By Published: Jan. 18, 2024

In 'The Butterfly Affect' immersive performance, CU Boulder Professor Beth Osnes guides participants through the butterfly life cycle to inspire people to participate in 'climate solutions'

Climate change and biodiversity crises can be overwhelming. Climate-fueled disasters are accelerating, and scientists recently reported that Earth could become uninhabitable for up to 6 billion people by the end of the century.

For Beth Osnes, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of theatre who is active in applied performance and creative climate communication, the urgency calls for a fresh approach to get people working on long-term climate solutions.

And what is a better symbol of transformation than a butterfly?

Beth Osnes

Beth Osnes, a CU Boulder professor of theatre, designed "The Butterfly Affect" with Sarah Fahmy as an immersive experience that facilitates hope and change.

Osnes and her former student Sarah Fahmy began dressing up as butterflies to create a “visual spectacle” at climate rallies and conferences not long before the Covid-19 pandemic. Fahmy is now an assistant professor of theatre at Florida State University, and the pair’s practice with butterflies has blossomed into a new, immersive experience designed to facilitate hope and change.

“We’re capable of incredible change as beings,” Osnes says. “Anything that happens in nature can also happen in us.”

In this immersive performance dubbed “The Butterfly Affect,” Fahmy and Osnes guide small groups of participants through a 30-minute process that represents metamorphosizing from a cocoon to a full-fledged butterfly. They’re offering the experience Saturday, Jan. 27 at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster. All ages are welcome, and admission is free.

The workshop uses original costumes and materials to simulate the experience of becoming a butterfly. Participants begin as eggs, emerge as caterpillars, are suspended within a chrysalis and become butterflies at last. The project’s title is a play on words that emphasizes the important roles individuals can play in climate solutions.

If you go
What: The Butterfly Affect: Interactive Performance

When: 9 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Jan. 27

Where: The Butterfly Pavilion, 6252 W. 104th Ave. in Westminster

Who: All ages welcome

The experience is designed to be meditative and inspire self-reflection. Ideally, Osnes says, participants will be pondering how to propel climate solutions.

“What are they hungry for as caterpillars that they need to grow?” Osnes says. “And in the chrysalis, how do you nourish the growth that finally needs to emerge into the world as a butterfly?”

Osnes and Fahmy are part of a growing body of climate communicators melding science with art. Elsewhere at CU Boulder, a fellowship has connected artists and scientists for exhibits exploring climate impacts in Colorado, and other art professors are thinking about environmental connection in new ways.

Learning from another species

Osnes’ own research suggests that comedy can help people forge a better relationship with the climate and possibly spur involvement, rather than sending messages that make people feel guilty or afraid.

Fahmy and Osnes are friends, and they say there’s no real separation between their friendship and their work, which began in 2017. Fahmy pursued her master’s degree at CU Boulder and recently graduated with a PhD.

People enacting butterfly life cycle

Participants in "The Butterfly Affect" mirror the life stages of a blue morpho butterfly.

They began thinking about butterflies as symbols of change on Osnes’ porch, where they pondered climate communication that doesn’t “regurgitate the same doom and gloom that surrounds climate action,” Fahmy says.

The pair began sewing their own butterfly wings—and broke a few needles along the way. Now, they’re employing the skills of some local artists and sourcing their materials as sustainably as possible.

They’ve brought their symbolis and message to Ireland, Scotland, British Columbia and around the United States, including a U.N. Commission on the Status of Women conference in New York City.

While grounded in feminist research and climate-communication theory, Fahmy says there’s something “beautifully goofy” about dressing up as a butterfly. She said adults can have trouble experiencing joy and being playful, and she relishes watching participants don their costumes.

For Fahmy, there’s also the added satisfaction of taking cues from nature itself as humanity embarks on an unprecedented period of transition—and, hopefully, growth.

“You’re learning from another species,” she says.

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