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Recipe for Change

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change as part of Climate Week NYC. With the recently signed Paris Agreement, the next several decades will see increased efforts from the global community to address the challenges brought on by a warming planet. How do we, theatre artists, participate in those efforts? How do we use our creativity and skills to bring about the kind of social change that is so desperately needed? Because of our shared interests, Julia and I have crossed paths a number of times. I’m excited to see her take on a leadership role at the intersection of theatre and the environment, and can’t wait to see where her career takes her. —Chantal Bilodeau

What is your favorite food? Not your special-occasion favorite, but your everyday, go-to favorite thing to eat. Are you picturing it? The form it comes in, the smell, the temperature, the flavor. Zoom out on that picture. What’s the context? Where you eat the food, how you eat it, the place you get it from. Zoom out a little further. The place where you get this food from: where does the food come from before that? Can you visualize it? Is the image blurrier now? Maybe not, maybe it’s clear as day. But you see how this sequence could go on and on, so that at some point, the link between you and the food you eat is muddled. I am interested in this sequence, this telescoping through the lens of what we eat and where it comes from. I situate my thoughts on food alongside my theatrical processes, as I pose questions about our relationships to one another and to our natural environment.

What are the ingredients we must assemble as we formulate a more sustainable future?

a woman playing a cello and two people holding a tarp
Scene from GAIA: an eco-theatre project, Julia's thesis production at Butler University. Photo by Madeline Carey.

At this time two years ago, I was composing my undergraduate thesis production. With this play, GAIA: an eco-theatre project, I posed questions like: How do we—humans—impact the natural environment? What do our actions, in relation to the natural environment, say about what it means to be human? Through found text, live music, movement, video, and processes of improvisation, my ensemble and I built a sequence of scenes that brought audiences on a journey through varying perspectives on how citizens in Western culture—in our culture—make everyday choices with regards to food, transportation, and energy. We sought to challenge ourselves, and by extension our audience, to see beyond what is printed and spoken, and to enrich our knowledge through continued exploration.

I am not suggesting that the work I make in theatre has answers, or that any potential solutions laid out are the magic bullet for ending climate change, not at all. But as climate disasters persist—displacing people from homes they’ve had for decades or longer—and with our country’s political climate fueled by fear and hate, I am thirsty for alternatives. We need change, and we needed it yesterday. In the couple of years since GAIA, I have collected additional ways of thinking about how theatre artists can address climate change, about what elements make up the stories we tell ourselves, and how we can deepen those themes in the theatre to help us navigate a rapidly transforming world.

pot of vegetables
Pickling preparation at the Performance and Climate Change Exploratory Conversation as part of the Theatre Without Borders and NoPassport conference in March 2016, facilitated by Emily Mendelsohn, Sarah Cameron Sunde, and Moe Yousuf. Photo by Sarah Cameron Sunde.

As artists, we must prepare for our work, build a structure and be willing to adapt. And as humans in an age of climate change, we must prepare for the major shifts that are already impacting our ways of being.

Earlier this year, I gathered with a group of artists and climate change activists for an exploratory conversation on performance, climate change, awareness, and resiliency as part of a weekend conference with Theatre Without Borders and NoPassport. We shared our questions, our thoughts, our practices of how we use art to tackle the vast topic of climate change, and we shared in the unexpected: pickle making. Looking back, how could such a gathering not have included some good-old-fashioned transformation? With the ingredients gathered and the recipe structured out, we collectively prepared the cucumbers for their new form. I found playfulness in the process. Sometimes recipes are strict: if you have slightly too much of something, it could compromise the consistency of the entire thing. But with pickling, especially in a group of at least fifteen varying preferences, there is flexibility. A few weeks stood between us and our homemade product, but like so much of the theatrical projects I work on, the final product was not the purpose of the pickling exercise. It was about the preparation. As artists, we must prepare for our work, build a structure and be willing to adapt. And as humans in an age of climate change, we must prepare for the major shifts that are already impacting our ways of being.

This idea about preparation has stuck with me. What are the ingredients we must assemble as we formulate a more sustainable future? We need critical thinking, undoubtedly. Critical thinking is at the foundation of uprooting the current status quo of oppressive systems on local and global scales. Here lies part of our responsibility as artists: what are the relationships we are putting onstage, who has the power, and how is it distributed? These What, Who, and How questions manifest in some way through every theatrical narrative, and we must be intentional with the ways in which we lay them out, for ourselves, and for our audiences.

In his new documentary, artist and activist Josh Fox collects stories of communities around the world directly impacted by climate change, from Hurricane-Sandy-stricken Rockaway Beach to heavily-polluted Beijing. How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change highlights these stories to illuminate factors that make us human, that we can use to keep up with the swiftly-changing global climate. Across all of the communities depicted in the film, moral imagination arises as a key factor, a bedrock for bridging the categories of “us” and “them” and “present” and “future.” Along the lines of a collective consciousness, of viewing the world through a lens beyond our own, we can use a moral imagination to visualize the unforeseen consequences of human action, or inaction.

three actors in rehearsal
Rehearsal photo for Our Food at Work from August 2016, part of Julia's theatre piece on the American food system. Photo by Julia Levine.

In my next play, Uproot, I seek to re-draw the connection between Americans and where our food comes from. Fueled by food documentaries including King Corn and Darwin's Nightmare, and by writers like Michael Pollan, Uproot strives to empower individuals to (re)consider the situation of their choices. The characters in my play are personified foods, displacing literal human circumstances for more symbolic relationships, and therefore orienting the scene in an absurd, ridiculous way—it’s talking food after all! In stepping back, and metaphorically seeing ourselves in our food, I want to employ critical thinking and moral imagination as part of the process in reconfiguring our culture's unsustainable status quo.

Picture your favorite food. What senses does it light up? Zoom out. What's the context? Are there others around? Maybe you hear conversation, laughter, community. Is there talk of where this food came from? Maybe. Are you enjoying each other’s company? Definitely. The elements are there. The directions are structured out. It's up to us to put it all together and get cooking.

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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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