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The Intimacy of the Climate Crisis

When I started writing plays about the climate crisis some fifteen years ago, the prevailing wisdom from Those Who Know was that it couldn’t be done. Climate change was too big, too complex, and too abstract to make for good drama. And if, by chance, a writer was to try anyway, the resulting play was sure to be preachy and boring—and to be reviewed that way. In a 2009 piece, United Kingdom drama critic Robert Butler, puzzling about the dearth of climate content on stage, wrote:

Perhaps theatre wasn't cut out to do green issues….Maybe the sort of cutting-edge subjects that compelled the attention of physicists, biologists and philosophers of the stature of James Lovelock, EO Wilson and Peter Singer simply couldn't be reimagined in theatre. Even to raise the subject prompted embarrassed looks. A play about the environment? Sounds preachy and dull.

This problem is not unique to theatre. Amitav Ghosh makes a similar observation about literary novels in his book The Great Derangement, and many organizations are now working with showrunners and studio executives in Hollywood to entice them to include climate content in films and television series.

It took a long time for the entrenched belief in the inherent mediocrity of stories dealing with climate disruption to lose its power, but it is finally beginning to change.

Still, a few determined playwrights went ahead and gave us climate-themed plays. Among these were Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water (Manhattan Theatre Club and Ars Nova, 2014), Tira Palmquist’s Two Degrees (Denver Center, 2017), and Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane (Two River Theater, 2017). I also contributed my own Sila (Central Square Theater, 2014), Forward (Kansas State University, 2016), and No More Harveys (Cyrano’s Theatre Company, 2022), which are part of a cycle of plays about the social and environmental changes taking place in the Arctic. And there were a few offerings by companies making interdisciplinary work, such as Phantom Limb Company and their visually stunning trilogy: 69°S (2011), Memory Rings (2016), and Falling Out (2018). But there was little encouragement from the theatre field or society at large to motivate others to join this effort. In point of fact, in a HowlRound article titled “What Our New Plays Really Look Like,” Marshall Botvinick found that among the seventy-five League of Resident Theatres (LORT) member theatres and the thirty-two National New Play Network (NNPN) core member theatres, 0 percent of the planned 2019-2020 world premieres (pre-COVID, that is) were about climate change or the environment.

It took a long time for the entrenched belief in the inherent mediocrity of stories dealing with climate disruption to lose its power, but it is finally beginning to change. Maybe it was the youth climate movement, which took off in 2018 after Swedish activist Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations Climate Change Conference, galvanizing students around the world to strike for the climate. Maybe it was the pandemic lockdowns, which gave us countless examples of the natural world faring better when humans are not around and caused carbon dioxide emissions to briefly fall by 5.4 percent. Or maybe extreme weather events such as Hurricane Harvey (2017), the West Coast’s record wildfires (2020), and the recent Texas ice storms (2021, 2023) became impossible to ignore. Whatever it was, plays about climate and the environment have now started to surface in greater numbers.

In 2020, the New York-based company the New Group, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), presented “Facing the Rising Tide,” a digital festival of play readings about environmental racism and the climate crisis featuring playwrights Arpita Mukherjee, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Kareem Fahmy, Jessica Huang, and Daniella De Jesús. To my knowledge, this was a first for an Off-Broadway theatre. That same year, I ran the submission process for the Earth Matters on Stage (EMOS) Ecodrama Playwrights’ Festival, which called for unproduced and unpublished plays that engaged with the ecological world, environmental justice, and/or the climate crisis. To my great surprise, we received over three hundred submissions. There are clearly a lot of writers out there who are not deterred by the size and complexity of the changing climate. For many of them, especially the generation that never knew the “before” times and finds itself burdened with today’s interlocking crises, there is no question whether climate change makes for good drama or not. It is an intrinsic part of their lives. As one of my students put it last fall, “Everything is about climate.”

A performer lies down on a set piece that looks like a whale.

Danielle Rabinovitch in No More Harveys by Chantal Bilodeau at Cyrano’s Theatre Company. Directed by Codie Costello. Choreography by Gilmer Duran. Scenic design by Rachael Androski. Costume and Prop design by Giselle Nisonger. Lighting design by Frank Hardy. Sound design by Seth Eggleston. Scenic construction by Bill Heym. Photo by Galen Eggleston.

Perhaps fifteen or even ten years ago, Those Who Know could not imagine that the climate crisis would become such an intimate experience. To them, it was always destined to happen sometime in the distant future and to other people; it certainly wasn’t going to affect middle class America. But as we are discovering, our trusted safety nets are rapidly eroding, and all of us are increasingly confronted with uncertainty. (In the last six months, two big insurance companies have announced that they were no longer accepting applications to insure residences and businesses in California.) And of course, the changing climate continues to act as a threat multiplier, having a greater impact on those already marginalized.

Even I, a person with relative privilege, have had intimate encounters with climate-related events. In New York City where I live, the summers get so hot and humid now that stepping outside gives me an instant headache, and I often have to rest for a couple of days to recover. In the summer of 2021, thinking I would escape the heat, I attended an artist residency in British Columbia, Canada—just in time for an extreme heat wave that reached 116°F where I was and up to 145°F in parts of Washington State. As I write this, air quality outside my window is plummeting (my phone tells me the air quality index is currently 373—Hazardous) as smoke from wildfires in the province of Quebec in Canada blows over the Northeast.

The four essays included in this new installment provide examples of how intimate of an experience the climate crisis has become, affecting us both as communities and as individuals.

