By Erin Minor
In the depths of Central Illinois dwells “The Unreliable Bestiary,” an ark of stories about endangered animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit. Through environmental theater, performance artists Deke Weaver and Jennifer Allen have found a unique way to communicate their love for the natural world — and to help speak for the creatures and habitats that are disappearing because of climate change and other human factors. The latest exhibit in the Bestiary — “CETACEAN (The Whale)” — was performed Sept. 28 to Oct. 2, 2023, at the University of Illinois Stock Pavilion. The show was free and attracted crowds of 400-500 people for each performance during its five-night run. A smash hit for environmental theater at Illinois!
Deke Weaver is a Professor of New Media in the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois. Outside of teaching, he co-creates multidisciplinary performance pieces with Allen, who is a choreographer and director when not working at her acupuncture practice in Champaign.
Q Magazine sat down with Weaver and Allen ahead of the “CETACEAN” premiere to discuss their careers, the development of their latest show, and the power of theater to dramatize ecological connectedness and crisis.
How would you describe “The Unreliable Bestiary” to someone who has no knowledge of it?
DW: Jen and I met each other in performance. She has a history of dance and choreography, but for me, performance and storytelling came out of a visual arts background. I came up with the idea for “The Unreliable Bestiary” when I realized that most of the stories and performances I was creating always had some sort of animal involved. So it is a big project with a performance for every letter of the alphabet, each letter represented by an endangered animal or habitat. The animals are the obvious part of the story that get people in the tent. But once the audience is there, you realize the stories are not just about the animals but ultimately about us and our relationship to the animals. My goal with this project is to find and create stories that feel urgent and connect with people emotionally here in Central Illinois. Even though the animal might not exist here in the wild, I want to highlight the ways that we’re all connected.
JA: What we do is multidisciplinary, meaning that it uses all of these different art forms. All the different ways you present the information is absorbed by the audience in different ways.
When we hear a narrative, we’re explicitly being told what is happening, and when you see people dancing, it can be interpreted a lot of different ways. So it blows open the possibility for things to be more abstract and include other ways of feeling.
Why did you decide to use endangered species to tell this story of climate change?
DW: In some ways, it’s Storytelling 101. If you’re going to tell a story you want to have a threat. It’s a way to build the scaffolding so that you can talk about these other things. And metaphorically you can talk about your own ideas of being under threat or pushed up against a wall where you don’t have anywhere else to go. It’s also connected to personal experience. My dad is an ornithologist and wildlife management guy. When I was a little kid, trumpeter swans had been hunted out of Minnesota. My dad was one of the people who helped bring them back to the region.
JA: I grew up in Oregon, so I spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains and visiting the ocean. Those experiences made the natural world very real to me, so I cared about it a lot. Then I moved to New York City and was exposed to people who grew up in an urban environment where a natural world experience didn’t mean anything to them. Having grown up surrounded by trees and mountains, I think I value it more and see how the whole planet works as a system. As more people move to cities, they get more separated from caring about the environment because they never see it, don’t experience it. So animals are one way to get people to care a little more. We started with the charismatic megafauna because it will get someone looking through the eyes of a creature like us, rather than something abstract like the erosion of natural ecosystems.
You are also a professor here at the U of I. How does this work influence your teaching and vice versa; do your teaching and experiences in the classroom have any impact on your performance art?
DW: My performance work impacts who I am, and that’s going to come out in classes. At this point I haven’t taught a specific art/ecology class, but there is a performance art class I’ve been teaching for years. It’s my favorite class. It takes people away from the screen and gets them to be physical. I watch people embrace things they haven’t tried before. Get them out of their ruts and assumptions and start to become confident with things that might have been scary. That’s something art can do — question the status quo. And it’s exciting to watch that happen in real time.
Briefly walk me through your career paths. What’s led you here?
JA: I went to New York University to study in the dance department at Tisch and graduated with a BFA. Then I went right into dancing professionally in New York and touring around Europe for many years. But it was a different time. I was able to work on the side (temping in offices, restaurants) to cover my cost of living so that I could dance for choreographers who didn’t have much money to pay me. Because of the way the economy is now I think that’s harder and harder for kids to do. Since our country doesn’t fund artmaking like it used to, there’s less of a safety net for artists, putting more pressure on them to work more full time at something else.
DW: Out of college I spent a year working odd jobs before going to grad school in Boulder, Colo. I went for photography, but our teacher encouraged us to try video and performance — which I realized I really liked a lot. So I took a hard turn there. At that point I decided to move to San Francisco, where I lived for 10 years working jobs that allowed me to have access to equipment, taking evening shifts so I had time during the day to do my own stuff. When I moved to New York I was working at Showtime, the cable network, which paid pretty well and allowed me to be around smart, interesting people and learn a lot on the job. After a while, I decided I should make the jump to try to teach. There were lots of teaching opportunities at that time. I ended up at the U of I, which was great. From the start the people were interesting, there was funding for research, and now we’ve been here for 18 years.
How do you make use of the community in Champaign-Urbana? Is there a way for students or community members to be involved in your performances beyond being an audience member?
