Everyone is always looking for the next unique idea—and Bloom Bloom Pow is definitely that idea. It’s a play about climate change. It’s a play about identity. It’s a play about how the world is falling apart. Oh, and it’s a comedy. None of these things should go together, but they do.
Ahead of the production’s premiere on Sept. 16, I spoke with playwright Genevieve Simon and star Smith Alfieri, who plays the main character of Mag, to discuss how this strange and captivating idea came to be and what it’s been like bringing it off the page and into reality. For more information and to get tickets to the limited run that lasts until Oct. 2, visit the website.
Brittany Frederick: How did you both get here? How did this idea come to be and then how did you two connect?
Genevieve Simon: Words were on paper in 2019. But I knew I wanted to write about the water crisis that happened in Toledo since it happened in 2014. I grew up in near Toledo, Ohio. We had a water crisis when toxic algal blooms got into our drinking water in 2014, and we couldn’t use it or touch it or bathe in it or boil it. I’ve known for several years I wanted to write something about that.
I’ve been developing the script with residency and reading and through New Georges, which is an organization in New York that supports women, non-binary and [transgender] writers. It’s really been figuring out how do we tell this story of something ecological that happened that also feels like such a queer example of ecology. Because you write what you know, it immediately became very personal and reflected on stuff that happened in my own family life and became a story about, what does it feel like to be alive right now? What I keep saying to people is, it feels pretty absurd to be alive on any given Tuesday. So this play is honoring the absurdity of being alive and also celebrating a sense of joy—especially queer joy—at a moment that feels like climate doom is truly upon us.
What I was really excited about with the play was, how can we break out of binaries and linear thinking about the passage of time or about identity or about our relationship to the planet, and think more about how we’re one tiny part of a much larger thing. When I was discovering my own queerness [it] was a very soothing thing to discover queer lineage and elders and ancestors and see I’m one of many. I’m not the only person who feels like this. That’s overall what I hope audiences get out of coming to the show, is a space to sit with how it actually feels to be alive right now. Sometimes it feels really exciting and sometimes it feels really overwhelming and sometimes there’s a lot of grieving we need to do.
Smith Alfieri: I got involved in this project the way any actor does. I was familiar with Genevieve and their work just from both of us existing within the theater world. I was really excited when I saw that they were doing the world premiere of this play. I got really excited about the play, because it overlaps with many of my personal interests and experience. And I was lucky enough to be able to audition and I was cast in the production.
BF: This is a difficult production to define. Climate change and gender identity could easily be separate works on their own, yet as you said, here are these themes together. So how do you describe Bloom Bloom Pow when you’re talking about it, especially to people who may not have knowledge of those concepts or even knowledge of theatre?
SA: The tagline of the show is, “A queer climate-doom-comedy,” which I think is a lot of fun because it seems to be oxymoronic in a lot of ways. What I’m trying to describe to other people what it is I’m involved with, that’s what I start with. I always think it’s great when shows celebrate queerness and the intersections that queerness presents in all of our lives just as queer people—without it being a coming out story or a tragic tale of hate crimes. Just folks being queer and existing in the world, which is what we do.
The intersection exists in that the play breaks down the binaries of time and linearity in a way that feels very queer to me, even outside of many of the characters being queer. And it explores queer joy as a way of just existing at odds of things that are of the world around you, and being at peace with that and even finding joy within that. Finding joy within the unconventional, the odd, the absurd.
GS: What I’ll often say to people is [that] joy and grief, they’re two sides of one coin. This play is trying to embody the joy of being alive and feeling alive and on the flip side, the absolute terror and grief that we’re collectively feeling as we consider might this be the end of our time on earth as a species? Are we ending something?
When I set out to write the play, as an audience member, I care about the climate. But as soon as someone in a play starts telling me, “The owls are dying,” or trying to scare me or trying to make me feel ashamed, I just stop listening. And I care about that. So I was like, tere’s no point in trying to write a play that’s didactic. I was more interested in what if we use this medium to try to zoom out and not make it about ourselves and consider our part in a much larger whole?
That’s why this character that Smith plays is a human protagonist. That’s a human person trying to exist right now and not really succeeding in a lot of ways. At the same time, there’s a character that is the algae, that is growing and growing and is doing great. [The play] is a tragedy for humans that is quite absurd and has a lot of moments of humor and comedy in it, but it is a coming of age for the algae character. It is a blossoming into something bigger.
BF: As you started to come together with the rest of your cast and crew, were there particular aspects or scenes in the production that stuck with you? What would you highlight to people coming to see Bloom Bloom Pow?
