Curb Center launches Vanderbilt Eco-Grief Initiative

The Curb Center is pleased to announce the Vanderbilt Eco-Grief Initiative, a yearlong collaborative project that will use art as a tool to investigate the complex set of emotions—sorrow, guilt, terror, complicity and a range of others—that come to mind as we contemplate our changing climate and witness its effects on earthly life. By engaging artists working in a range of disciplines—theater, creative writing and the visual arts—the Curb Center aims to highlight creative work that confronts the emotional dimensions of climate change with the hope that true emotional reckoning might serve as an avenue to candid dialogue, innovation and lasting impact.

Mary Annaïse Heglar (Submitted photo)

In beginning this project, the Curb Center has collaborated with the Science Communication Media Collaborative Grand Challenge Initiative and the Environmental Humanities Seminar at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities to host climate writer and activist Mary Annaïse Heglar for a public lecture on Feb. 20. Heglar, whose essays have appeared in publications including New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, as well as in the collections All We Can Save (Penguin Random House) and Not Too Late (Haymarket), uses storytelling as a tool to dissect the emotions that accompany living through the climate crisis. Informed by her personal experience as a Black woman from the South living and working in New Orleans, Heglar’s writing frequently examines how racism and colonialism create compounding negative effects for communities of color.

“Through her engaging storytelling, Mary Annaïse Heglar shows how embracing grief is central to our ability to face the climate crisis and remake our world,” said Teresa Goddu, professor of English and scholar of the environmental humanities. “It is only by mourning what we have lost, Heglar argues, that we can begin to forge a more just future.” While on campus, Heglar will also conduct a writing workshop, visit an undergraduate course, and meet with faculty who research climate change and the environmental humanities.

Also this spring, the Curb Center and the Science Communication Media Collaborative GCI, along with the Department of Theatre, are launching the Eco-Grief Performance Project. Four playwrights—Gina Femia, Kristin Idaszak, Reynaldo Piniella and Jaymes Sanchez—have been commissioned to write original plays responding to the idea of eco-grief. They were selected from an international pool of more than 275 applicants who responded to the call for submissions. This project aims to consider how performance might aid us in acknowledging the emotional toll of the climate crisis and promote necessary discussion about how to reckon with the changes that await us. The project will culminate in fall 2024 with each play being fully produced at Vanderbilt using sustainable materials and methods.

Gina Femia, Kristin Idaszak, Reynaldo Piniella and Jaymes Sanchez (Submitted photos)

Equally important to the performances themselves is the process of developing the plays: In February the playwrights will meet with groups of Vanderbilt students in environmental studies and theatre who will serve as scientific consultants and sounding boards as the playwrights begin their work. This dialogue between the arts and sciences is representative of the project’s goals: to draw upon the arts as a rigorous mode of investigation into one of our moment’s most pressing issues and to foster interdisciplinary conversation toward enacting change. “We have a unique opportunity for the Vanderbilt community to process this crisis; to see how the creative arts and sciences can reflect our humanity through the inevitable facts of climate change to find hope for our future,” said David Wright, director of the Program in Communication of Science and Technology and lead researcher on the Science Communication Media Collaborative GCI. This spring the playwrights will visit Vanderbilt to conduct developmental readings of their plays in preparation for the performances in the fall. The Eco-Grief Performance Project and commission are supported by the generosity of the Gormley family and the family of Merrilee W. Kullman.

As the plays are being staged and performed in fall 2024, the Curb Center will also mount a visual art exhibition featuring artists whose work considers notions of resources, extraction and sustainability. The exhibition will place particular emphasis on artists’ innovative use of materials and the connections between art and social change. More information on the exhibition will be announced in the coming months.

“The Vanderbilt Eco-Grief Initiative is a unique collaborative venture involving people and programs across campus,” said Leah Lowe, professor of theatre and director of the Curb Center. “It will encourage our community to engage with the climate crisis from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—and we hope it will spark much-needed dialogue about our changing environment.”