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Theatremakers vs The Climate Fools in the White House

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond?—Chantal Bilodeau

At the recent New York University The Reckoning: A Conference on Climate Justice on March 10-11, economist Jeffrey Sachs announced: “This is the end game.” And he was dead serious. Climate scientists predict we have fifteen years to decarbonize the economy if we want to avoid nasty consequences, including the distinct possibility of going the way of the dinosaurs. That’s very little time, and the obstacles are many. Some of them take the shape of rich, oil-stained, patriarchal, white supremacists, like the ones currently wreaking havoc in the White House and beyond. Others manifest as inertia and translate into a lack of social and political will. But what those obstacles are not are a lack of technology. The technology is here.

Social and environmental injustices are a direct consequence of the unfair distribution of wealth and power, and there will be no climate justice until we have eradicated racism, gender inequality, and discrimination of all kinds.

To be clear, climate change is not just about polar bears, melting glaciers, and acidifying oceans. Nor is it limited to CO2, oil, and pesticides. Our climate is on overdrive because we have an abusive economic system that disregards anything but its own gratification. Social and environmental injustices are a direct consequence of the unfair distribution of wealth and power, and there will be no climate justice until we have eradicated racism, gender inequality, and discrimination of all kinds.

It takes a village to accomplish anything of significance, but in this case, it will take an entire global community. The powers-that-be (Trump, Pruitt, Tillerson, Sessions, etc. and by the way, notice the incredible diversity in race, gender, age, and income bracket) are firmly holding on to their fossil fueled Republican throne. We, scientists, economists, attorneys, politicians, engineers, educators, activists, philanthropist, and yes, theatremakers, cannot afford to wait for them to grow a brain, let alone a moral compass. Time is a luxury we don’t have anymore. But what can a bunch of (mostly impoverished) artists do? I’m offering one idea called Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA).

The first iteration of CCTA took place in 2015 in support of the United Nations Paris Climate Conference (COP21). Following the model pioneered by NoPassport Theatre Alliance, we asked fifty writers from around the world to write short plays that dealt with an aspect of climate change. These plays were then made available to producing collaborators worldwide who, collectively, presented 100 events in twenty-six countries. (In the US alone, we had fifty-three events in thirty-seven cities.) Events ranged from readings in classrooms to fully staged performances, and from screenings of film adaptations to site specific presentations at the foot of glaciers. They took place in theatres, high schools, universities, eco-centers, community centers, people's living rooms, on radio, and outdoors.

photo of a person holding a plant
Still from the Pomona College movie adaptation of The Fisherman & the Rain by Giovanni Ortega, directed by Evan DeLorenzo, as part of CCTA 2015.

CCTA is coming back this year as a collaboration between the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, NoPassport, The Arctic Cycle, Theatre Without Border, and York University. Events will take place October 1 - November 18, 2017 in support of COP23 chaired by Fiji and hosted in Bonn, Germany. A diverse group of writers from fifteen countries and several indigenous nations was commissioned to write short plays about climate change with the following prompt:

Assume your audience knows as much as you do. Assume they are as concerned as you are. But they may not know what to do with this information and those concerns. So how can we turn the challenges of climate change into opportunities?

Sachs was clear: The time for reckoning is over. It’s time for action. And for action to be effective, we need inspiration. Doomsday scenarios won’t galvanize us; we need hope and a capacity to imagine the future we want to create. In short, we need new narratives. And who better to provide those than writers?

This fall, fifty new climate change stories will be released into the world thanks to all the producing collaborators who will join us between now and then. Each event will be uniquefeaturing a combination of local and international artistsand designed for a specific community. And since this is a Climate Change Theatre Action, each event will find its own way of incorporating an educational, social, or political/civic action. We define “action” as something that happens in addition to the theatrical experience, that is meant to connect and/or activate people. Examples of actions include:

  • Talkbacks with experts from the scientific community, other departments within a university, local environmental organizations, etc.
  • Partnerships with social and environmental justice organizations
  • Providing a list of resources (reliable sources for scientific news, local environmental justice organizations, etc.) and inviting people to get involved
  • Signing a petition
  • Writing postcards to local government representatives asking for specific action on climate change
  • Organizing to put pressure on universities/municipal governments/employers/boards of directors/etc. to divest from fossil fuels
  • Creating a buddy system to hold each other accountable for regularly taking action on climate change

In addition to addressing climate change on stage, we are incorporating backstage sustainability thinking into the project. Ten professional designers will be commissioned to provide sustainable design ideas for a selection of plays. These ideas will take the form of sketches or models that can be displayed during the presentations. Producing collaborators will also be encouraged to partner with local designers to generate more ideas. At the end of the project, we will collect all of the design ideas and publish them in a special report from the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts.

women giving a speech
Earth Duet by E.M. Lewis performed by the students of Randolph Macon College in Ashland, VA as part of CCTA 2015.

They have money, but we have the arts. They have power, but we have the masses. We do need national and international action on climate change, but a lot can be done at the state and regional level, from community solar initiatives to green roofs to local food systems. And those initiatives always begin with an idea and a collective desire to make a change. So I invite you theatremakersno, I urge youto help us fire up people’s imagination this fall. After all, the Climate Fools in the White House will only succeed if we let them.

To host a CCTA event in your community, contact us at [email protected]. Follow us on Facebook.

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Thoughts from the curator

The climate crisis has been called a “crisis of imagination.” The phrase refers to our inability to grasp the magnitude and violence of the changes we are facing, our reluctance to let the reality of it permeate our collective consciousness, and our resistance to envision positive futures. But imagination is the currency of artists. In this ongoing series, Chantal Bilodeau, playwright and artistic director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, invites theatre artists, practitioners, and scholars to reflect on the ways in which they use their imagination to create the stories that will support us through, and lift us out of, this transformative moment.

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change


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I'm nearly wordless regarding my indignation of the intentional neglect of the "ruling oligarchy"'s dealing with the crises resulting from the total destruction of our earth. How can a rational voice appeal to such blatant irrational choices that embrace the continuation of damaging decisions that plague our planet. Sadly, money stands foremost, money reaped from continued exploitation of our resources. We are greatly disturbing nature's balance and the evidence that we are succeeding stares us in the face. Let's stop making excuses, accepting dire predictions or playing the ostrich. "Hope" was left in Pandor's Box for a reason!

It is a blessing to have the advocates I see mentioned in these articles contained in this e-mail. Involving our children is incredibly meaningful. Thank you!

In my view there is a major problem with this approach because it ignores why people might welcome a climate disaster. As Bill Moyers noted in his speech 'With God on their Side' (1 May 2005) "millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded, but actually to be welcomed--even hastened--as a sign of the coming apocalypse". As Reagan's Secretary of the Interior told Congress "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back". In his article 'The Road to Environmental Apocalypse' in Grist Magazine (27 October 2004). Glenn Scherer noted that this world view was "shaping and even fueling congressional anti-environmentalism". We need to address the underlying worldview.

sadly, it is difficult to counter the innate power of the idea of the Apocalypse. These notions of forcing the End Time are deeply embedded in the epoch in which Jesus lived; they also run very much against his teachings. Cognitive dissonance may be the beginnings of change, but it has to be noted and addressed for change to happen.