Prairie Fire: Episode 11 - April 2024


In celebration of Earth Month, Prairie Fire presents "Cetacean (The Whale)," a one-hour special filmed by the Media and Cinema Studies students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. This multimedia performance created by artists Deke Weaver and Jennifer Allen provides a look at the creation and presentation of the show, along with excerpts from last fall's live performance. 

CETACEAN (The Whale) was the sixth interdisciplinary performance from The Unreliable Bestiary—a lifelong project presenting a performance for every letter of the alphabet, each letter representing an endangered animal or habitat. Bestiary collaborators had completed five performances – MONKEY, ELEPHANT, WOLF, BEAR, and TIGER – before CETACEAN. From the corncribs of barns to forests, living rooms, prairies, or the length of the Mississippi River, these performances have been presented in settings that reflect the human-animal story. 

Reading Rebecca Giggs’ book Fathoms: The World in the Whale proved to be CETACEAN’s seed – so many stories and ideas!  Like this: removing 70 tons of rotting, beached whale is a problem. The task becomes harder, and even dangerous, when it’s understood that ocean-poisoning man-made toxins are concentrated in whale blubber. Giggs writes, “Inuit women, who seasonally consume whale…had been warned off eating beluga during pregnancy and advised to stop nursing their babies altogether…According to BBC’s ‘Planet Earth: The Future’: ‘If her milk was in containers other than her body, she would not be allowed to take it over state lines.’”

We’ve come to a time in human history where mother’s milk could kill you.  

Part social practice, part visual art installation, part live event, CETACEAN’s three years of research, rehearsal, and planning became a live public performance – a two and a half hour long living collage of story, dance, sound, video, lo-fi effects, and a colossal installation. CETACEAN started with Bestiary project director Deke Weaver’s research and writing. Ideas were bounced around between him and CETACEAN performance director Jennifer Allen. Fundraising and outreach to institutional community collaborators started early in the process.

Over two years, hundreds of local high school and university students listed their hopes and fears in CETACEAN workshops. They talked about oceans, whales, eco-anxiety, and interconnectivity.  Students burned the lists of fear, made origami stars from the lists of hope, and filled discarded plastic bottles with the ash of fear and the stars of hope. CETACEAN audiences sat under a small ocean of these messages-in-a-bottle, a sea of hope and fear.

While these workshops were taking place, Allen started rehearsing with dancers, from long time Bestiary collaborator Laura Chiaramonte to new CETACEAN friends Jacob Henss, Adanya Gilmore, and Gabriel Gonzalez.  Weaver worked with dramaturg (and friend of 30 years) Jayne Wenger shaping the text.  Core design team members were brought into the discussion – sound designer James Lo, costume designer Susan Becker, media designer John Boesche, lighting designer Rob Perry, artists/set-designers Phil Orr and Melissa Pokorny. The project would have been drastically different without these talented folk, but CETACEAN would not have been possible at this scale without CETACEAN’s co-producer and production designer Andy Warfel and technical director Blane Friest. 

As we got closer to the production date, more and more artists, performers, students, and volunteers become part of the work. We could think of these projects as trees, concentric rings growing out from the seed of initial research with the participation of the audience being the outer bark, containing the tree, giving it shape and reason. 

CETACEAN was performed for five nights in late September into early October in 2023.  Around 2490 people came to see the show. Not a huge number for social media, but it felt good to the cast, crew, and performers. Deke and Jennifer are not hoping for silver-bullet-cure-all solutions making this work. But they do hope to be part of the conversation. 

Ideally, Deke and Jennifer would like the Unreliable Bestiary’s stories of animals, climate, and people, to create experiences that subtly connect wildly disparate local and global dots. By making environmental, psychological, social degradation tangible and present, by linking these stories to cultural origin myths and our fantasies of the future, remixing them, rewriting them, weaving them from whole cloth and telling them in unusual contexts – they hope to remove audiences from the daily grind and wake them up. Like water and air, the human imagination is elemental to natural systems.  It transforms things. They work with humor and the absurd. Music and silence. People and wonder.  Deke and Jennifer's live performances quietly insist on re-enchantment and the dismantling of the status quo.