GS: I also tell people this is a really magical play. If you’re excited by seeing things that make you gasp or watching people pull off feats of strength or coordination or connection, not only is that in the script, but also we’re building these absolutely beautiful movement pieces…There’s live foley [sound] where we’re building out the worlds with our bodies. I tell people it’s a sensory, magical experience that happens to be about that flipping coin of it’s both so delightful to be alive right now and it’s quite terrifying.
SA: One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of the rehearsal has been building these movement pieces. My character, and also me as a person, love to swim. There are scenes that take place in the water. We bring that onto the stage and it’s been an incredible challenge and very rewarding. We’re working with an incredible movement director, Malika, who is helping us to choreograph these underwater movement pieces that are really bringing the beauty and fluidity of the lakes onto the stage. That’s been really rewarding for me.
I’m super excited about the sound design that’s being built also. I’m not doing much of that as an actor. Everything that I look for in theater as an audience member—theatricality, spectacle, connection, intimacy—things like that all exist in this play in exciting and refreshing ways. I’m really excited for the audience to experience that.
GS: You should really come and meet the dead horse. They have a lot to tell you. (laughs) There is this storyline in the play of these people who all work at a museum together. They are one of my favorite parts of the play because they are so overworked and yet so engaged with one another. I think it’s a real love letter to the types of jobs you have where the job sucks, but the people you work with are great. That’s another part of this play that I’m excited to honor because I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to—a feeling of I’m stuck at this shitty job, but dang do I love the people that I’m here with.
BF: The world premiere this week is the culmination of your journeys with this piece. Is there anything you want audience members to know from that perspective? Anything that might not be communicated on stage?
SA: There definitely is a lot of labor going into the production. This is a labor of love and that will be visible on stage. The only thing that I can really speak to as an actor is the community of the ensemble of actors that are building this piece. I know everyone is working really hard. There are some unique memorization challenges in this particular play, because it is incredibly fast-paced and exciting. There are occasionally scenes that are happening at the same time. As an actor, that is challenging. I think that work will be visible.
GS: We’re a group of independent usually labeled “emerging artists” who are independently producing this play as a New Georges supported production. So this process for myself, the director Katherine Wilkinson and the co-producers Brittany Proia and Al Parker has been a longer conversation about, as we move forward as the theater industry, and as we become people who are emerging to levels of more and more visibility, how are we treating people when we make a play? We spent a lot of time before hiring people like Smith and the designers and the crew having larger conversations about how are we going to treat the people that we hire? How are we going to engage with one another?
There’s been a lot of reckoning since 2020. Especially after the racial uprisings of 2020. There were also larger conversations happening about sustainability. And then the pandemic caused a lot of labor industries to go is the way that we’re asking people to work sustainable? Can people continue like this? Are we treating people like human beings?
On this production we were really intent on, as much as we were able to, setting ourselves quite lofty goals for how we could maintain each other’s humanity and create spaces that were incredibly generous and non-hierarchical. Spaces where there was enough time for people to feel like their humanity is being respected. That they’re not being asked to not have needs or to not have a life outside of this. That translated in some technical ways; it’s an equity showcase contract [and] we’re paying people a much higher rate than you usually get on this type of contract because I think it’s really unfair to ask people to work for free or basically for free. That’s been a really big goal of the production.
I also think that we were looking to tell a story about queerness and about a protagonist that identifies as non-binary. There’s so many different ways that queer people identify themselves. It’s a play that’s not about teaching the audience, but we thought it’s really important to have as many queer people in the room as we can and to have everyone’s voice feel heard…The audience should come and truly witness the tour de force that is our eight actor ensemble who are all on stage the entire time, playing multiple different parts who are both human and non-human…These actors are not just acting in scenes and then going off to the side. They’re embodying several characters. They’re doing incredible movement work. They are building the sound effects live that are supporting the other scenes that they’re not in. They are doing projection work and shadow puppetry work. There is a violinist on the team who’s performing. We have a gymnast on the team who’s doing some gymnastics.
It’s a celebration of the bodies and the group of people on stage. That is something that as a production, we’re so excited about. There’s something so satisfying about watching a group of eight people work together to pull something off. And I think the play doesn’t offer a solution. It doesn’t claim to say, here’s what we should be doing to save the planet. But if it were, the closest thing it is implicitly saying is, look what can happen when we treat each other like people and we work together to accomplish something that seems impossible…It’s the attempt at achieving the impossible that is so glorious to watch. I really hope that people can come and lean in with us as we attempt something that might feel impossible, but together also feels so alive.
Bloom Bloom Pow runs from Sept. 16 to Oct. 2, 2022 at The Jeffrey & Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres. For tickets and more information, visit the website. Top photo credit: design by Sophie Buskin and photo by Shelby Frysinger.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.