Theatre Artists Unite Around Climate Change Action

Moving to Movement

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change begun last April with this special series for Climate Week NYC. How does our work reflect on, and responds 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? For Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Alison Carey, talk about climate change is not enough anymore; we must, all of us, be willing to take action. —Chantal Bilodeau

So here we are. Here, for me, is Ashland, Oregon, where the Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently cancelled a sixth performance in our Allen Elizabethan Theatre because of smoke blowing in from the million acres that are burning in the bone-dry Pacific Northwest. I don’t know where your here is, but you may be experiencing record-breaking temperatures, land-sinking drought, flash floods, sea level rise, algae blooms, local species die-off, population change, or any one of the other effects of climate change.

There is plenty of room for leadership, especially if we need to politely push a few folks out of the way to get where we need to go. Consider yourself anointed. Consider yourself required.

a forest fire
Douglas County Complex fire, about 10 miles east of Waterville, WA, as seen on July 15.

Where are our theaters? They’re here, too, filled with decent, hardworking people who care deeply about the state of the world. But they’re not here here yet. As a field, we have not stepped up to our responsibilities in the face of this already-begun cataclysm.

It’s not a surprise. Climate change is terrifying, and despair, however painful, is easy. And, let’s face it, theater folks are overworked and underpaid, and going through unpredictable cultural and structural transitions that make the future unknowable and risky even without our lobbies getting storm-swamped up to the bar-tops.

But all that means is that we are just like almost everybody else alive. So we are in a perfect position to illuminate these important truths: we are in this together, change is possible, and our lives will be better after we do the work.

There are artists and institutions that are doing this work already, and I hope you are reading about them in this series and supporting their work. My two artistic homes have undertaken projects. OSF recently commissioned Idris Goodwin to look at a moment of change in the historical relationship between Americans and their environment, and OSF’s Green Task Force continues to lobby for sustainable choices within our business practices. Cornerstone Theater Company recently completed a remarkable state-wide tour of California: The Tempest, which looked at community and personal response to environmental destruction and rebirth.

But humans are still not doing enough of what is necessary and completely possible to change our devastating course. The only non-suicidal choice left is for the field as a whole to dig in deeper. We need more: more art, a cornucopia of aesthetic approaches, a constant re-affirmation that every piece of art we make is connected to our beautiful planet, a clear vision that this is an issue of social justice and basic decency that walks hand in vicious hand with all our other difficult but solvable ills, and a restocked imagination about how we talk to each other and our audiences. We need to build a wellspring of contagious joy to give us strength for the victories ahead. We need to apply our collaborative art-making habits to the imperative of movement making.

After the People’s Climate March in 2014, a group of interested theatremakers—both freelance and institutional friends—gathered to talk about how we could help this nascent movement get going. Our first instinct was to create a manifesto about the relationship between theater and climate change and try to get buy-in from people around the country. The more we worked over the following months, however, the more we realized that the last thing we wanted to do was generate wordsmithing chum that would distract from starting the actual work. So we decided to create Green Room, an online location for theaters and artists to…

1) Commit to engaging on the issue, with everyone crafting their own commitment based on their own capacities.

2) Find out what other folks are doing, so that our field-wide imagination and confidence around possible action will continue to grow.

3) Report out on successes and failures.

We hope this will provide community building, inspiration, and accountability. In the next few months, when the technology falls into place, we hope to get Green Room rolled out. We’ll keep you posted.

Green Room is obviously just a step, but we hope it will be a helpful one. Still, all the information and imagination in the world won’t solve the problem without leadership. Our leaders can come from our already-acknowledged leaders—extraordinary artists and artistic directors who will use their artistry, wisdom, and decision-making to help focus the collective will of the field, which in turn can help focus the collective will of our species to change laws and investment. But there is plenty of room for leadership, especially if we need to politely push a few folks out of the way to get where we need to go. Consider yourself anointed. Consider yourself required.

It’s very simple, actually. We are in a race. Either we win, bruised but still standing, full of joy at having saved our beautiful planet home, or global warming wins, and we don’t have healthy land to stand on anymore. Here we are. Here we go.

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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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Greatly looking forward to the evolution of this 'Green Room!" Thanks. One of our local groups in Humboldt, Human Nature Theater Company, will be headed to Paris in Nov. Their musical "What's So Funny About Climate Change?" has been touring since'12.

Great, Alison. So glad this happening and thank you for dedication! Where is the link to Green Room? FYI for New Yorkers: Theater Three Collaborative is co-hosting a benefit with People's Climate Movement NY at Kathleen Chalfant's home on Oct. 25, 3-6; for info. email info@theaterthreecollaborative.org Perhaps partnering with local climate movement groups is also a way to go...

Great initiative! I'll be keeping an eye out for more development of your program from the mountains of Banff. We got suffocated from the wildfire smoke as well - thankfully the worst was only a week long.