The Great Immensity – Jason H. Thompson

Written by Steve Cosson, Songs by Michael Friedman

Scenic Design by: Mimi Lien
Costume Design by: Sarah Beers
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Alex Hawthorn
Based on the original Sound Design by: Ken Travis
Projection Design: Jason H. Thompson

Description/Process Info

In a thrilling and timely production, presented in association with the celebrated investigative theater company, The Civilians, The Great Immensity is a continent-­‐hopping thriller following a woman, Phyllis, as she pursues someone close to her who disappeared from a tropical island while on an assignment for a nature show. Through her search, Phyllis uncovers a mysterious plot surrounding the upcoming international climate summit in Auckland. As the days count down to the Auckland Summit, Phyllis must decipher the plan and possibly stop it in time. With arresting projected film and video and a wide-­‐ ranging score of songs, The Great Immensity is 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?

The Great Immensity explores the environmental crisis drawing upon research and interviews conducted in two distinct locations: Barro Colorado Island (BCI) in the Panama Canal and the city of Churchill in arctic Canada. Both of these extraordinary places have natural ecosystems already deeply affected by the shift in climate, centers of scientific research, and relationships to global shipping: the Panama Canal and the Port of Churchill. The play takes its name from an enormous Chinese Panama ship that the authors observed crossing the Panama Canal.

The text, music and imagery of the show is based on documentary material gathered during trips by the artists to two geographically remote locations where environmental change is acutely present. Barro Colorado Island (BCI) is restricted for use by scientists conducting field research at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute, much of which relates to the accelerating deforestation of tropical zones. The artists conducted interviews with the international community of scientists there, asking about their observations of change and their imaginings of the future and recording their daily tasks ranging from monkey observations to leaf litter collection. Churchill is a small town in arctic Canada where climate change is affecting the two prime aspects of the economy: shipping and polar bear tourism. Churchill is the Western hemisphere’s only arctic port and significant capital is banking on the possibility of the arctic shipping season extending, while tourism will be greatly affected by the rapidly diminishing polar bear population. At this site, the artists interviewed a range of people including polar bear guides, port workers, the town’s first indigenous mayor and scientists at the Northern Climate Research Center. The interviews and observations at both locations revealed empirical facts as well as deeply personal beliefs about our relationship to the world. The scientists discuss their work, but also talk about their visions of the future, the fate of the human world and the existence of God.

To create the piece, the artists will work to interweave verbatim texts from the stories gathered and combine them with original writings and music. THE GREAT IMMENSITY will be performed by two actors and two singer/musicians with a design incorporating documentary footage shot on location. The project will capitalize on the versatility of ensemble, using the varied talents of the performers (acting, movement, singing and music) to express the complex relationship between people and place. Ultimately, the play intends to thread together the discrete perspectives recorded on the two visits into a bigger and bigger picture, revealing points of connection that would otherwise by invisible, for example connections between global trade, exemplified in the shipping routes in the Panama Canal and the arctic port of Churchill, and the environmental changes in both locations. As the production progresses, interconnections between disparate threads will become apparent until, like a complex ecosystem, the audience will have the experience of perceiving the world differently, traversing time and geography for a glimpse into larger systems.

Personal Descriptions of the Process/Past Artistic Statements

This is how I describe our process. We traveled to these extraordinary places, with questions about climate and the environment in mind. We spent time in the natural environment, talking to the people who live and work there. Now [through the play] we will try to illuminate the place and the complex reality of those landscapes. We asked questions not just about science but we asked how they think about the future -­‐-­‐ do they face questions of climate change with hope or certainty of impending catastrophe?

Experiencing those conversations and interactions for ourselves transformed us. We learned a lot -­‐-­‐ facts, information, ways of thinking -­‐-­‐ and we experienced a change of consciousness. We thought about place and time differently while stretching and reaching to grasp the ideas we call “The Great Immensity.” I don’t think I will ever be able to fully grasp the enormity or complexity of all the issues, but it definitely became more real to me though the experiences I have had conducting research to write this script. This is the experience I want the audience to have while they watch the play. It is a long, slow process crafting a play, and we tried to decide what will give the audience that experience? They will have approximately 90 minutes in the theater. We had to craft a story, with a flow of ideas, and find a way to make it personal and knowable, while working with the way people think.


