Archipelagos, Fragile Shores, and Orphan Seas
A reflection on climate change and performance
This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change begun last April with this special series for Climate Week NYC. How does our work reflect on and respond to the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding? I know Caridad Svich as a playwright, translator, editor; as the founder of NoPassport, and most recently, as co-organizer of the Climate Change Theatre Action. I also know her as a formidable force of nature who approaches everything she does with great passion. Today, she shares her thoughts about writing the inescapable reality of climate change. —Chantal Bilodeau
Along the way, a breath and
I am at the airport. I am waiting. It is a surprisingly calm day. No one is rushing. There are actually very few people at the airport. It feels a little eerie. But also rather nice. That is to say— it is nice not to rush about for a change and just be. For a bit.
I am thinking about some plays that I hold dear: Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker and Far Away; Joanna Lauren’s Three Birds; Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs; María Irene Fornés’ The Danube; Andy Smith’s all that is solid melts into air; August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; Sam Shepard’s The War in Heaven; Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A.
They all, in one way or another, feel prescient. They all feel as if they are now. They all feel too as if they are teaching us lessons—ambiguous, unanswered lessons—about the past.
I am thinking about what it means when we say we are writing about climate change.
I am thinking about the elements.
I am thinking a lot about water.
Were we all to ask ourselves each and every day how our actions and deeds and words effect the shore of life (the earth’s as well as the one of our fellow human beings), might we be able to offer ways to counter damages done?
Across the sea
Early this summer at Performing Studies International Fluid States North Conference, my play The Orphan Sea received a telematic, trans-continental reading directed by Kevin Brown with participating actors in Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. The play had originally been commissioned by the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Department of Theatre and staged there in November 2014, also under Brown’s direction. The Orphan Sea is a multi-choral epic poem for the stage. Through the story of Odysseus and Penelope, it examines issues related to crossing borders (physical, geographic, and emotional), migration, climate change, and the isolation and sense of outrage individuals may experience in major metropolitan cities, especially those driven by neoliberal economic values. The play travels from the Middle East to Greece, from the Arctic to the United States, from sections of Africa and Asia to Europe as it charts the journeys of an Odysseus chorus, a Penelope chorus and a chorus of the city. In the piece, the river speaks and so does the road where people travel; statues come to life and even the aural specter of Justin Timberlake makes a disembodied appearance. Written for a cast of nine (minimum) to upwards of twenty, the text is open. Lines may be assigned depending on the number of voices in each chorus and the piece encourages a strong choreographic aesthetic as well as the organic use of mediated elements (mainly video and projection design). Dramaturgically, the piece is a waterscape play. Its structure is intentionally fluid, and designed to mimic, not in a figurative fashion, the ebb and tide, currents and flow of many oceans across the globe. Thus, it is a sea play not only in terms of its title but also its design.
I have been working consciously and less so with what I call waterscape structure for years now as a theatremaker and text-builder. Plays as diverse as 12 Ophelias, The Way of Water, and Prodigal Kiss are crafted as cartographical plays that trace connections among and between land and water—usually positioned, at least from a dramaturgical perspective, in the space between or the one we call “liminal,” although that word has somehow fallen out of favor in literary circles. Some of the plays in my body of work are land-based, and a view of the water is distant, impossible or nonexistent. Other plays rise from water and step on land but keep their connection to the water vital and strong. Others rest in that space between, trying to negotiate how it is we coexist as humans with nature, and what happens when through human-made or other means, the connections are lost, destroyed, or made fragile. In fact, my first play, called Waterfall, was set in a house in New Jersey that was situated next to a toxic waste landfill. Thinking ecologically about theatre and theatremaking has been there from the start for me, and even in plays where the subject matter is not ostensibly about the environment, it does inform how I approach the conception of work, its structure, and how it lives ultimately with an audience.
In some plays I have positioned the work through a negative lens. I have looked at individuals and societies that live in opposition to nature, aggressively so. In other plays, elements of the natural world are thrown into chaos through acts of war and territorial conflict between nation-states. In yet other plays, water levels rise (as they are doing) and threaten to engulf entire communities. But choice of lens notwithstanding, the ethical engagement I have with the material stems by and large from an ecological perspective, which brings us back around to The Orphan Sea and the trilogy of which it is a part: Upon the Fragile Shore and This Thing of Ours —and a play that preceded it called Archipelago.
