Holding This Climate in My Body

I’m writing today from my home in Toronto. It’s September, and the theatre season is about to begin.

Five months ago, I was up high in the mountains of Banff for a weekend, along with thirty theatre colleagues, leaders of institutions from across Canada. It was a historic Summit, the first event of the National Arts Centre’s (NAC) two-year research initiative, Climate Change: Reimagining the Footprint of Canadian Theatre, organized and conceived by NAC associate artistic director Sarah Garton Stanley, with co-curator Chantal Bilodeau.

Several months later, Chantal asked if I would consider writing a reflection on the weekend. I accepted her invitation in much the same way I had accepted the invitation to go to the Summit in the first place: an immediate “yes”... with a simultaneous, overwhelming feeling of terror in my gut.

I said yes to attending the Summit because, well, obviously. Here was an opportunity to dig into the single most pressing issue of our time—an issue that has motivated my creative work and many of my personal and political choices since I was a teenager. Climate is a subject I care about on a visceral, animal level. It is something I’m never not thinking about. The weekend at Banff promised a chance to be in the company of brilliant theatre colleagues and to hear from inspiring scientists, artists, psychologists, and activists working on climate across the globe.

a large group standing in an oval

Warm-up at the beginning of one of the sessions.

In the same instant as I say yes, I feel my breathing speed up. The sensation of pressure building inside me, like a body of water ready to overflow the banks.

The news and the information coming in daily about the climate crisis is overwhelming, increasingly terrifying, unprecedented, paralyzing. Too much to take in.

I’m adding another trip to my already packed schedule. I have been on tour a lot, flying to places with a show about climate change and colonization, an uneasy paradox. I’ve been away from home and from Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, the company I lead in Toronto, too much. But this invitation feels important. Urgent. How can I say no?

I think, I am holding this climate in my body.

I think, Banff will be a time to listen. To immerse myself in this critical conversation, to strategize with colleagues. To be inspired.

Or maybe it will be the thing that finally sends me over the edge.

Anyway, I say yes. Yes to attending the Summit, yes to writing this reflection.

Because I recognize this feeling of terror in my guts. It’s a signal. Over the course of my career, I feel it whenever I embark upon any truly meaningful new creative project. When I step into the fray with the determination to harness ideas and visions and translate them into something concrete, to create something that doesn’t yet exist. The terror is not knowing: not knowing if I have what it takes to do justice to the task at hand, or what the outcome will be, or if I’ll succeed or fail. But I do know that saying yes to the attempt is the only way ambitious and meaningful things ever get made.

The news and the information coming in daily about the climate crisis is overwhelming, increasingly terrifying, unprecedented, paralyzing. Too much to take in.

We arrive at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, a conference centre and artist retreat in the Rocky Mountains. Stunning alpine vistas in every direction. Nature stops me in my tracks, many times a day.

Most of us have flown great distances to get here. This irony is not lost on anyone.

We are theatre leaders inside a small industry working in a geographically enormous country. Many of us do a lot of flying. Touring, working in other cities, attending festivals. Canadians generally have a big carbon footprint. Our geography and climate implicate us inside resource-heavy infrastructure: sprawling distances between our major urban centers; long drives or flights between stops on tour; long winters through which we must heat our homes, theatres, and public spaces.

We gather in the BP Canada Energy Room. Paradox at every turn.

It’s oil money that pays for this amazing retreat centre, and that’s no secret; we are in Alberta, home of the tar sands. It strikes me that we are in a moment equivalent to the one just before the arts sector unilaterally rejected the sponsorship of big tobacco back in the nineties.

Sonali McDermid

Sonali McDermid, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at New York University gives a presentation about the science of climate change.

We are welcomed by a local Indigenous Elder, Una Wesley, from the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. She offers us smudge and blessing on our time together, and we begin.

There is a lot of energy in these mountains. I’ve heard many other artists talk about having wild dreams at night when they stay at the Banff Centre. It’s a good place for us to dream together.

Co-curators Stanley and Bilodeau have programmed an incredible lineup of “inspirers.” Over two days: nine speakers, each with ninety minutes to present. It’s inspiring, devastating, overwhelming, fascinating, breathtaking, sweeping in scope and scale: an onslaught of information, with breaks only for meals and refilling our refillable water bottles.

I take notes, lots of notes; my notebook becomes a wild, sprawling collection of facts, words, new thoughts, reminders, new information, things to look up later, random ideas to remember and take back with me to my Toronto theatre community:

Canada is warming at twice the global rate.
The ICPP Report.
Indisputable evidence.
Inertia.
Tipping points.
Ocean acidification.
Understanding that our atmosphere can “hold” a lot of energy, and it can take time to feel and realize the impact of this trapped energy. The way our oceans have been absorbing heat, holding it so we haven’t really felt it… until recently.
Arctic amplification.
Carbon capture, carbon dioxide removal.
Canadian boreal forests pulped for American toilet paper.
Hydroelectric dams as a significant source of methane gas emissions.
Environmental psychology. Grief.
Environmental melancholia.
Climate justice. The right of all people to work, play, and pray in a healthy environment.
Environmental racism.
Who has the benefit of environmental protections under the law.
How most of Canada’s most toxic industries are located directly adjacent to Indigenous communities.
Extractive industries. Predator economics.
“Reconciliation” vs reparations. Right relations.
The Truth and Reconciliation recommendations.
How violence against the Earth creates violence against women.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Permaculture.
Theatre made in rainforests, in ice houses.
Industrial fragility. Like white fragility.
Emergency preparedness. Rehearsal for disaster.
Embodied carbon.
Embedded carbon.
The carbon footprint of email. How sending a large document probably has a footprint similar to printing it out. My mind is bending.
Urgency vs. capitalist rush.
Neo liberalism vs collectivism.
Performance as intervention.
Recovery from failure.
Eleven years to enact massive change.
1.5 degrees.

Alison Tickell

Alison Tickell, Founder and CEO of Julie’s Bicycle, gives an overview of her organizations efforts to support the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability.

I’m taking it all in, absorbing information like an ocean absorbing heat.

I want to tell you everything we heard, everything that was shared, everything I thought, everything I’m thinking.

But I don’t know how to do it.

Trying to write about this feels like trying to capture a hurricane in a handbag.

As our intense forty-eight hour climate summit comes to a close, we try to figure out next steps. How to carry all this energy and information forward, into our respective lives, theatre communities, artistic practices, institutions. The folks from Toronto agree we’ll get together locally, later in the summer.

It’s clear that we can all recycle our bottles and compost until we are blue in the face, but this will not solve our climate crisis.

It’s July when we gather at Why Not Theatre’s new office in Toronto’s West End. It’s been an exceptionally hot summer. It’s cherry season and almost everyone brings cherries to share, along with stories of what we’ve been doing since Banff.

I’m inspired by my colleagues. A new travel policy has been implemented at the Luminato Festival: no more flights for artists and companies travelling along the Quebec/Windsor corridor; the festival will pay for train travel instead. There’s a new green committee at Soulpepper, and they’ve started rooftop composting and a garden, and are transitioning their office into being paperless. There’s the creation of an upcycling and disposal rider for all set designs, which has been built into contracts at the Stratford Festival. I’ve been focused on renovating Buddies’ building, which has been a project of mine for the past few years: upgrading roofs, walls, and windows for better heat and cooling retention, installing new bathrooms with lower water usage.

But we know individual actions are not enough. It’s clear that we can all recycle our bottles and compost until we are blue in the face, but this will not solve our climate crisis. If there is one thing that the Summit made clear, it is the scale of the crisis, and the industrial scale of the response that is needed. Governments must hold corporations accountable, and corporations must take responsibility for everything they produce. We need far-reaching, radical, visionary climate policy. We need it immediately. 

a large group posing for a photo

Participants in The Summit at the Banff Centre.

These last few weeks, when I have tried—over and over—to begin writing, when I’ve tried to reflect on the Summit I’ve mostly felt the need to sit down, or lie down and take a nap. It’s felt impossible and I’ve felt inadequate, unqualified, and terrified.

And to be honest, lately, personally, I’ve been struggling with sustainability in my own life, this career in theatre, the challenge of leadership.

I’m struggling with how not to treat myself, and my staff, as inexhaustible resources. Not to succumb, as an artist, to the consuming capitalist framework that constantly reinforces the idea of productivity and unmitigated growth.

Struggling with how to keep moving at the breakneck pace of the city, where everyone is always on the hustle because it’s so expensive, so increasingly difficult to afford to live here so everyone needs seven jobs to survive, all of us working inside a sector that never has enough time or material resources yet values constant production. Struggling with my own ambition: to do more, have more, tour more, raise more, be able to support artists more, produce more...

I’m holding this climate in my body.

I try to remember some basic rules of farming (not that I’ve ever been a farmer, it’s just a dream—I joke it’s my fantasy backup career if I ever give up theatre), like letting the fields have a fallow year, a year when nothing is planted and harvested so the soil rests, or when a different crop is sowed in the field so new nutrients can rejuvenate it. I remind myself that I can say yes to a different way of doing things, that perhaps the most radical and creative thing I could do is slow down, stop the rush to produce. But then how to survive? I’m scared again.

The paradox of terror and yes. The yes that arises when I know—a deep, intuitive, body-knowing—that something new is calling out to be made. It needs to be made, and I want to be part of making it.

The terror that arises from all the things I don’t know yet.

We’re holding this climate in our bodies.

Here we are as a society, standing on the brink of that terror and yes.

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Thoughts from the curator

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?

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change

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Thanks Evalyn for this. I was there also in Banff with you and this group and have experience similar emotions to yours. I wrote an article called Terrified Awakening that I will publish soon that outlines my journey in relation to my 17 year daughter who is now studying science with a view to contribute to the issue. I like your idea of ‘holding this climate in my body’ and will think more about this. I’m doing doing some work on art and climate change where I work at Canada Council and am monitoring what artists of all disciplines are doing in and around sustainability issues. Let keep the conversations going and somehow overcome our terror. Thanks again for putting yourself out there. Claude