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“The End” bus tour depicts an apocalyptic Denver to help spur climate change action

The custom-renovated school bus stops at five abandoned sites throughout the city and runs Thursday and weekends through July 31

Noah Kaplan, as The Mudprophet, left, and Kristine Whittle, as The Gardener, perform in “The End: A Bus Tour of Denver's Climate Future” in Denver on June 9. The 16-mile tour takes audiences through the city with several sites of performances by actors to highlight worst-case scenarios of climate change. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Boil-water orders remained in effect, curfews were strictly enforced and people without water service to their homes were encouraged to contact local authorities.

Extreme heat and power outages afflicted much of east-central Colorado, as harmful levels of airborne particulates filled the air in Denver and its neighboring counties. 

“Children, youth and people with compromised immune systems in these areas are encouraged to remain indoors in conditioned spaces from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. to avoid peak pollution exposure,” a monotone voice said over an emergency broadcast system.

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The grim message was delivered Wednesday night during the premiere live performance of “The End: A Bus Tour of Denver’s Climate Future.”

The immersive theater experience —Thursdays and weekends through July 31 — takes audiences on a ride through a Denver transformed by the escalating climate crisis, rolling toward the brink of collapse. 

Patron passengers explore Denver’s present and future in a custom school bus with a stripped-out interior, spray-painted inside and out. Actors ride alongside spectators and deliver their lines in close quarters as the bus moves from one vacant location in Denver to another. The show, sprinkled with song and dance, also highlights moments that underscore the strangeness, derangement and negativity that would reign in an apocalyptic era.

Noah Kaplan, as The Mudprophet, shouts at passengers warning about climate change as they pull away during a tour in Denver. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Gwendolyn Gussman, in front, and Caroline Sharkey perform in front of the audience during “The End: A Bus Tour of Denver’s Climate Future.”

Control Group Productions, based in Lakewood, created the expeditionary performance to help sound the alarm about the impending climate crisis. The venture comes at a time people seem unwilling to make changes to help reverse or slow the effects of rising temperatures, a global pandemic and other “doomsday” events, including wildfires, the organization said. The Marshall fire, which burned down more than 1,000 homes, on Dec. 30 in Louisville and Superior, is perhaps the most shocking recent example of climate change already affecting people locally.

Rather than simply showing the audience what the apocalypse might look like, the theater company’s bus tour works to help attendees understand what it feels like to move through it.

“The End” highlights an outdoor industrial wasteland, a public park recently renovated to promote ecological regeneration and a former slaughterhouse in Globeville Elyria-Swansea, one of the most polluted urban spaces in the country. It ends in Commerce City, at “a natural outdoor area bearing the downstream effects of that environmental devastation,” said Patrick Mueller, founder of Control Group Productions and the director of the show.

“We chose this neighborhood because, frankly, sadly, we believe that it represents what a growing portion of the metro area will feel like in 20 or 30 years if we continue along this path,” Mueller, who also plays “The Mudprophet,” said at the end of the tour Wednesday night.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Careful not to give away the show’s secrets, Caroline Sharkey, who plays a lead role, said the performance is about how people deal with the local effects of extreme climate change while also examining how they handle the pessimism and hope that stem from the crisis.

“It’s about stepping right in front of someone and saying, ‘This is what’s going on,’ … It is a way of actually making things matter more,” she said. “I think that when people go to a theater, they expect to be entertained — and that’s true — but this is much more of a journey, where you are a part of the whole arc of the story.”

Kristine Whittle, as The Gardener, realizes their homemade water filtration system was sabotaged by an another person. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Kristine Whittle, as The Gardener, takes off the shirt to absorb the remaining water to conserve into a bucket.

Mueller said he was compelled to create the theater performance, because with climate change specifically, there’s lots of data exemplifying the problem but those numbers are not working to change behavior at a large enough scale.

