Street-theater group Coltura uses street clowning to criticize U.S. reliance on gasoline — at the same time that Washington tribes are protesting a proposed crude-oil pipeline in North Dakota.

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Three years ago, trial attorney Matthew Metz bought an electric car and had an epiphany. “There was a total laxness in my peer group about gasoline usage,” he said. “They’re fairly educated people about climate change, especially in their use of cars and gasoline — but they said, ‘It’s all on the oil companies, it’s their problem, and we’re just sheep and do what we have to do.’ ”

So Metz is doing what folks with a social cause have done for hundreds of years, from commedia dell’arte in 16th-century Italy to Colombian Mayor Antanas Mockus in the 1990s: Metz is making street theater.

Street comedy, Metz said, is “different from a carbon tax — I’m not opposed to that, but it’s trying to control behavior with external motivations instead of trying to get at what’s inside of people and promote good citizenship.”

Street-theater preview

‘No Gasoline Day’

1-3 p.m. Oct. 2, procession by the Coltura street-theater company from Seattle Center to downtown, Seattle; free (

This fall, Metz’s company, Coltura, is making street-clowning, commedia dell’arte-style performances across Seattle at gas stations and public events with two main characters — the “gas ghosts,” who love gasoline and chase cars to suck up their exhaust, and the “carbon cops,” who Metz describes as “the straight man” in Coltura’s mime-comedy, who “try to keep the ghosts in line.”

The Coltura performances come at a moment when Washington tribal members — from the Yakama Nation, the Lummi Nation, the Hoh Tribe and others — have traveled to North Dakota to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in an occupation of ancestral lands during a legal battle with Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over building an oil pipeline through Sioux territory. More than 1,500 people from 150 tribes have joined the occupation so far.

Metz said one of his main inspirations for Coltura street performances was Mockus, the Colombian mathematician who was twice elected mayor of Bogotá.

Mockus made international news when he won on a platform of raising taxes and subsequently reduced the city’s homicide rate (by 70 percent) and traffic fatalities (by 50 percent) using radically unconventional methods: He famously enlisted 420 mimes to mock drivers who blasted through crosswalks.

“Sometimes you have to speak in the future perfect tense,” Mockus told the Guardian in 2013, “knowing you will not win.”

Metz, whose wife is from Colombia, said there is a saying in that country: “When all else fails, send in the clowns.”

“This climate situation is so stuck that we’re sending in the clowns — trying to take a playful approach,” Metz said. “And we think that people can be reached, in terms of their values, with finesse and fun and in a non-accusatory way.”

Metz can rattle off facts and figures (in the Puget Sound area, for example, gasoline use by individuals accounts for 45 percent of the region’s carbon footprint; vehicle emissions cause 53,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year, an order of magnitude greater than the relatively few deaths from terrorism), but he’s trying to find comedy in what he sees as a tragedy.

“People who’d think nothing of spending $10,000 or $30,000 to go on vacation, at least in my peer group, agonize about spending $15,000 installing solar panels on their roofs,” he said. “That’s where the art comes in — to redefine the question … There’s talk about ‘cultural acupuncture.’ If you hit just the right spot in the culture, it can inspire radical change. The protest, I understand. But people are able to affect social change in other ways, too.”

Coltura has already begun its performances over the past few weekends in Pioneer Square during the First Thursday Art Walk and at Bumbershoot.

And that’s just the start. Coltura will stage pop-up clown performances at public events and gas stations around Seattle throughout the fall and, on “No Gasoline Day,” (Oct. 2), will stage a procession with a tiny coffin for a gas pump between Seattle Center and downtown. Metz added that he’s been pleasantly surprised by how well the performances have been received.

“This is not us waving our fingers at people,” he said. “People expect entertainment at all times — people are craving stimulation. We just provide an alternative to their smartphones. And we’re not going to stop.”