‘Berg Fringe artist spotlight

Kasler '20 and Wilkie '20 shine a light on the climate crisis

Max Kasler '20 and Gwen Wilkie '20 discuss the connection between ignorance and climate-related disaster.

Ahead of the inaugural ‘Berg Fringe The Muhlenberg Weekly is highlighting some of the students whose shows will make up the festival. ‘Berg Fringe will take place throughout campus April 17-19, 2020.

Imagine this: the universal hourglass has drained on the Earth, and the planet has been depleted of its art, science, cities and humanity. Is there a way out once it’s too late? Is there anyone left who can fix this dire situation and restore the Earth to its former glory?

These were the questions asked at a table for two at Bamboo this summer, as Max Kasler ’20 and Gwen Wilkie ’20 took on the daunting task of planning an original musical theatre piece, “The Garden of Henohm.” They talked about the issues they were most passionate about, and climate justice emerged as a constant that simply seemed to fit the bill.

“I think the thing about this project is that we’re sort of combining both of our talents into one, and we liked the idea of keeping it simple with an acoustic project,” says Kasler. “There’s really not a lot of MT [musical theater] rep talking about climate change, at least not right now.”

When asked why climate change was so important to them, the two composers had very different responses. They both felt the burgeoning weight of the neglect of the climate crisis very heavily, and explained the moments that made them truly realize the full global scope of industrially-caused environmental decay. 

“For me, it’s been within the last three or four years,” explained Kasler. “In general all the crap that’s been happening is just unacceptable, and I’ve been uneasy about the whole thing for a little while.”

“I’ve also been feeling it for a while,” Wilkie continued. “It really snapped on the Fourth of July. You could visibly see the pollution on that day. You could see how much of it was being caused over the course of just one night. That’s when it struck me as a generational issue. Older people will not be around to see the consequences of what they’re doing, so they honestly don’t see a reason to stop.”

Using these ideas and concerns as ammunition, the two came up with a basis for their musical: time is running out, and a small underground colony of humans need to fix things now in regards to the climate crisis. However, The Garden of Henohm is a devised piece, and that means that a group of actors are working alongside the production team to create their characters from scratch. 

“We have our own vision and are sort of guiding these characters along,” Wilkie explained, “But we are more generally thinking about the characters and plot. The actors think more specifically about how they want to shape the story and what they contribute to it.”

Kasler built off of that by saying, “We’ve been giving them a lot about prompts like, ‘What is your character’s biggest secret?’ and ‘Where do you live?’ and we also ask music and lyric questions, such as, ‘Are there things your character is singing that you think they wouldn’t sing?’”

A very intriguing aspect of the plot of Kasler and Wilkie’s musical is that all of the characters have plant or earth names with symbolism.

“Our main character Chrys (short for Chrysanthemum) lives underground with her younger brother Ash and her parents, Evan and Adam,” Kasler explained. “Elder and Saffron are also members of this community. Over time, the surface became unsuitable for human beings and they are confined to this hideaway. A coming of age story, Chrys is figuring out what her life is and if she will ever get to see the surface again. It’s kind of a push and pull between the parents and older characters being terrified and the younger characters exploring their curiosity.”

As far as the writing process, the two are hard at work, trying to crank out one song per week in the free time that they have. Their Fringe performance will be roughly 45 minutes to an hour long, and they explain that this could be a great compact project to take on the road and potentially show as an educational presentation in schools.

“I’m hoping that this will be the first step in the musical we’re writing,” said Wilkie, “and a way to get feedback, both good things and bad things.”

“One of the cool things about theatre is that when you see it you can expect to feel something,” Kasler expressed, “and we hope that people leave our show feeling something about this topic and hopefully end up thinking about it.”

Of course, the two have put a great deal of thought into what they would like the musical to become after their performance in this year’s ‘Berg Fringe, which runs from Apr. 17-19 with exact showtimes to be announced soon. Kasler and Wilkie expressed that the process is far from over and that they hope to see their work continue to be workshopped into a full-length, two-hour long version.

Kasler continued by explaining that he hopes, above all, that this piece will be a conversation-starter, and that the pair’s work will break new ground, open the eyes of their audience and bring an issue into the limelight that is drastically underestimated.

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