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CETACEAN (The Whale)

CETACEAN / Prairie Fire, episode 11 (WILL-TV, Urbana-Champaign, IL): PBS program featuring 50-min of excerpts from the 150-min-long live performance.

— The Stock Pavilion, University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign, IL): Thurs Sept 28-Mon Oct 2
— Latrelle Bright, Jason Finkelman, and Deke Weaver / Barn / Meadowbrook Park (Urbana, IL): Wed Apr 19 – in progress
— College of DuPage (Glen Ellyn, IL): Tue Mar 14 – in progress
— University of the Arts (Philadelphia, PA): Sat Jan 7 – in progress

— The Lit (Champaign, IL): Sat Dec – in progress reading with Brett Kaplan
— Shed Gallery (New Orleans, LA): Sat Nov 5 – in progress

— Whitman College, (Walla Walla, WA): Thurs Mar 5
— PS1 / University of Iowa, (Iowa City, IA): Fri Feb 28
— Virginia Commonwealth University, (Richmond, VA): Thurs Jan 16
Dixon Place (New York, NY): Mon Jan 13, 7:30pm
— University of the Arts / Connelly Auditorium, Terra Hall, 211 South Broad Street (Philadelphia, PA): Sun Jan 12, 2:30pm

2019 Mississippi River Tour
Krannert Art Museum (University of Illinois, Champaign, IL): Nov 7, 2019
Catapult (New Orleans, LA): Oct 17, 2019
University of Southern Mississippi (Hattiesburg, MS): Oct 15, 2019
University of Arkansas, Pulaski Tech (North Little Rock, AR): Mon Oct 14, 2019
— Moon House (Memphis, TN): Sat Oct 12, 2019
21c Museum Hotel (Nashville, TN): Fri Oct 11, 2019
21c Museum Hotel (Louisville, KY): Thur Oct 10, 2019
21c Museum Hotel (Cincinnati, OH): Tues Oct 8, 2019
Allerton Park Music Barn (Monticello, IL): Sat Oct 5, 2019
Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater (Minneapolis, MN): Thur Oct 3, 2019
St. Cloud State University (St. Cloud, MN): Wed Oct 2, 2019
Bemidji State University (Bemidji, MN): Tues Oct 1, 2019
200 Main Gallery (Eau Claire, WI): Mon Sept 30, 2019
— Meadowbrook Park Barn (Urbana, IL): Fri Sept 27, 2019
— House Shows (Urbana & Champaign IL): Sept 18 – Sept 28, 2019

The Bear in the Valley, 37 min film
— Appalachian State University (Boone, NC): Apr 4, 2019
— University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI): Mar 22, 2019
— University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY): Mar 18, 2019
— Grand Valley State University (Grand Rapids, MI): Feb 28, 2019
— Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, OH): Feb 21, 2019
— New York University (New York, NY): Feb 12, 2019
— Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA): Dec 5, 2018

• BEAR & The Unreliable Bestiary (solo)
–  Holly Hughes’ basement, Ann Arbor, MI March 2018
–  Allerton Park, Monticello, IL March 2018
–  Buffalo Humanities Festival, Buffalo, NY Sept 2017
–  Dixon Place, NYC Sept 2017
–  Beacon Music Factory, Beacon, NY Sept 2017
–  Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME Sept 2017
–  Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newburyport, MA Sept 2017
–  Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh Sept 2017
–  Human-Animal Studies Summer Institute, Urbana, IL July 2017


The Speculative Ecologies of the Unreliable Bestiary, by Deke Weaver / HowlRound. Part of Chantal Bilodeau’s “Theatre in the Age of Climate Change” series, Apr 2024

Listening to Whales in Central Illinois: A Review of CETACEAN and Who Speaks for the Oceans? by Jessica Hammie / Sixty Inches From Center, Jan 2024

CETACEAN Took You on a Journey to the Bottom of the Ocean, by Serenity Stanton Orengo / Smile Politely, Oct 2023

The Unreliable Bestiary: A Conversation With Deke Weaver by Brett Kaplan / Edge Effects, Oct 2021

BEST Artist of the decade: Deke Weaver, by Jess Hammie / Smile Politely, Dec 2019