DW: Yeah, definitely. Students work with us on all different levels: Sometimes they’re in the show, sometimes they’re making the art that’s in it. For CETACEAN we’re going to need so many people. In particular, the Whale is a big endeavor, we’ll be trying to string 3,000 bottles up into the air — it’ll be a challenge.
It sounds like you’ve been working on the Whale for a while. What does your process look like in between performances?
DW: This one has been longer, and the reason is probably because of COVID. We gave it a little bit more time because a lot of research opportunities had shut down. Usually, it’s about three years between each one. This gives time to raise money and figure out a venue — which is important because it’s often a site specific to the human-animal story. They’re often hosted in unusual spaces, which is really fun and interesting but adds a challenge to make things work in spaces that are not set up for performances.
JA: We’re making these alternative spaces into a theater: bringing in lights and projections that would already be set up in a regular theater.
DW: In terms of writing the story, for the first year I’m doing a lot of reading and having back-and-forth conversations with Jen, getting excited about certain things. For Whale, it turns out that there’s not that many spots on a boat for whale research and a lot of people want to go on those boats. I had a residency in Washington and while I was there Jen’s mom was constantly keeping an eye out for things related to whales. She told me about a whale that had beached about four hours south of me. So I jumped in the car and drove down to see the beached whale.
JA: It’s more than just seeing the animals, though. Part of the experience of going to places where the animals are is that he’s filming them. This footage then becomes video used in the performances. Which becomes another layer of storytelling, like a memoir.
DW: It doesn’t always work though. I went to a national park in India for TIGER. The park was advertised like “Come see the tigers.” I was there for a week and didn’t see a single tiger. But you find ways to make that part of the story.
Over the more than a decade you’ve spent on this project, what have you taken away from this about the role that humans play in the environment?
DW: All these different beings have a reason for being here. That’s the whole definition of a bestiary. A bestiary is the idea that every single thing on the planet has a spiritual purpose — a reason for being part of the planet. And I mean spiritual as systems all interconnecting. All these different things have a purpose. Aldo Leopold has a famous quote, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.” You don’t throw anything away, even if you don’t know what it does.
JA: All the parts are important even if you don’t understand them. There’s a hubris in our thinking, “Well, just because I don’t understand it, it must not matter.”
DW: The message of the shows has also changed a bit over time. The first one we did was in 2009 with MONKEY, then ELEPHANT was right after in 2010. Those two were less about climate change, and I feel like as we’ve gone on, they’ve become more and more about the interconnection of systems causing climate and habitat destruction.
Tell me about CETACEAN. How do you get audiences in central Illinois to relate to these animals that maybe they’ve seen in a zoo before but don’t have any obvious impacts on our ecosystem?
DW: That is the trick in trying to write stories. For example, with ELEPHANT there’s actually plenty of stories in the Midwest about elephants in zoos and circuses. But when you go back 5,000 years, there’s also mammoths and mastodons. It’s not just about real-life interactions with the animals; these animals exist in our imagination — in our stories, cartoons, and fairytales.
CETACEAN has been a longer project that included people all over the community. I ended up going into 45 different classes at high schools in Champaign-Urbana and on campus doing workshops with over 800 kids. There were conversations about how water and waste from our houses and farmland runs down the Mississippi and contributes to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. So we’re introducing students to these ideas of connected systems. These conversations aren’t in the final show, but they’ve been in the project through the workshops and the knowledge that gets built up making these shows.
One of the things we did in these workshops were writing exercises. I asked kids to write down what they’re afraid of over different periods of time, crumpled those papers up and burned them. Then we took that fear-ash, mixed it with sand, and put it in the water bottles. Then we did a similar thing with hope, made six origami stars, and put those stars of hope in the bottle with the fear-sand. Now we’re making a sea of these bottles and telling these stories under a sea of hope and fear. So it allows for the idea that something can be there in the show and add a layer of meaning without explicitly being talked about.
What do you hope people take away from “The Unreliable Bestiary” performances?
DW: These issues are becoming more urgent. Sometimes when people are doing work like this one of the criticisms you get is that you’re preaching to the choir; everyone there already holds the same opinion about the issues. Maybe so. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to gather in community and to feel that sense of urgency as a group. A lot of people feel this sense of panic waiting for others to wake up and realize the climate problem is happening right now. I want people to feel that connection in a way that makes them feel less alone.
JA: You can be given permission to care about how the world is changing within a group of people. There’s a power in that that is different from watching something on a screen by yourself, which can feel very isolating. This came out of COVID where there was not that much going on in person, and since both of us are performing artists, we really care about live performance. Humans are physical creatures and when we’re in a room together there’s a resonance that happens around the room with each other. Everyone has their own private feelings but also experiences a feeling that comes from the group itself. That is really different than being in your head watching a flat screen. Obviously, the specific information in the show is something we both care about — talking about the relationship of plastics in the water and all the creatures including whales that are affected by that. But at the end of the day, it’s about this phenomenon of getting to bring people together and share an experience together.
About the Author …
Erin Minor is Q Magazine’s Volume 6 Student Editor. From Urbana, Ill., she is a senior double-majoring in Political Science and Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability. She is pursuing the Certificate in Environmental Writing and is a Communications Intern with iSEE.
Q Magazine and iSEE commissioned Minor for this piece.