This Philly drag show tackles climate change — on ice

Performers hope audiences leave the show feeling “energized and curious” about climate solutions.

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An ice skater and performer clutches the side of the ice skating rink on a sunny day.

John Jarboe takes the lead as Homo Sapien in the Bearded Ladies' climate change themed drag show on ice at the RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story is part of the WHYY News Climate Desk, bringing you news and solutions for our changing region.

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On a cold, sunny morning at an ice rink along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, a live band plays a ballad. A Zamboni clears the rink, and Sam Rise, a performance artist in a big blue penguin mascot costume, skates out on the ice — hyping the audience up for a show unlike anything they’ve seen before.

“Are you ready, Philadelphia? Are you excited about drag? Are you excited about climate change?” they shout. “I mean, fighting climate change with drag!”

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A penguin mascot skates by a crowd gathered on the side of the rink.
Audience members gather rinkside as a skating penguin introduces the Bearded Ladies’ climate change-themed drag show on ice. “Beards On Ice” matinees are kid-friendly while the evening shows are more risque. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The show is a camp comedy about climate change by the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, a queer arts organization in Philly.

“The premise of the story is climate change is … such a huge issue, it’s almost as impossible as getting drag queens to skate on ice,” said John Jarboe, founding artistic director of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. Jarboe wrote the show with another local artist, MK Tuomanen, along with help from local climate activist groups.

The show runs just a handful of days, starting last week and ending this Saturday.

The protagonist — and antagonist — of the show is Miss Hugh Manity. She wants to stop warming the planet, but she has a hard time breaking away from her “girl gang” of fossil fuels: Mx. Coal, Mr. Oil, and Mx. Natural Gas.

Three ice skaters are seen from behind as they stand in an empty ice-skating rink.
Gas, Oil, and Coal are the villains in the Bearded Ladies’ climate change-themed drag show on ice at the RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I’m realizing that maybe saving the climate is going to take a lot of work,” Hugh Manity says.

But these fossil fuel friendships are toxic. They melt a big glacier, pulling away bits of his icy costume until he’s sprawled on the ice rink wearing a sparkly, indigo gown.

An ice skater in a blue outfit is sitting on the ice, reaching upward.
Bren Thomas portrays the death of a glacier in the Bearded Ladies’ “Beards on Ice” drag show at the RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hugh Manity tries to buy her way out of climate change with carbon credits, but that doesn’t work.

Eventually, a character called Nonbinary Parental Guardian Nature tells Hugh Manity she can’t keep making everything about herself.

“Nature is like, hey — just pay attention,” said Jarboe, who plays Hugh Manity. “Just listen to the world around you. Realize that you are part of it, and that you need to work together.”

The Bearded Ladies had its own run-in with nature last week. The group was forced to cancel opening night last Thursday, as Philly’s temperature topped 60 degrees, far above normal, and the ice turned too slushy to skate on safely.

“I felt so sad. I was so devastated,” said Rise, who played the penguin and Nonbinary Parental Guardian Nature in the show last weekend. “We shouldn’t be having rehearsals in t-shirts in February, really. And we shouldn’t be having to worry about how to keep the rink solid.”

Skaters are visible on an ice skating rink from above.
The Bearded Ladies stage a drag show on ice at RiverRink Winterfest at Penn’s Landing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Winters are getting warmer across the U.S., and Philly is no exception. According to Climate Central, Philly’s winters have warmed around 5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.

“I am noticing a difference and feel wildly overwhelmed by it,” Jarboe said.

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The show aims to build a “shared space” for both this climate anxiety and climate hope.

“Especially for the young folks, the younger generation, who we’ve fracked over,” Jarboe said.

A performer and ice skater holds out a silver shoe for donations towards an observer on the other side of the rink.
A skater uses a giant silver shoe to collect donations from audience members during the Bearded Ladies’ “Beards on Ice” show at RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Theater as a space to imagine the ‘impossible’

A drag show about climate change might sound like a rarity, but environmental themes in theater date back to ancient times.

“I could say that all early forms of theater and performance throughout the world were environmental pieces,” said Beth Osnes, artist and professor of theater and environmental studies at the University of Colorado. “Performance was largely to appease, to worship, to acknowledge, to find balance with the natural world.”

Two performers hold cardboard hairdryers.
Armed with cardboard hair dryers, Oil and Gas set out to melt a glacier in the Bearded Ladies’ climate change themed drag show on ice at the RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In the U.S., plays specifically about climate change began to emerge in the 1990s, said Theresa May, professor of theater arts at the University of Oregon and co-founder of the Earth Matters on Stage festival. Since then, festivals like May’s and other projects have popped up to highlight climate-themed performance.

“It’s not fringe anymore as a topic,” May said.

In contemporary climate plays, actors embody non-human characters or portray current climate impacts on communities in ways that engage audience members’ empathy, May said.

A person skates by in a polar bear costume.
The Last Polar Bear kicks off the Bearded Ladies’ climate change-themed drag show on ice at the RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Theater won’t solve climate change, said Lindsay Goss, assistant professor of theater studies at Temple University, but it is a good medium to explore themes like collaboration and creative problem-solving.

“Theater is a space where you build impossible worlds,” Goss said. “Probably what we’re going to have to do in the face of the climate crisis is to build a new and right now seemingly impossible world.”

Comedy can be particularly useful in critiquing our fossil fuel-dependent society, said Osnes, who organizes standup and sketch comedy about climate change at the University of Colorado.

“The court jester, the person who can speak the truth to the king, that person who can expose the foibles of the status quo — that’s been the role of comedy throughout the ages,” she said. “It’s still vitally important today.”

The Bearded Ladies’ show pokes fun at humanity for delaying a transition away from fossil fuels because it will “take a lot of work.”

“We have the opportunities inside shows like this to call people out,” said Rise, the performer. “I hope adults and caregivers in the space who are here with their children could be like, well, how often do I say that about this stuff?”

A drag show to ‘break that system’ and inspire change in Philly

The Bearded Ladies Cabaret is known for its creative, queer projects, including a truck with a beard and eyelashes that offers mobile, socially-distanced shows. The group often uses performance as a “Trojan horse” to explore deeper social issues like gender and racism, Jarboe said.

In the case of climate change, Jarboe hopes the Bearded Ladies’ absurd performance frees audiences to dream about a better future.

“Oftentimes the answers … we’re given are with the lens of colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy — and so how do we break out of that lens?” she said. “We need to be joyous in spite of everything. We need to break that system so we can actually access new answers.”

Musicians play the keyboard, drums and guitar on an outdoor stage.
Musicians bundle up for a chilly perfomance of ”Beards on Ice” at Winterfest RiverRink. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Organizers hope the show will get people working on concrete solutions. Local advocacy organizations including PennEnvironment, Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania, and We Are the Seeds table after the performance, so attendees can learn about local issues and how to get involved.

Rise hopes the show helps shake adults awake, while making kids feel supported as they confront this heavy topic.

“I hope that they walk away from this space today feeling energized and curious and a little lighter,” they said. “And also that we’re here for them, and that they’re not alone.”

Seven-year-old George Treglia found the show funny.

“I think all that was so cool,” he said. “I can’t decide on a favorite part of it.”

Asked what he knew about climate change, George said he didn’t know “anything.”

But his mom, Therese Treglia, said after the climate-themed drag show, “We’re igniting the conversation now!”

The “Beards on Ice: Edging” shows, geared toward adult audiences, are Thursday, Feb. 23, and Friday, Feb. 24 at 8:30 p.m. at the Independence Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest in Old City. The kid-friendly version, “Family Skate,” is Feb. 25 at 10 a.m. 

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