Preproduction photo of a scene from Palomar College's upcoming production of 'Sila'. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques Photgraphy
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Palomar Performing Arts tackles climate crisis in new play ‘Sila’

SAN MARCOS — Palomar Performing Arts will close out the fall semester with a show zeroing in on a burning issue of our time: the climate crisis.

Titled “Sila (The Arctic Cycle),” the play will take place on the last two weekends of the semester, running from Dec. 6 through Dec. 14. Written by Chantal Bilodeau, a Canadian playwright, “Sila” is directed by Palomar College theater professor Michael Mufson.

Mufson, who runs the college’s Social Justice Theatre Project, said that he sees the play as unfolding in the perfect place and time. “Sila” will coincide with the United Nations global climate negotiations and the first show will occur the night of a scheduled national climate strike action day of action.

“This is my participation in the Global Climate Strike,” Mufson said. “Doing this project.”

“Sila” will take place in Palomar College’s studio theater, a smaller and more intimate space than the school’s Howard Brubeck Theater. Mufson said he expects this to add a more human touch to the performance.

“It cuts to the essence of theater, which is about a human connection. It’s about humans being in the same space together with a live interaction where we’re reminded of our common humanity,” said Mufson. “We’re in a room with people who are struggling and it’s real. It’s right in front of us. It’s palpable. It’s visceral.”

The word “Sila” means “air” in the Inuit language. The Inuit are a Native American tribe based in Alaska whose story — and the impacts the tribe faces due to climate change — serves as the centerpiece for the play.

Bilodeau is a playwright whose own work focuses on climate change and its societal impacts, particularly in Arctic territories. “Sila” first played in 2014 at the Underground Railway Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is the first in an eight-part series of stories focused on climate change’s impact on Arctic states being written for the stage by Bilodeau.

The play, actually, has its roots in San Diego.

In 2009, the now-defunct Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company commissioned the show. Bilodeau told the publication Pacific Standard that, while a factional play, it is based on the reality of stories she gathered while visiting the area to do research to write “Sila.”

“Some of the characters are a combination of different people I’ve met, some are a mixture of fact and fiction,” she told the publication. “These plays are fact-based, but they’re fictional.”

Palomar College performing arts student Danielle Soto, who plays a three-person tandem polar bear in “Sila,” said she was drawn to the play due to the issues it explores and her respect for Mufson’s directing prowess.

“I go to a lot of plays and his plays stand out to me,” Soto said. “They offer you something more than the others. You know when you go to a Michael Mufson production, it’s super.”

Mufson said that the set itself, the Arctic, functions as a key character in the play. Soto added that “Sila,” and Mufson’s work at-large, is a “visually stunning” piece of work.

For Soto’s three-person polar bear tandem, the three actors will speak the lines in one voice. She said that the process of rehearsing those lines has brought the three of them closer together, literally and figuratively, due to the nature of the gig.

“Over a six-week period, you get close. So, you start getting synergy rehearsing over and over again,” said Soto. “All five of us would be in a room, just us, and just going over our lines over and over and over again. And you get a bond, just like in anything.”

Soto compared the bond to a sports team, where two players learn one another’s tendencies to create a dynamic duo.

As an older cast member with a prior career working for punk music recording studios, Soto said that one of the joys of doing “Sila” are the discussions the cast has had about climate change and its impacts on people living on its frontlines. She said that Mufson fostered that dialogue.

“As a group, we had a community board, a digital board basically, where we all communicate,” Soto said. “Also, in the very beginning of the play when we all got together, we discussed these issues.”

Soto’s fellow cast member Teresa Crespo Hartendorp, who plays an Inuit climate activist in “Sila,” said that this pre-play reading and research period helps strengthen the final acting product seen on-stage for the audience.

“When you deliver a line, you’re not just doing it by rote. You have to have a backstory about what’s going on,” Hartendorp said. “It separates the way you deliver a line. You can say the same exact line, but with a backstory, you say that differently.”

Mufson told The Coast News that, these days, his work centers almost entirely on directing social justice-oriented plays and that he hopes Palomar Performing Arts can fill a void in what he described as a “desert” for social justice theatrical production in North County.

The curtains part for the first time for “Sila” at 7 p.m. Dec. 6 and the last show will take place on at 5 p.m. Dec. 14, with four other showtimes sandwiched in between.

Tickets cost $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors and staff and $10 for students and children. The address for the studio theater is 1140 W. Mission Road in San Marcos.

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