing factor is the makeup of our ensemble which is composed of twenty-five-plus local artists, farmers, and makers. The company size draws a large audience of friends, family, and neighbors who have expressed appreciation for Farm Arts Collective’s non-traditional, active, and immersive outdoor theatre style. Now, four years in, there are audience members who have seen every Dream on the Farm play. And this year we are adding a second week of performances to accommodate the growth in attendance and the capacity for the ensemble to perform over a longer period.

Nature is the director. She will forever be in charge. 

My goal as a community leader and artist making work about climate change is not to preach answers, but to ask vulnerable questions in the farm-art experience, and spark authentic creative reaction. Farm Arts Collective is currently developing play number five in the Dream on the Farm series titled Conference for Those Still Living, to be presented 8-18 August 2024, in Farm Arts Collective’s new home—a new barn centrally located on Willow Wisp Organic Farm. We will stage the show both in the farm fields and in the barn which, for the first time, offers us an indoor rain plan location.

As we settle into spring, seeding has already begun in our propogation greenhouse on the farm. We try to guess what this year’s weather will be, but here in the northeast, no one knows anymore. We are sticking to the calendar that we have always used in our zone for last frost dates and plantings, and we will hope for the best. Probably the most important thing that organic farming has taught me is to dream, make the plan, do the work, and then let go. Because we are not in control. Be it seed germination, plant disease, drought, or floods—nature is the director. She will forever be in charge.



Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

The climate crisis has been called a “crisis of imagination.” The phrase refers to our inability to grasp the magnitude and violence of the changes we are facing, our reluctance to let the reality of it permeate our collective consciousness, and our resistance to envision positive futures. But imagination is the currency of artists. In this ongoing series, Chantal Bilodeau, playwright and artistic director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, invites theatre artists, practitioners, and scholars to reflect on the ways in which they use their imagination to create the stories that will support us through, and lift us out of, this transformative moment.

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Thank you, Tannis, for this beautiful, clear account of the important work you are doing as an artist and activist. As someone who has been gratefully following your work for nearly twenty years now, sometimes from alongside you, often from afar, its pretty inspiring and gives me lots to think about as i continue to make theatre work that engages place and people across topics and forms. 

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today