The breakthrough came in Antarctica.
Kristin Idaszak – whose play Tidy will open this weekend as Renaissance Theaterworks’ entry in the World Premiere Wisconsin festival – had long been interested in writing plays about the relationship between science and culture; RTW staged one of them, The Surest Poison, as part of its annual BRINK New Play Festival in 2018.
But how, Idaszak wondered, might one wrestle a topic as big as climate change into a play?
As Idaszak explained during a recent phone conversation with me, she knew that “answering that question was an important part of combatting climate change. We need narratives that might concretize this massive and abstract crisis we’re facing. The challenge confronting scientists and policymakers is to connect climate change to people’s hearts and minds.”
Honeymooning in Antarctica and working on the play that would become Three Antarcticas, Idaszak realized that “there are many avenues for exploring climate change within a theatrical context.”
“A climate crisis story need not necessarily be about a glaciogist discovering that Antarctica is melting,” Idaszak said. “We don’t even necessarily need scientists in a climate change play.”
A Tidy Detective
While she’s married to a scientist, the never-named narrator in Idaszak’s Tidy – a one-actor play featuring Cassandra Bissell under the direction of Elizabeth Margolius in the RTW production – is a librarian.
Or was, in a dystopian future where all libraries have been closed, food is synthetically manufactured, the poor air quality results in lockdowns, and checkpoints limit movement. Holed up alone in her condo while trying to finish writing a detective novel, the narrator distracts herself from worrying about her missing wife by tidying up, Marie Kondō style.
“I’ve moved a lot, and every time I do I’m asking myself, how did I accumulate all of this stuff?,” Idaszak said. “And while I love and am a big proponent of tidying up – and while doing so feels satisfying – that doesn’t address the problem of why I accumulate so much stuff in the first place.”
“The problem was that the more we bought, the deeper we discovered the hole is inside ourselves,” Idaszak’s narrator tells us in Tidy. “We couldn’t get to the bottom of it.”
Perhaps that’s why the narrator’s tidying in Idaszak’s play winds up making things more complicated rather than simpler, in ways I can’t fairly reveal, except to say that her cleaning reveals mystery upon mystery – in a play suffused with the sort of atmospheric dread one finds in the classic hard-boiled detective fiction that both Idaszak and her narrator love.
“I was rereading Raymond Chandler while writing this,” Idaszak said (her script invokes The Long Goodbye, the underappreciated late Chandler novel.) “I’m drawn to the idea of the hard-boiled detective as a figure coming up against systemic corruption,” of the sort her narrator confronts in Tidy.
Like those detectives, Idaszak’s narrator wants to be in control. Her tidying can seem less like a contribution to a better world than the creation of a fantasy island – pristine but exclusionary – through which one might further isolate oneself from the world’s problems rather than actively engaging them.
“I fell in love with this place the moment I walked through the door,” the narrator in Tidy tells us of her current home. “It’s so heavy and solid. It made me feel secure. I knew it would keep everything out there at bay.”
“Tidying gives you power,” the narrator later says, in a variation on this theme. “You can create order. You can triumph over your environment. You can shape your own tiny, tidy universe,” she continues.
Until, as the narrator learns, you can’t.
Toward a Maximalist Minimalism
True minimalism, writes journalist Kyle Chayka – whom Idaszak credits as among those thinkers influencing Tidy – is “not about consuming the right things or throwing out the wrong; it’s about challenging your deepest beliefs in an attempt to engage with things as they are, to not shy away from reality or its lack of answers.”
For Idaszak, that means seeing the intersectionality of a crisis that extends far beyond the science informing global warming.
As Daisy Hildyard notes in The Second Body (2017), the actions we take as individual physical bodies moving through the world affect a second body: the world as a whole – of which each of us is also a part – that boomerangs back on us, whether through natural disasters or refugee crises.
“My second body came to find my first body when the river flooded my house, “ writes Hildyard of the winter storms that swamped her Yorkshire home.
“There is no more nature that stands apart from human beings,” writes Jedediah Purdy in After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015). “There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed,” he adds.
“The Second Body blew my play open,” Idaszak told me, while noting that “the climate crisis intersects with environmental racism, colonialism, extractive capitalism, gender justice, and disability justice. All of these are part of addressing this larger crisis.”
None of which is to suggest that Tidy is the dramatic equivalent of eating spinach. It’s not trying to preach or score points, but rather to make us think, while using the mystery genre as the hook to capture our attention.
“There are ways to tell stories about the climate crisis that don’t feel like lectures about why we need to recycle more,” Idaszak said. “We have opportunities as storytellers and theatermakers to ease the way into an uneasy topic.”
“The whole world needs our stories right now,” the narrator recalls her father telling her. Her father had been sharing stories with vegetables and trees as well as soil and stones, underscoring how all of us are joined.
Will we recognize such connections as an opportunity to forge new ways of existing within the world and in relation to all its inhabitants, large and small? Or will we see such connections as constrictions on our individual freedom to continue doing as we please, in endless cycles of consumption and purgation?
The narrator wrestles with this dilemma; so, Idaszak suggests, must we. The world we’ve made is a mess. Can we summon the courage and imagination that we’ll need to clean it up? And can we – will we –figure out how we might do so together, before it’s too late?
But, you know, get them from the library. Why add the clutter?
Renaissance Theaterworks’ world premiere production of Tidy runs from March 24 through April 16 at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For more information, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/tidy-2/.