ASAP/10, New Orleans. Oct 2018

Digital Naturalism Conference, Koh Lon, Phuket, Thailand.  June 2018

Deke Weaver’s Impossible Project by Alex Cipolle / A Beautiful Perspective

BEAR/Bestiary Review by Jonathan Fineberg / Hyperallergic

THE UNRELIABLE BESTIARY:    performances to date    collaborators/honors

Inspired by the literary concept of the unreliable narrator and the medieval bestiary, which gave every living thing a spiritual purpose, The Unreliable Bestiary is an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit. Deke Weaver’s life-long project is presenting a performance for every letter of the alphabet – each letter representing a threatened animal or habitat. Beyond the live performances the project includes a book and digital-film/DVD documenting each performance, and solo versions of each performance.  The slow accumulation of books and digital-films/DVDs will form an encyclopedic set, transforming the work, giving longer life and physical form to this ephemeral practice.

The deliberate, audaciously ambitious gesture of creating 26 individual, full-length pieces is presenting a tiny sliver of our current catastrophic loss of habitat and biodiversity. The gears of an ecosystem’s clockwork include air, water, animals, money, and the human imagination. Our fantasies, assumptions, and cultural mythologies literally shape the land. Animals and their stories are embedded in our environmental, economic, political, and judicial systems, the systems thoroughly enmeshed with each other. It’s all part of the same cloth. You tug on one corner of the bedsheet and the whole thing moves. Through the animals, The Unreliable Bestiary is about the systems: everything is connected.  In some ways, it comes down to this:  how can you get people excited, or even to just pay attention to something incomprehensibly vast.  It’s been said that by 2050 climate change, rapacious resource extraction, and our exploding population will push half the species on the planet into extinction.  The lions and tigers and bears of our ancient stories will be long gone.  Central to our myths, embedded in our language, rooted in our imaginations – what will we do when our dreams disappear?

To learn more about the project try this – read below, or watch this four minute video The Unreliable Bestiary and CETACEAN, or this three minute PBS mini-doc, or check out this interview with Maria Lux in ANTENNAE, or this interview with Brett Kaplan in Edge Effects


In 2009 we opened MONKEY on Darwin’s 200th birthday. We made MONKEY for a black-box theater, but other performances are taking place in specific sites – sites that reflect the animal’s story.  Places like circus tents, or national park amphitheaters. We staged 2010’s ELEPHANT in the University of Illinois’ cavernous Stock Pavilion.  ELEPHANT was huge.  The piece featured video projected on two 90-foot long screens, dance, songs, storytelling, and an enormous twelve-foot-high elephant puppet.  In September 2013 we presented WOLF, The Bestiary’s third performance. After a park-ranger-guided bus trip to forested Allerton Park (Monticello, Illinois), the audience was led over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house: a barn filled with video, dance, music, and stories that pulled some of the threads together.  BEAR was our 4th performance.  With death in the fall and life in the spring, hibernation links the bear’s yearly cycle to Persephone, resurrection, the Underworld, sowing, and reaping. BEAR’s meditation on seasons and time was staged in three chapters: Fall (2016), Winter (2016-17), and Spring (2017).  The original, sprawling site-specific versions of WOLF and BEAR have both been distilled into one-man presentations – part live performance, part cinematic documentation – touring film festivals, galleries, theaters, and living rooms.  TIGER, the Bestiary’s fifth performance, toured the length of the Mississippi during the fall of 2019 with additional shows during the winter of 2020, right up to the moment of the March 2020 Covid-19 pandemic shut-down. Our next performance is CETACEAN (The Whale). This sixth event from the Bestiary performance will return to the site of ELEPHANT – the University of Illinois Stock Pavilion, Thursday September 28 – Monday October 2, 2023.


The Unreliable Bestiary’s core group of artists, designers, performers, and thinkers have included Jennifer Allen, Jayne Wenger, Susan Becker, James Lo, Chris Peck, Valerie Oliveiro, David Hays, Guen Montgomery, Jorge Lucero, Nicki Werner, Maria Lux, Jason Patterson, Jessica Cornish, Laura Chiaramonte, Angie Pittman, Jacob Ross, Niall Jones, Melissa Pokorny and Andy Warfel.  The project has received enthusiastic support from the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Allerton Park, the Urbana Parks District, the Krannert Center for Performing Arts, the Center for Advanced Study, and many many generous individuals.  The Bestiary has been honored with grants from Creative Capital, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council, the University of Illinois Campus Research Board, the College of Fine and Applied Arts, the Center for Advanced Study, the Humanities Research Institute, the Student Sustainability Committee, and Humanities Without Walls, with residencies at MacDowell, the Ucross Foundation, Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Center, and Isle Royale National Park.  In addition to the fully realized site-specific performances, compact versions of the work have been presented at the Sundance Film Festival,  the Chicago Humanities Festival, 21c Museum Hotels (Lexington, Nashville, Cincinnati, Louisville), the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, the Cinema Pacific Film Festival (Eugene), the Goat Farm Arts Center (Atlanta), galleries, theaters, and universities around the country.


