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Fueled by Fury: Finding the Language to Fix Us

This Post Comes From HowlRound:

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Playwright Tira Palmquist and dramaturg Heather Helinsky offer their respective point-of-view on the writing and production of Two Degrees, a world premiere at the Denver Center, season 2016-2017, and how the elections impacted the development of the play.—Chantal Bilodeau

 Tira Palmquist: The notion that I would write a play in which someone discovers the solution to climate change was never the point of Two Degrees (though I believe that climate change is a fixable, solvable problem). After all, there is no silver bullet, no singular, magical solution for this issue.

More to the point, how to fix climate change wasn’t really the question. To fix climate change, we have to move people from inaction to action, from doubt to conviction. Finding the language and the arguments to do this is clearly important, but in order to do that we have to ask the more important question: How do we fix us?

Chasing Kitimat: Going Backwards to Move Forward

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 21, 2016.

When I was commissioned to write an environmental play, the subject I chose to write about ended up in the midst of an international controversy. I was researching an article for the Vancouver Observer (VO), a newspaper admired for practicing deep, investigative journalism. Anthropologist Wade Davis’ warning that Northern Canada was about to be hit with a “tsunami” of industrial development concerned me. I planned to investigate the impact of this development on individual cities in the North, starting with Kitimat, a remote municipality near Alaska and 1,111 miles/ 1410 km driving distance from Vancouver. As Davis says, “One of our challenges in Canada is that we love the north, but we never go there.”

The oil company Enbridge had selected Kitimat to be the terminus of a proposed pipeline project transporting bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, one of the largest remaining oil deposits on earth, to super tankers in Kitimat’s port, to be refined in Asia. Arguably, Kitimat needed the project. Originally founded in the 1950s to service one of the largest smelters in North America, Kitimat boasted residents from all over the world in its New York planned, mid-century modern “Utopia.” By 2007, due to modernization and closing of its pulp mill, Kitimat was the fastest declining town in Canada. I had travelled there as a Theatre Consultant in the 1990s, coaching directors throughout British Columbia, and was stunned to discover that Kitimat was 50 percent Portuguese. Amazingly, these Portuguese residents are from the Azores, remote mid-Atlantic islands, where my grandparents were born.

VO’s Managing Editor Jenny Uechi asked how I would get the residents of Kitimat to speak to me. I confidently said, “I’m Portuguese.” But writing the article was proving difficult. As a playwright, I was getting mired in backstory and in seeing all sides. To make matters worse, Kitimat was under a “tsunami’’ of paperwork. The Canadian National Government, then headed by Prime Minster Stephen Harper, had undertaken a controversial environmental assessment process. Harper’s National Energy Board heard hours of testimony. Walter Thorne, a member of the Kitimat Valley Naturalists, movingly said: “We appeal to the world, we are a gem under siege.”

When the pipeline project was approved by Harper’s National Government, city council did something extraordinary. They asked Kitimat to put it to a vote, becoming one of the only municipalities in Canada or the US to vote on whether or not they wanted Big Oil. The controversy became international. Journalists all over Canada, and as far away as Britain, began covering the story.

Elaine Avila and Janet Hayatshahi in Kitimat. Photo by Playwright Robin Rowland.



I interviewed Sylvia de Sousa, a citizen fighting to keep the wording of their upcoming city council plebiscite clear for seniors and English as Second Language residents. I asked her where she found the conviction to stand up in civic politics. She said it came from her grandkids, future generations. She quoted her mother, of German heritage, who used to say, “the only land we inherit is our grave.”

When Art Horowitz and James Taylor, of Pomona College in Claremont, California called to offer me a commission to write an environmental play, I suddenly realized I was researching my new play. My first question, inspired by my Maori, Inuit and Coast Salish playwriting colleagues, became: “What is my relationship to ancestors, land, and story?” For those of us who are immigrants how do we answer?

As I was writing, Enbridge began mounting a huge pro-pipeline publicity campaign in Kitimat, all of the cities of the North and the largest local metropolis, Vancouver. Serious rifts were happening in Kitimat. Family dinners were descending into bitter fights. Long-term friends were no longer speaking.

My play is about two sisters: Marta, who works for years to bring a pipeline project to Kitimat, and Julia, who organizes against it due to the serious risks involved. When Janet Hayatshahi came on board to direct, we both raised the money to go to Kitimat for a research trip. Janet is committed, collaborative, and formerly one of the core members of San Diego’s innovative Sledgehammer ensemble. Of Iranian descent, she knows how a culture can quickly change because of oil. After writing several drafts of the play, I was ready to hone in on what I didn’t know.