In Upon the Fragile Shore (which received its Canadian premiere August 2015 as a CorpOLuz production at the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto), a map of nine stories and sixteen characters across eight cities around the world charts through word, image, movement, and song, what it means to stand upon a fragile shore, and how as societies the vulnerable spaces in our lands and in the environment, made so by human hands and natural disaster, expose us to necessary fragility. If a great deal of transnational, geopolitical languages of power are inscribed with words of domination and conquest, what could it mean to reframe the manner in which “power” is uttered and put in play, if instead we lead with the most fragile part(s) of ourselves and societies? This is one of the central questions the play asks, as it traces stories of devastation from international and domestic biochemical and terrorist attacks, coastal erosion in the aftermath of environmental disaster, loss at sea, and tyrannical oppression of human beings. Viewed through the eyes of a witness figure—the one who lives along the Gulf of Mexico and watches the history or eroding lives and land impact the lives of the planet—the play looks at how as humans we have and continue to contribute to the hazards of the environment, partly because of our own hubris or arrogance. Were we all to ask ourselves each and every day how our actions and deeds and words effect the shore of life (the earth’s as well as the one of our fellow human beings), might we be able to offer ways to counter damage(s) done?
Developed in the fall of 2014 through a live theatre and digital film action for human and environmental rights instigated by NoPassport theatre alliance and press, Upon the Fragile Shore began its life as a short piece written for a fall 2013 New York Madness event where I was a featured artist. The piece tells the story of a leopard, a prophet, and a woman who meet after a long rain devastates a village, and just before a trail of gasoline may consume them all. The concept, thus, of crafting a story around its fragile point—just before vanishing or discovering a new way to carry on with life—is central to what became the longer play, and also central, increasingly so, to my thinking about how the act of theatremaking occurs. We are at a vanishing point always in the theatre. Plays disappear into the air. By this, I mean the play in performance, and not the text, which is only a score for the eventual play/event. Making work about how human beings approach, ignore, struggle with and imagine vanishing points, and what kind of potentialities for spiritual progress and transformation may exist within areas of emotional, geographic, or physical fragility and its opposite. These vanishing points are not end day scenarios necessarily, but moments when one world shatters and breaks and another is/may be born. These can be moments of profound grief, tragedy, or joy. What is it that some critic once said about theatre: it’s about ceremony(ies)—births, and deaths, and the stuff that happens in between.
Fluid and transient as water.
From Greenland to the Faroe Islands to Denmark—actors performing via Skype with each other across The Orphan Sea or across cities around the US and abroad Upon the Fragile Shore.
Tragedy after tragedy
A colleague tells me my plays are too sad. “When are you going to write a happy play?”
I tell her I have just written a contemporary comedy.
She says, “yes, but that was a serious comedy. Like Chekhov. No, I mean, a really happy play.”
I have nothing against joy. I carry it with me on a daily basis. I have colleagues, friends, and family who bless me with love. I am actually a fairly cheery person. I am even known to crack a joke or two, albeit a wry one.
But even though I know Aristophanes was making stuff alongside Euripides and even attacked him mercilessly in The Frogs, I side with Euripides. Still. So, maybe I am not yet ready to give up on tragedy.
There’s too much of it. All round.
Tragedies are stacked one on top of the other.
Times of catastrophe.
Or are we approaching, slouching toward Yeats’ “The Second Coming?”
I think theatre does well with tragedy. And comedy, too. But I think we are in a society that still does not know how to respond to tragedy. We never really were allowed to mourn as a nation when 9/11 occurred. We rushed to war instead.
When children are killed in an elementary school in Sandy Hook, when men and women are killed in a bible study session in a church in Charleston, when men die in Chattanooga, and people die in Lafayette and Aurora and Florida and Missouri and Chicago… and… and…
We need some healing lessons.
Not hectoring lessons.
But spaces in our theatres that allow for us to be with, not at our lives.
We are at them enough.
The job of writing/making is to cut through the noise.
Aren’t plays just plays? Why do we need to classify them as happy or sad?
Can we live instead in the uneasy, uncertain spaces that a work for live performance can offer?
Might we approach tragedy as a form that may move us through darkness into light or at least its consideration?
Who are we after tragedy?