Over the past several years, I have begun to make original theater pieces from investigations into real life. Each begins with taking a step outside the familiar and having a new encounter. This action may be as simple as having an intimate conversation with a stranger; it may be an activity, a trip, or some other form of shared experience. I use the discoveries made in these investigations to lead a creative process. In creating investigative theater, rather than serving an accumulation of facts, the real material reveals what I don’t know. Each encounter surprises me, challenges my assumptions, and draws me into conflicting emotions. In the theater piece, I then attempt to replicate these experiences for the audience. And with each new work, I seek to provoke the audience to suspend aspects of their given ways of knowing, as I have been provoked to do so, thus allowing all of us to think and feel in new ways. THE GREAT IMMENSITY is named for a huge freighter ship in the Panama Canal that we saw as we took a small boat to Barro Colorado Island. The contrast between the apparent remoteness of the island and its scientists and the giant ships going by filled with cargo headed to all sorts of international ports made for a potent image, one that haunts the process of writing this piece.

The conversations that I have conducted for THE GREAT IMMENSITY have been revelatory, thrilling and surprising on so many levels. For one, the rainforest is an astonishing complex system of interconnectedness, both in terms of cycles (daily, seasonally, annually, etc.) as well as evolution. My attempts to grasp the vast periods of time involved in the development of any piece in the web of rainforest ecology pushed my imagination to its limits. Contrasting that understanding (or that attempt to understand) with the rapid changes taking place due to deforestation and other man-­‐made alterations in the ecosystem profoundly affected me, and I hope I will be able to recreate something of that experience for the audience. In finding the form of the play, I plan to draw inspiration from the work of W.G. Sebald, and his ability to transform a simple moment of observation and extend it to give the reader a new way of seeing place and history.

This intensive development process greatly serves the complexity of the material I will be grappling with alongside my collaborators. This project is exceptionally ambitious in terms of its content. The very nature of the show is an attempt to make huge and difficult ideas tangible through performance. The experience of traveling to Panama and arctic Canada and conducting these interviews profoundly changed my conception of our place in time and larger environmental systems. It will be incredibly challenging to recreate that experience in the context of a performance, but that is the goal. Introducing scientific subject matter into theater is particularly difficult as the nature of the material is not necessarily human or dramatic. How do you stage the evolution over millions of years of a natural system? How do you stage the extinction of the polar bear? These are the sorts of questions that we will work out through what promises to be both a challenging and rewarding process.


As a society, we are missing the link between our scientific acceptance and our desires and ability to act upon that understanding. Global climate crisis is in many ways beyond our individual comprehension. Despite a factual knowledge of the trends of temperatures and predictions of the future, it is a difficult concept to personalize, and it is when we personalize that we most often act. The arts can and should play a vital role in filling this gap and in allowing individuals to emotionally connect with what we’ve already lost, what we will lose in the coming years, and to grasp the most abstract of concepts through a creative presentation. Our goal with The Great Immensity is to provide the audience with this emotional and creative connection to the realities of climate change and extinction.

Good Oskar Quote: ““How do we bring the world’s attention to a problem which can, literally, kill us all, yet seems to have no immediate impact on our lives? It is a measure of The Civilians’ ambition that they are willing to take on this challenge.”

In creating the show the artists were working to bring together the scientific and cultural perspectives of climate change. The work is intended to facilitate dialogue and integrate scientific thinking into a wider arena. THE GREAT IMMENSITY will make strive to make profound changes tangible and real through the artistic process that will have a different impact than a scientific presentation. Though drastic change at the policy and scientific level is critical, the importance of art in helping change communal thinking cannot be underestimated; it is the intersection of our emotional and cultural understanding.