Katia Mafra Spencer as Marta and Sarah Lopez as Julia in Kitimat, directed by Janet Hayatshahi. Photo by Carrie Rosema, courtesy of Pomona College.



But I was still nervous about interviewing people who were going through so much.

I anxiously dialed the number of the Kitimat Museum and Archives. The teenage intern answering the phone cut me off saying, “Oh, I’m a play writer!” Then, “You need to interview my mom.” I asked, “Who is your mom?” She said, “The Head of Economic Development for Kitimat.” Her mom, Rose Klukas, ended up telling us professional and personal stories of growing up in a boom and bust economy.

After multiple attempts to contact the Kitimat Valley Naturalists, I got an email from a gentleman named Peter Ponter. I fumblingly tried to explain what Janet and I wanted to do. Peter promised to take us hiking in the gem of wilderness surrounding Kitimat. He arranged for us to meet Patricia Lange, one of the key organizers of the anti-pipeline movement. Her stories ended up being core to the play, especially after her side won the vote, and “Kitimat” became a rallying cry in protests and Climate Change Marches throughout the province. After helping us, Peter Ponter suddenly sounded apprehensive. “I’m in the theatre,” he said. “Would you and Janet have dinner with us?” We agreed. Theatre also opened the doors of the Portuguese Hall. The “Portuguese Kids,” a comedy troupe from Massachusetts, were performing. I volunteered to cook and serve food, making it possible for me to hear stories and songs from Kitimat’s first residents, who fled fascist Portugal.

I wanted to meet renowned novelist Eden Robinson, from the nearby Haisla village of Kitamaat. In her CBC radio interview, Robinson described Haisla storytelling protocols and her incredible novel set in the area, Monkey Beach. Eden mentioned she misses other writers. Because of being a playwright, I reached out and we had an incredible visit of several hours. One of her cousins, Nancy Nyce, let me quote her directly in the play.

Kitimat became one of the first Portuguese plays ever performed in California or British Columbia. Finding these lost voices began to awaken something new—confidence, connection, and a spirit of questioning. Kathleen Flaherty, dramaturg at Vancouver’s Playwrights Theatre Centre, programmed a workshop involving Portuguese theatre professionals, who movingly said they had never played Portuguese characters before. When the play was performed in Lisbon, this little story about the impact of Big Oil connected us across oceans and generations.

At the premiere of Janet’s marvelous production at Pomona College, my Portuguese family crowded around Yasmin Adams, the actress playing Clara, the grandmother, as if she were one of our relatives come back to life. Yasmin did a beautiful job of singing a Portuguese fado song called “O Gente da Minha Terra.” My image was of the past singing to the future.

What does this mean in terms of our individual responsibility to impact climate change? When I wrote about presentations of the play in Lisbon, Bellingham and Vancouver, a Kitimat resident shared one of my Facebook posts, writing, “It proves everyone’s stories matter, no matter how small or out of the way.”

(Top image: Yasmin Adams as Clara, Juan Zamudio as Jose in Kitimat, directed by Janet Hayatshahi. Photo by Carrie Rosema, courtesy of Pomona College.)

______________________________

Elaine Ávila is a Canadian/US writer of Azorean Portuguese descent, who has a passion for telling untold stories about women, workers, and the Portuguese.  Her plays frequently incorporate music, politics, and humor. Her plays have been produced in Panama City, Sintra, Pico,Costa Rica, London, New York, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria and include Jane Austen, Action Figure, (Winner, Best New Play, Festival de los Cocos, Panama City), Lieutenant Nun (Winner, Best New Play, Victoria Critics Circle) Burn Gloom (Awarded Canada Council Millennium Grant) Kitimat, (Mellon Environmental Arts Commssion), Quality: the Shoe Play (Winner, New Works for Young Women, Tulsa University), Café a Brasileira (2014, Disquiet Dzanc Books International Literary Program’s first Short Play Award). She is distinguished as a descendentes notáveis (Notable Descendent) for her theatre work by the Government of the Azores, Portugal.


About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Climate Lens: Birth of a Post-Nation!

The article Climate Lens: Birth of a Post-Nation! appeared first on HowlRound

At HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? NYU professor Una Chaudhuri writes about a group of theatre makers and educators who have committed to looking at the world through a climate lens in the hope of acquiring new wisdom.—Chantal Bilodeau

Under ordinary circumstances, we’d probably have resisted the temptation to announce ourselves with such a grandiose sub-title—or at least followed it with a self-deprecating question mark. But these are hardly ordinary times, and we’re “going big”—and exclamatory!—to counter the odious enormity that’s suddenly at the nation’s helm.

Trump Nation, however, only intensifies our post-national impulse; its real source, dating from well before the last election, is the fact that the most pressing political issue of our times crosses all national boundaries. The accelerating symptoms of ecological devastation and climate chaos are global, planetary—post-national.

