- Staging the Cascadia Earthquake before It Happens: Faultline Ensemble’s Holding onto the Sky as Community Health and Theatre Manifesto
In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million. “This is one time that I’m hoping all the science is wrong, and it won’t happen for another thousand years,” [Kenneth, FEMA’s Region X director] Murphy says.—Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One”
In early 2014 a group of Portland, Oregon artists and community health activists gathered at a retreat to discuss a play they wanted to make about disaster. Their hope was to use theatre as a way to examine current crises that they saw in their city. While Kathryn Schulz had not yet published her terrifying 2015 essay in The New Yorker about the impending Cascadia quake, those who gathered were familiar with the earthquake scenario, because it had long been a subject of conversation within the street-medic community, and several of those present were members of the Portland street-medic and health-care activist group Rosehip Medic Collective. At this retreat the group founded Faultline Ensemble, a new theatre company composed of artists, activists, and community health workers, and they began work on a collectively created script about the aftermath of what Schulz would call in her forthcoming essay, “The Really Big One.”
Faultline Ensemble’s resulting play, Holding onto the Sky, premiered in November 2014. It uses the impending disaster of the Cascadia earthquake as a device to call attention to, and to stimulate a collective reimagining of, dominant local approaches to health care and community. In the wake of Schulz’s essay’s wide circulation and subsequent local and national conversations about the earthquake, Faultline’s February 2016 restaging of Holding onto the Sky ran for six sold-out performances. The production, which changed very little aside from a few casting adjustments and a move to a bigger venue, asks direct questions to its spectators who live in what will likely be the central area of the earthquake’s impact and whose lives will be among the estimated 13,000 lost when it hits. A provocative manifesto for increased individual responsibility and collective care, Holding onto the Sky uses the theatrical representation of a future catastrophe not just to provoke its spectators to prepare for the impending crisis, but to invite them to respond to everyday disasters in the forms of systemic inequities that uphold oppression and disparity in Portland’s past and present. This essay draws from my viewings of both the 2014 and 2016 productions of Holding onto the Sky, alongside my September 2016 interview with Rosehip member and Faultline Ensemble artistic director Taiga [End Page 95] Christie. I argue that in their company working methods and their creation process for, and productions of, Holding onto the Sky, Faultline proposes that community health and theatre are permeable practices that can unite communities in the face of current and future disasters.
Holding onto the Sky draws on audience anticipation and anxiety in its depiction of a version of Portland in which residents cannot access hospitals, ambulances are unable to navigate city streets, and the city’s heaps of new glass condos—Portland’s glittering sign of gentrification—are collapsed. The play’s title evokes the central question that Faultline proposes in the work: what will Portlanders do when the ground opens up, buildings crumble, and the only thing left to hold onto is the...