I am a writer-performer, designer, theater and media artist. My interdisciplinary performances and videos have been presented in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, Russia, and the United States in experimental theater, film/video, dance, solo performance, and broadcast venues such as the Sundance Film Festival, the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center, The Berlin Video Festival, MoMA/NY, PBS, Channel 4/U.K., the Museum of Contemporary Art/LA, the Chicago Humanities Festival, Dixon Place, HERE, PS 122, The Moth, Roulette, Judson Memorial Church, Tonic, Galapagos, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 21c Museum Hotels, and many others including livestock pavilions, national parks, night clubs, backyard sheds and living rooms. A Guggenheim Fellow and Creative Capital grantee, a resident artist at Yaddo, Isle Royale National Park, the Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Center, a three-time resident at Ucross, and a six-time fellow at MacDowell, I have been awarded commissions and grants from the city of San Francisco, the states of New York and Illinois, the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), and other public and private foundations.

The pandemic slowed … well, actually, it stopped Bestiary performances between 2020 and 2021. I took the password off the Vimeo links to the ELEPHANT and WOLF video documentations. Does that count as performance? I guess not. So, what exactly DID I do during the pandemic? I worked a little bit on the WOLF book. I spent a lot of time working on the foundations for CETACEAN (The Whale) – what I hope will be the Bestiary’s sixth performance. In non-pandemic times, I have toured live-cinema solo versions of the original sprawling site-specific performances WOLF and BEAR, edited multi-camera video documentaries for WOLF, ELEPHANT, and BEAR, designed the artist books for MONKEY, ELEPHANT, and (ever so slowly) WOLF. The last TIGER performance (not the whole show, but part of it with some highlights from past shows) was presented on March 5, 2020 at Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington. A week later they shut everything down.

In addition to Bestiary performances, videos, research, and conference presentations, I work on other related projects. This includes the completion of the short film The Bear in the Valley. Upcoming work includes a podcast with friend and colleague Bob Paris. The Bestiary has been included in various publications and articles. The texts for MONKEY and ELEPHANT, are included in Animal Acts: Performing Species Today (edited by Holly Hughes and Una Chaudhuri, 2014, University of Michigan Press) and accompanied by essays written by Nigel Rothfels and Cary Wolfe. My “Polar Bear God” performance was highlighted in Chaudhuri’s chapter in Readings in Performance and Ecology (edited by Theresa May and Wendy Arons, Palgrave MacMillan). Chaudhuri and Joshua Williams co-wrote “The Play at the End of the World: Deke Weaver’s ‘Unreliable Bestiary’ and the Theatre of Extinction” which is included in The Cambridge Companion of Theatre and Science (2020). Lisa Woynarski included a chapter on WOLF in her Ecodramaturgies: Theatre, Performance, and Climate Change (2020). ELEPHANT and WOLF are featured in Marla Carlson’s Affect, Animals, and Autists: Feeling Around the Edges of the Human in Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2018). Digital video documentaries of MONKEY, ELEPHANT, and WOLF are held in the libraries of Princeton, New York University, University of Michigan, University of Iowa, University of Georgia, and University of Kentucky.

With a BA from Bowdoin College (1985) and an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder (1988), I was the Senior Animator for the Showtime Networks’ Broadcast Design Group from 1999 to 2005. I am a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with appointments in the School of Art & Design, the Department of Theatre, the Department of Dance, and faculty affiliation with the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies.


For information on performances, lectures, workshops, video, and publications get in touch with me here:
deke (at) unreliablebestiary (dot) org

Photos by Valerie Oliveiro (ELEPHANT, WOLF), Nathan Keay (BEAR, TIGER, CETACEAN), and Deke (displays and Natural History Museum dioramas).

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