F*ck the System (And the Horse It Rode In On)
I first conceived of the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change series as an informational tool: How were artists thinking about and approaching climate change in their work? Three years and a disastrous United States presidential election later (not to mention Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement), it has become an act of resistance. If imagination is truly our currency, isn’t it our responsibility to expose the toxic and exploitative narrative put forth by those in power and propose better alternatives?—Chantal Bilodeau
The thing that’s so annoying about climate change is that it affects all of our systems—political, economic, environmental, cultural—so there’s no way to hide from it. The thing that’s so great about climate change is that it affects all of our systems—political, economic, environmental, cultural—so we’re forced to take a hard look at what works and what doesn’t, for whom, and why. The stakes are as high as in any good play: If we don’t change our ways, the status quo will, quite literally, kill us.
In the theatre, our internal systems are every bit as detrimental to the earth and other human beings as the larger systems of which we are a part. We waste resources. We hoard money at the top. We discriminate. We talk a lot about doing better and sometimes we do but on the whole, if we look at statistics like these and these and these—we’ve all seen them—we are not the model of responsible stewardship and inclusiveness that we would like to be.
Is it surprising? Yes and no. We are a product of this country, this culture, this moment in time. Many of us grew up, whether on American soil or abroad, with American values forced down our throats: Freedom is gold. Growth is infinite. The hero (preferably straight, white, and male) always wins. We have internalized these values and, consciously or not, they continue to inform our behavior.
To be fair, many artists and organizations are working tirelessly to address these problems. But while these efforts are laudable, they remain marginal. Once in a while we have a conference where we acknowledge them and reassert our desire to do better, and then little changes.
It doesn’t matter what we say in our plays if how we say it indicates in no uncertain terms that the only valid perspective on our society is that of the straight white man.
It’s worth asking why, even though these issues have been identified for decades, we as a field have only moved a few percentage points in the right direction. Granted, a theatre can’t fire its entire staff and start anew overnight, but theatrical seasons are put together every year. Every year, new creative teams are hired. Every year, there are opportunities to say fuck the system and be inclusive and fair. By now, we should have moved dozens of percentage points in the right direction. But no, we hover more or less in the same place. We pat ourselves on the back for talking about these things, and ignore the fact that our actions don’t support our words.
If climate change was solely about reducing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the problem would have been solved a long time ago. The reason it’s so difficult to address is because it requires a complete overhaul of the ideology that made it possible. As we have seen in the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, patriarchy and white supremacy, which underpin our economic system and by extension, the fossil fuel industry, are well and alive in America. And the extreme violence and sense of entitlement of “Unite the Right” marchers show that those who feel they have most to lose (whether they are justified in that feeling or not) by switching to a new order won’t let go easy.
The same is true in the theatre. It’s not difficult to produce a female playwright or cast a person of color. What’s difficult is to recognize that cultural standards are not objective, and to stop coming up with “good” reasons for discriminating. “It’s not what our audiences want” is a cop out that enables theatre leaders and audiences alike to be sexist and racist. And if that’s where we stand, can we look at what happened in Charlottesville with a clear conscience? Can we honestly say that we had no part to play in creating the culture that made the alt-right possible? It doesn’t matter what we say in our plays if how we say it indicates in no uncertain terms that the only valid perspective on our society is that of the straight white man.
As I write this, hurricane Harvey is wreaking havoc in Texas and Louisiana, displacing tens of thousands of people, destroying houses and infrastructures, and bringing Houston, a modern industrialized city in one of the most powerful nations on earth, down to its knees. The climate change apocalypse we’ve been promised is here. I see the photos, watch the videos, read the articles and the posts on social media, and my heart breaks. I can only imagine the magnitude of the pain and sense of loss of those whose entire lives are now under water.
How much longer are we going to go on like this? How many more people have to suffer and die? We, as a society, need to take responsibility for both Charlottesville and Harvey. And we, in the theatre, also need to take responsibility. Artists make culture; that’s our job. Every day we put ideas on stage that either reinforce the status quo or challenge it. Every day we engage in practices that are either wasteful or sustainable. Every day we interact with each other in a way that is either oppressive or nurturing. We make choices and then we put those choices on stage for everyone to see. That’s what theatre is. Never mind the witty dialogue, clever blocking, and fancy designs. At its most basic, theatre is a sharing of beliefs and values that make a production possible, from who is involved to what resources are used to how people are treated.
