As wildfires scorched thousands of acres nationwide last year, Jessica Kahkoska felt that the constant stream of grim statistics didn’t help add perspective to the reality of climate change. Actually, she noticed it sometimes had a way of making us numb. So when the East Troublesome Fire wreaked havoc on Grand County last fall, burning more than 192,000 acres and becoming the second largest wildfire in state history, the local playwright sought a way to unpack what we’d just endured.
“I had a sticky note on my desk when I was writing this play that said, ‘bypass the left brain,’ ” she says, describing her writing process. Wild Fire, her latest production for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, is based on the state’s growing wildfire crisis. She notes feeling a duty to prioritize emotional over empirical, especially given the past year of isolation Coloradans have endured.
“The fire season and our anxiety around climate change and all of these compounding factors … bring up so many feelings,” she says. The issue, she points out, is that data-oriented media is the only way we engage with that information. It’s our only mental outlet. “It was inspiring to me to think of a way that we could use music and storytelling and oral history and include the communities who are most impacted in the creation of a new theater project that explores that emotional side,” Kahkoska says.
Based on the true stories of Grand County residents, Kahkoska’s Wild Fire, intends to do just that, through what she describes as a combination “outdoor summer folk concert, play, and musical.” All of it is set against a live score of folk music from beloved Colorado artists like Cary Morin, Elephant Revival, Gregory Alan Isakov, and more. The show, which will be performed by a small cast on outdoor stages, will run at Levitt Pavilion Denver (August 16), Dillon Amphitheater (August 18), and the Rendezvous Event Center at Hideaway Park in Winter Park (August 20).
In the aftermath of the East Troublesome fire, Kahkoska gathered more than 30 testimonies and oral histories of Grand County residents over several months to inspire the narrative of the play. She even partnered with History Colorado’s Museum of Memory Initiative to host workshops and forums where Grand County residents could share their stories (all of which will now live in a forthcoming collection through the Museum of Memory Exhibit). Kahkosha is known for implementing a history-based approach in her theatrical works. And as a Colorado Springs native whose family was impacted by the Black Forest fire in 2013, she recognized the importance of highlighting residents’ firsthand experiences.
“If we’re writing a piece about forest fires, who needs to be folded into that process, whose voices need to be centered in that process, and how can the piece of theatre remake reflect their experiences and amplify them?” she says.
To that end, Wild Fire follows the stories of eight unnamed characters based on these testimonies—including a park ranger, a rancher, a fire marshal, a resident who had to evacuate. But Kahkoska and music director Mark G. Meadows emphasize that they didn’t take much creative liberty in relaying those stories to capture how harrowing that week was.
“[These are] Colorado stories by Colorado artists told by a playwright who actually knows what the hell’s going on,” Meadows says. And while audience members can expect some vignette-style storytelling throughout the concert, Meadows and Kahkoska also agree that the local music was the necessary thread to tie it together.
“It covers all of the feelings that we experienced over the pandemic. There’s all the stages of grief. There’s the joy, there’s coming together, there’s community,” Meadows says. “But for anyone to be able to qualify or quantify what they felt during this pandemic, much less during the wildfire that happened, there’s no way you can group all of that into any text. And that’s what I think the point of the music is.”
For Kahkoska, one thematic element shines throughout the music and show: community. Most importantly, how wildfire victims showed up for each other, and leaned on one another for support. “To me, the piece is a love letter to mutual aid,” she says. “It’s a love letter to local journalism. A love letter to volunteer firefighters, all firefighters, all first responders.”
To round out that love letter, a portion of each ticket sale will also be donated to the Grand Foundation’s Grand County Wildfire Emergency Fund, with firefighters and first responders welcome to attend any showing for free.
As wildfires continue to blaze through the Western United States—and with Colorado preparing for what will likely be another catastrophic wildfire season ahead—Kahkoska and Meadows agree that the need for these community conversations is ever-present. “More so than any other theater project I’ve worked on, this entire production is generated in response to this current moment,” Kahkoska says. “It’s an opportunity for folks to come together and share stories and music and heal.”
If you go: August 16–20; various locations; Tickets starting at $30; Find more information on showtimes and venues online