The Ain't Too Late Show. It's the kind of wordplay you'd expect from a guy who knocked out Haiku News on a weekly basis for years. But the title of Jim Poyser's live, climate change game show — which does, indeed, take place early in the evening, around 6:30 p.m., every third Tuesday at IndyFringe Theatre — is more than a clever turn of phrase.
You see, just about everything that Poyser does these days is concerned with the stewardship of the planet. He left his long-time post as NUVO's managing editor to become executive director of Earth Charter Indiana, which recently gave birth to an offshoot, Youth Power Indiana, devoted to "youth-driven climate stewardship and civic leadership" (quoting from the website atyouthpowerindiana.org).
The idea behind the new organization is to give young people — ages on the board of advisors range from 12 to 19 — a chance to use their "persuasive power, scientific education and intelligence" to try to jump start, short circuit or otherwise transform a dialogue about climate change that, in the hands of their supposedly wiser elders, has totally stalled.
And with Poyser so involved in mobilizing young people in the fight against complacency, their energy has started to inform everything he does, including a game show staged before an audience whose typical member has reached drinking age (and there is an open cash bar at shows). "There's a sizeable population of people who think it's too late to do anything about our ecological problems," he says. "They get it, but they feel that because we can't control what India or China do, we can't control the future. My messages have increasingly become it ain't too late, we can't give up, because of the kids."
Poyser got the idea for the game show last year when he was doing his IndyFringe Festival monologue, Saving the World through Bumper Stickers, which was in turn partly inspired by his work presenting a climate change slideshow to local groups as an emissary of the Al Gore-founded Climate Reality Project (a version of the one presented by Gore in An Inconvenient Truth).
The monologue mixed Climate Reality-style hard truths with ideas for bumper stickers that riff on them. There was some audience participation, but it was only Poyser on stage, and someone (Butler professor William Fisher, actually) suggested halfway through the show's Fringe run that he include quiz questions for the audience when he next staged the show. Poyser went one better and added the questions to his show the very next time he did it.
IndyFringe's Pauline Moffat had already told Poyser she'd give him the IndyFringe Theatre stage for one night a month, and he decided that the game show was a concept that just might fly in that slot. He invited Fisher to direct, plus a bunch of familiar on-stage talent.
Travis DiNicola came on as the show's announcer, or the "Carl Kasell of the production" as Poyser puts it, referring to the august, voicemail message-supplying voice of the public radio quiz show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Then Karen Irwin, whom Poyser calls "particularly brilliant when it comes to improv and interacting with an audience," was cast as a sort of Greek chorus, supplying one-liners to Poyser's facts and figures. And Irwin brought along her friend Sean Baker, who mastered the kind of cheesy sound effects every game show needs as the silent partner in the Leisure Kings. Add in the show's technical advisor and set builder, T.J. Zmina (NUVO's IT dude, by the way), and you have the key personnel.
While Poyser says the show has changed quite a bit since it launched in October, such that "a year from now it might look very different," most Ain't Too Late shows have started with a monologue by Poyser, followed by at least two rounds' worth of quiz questions testing audience members' knowledge of climate change. Contestants get to smack buttons when they know the answer, fantastic prizes are awarded, and with Baker playing in and out the contestants to goofily upbeat interstitial music, it certainly feels like a handmade, ironic but not snarky attempt to harness some of the magic of the TV game show.
Which is all part of the not quite master plan for Poyser. "As one who entertains about our ecological challenges," he says, "I've found that shame doesn't work, and fear doesn't work, when trying to get people to open-minded about science and discoveries about our human impact, and when trying to create bridges between people with disparate views and excitement around projects that fulfill all our desires."
To that end, he says these days he's more "apt to put images of kids into the game show to create warm, fuzzy feelings in the audience and that sense of hope and excitement I feel every day, learning from kids about all the stuff they want to do: how they want to eat more locally sourced food; to stop using so much plastic and styrofoam; to stop throwing food away, to have a smaller carbon footprint and reduce energy use."
Since launching the show at IndyFringe Theatre, Poyser has added it to his peaceful arsenal as an "ecotainer" (his coinage for an environmental activist who entertains). Now when he's asked to give a lecture at places as disparate as a convention for GIS experts or a middle school, he more often than not offers to do his game show, a far less painful mode than a lecture of getting across the same information. And press outside of Indianapolis has taken notice: A reporter from public radio show The World will attend the May edition at IndyFringe.
Poyser says he's turned a long-nurtured skill that's core to his personality — his penchant for "taking anxiety and turning it into humor" — and put it to work for the greater good. Not that he didn't try a slightly different tack, aiming at one point to be "hilarious and acerbic like Lewis Black." A little feedback from IndyFringe's Pat McCarney turned him in a different direction; Poyser remembers McCarney saying to him that "you're a nice, friendly guy, and people will respond to that more than something that you're not."