Canada Question
David Suzuki and partner Tara Cullis take their climate change activism to center stage in Luminato production

David Suzuki and partner Tara Cullis take their climate change activism to center stage in Luminato production

David Suzuki and partner Tara Cullis take their climate change activism to center stage in Luminato production

Scientist, activist, broadcaster, author, academic, Companion of the Order of Canada.

And now, at the age of 86, David Suzuki’s adding another credit to his list: actor.

Suzuki, and his wife and professional partner Tara Cullis, are the stars of a theater production called “What You Won’t Do For Love,” playing at this year’s Luminato Festival. Both Suzuki and Cullis are first-time stage performers.

In the show they talk about their working relationship and 50-year marriage, and explore the connections between love for each other and love for the planet. “If we see Mother Earth as part of our family,” said Suzuki, “then this is how we’re really going to work to protect nature.”

The story behind this production began five years ago when Why Not Theatre’s co-artistic director Ravi Jain invited Suzuki to play the title role in “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht. “Galileo was the scientist who the world didn’t want to believe at the time,” explained Jain. “I thought what a great way to talk about the planet without talking about the planet.”

Suzuki was honored by the invitation and told Jain that if he were 30 years younger he would have jumped at the opportunity. “But I just couldn’t take the thought of memorizing all those lines,” Suzuki recalled. Nonetheless, a relationship was sparked and along with Why Not colleagues Miriam Fernandes and Kevin Matthew Wong, Jain began a series of interviews with Suzuki in the interest of developing a stage play with him.

“In all my notes he kept mentioning ‘Tara, Tara, Tara,'” recalled Jain, who then wondered, “what if she’s in this with him?” They developed a show in which Suzuki and Cullis, playing themselves, engage in an extended conversation with Jain and Fernandes, as if the four were at a dinner party.

They premiered the production at Vancouver’s PuSH Festival in March 2020 and were looking forward to touring the show nationally. During the pandemic, Why Not made a film version of the show, with Fernandes’s husband Sturla Alvsvaag replacing Jain, who was on paternity leave. “It’s actually a much better conceit, now that it’s two couples,” said Jain. It is this version that is being performed at Luminato.

“I’m thrilled with what we’ve developed,” said Suzuki, “because quite frankly, the star is Tara. And I think the story of Tara’s life has always been the role that many women or partners of prominent people play.”

David Suzuki and Tara Cullis, center, rehearse with Sturla Alvsvaag, left, and Miriam Fernandes, right, for the upcoming Luminato Festival performance

While Suzuki’s is the household name, it was Cullis who had the idea to create the David Suzuki Foundation in 1990. “I had to, because you must remember him being called Dr. Doom and Gloom,” said Cullis. “I felt that ‘OK, people are listening … they get that there’s a problem.’

Having heard Suzuki ring the alarm bells about the climate crisis across many media, people “wanted to know what they can do about it,” she added.

As does Suzuki, Cullis has a PhD, and spent five years as a professor at Harvard University — commuting during term-time between Toronto and Boston — before leaving academia to focus on the Foundation’s environmental work. Cullis’s “intellectual contribution has been enormous,” said Suzuki, “and shaped a great deal of my message.” At the PuSH Festival, many more people were lined up to talk to Cullis after the show than to him, Suzuki recalled.

Asked if she enjoyed the recognition, Cullis allowed with a laugh that “after 50 years, it feels pretty good.” The experience of making the film version of “What You Won’t Do For Love” and participating in media interviews has been a learning curve, though. “I’m not familiar with that kind of thing. David’s on old hands,” she said. “There’s so much standing and waiting … I’m getting more of a glimpse of that.”

“She thinks I just drift off to exotic places and have a wonderful time,” Suzuki chuckled.

For Jain, the experience of getting to know Suzuki and Cullis has been life-changing. “They are extremely generous and loving people. They really care, and that’s in everything they do … theater takes a ton of time, and they are the two busiest people I’ve ever met,” said Jain.

“When you see them interact with people, they are just pure love. And so that fight for the planet, it’s all coming from love.”

For Cullis, the bottom line is the message they’re sending about climate crisis: “This is theatre, it’s the arts. It’s not a scientific paper or a lecture on ecology,” she said. “Telling people facts and figures and saying, ‘Now change your behavior,’ doesn’t seem to work. So we’re trying something new, and maybe this will work better.”

“What You Won’t Do For Love” plays at the Canadian Opera Company Theater, 227 Front Street E., from June 9-19. There is a Q&A with the performers after every show except the show on June 17.

Luminato highlights

A focus of this year’s Luminato Festival, running June 9-19, is reconnection: after two long pandemic years, festival events are taking place across the GTA. Here are five not-to-miss Luminato events. More info and tickets at

  • Famed photographer Edward Burtynsky’s “In the Wake of Progress” is showing in Yonge-Dundas Square, June 11 and 12, 8-11 pm Huge digital screens blend photos, films, and a musical score to showcase the effects of humans on the planet. The outdoor experience is free; a ticketed indoor version runs June 25-July 17 at the Canadian Opera Company Theatre.
  • The climate theme continues with “The Cave,” a cabaret-style musical by Tomson Highway, John Millard and Martha Ross, in which four singers play animals trapped in a cave during a forest fire. June 15-26 at Theater Passe Muraille. Ticketed event.
  • “Art in Transit: Luminato on the GO” is a pop-up performance in which a grumpy urban fish joins real-life GO train commuters. Musicians and dancers also interact. On different GO train lines from June 9-17. Free.
  • “Creation Destruction” is a dance/music show involving video, chamber rock from members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and 11 live dancers, June 15-17, 8:45 pm, in Trillium Park, Ontario Place. Ticketed event.

  • Woodbine Park becomes an urban fairground for “Woodbine Weekend,” a festival wrap-up with events including music, art, conversation and food. June 18-19, 1-10pm Free.


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