Can we live in the uneasy, uncertain spaces that a work for live performance can offer? Might we approach tragedy as a form that may move us through darkness into light or at least its consideration? Who are we after tragedy?
Along the way, another breath and
I am at another airport. A busier one this time. It is an airport of narrow corridors.
Or perhaps I am imagining things.
But it does seem that everyone in the world is passing down these corridors and cannot stop, not for a moment.
Even when they are in place, they are working. They are on. They are on their tablets and phones. Leisure and work times have collapsed. We know this. We have accepted this. The workday is never-ending.
When do we dream?
I am sitting at the gate. The plane will be here soon.
I am thinking of some artists whose works and the way in which they articulate their practice have offered some healing lessons to me during the ups and downs of the writing life, among them Alice Notley, Chris Goode, Andy Field, Anne Carson, Hélène Cixous, bell hooks, Alan Read, Kate Tempest, and José Rivera.
I am thinking about how we talk about plays as being “about” things, when they are not. Not really. Plays are not “about” the things inside them any more than a David Hockney painting of a house at poolside is about what houses at poolsides are like.
Plays are events in space. They are explorations of form across time and space. They are “about” the compositional frames enacted. Who is in the background? Who is in the foreground? Who is in shadow? Who is in light? Who moves and who is still? What is the vibrational space between the site of play and the site of witnessing?
Within these considerations, the theatremaker chooses the materials to illuminate the field of play/the site of engagement. These materials may include characters, specific subject matter, arguments, and so forth. But plays are not thesis statement essays. Not really. They are, at their best, fields of play that map behaviors and signs (linguistic and otherwise). They are, of course, framed events in the same sense that Hockney wants you to regard the house and the pool, the shapes and quality of light. Because it is theatre, it goes a bit beyond that; it frames the event for a public. It puts something in the air and it throws light upon something. It asks the public to engage.
In November 2015, NoPassport, The Arctic Cycle, and Theatre Without Borders will offer a curated selection of short plays to venues worldwide to read and present under the banner Climate Change Theatre Action. Organized in support of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 21) taking place in Paris November 30–December 11, 2015, and registered with ArtCOP21, this theatre action seeks to engage as many people as possible in keeping the climate change conversation alive.
Climate change is a tragedy many of us have propelled into being.
Consider why and how so many of us live disconnected from a dialogue with nature.
Consider the hubris of thinking that humans are more important than the planet.
The planet will carry on somehow. Without us.
Are you ready?
Do you care?
After we were here
In my play Archipelago, which received a concert staging in a Russian translation by Oxana Aleshina at the 2014 New American Plays Festival at the Ilkhom Theater of Mark Weil in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, under Boris Gafurov’s direction, two lovers travel across time and space, open deserts and gardens made of stone. They find old cities that are not old but have been designed to trick the eye. They find themselves missing who they once were, years before when they first met, as they both face an uncertain future. They live in an archipelago of desire—one that is as indebted to the history(ies) of globalization as one that longs for stable seasonal changes and what used to be called a “normal” climate order. They are a little lost even as they reach toward one another in spectral time. One of them says:
This is the story I rehearse,
The story I will one day tell my children
When they ask me what love is like.
But the story I really want to tell
Is one of rivers
And boats that sail the currents of the earth
Boats of reason and distress,
That carry within them little tiny bits of our souls
And ask us to surrender them
At any moment
Without as much as a single coin in exchange.
These boats, I whisper in the story I will tell no one,
Line our backs with stars
And demand that we give up everything
To catch a glimpse of our beloved again.
In Archipelago, the sea is already orphaned, the shore is ever fragile, tragedy has come and gone, and the changes in the climate are what the two lovers live with, because it haunts their every gesture and action. Even their shared memory of water.
Were the two lovers ever here?
There is nothing now but sky and land.
They remember machines that cut through the earth.
They remember being Nietzsche-like supermen in the middle of what could have been Los Angeles once. Or was it Paris?
They want the objects in their memory to be reliable and true, but they know they are not.
They have lived through histories of forgetting.
But know they were here, because they took a picture of themselves once.
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Yes, to crafting a story around the fragile point! I often find that we put too much attention on entertaining our audience and not enough on allowing our theater artists explore their expressions. Your waterscape structure fascinates me. Clearly, you let the emotional and physical material determine the theatrical form. I want to see more of this kind of work in our theaters.