A common reason for people to not take action on climate change is a sense of powerlessness—a belief that individuals can’t make a difference and that change has to come from the top. It is, of course, politically convenient for those in power to cultivate that feeling. Powerlessness keeps masses docile, money flowing in the right direction—from bottom to top—and power secure. But chaos theory tells us that a small change in a nonlinear complex system, which is what our highly-connected world has become, can result in large differences later. Think of the butterfly effect: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
Moreover, science also says that when just ten percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, that belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. Ten percent. That’s one in ten artists. One in ten theatres. One in ten plays. Is that so out of reach? Can we not, in a profession that prides itself on the resourcefulness and imagination of its practitioners, find one in ten people to turn the tide? Can we not acknowledge the damage our systems are inflicting on our fellow artists, our fellow citizens, and on the earth, and start to chip at them?
I do see hope. When Native Americans gathered at Standing Rock to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline, they said fuck the system. When youth filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the US government, they said fuck the system. When cities and states announced that they would uphold the Paris Agreement after Trump pulled out, they said fuck the system. And every time we march—for women’s rights, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, for the climate, for science—we are collectively saying fuck the system.
I see hope in the theatre, too. Caucasian actor Mandy Patinkin, who was set to replace African American actor Okieriete Onaodowan in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, dropped out after realizing he would be harming his colleague. There was an unexpected outpouring of support from audiences after the announcement that Paula Vogel’s Indecent—one of the rare plays on Broadway both written and directed by a woman—was going to close despite taking home two Tony Awards. And organizations like Broadway Green Alliance continue to serve and educate the field so we learn to be more sustainable and less wasteful.
And these are only a few examples. Hundreds of small theatre companies across the country, theatres too small to be counted in the statistics, are carving a place for those usually left out of our overwhelmingly monochrome and monogender theatre ecosystem, and are making efforts to use resources responsibly.
In addition to these individual efforts, institutional changes are desperately needed and funders could and should help. In July, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave New York’s museums and arts groups an ultimatum: Embrace diversity, or say goodbye to your city funding. When are funders going to hold theatres up to the same standard? On the other side of the pond, Arts Council England, working in collaboration with Julie’s Bicycle, has made environmental reporting a funding obligation for all major revenue funded programs over the last few years, with great success. Can more countries not come up with similar programs?
The burden of fighting for justice shouldn’t always fall on those already disadvantaged. Most of us in the theatre enjoy some form of privilege, whether racial or economic or both. Maybe once in a while, we should be willing to take one for the team. Maybe once in a while, we should have the courage to stand up for all of us, even if it comes at a personal cost. What if, for example, some of the most sought after male playwrights among us refused to be produced by theatres that don’t show gender parity? What if white playwrights required that the cast for their plays reflect the diversity of our society? What would happen then? What if playwrights and directors contractually required that the set be recycled at the end of a production? What if theatres had to disclose the gap between their highest paid employees and their lowest paid employees? We’ve been waiting for too long; our statistics have got to change. Our systems have got to change. And if it takes some form of disobedience, then so be it. Otherwise, we might as well have voted for Trump.
Naomi Klein is right when she says that this changes everything. We cannot address climate change without addressing the systems that are feeding it, and we cannot address those systems and still make theatre as if these were the good old days. The theatre community may only represent a small percentage of the population but because it is directly involved in shaping culture, it has a big percentage of the responsibility.
It’s not difficult. Let’s stop saying that it’s difficult. Let’s stop saying that it’s complicated. Let’s stop saying that it’s expensive or risky. Being rescued from your house by a helicopter because the water is up to your roof is difficult. Making the theatre more inclusive, sustainable, and fair is not.
Fuck the system. It’s rigged. It has always been. Sadly, it took a dangerous accumulation of CO2 particles in the atmosphere for us to finally face it, but here we are. Let’s not wait until the white supremacists are in power (oh wait, they already are…) or until we’re all under water to make a change.