WASHINGTON — A new play about climate change opened Thursday in New York that’s part-thriller, part-musical, part-educational and all-controversial.
It’s backed by Uncle Sam.
The National Science Foundation, a federal agency, usually funds research projects. But in a rare move, it gave a nearly $700,000 grant for the play “The Great Immensity,” a mystery with music and songs that’s playing at New York’s Public Theater in Manhattan.
The Brooklyn-based theater company that developed the play, The Civilians, also received two federal grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that totaled $65,000.
But the science agency grant, made in 2010, is really bugging Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
“I support NSF research that can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons and save lives,” said Smith. “But spending taxpayer dollars to fund a climate change musical called ‘The Great Immensity’ sounds more like an immense waste of taxpayer dollars, money that could have funded higher priority research.”
Smith highlighted the $697,177 grant for the play at a congressional hearing this month as one of several questionable NSF grants, and he’s now pushing legislation that would require greater financial accountability from the agency.
Climate change is a term used to describe the extreme weather shifts in the last 50 years attributed to higher levels of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels. The tension between Smith, who questions the extent of climate change, and the play’s proponents underscores the political divide over global warming.
The play, designed to entertain as well as educate theater-goers, is “a continent-hopping thriller,” according to “The Great Immensity” website, that follows a woman who’s searching for her husband after he disappears from a tropical island while working for a nature program.
There’s more intrigue as she discovers a plot that may upend an international climate conference in Paris. The play covers a lot of ground, from the Panama Canal to the Arctic Circle.
Written and directed by Steve Cosson with songs by Michael Friedman, it’s described in a Public Theater release as “a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: How can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?”
Smith doesn’t see it that way.
While the Texan is protesting the NSF grant because he thinks the money should be spent on science research, he’s also skeptical about climate change.
“Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science,” he wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece last year.
Most climate scientists think differently. According to NASA, 97 percent of climate scientists believe that human activity has caused a warming trend over the past century, and most leading scientific organizations agree.
The play’s author is in the activist wing of the theater world. Cosson is the founding artistic director of The Civilians, founded in 2001, which describes itself as investigative theater.
“The play takes its name from an enormous Chinese Panamax ship that the authors observed crossing the Panama Canal,” according to the theater troupe’s website. The drama was developed with material from interviews with scientists and indigenous people in Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal and the city of Churchill in arctic Canada.
What was the taxpayer money used for?
“NSF supported the R&D work early in this project, which includes script development,” Dana Topousis, the NSF’s acting division director of public affairs, said in an email. “NSF funding for ‘The Great Immensity’ included the development and finalization of the script during prototyping/testing, development of materials and multimedia for the stage production, actors’ salaries during prototype/testing and development of a website related to the play. NSF funding did not go to operating expenses or travel.”
The NEA gave $15,000 in 2010 for development and workshop production of the play and $50,000 in 2012 for “community engagement” to connect creative artists with the scientific community.
Environmental groups are supportive of the play; climate change critics support Smith.
“At The Climate Group, we believe that artistic platforms offer a unique opportunity to explore and enhance the most urgent issue of our time: climate change,” said Kirsten Strom , affiliate event coordinator for the environmental group’s Climate Week NYC. “Theater, music, poetry and paintings have a catalytic power and one which can really re-energize citizens.”
Jim Lakely, the director of communications at The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based conservative research center, laughed when told of the federal investment in the play.
“No public money at all should be going to this frivolity,” he said. “It is the definition of wasted taxpayer dollars. Besides, it’s not like there’s a shortage of wealthy climate alarmists in the private sector who could fund this musical.”
“The Great Immensity” began previews April 11, opened Thursday and concludes its run next Thursday.