Immersive experiences can help change an audience’s relationship with the subject matter by inviting them to think about how they would react in the same circumstances. “The longer that we can stop people from interpreting, and get them to have the experience itself, the further their interpretations get from what they already know,” Mueller said.

Allowing audience members to see the actors’ version of what could occur on a local level from climate change, and encouraging them to think about how they play a role in reducing the effects of climate change, is what pushes and drives the show, said Sharkey, who plays “Heather Grayling,” the villain of the show.

A bus passenger hands food to Ronald McQueen, as The Drifter, at right, after escaping the relocation camp. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Krista Zozulia, as Altha, draws her bow in front of The Safehouse.

Mueller and Sharkey are the first two actors to appear in the performance. Mueller plays “The Mudprophet,” an unhinged man with a bizarre costume, who is often seen throughout the show inaudibly screaming about climate change facts and data. Sharkey plays the villain of the show, whose character represents the people who will deal with climate change and the apocalypse by simply “giving up” and choosing absurdism and nihilism, she said.

Lack of food and water are themes that emerge repeatedly throughout the play. Mueller said he worked hard to show audience members that most people would not be self-sufficient at food production if the climate crisis dramatically worsens. As supply chains break down, everyone will be affected, he said.

The dismantling of hope is another theme woven into the bus tour show. But the importance of a strong and unified community in times of struggle is another thread he hopes audience members will take away from the performance.

Gwendolyn Gussman, as The Leader, mourns in front of the audience. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Gwendolyn Gussman, as The Leader, dances sorrowfully after getting waylaid on her journey to The Refuge.

“I hope that the takeaway is debunking the simple positions, whether it’s nihilism or pessimism, or just straight up ignorance, so that we start thinking about this,” Mueller said. “I feel like a lot of people who I interact with, have found a position that feels tenable for a moment: ‘It won’t affect me because, this, or I’m insulated because of this, or I’m prepared because of this. I think that none of it holds water.”

At the end of the tour, on the way back to the starting point, Mueller aims to sum up the experience by encouraging audience members to divide into groups and talk about steps they could start taking immediately to make a difference.

Combating the climate crisis will likely require national legislation to flatten the carbon footprint, he said. But that shouldn’t stop people from finding other ways to help reduce the effects of climate change, he said.

“Those of us that have read the scientific reports that have been coming out for the last several decades really recognize that the consequences of adding large amounts of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere – the consequences are going to be profoundly serious on land, and in the oceans,” said Leslie Glustrom, senior advisor at Clean Energy Action, a Boulder-based nonprofit working to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy. “And that will have profound consequences for humans, and all the other species we share the planet with.”

Gwendolyn Gussman, as The Leader, at right, and Kristine Whittle, as The Gardener, share a dance of mourning and friendship. (Photos by Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Caroline Sharkey, as Heather Grayling, overlooks the audience exploring The Safehouse.

Some researchers have shown that eating less red meat is far more effective at cutting carbon emissions than reducing the time spent driving in non-electric vehicles. Similarly, taking a shorter daily shower helps, but not as much as removing your front lawn, Mueller said. 

Colorado could implement a new law that would reimburse people up to $2 per square foot to remove their lawns to help solve some of the state’s water shortages during long term drought. Nearly a quarter of Denver’s water goes to watering lawns, according to Denverite.

Similarly, purchasing a car and keeping it for more than a decade is better for the environment than keeping it for, say, three years, Mueller added. 

“A lot of these things, I recognize are white privilege at work, and the fact is that I am a middle-aged homeowner, with some amount of capital capacity,” he said. “The show is aimed toward middle class white folks who need to purchase differently, because as they can.”

Ronald McQueen, The Drifter, performs during “The End: A Bus Tour of Denver’s Climate Future.” (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

There is room for 28 audience members on each bus, and tickets cost $70, though the theater company is offering discounted tickets for those who can’t afford the full price. The three-hour, 16-mile show will start at different locations, typically bars, over the next eight weeks to ensure that it is accessible to people across town. 



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