In light of these new developments, it is more important than ever to discuss how theatre artists can engage with the climate crisis. While a spirit of activism is an obvious point of entry, there are countless other stories that haven’t been told about fear, loss, and grief; connection, community, and hope; and how who we are as human beings is changing as inexorably as the ice caps are melting. So I am thrilled to revived the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change series. Launched in 2015 and published biannually until 2020, the series has been on hiatus for the last couple of years, taking a break during the pandemic as theatre artists were struggling to make a living and I was facing my own health issues. The first five years saw the publication of sixty-eight essays penned by writers from a dozen countries, covering a range of practices and topics from site-specific performances to the nature of hope. I encourage you to take a look and discover or reacquaint yourself with this wealth of resources.

The four essays included in this new installment provide examples of how intimate of an experience the climate crisis has become, affecting us both as communities and as individuals. Often drawing from their own lived experience, the writers examine how environmental degradation intersects with identity, and reflect on the best strategies to talk about a global phenomenon that can otherwise be off-putting. The four essays also give us a window into the work of the first and second prize winners, and two of the four finalists, of EMOS 2022.

A man in snow goggles and a thick winter coat and matching pants and a woman donning a sweater engage in heated conversation on-stage.

Robert Montano and Kathleen McCall in Two Degrees by Tira Palmquist at the Denver Center. Directed by Christy Montour-Larson. Scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan. Costume design by Angela Balogh Calin. Lighting design by Charles MacLeod. Photo by Adams Viscom.

First up, Theresa May, a Professor in Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon and a co-founder of EMOS, writes about dystopia in Jessica Huang’s winning play Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying and Marisela Treviño Orta’s Somewhere. While not a fan of the genre since “quirky post-apocalyptic theatrical fantasies too often seem indulgent, classist, and riddled with white privilege,” Theresa has nonetheless fallen in love with what she calls “dystopias of desire”: stories where the imaginary of destruction is transformed into a generative life-giving force. She looks at the character of The Being, who mourns the last individuals of extinct species in Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying, and at the kinship and interconnectedness of humans and nonhumans in Somewhere.

Next, Katherine Gwynn, former co-director of Project Pride in Kansas City, Missouri, whose play An American Animal won EMOS 2022’s second prize, writes about the intersection of queerness and the environment using wolf watching in Yellowstone National Park as the setting. In their play, two teenagers, “one a white trans girl and one a queer black girl…[are] trying to figure out how to survive to adulthood in America,” while a nearby hunter is bent on bagging a Yellowstone-tagged wolf. Katherine draws parallels between “the liminal spaces of queer existence” and the reality of marginalized people “being hunted in this country.”

Playwright Raul Garza, whose play Arbolito was one of the four EMOS 2022 finalists, takes us to Texas and the daily struggles of Latinx communities “caught in the crosshairs of climate change.” Drawing on Latinx cultural tropes such as magical realism and nature-inspired characters, Arbolito follows town dwellers who are dealing with the aftermath of fracking. The play highlights the injustice of marginalized communities overwhelmingly bearing the cost of relentless fossil fuel extraction. Most poignantly, Raul remarks that “our cultural response to climate change is something to be felt, not learned.”

Despite the inevitable pain and suffering, the path forward must, must, must be paved with connection, humor, and joy.

Genevieve Simon, another EMOS 2022 finalist, describes their process of writing their play Bloom Bloom Pow, hoping to give audiences a space to sit with big feelings and permission to laugh. Featuring a “twenty-something genderqueer protagonist attempt[ing] to hold the pieces of their life together in an increasingly chaotic world,” Bloom Bloom Pow is alive with delightfully wacky characters such as Algae; A Dead Horse at the Bottom of the East River, Circa 1832; and the five Great Lakes. Echoing Raul’s remark, Genevieve writes that “it’s very easy to make a climate-change play funny.… Release the realism and go with how it feels to be alive on any given Tuesday.”

And though they are not included here, I still want to mention the other two EMOS 2022 finalists: Charly Evon Simpson, who wrote On Loop, and Dan Aibel, author of Before the Thaw.

I am often overwhelmed with grief in the face of all we are losing, and I am worried about what the future will bring. But I do find solace in the company of theatre artists like the ones featured in this series, who embrace the magnitude and complexity of the climate crisis. They know that the crisis is best revealed through the intimate moments and relationships in our lives. They know that despite the inevitable pain and suffering, the path forward must, must, must be paved with connection, humor, and joy. And they know that even when Those Who Know choose to ignore or dismiss them, like so many Cassandras, their words still matter and will only gain strength.

Four performers stand on a dimly lit stage and speak to each other.

Jeb Kreager, Rachel Sachnoff, Ken Leung, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing by Will Arbery at the New Group. Directed by Danya Tamor. Scenic design by Matt Saunders. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Isabella Byrd. Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Production stage management by Rachel Denise April. Photo by Monique Carboni.

And there is hope! In New York, the Public Theater just closed a production of shadow/land by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, the first installment of a ten-play cycle about the impacts of Hurricane Katrina. Earlier this season, the New Group premiered Evanston Salt Costs Climbing by Will Arbery, a surrealist play about human and environmental fragility. And the musical Hadestown, which beautifully merges climate themes with New Orleans jazz, folk, and pop music continues to play on Broadway.

“If you build it, they will come,” they say. The plays are being written. May the institutions recognize their social, cultural, and political value and give them the life they deserve.

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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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