 

CLIMATE LENS sprouted on January 5, 2017, when a group of theatremakers and educators gathered in New York for a retreat on the topic “Theatre and Climate Change.” The seeds of CLIMATE LENS were the various projects these people had been involved in, over the past several years, that engaged with environmental issues in general and climate in particular. These included Chantal Bilodeau, Una Chaudhuri, Elizabeth DoudLanxing Fu, Derek Goldman, Julia Levine, Roberta Levitow, Jessica Litwak, Erwin Maas, Jame McCray, Erin B. Mee, Emily Mendelsohn, Katie Pearl, Jeremy Pickard, and August Schulenburg.

We began by acknowledging that our previous attempts to get the larger theatre community engaged in this topic had been difficult. People tended to “shut down” when they heard that a theatre piece dealt with climate change. They tended to assume they knew what that would entail, and that it would be depressing, even when it came in the form of a sugarcoated pill, or a deft and elegant presentation of scientific information, or a lyrical ode to the vanishing green world. Climate change, we feared, was turning into a dreary theatrical theme, prejudged and too easily “slotted.”

To loosen this sense of intellectual impaction, we’d framed the following questions to guide our discussion:

How can theatre truly register the most important thing about climate change: the fact that (as Naomi’s Klein’s book puts it) “this changes everything”? How can we evolve a “climate dramaturgy” which goes beyond addressing the symptoms of climate chaos and instead begins to forge the new imaginations we will need in order to confront the long-term, unpredictable effects of those symptoms on our lives?

The ubiquity and scale of the effects of climate change are shifting the terms and tone of the discussion around it. While once there was argument about its existence, followed by argument about its causes, followed by arguments about what might be done in response to it, the discussions now focus squarely on how to get people and governments world-wide to act in time to avert the very worst of the predicted effects. A recent instructive contribution came in the form of a New Republic article by Bill McKibben, a leading voice in the climate movement. McKibben characterized climate change as a series of hostile attacks, amounting to a “world war.” “Carbon and methane are seizing physical territory,” he wrote, “sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.”

Balancing our respect for McKibben against our revulsion towards militaristic rhetoric, we explored this perspective, comparing it with alternative models, like peace-making, diplomacy, education, care-giving, etc. Underlying many of these metaphors we sensed an invitation to move beyond an exclusively defensive posture, to realize that while global climate change is indeed an unfolding catastrophe, climate itself is simply an abiding feature of planetary reality, one that our species has—in recent centuries—tended to ignore (at least in our political and ethical formulations).

What would it mean for art to get interested in the climate—both as it is in itself and as it shapes human lives and societies? What might be gained by the arts in thinking about human lives beyond the familiar analytical frames of biography, psychology, sociology, politics, history—to understand them also as shaped by biology, physics, geology? In other words, what would be the value of drawing into cultural and artistic production the frameworks that have long been sequestered as “science”? Many artists, including theatremakers in our group, have already been working closely with climate scientists, translating their information into expressive imagery and narrative. How might that practice grow more expansive and also more dialectical, moving beyond staging scientific facts to exploring how individual and social lives are related to the planetary forces that modernity has so systematically “backgrounded”?

The founding members of CLIMATE LENS.

The most energizing turn of this conversation came as we located our project in a lineage of progressive discourses that approached issues not only by focusing on their ill effects but by identifying key terms to use as new analytical frameworks. Just as feminism used gender as a lens not only to combat sexism but also to uncover its foundations in patriarchy, we propose to use climate as a lens not only to confront climate change but to uncover its foundations in anthropocentrism.

As often happens, the mention of anthropocentrism quickly plunged us into a familiar and frustrating conversation about the impossibility—for us humans—of escaping a human outlook. One solution—and one we hope CLIMATE LENS will help bring forward—is to distinguish carefully between anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. Anthropomorphism—the projection of human ideas on non-human subjects—is indeed hard to avoid; nor is it always desirable to avoid it. A great deal of contemporary animal welfare and animal rights thinking, for example, relies on encouraging us to empathize with the suffering of non-human animals. The need to deploy a “strategic anthropomorphism”—that is to say, an anthropomorphism practiced mindfully, with awareness of the pitfalls and limits of cross-species identification—has long been sensed and practiced by eco-philosophers, as has its counterpart (not opposite): zoomorphism, the projection of animal characteristics on humans. These modes of imagination and figuration seem to exist at deep levels of human nature, and can be used in diametrically opposed ways: as ways of erasing or discounting nature, or ways of nurturing deep affiliation with nature. The guiding principle for those who want to avoid the former and achieve the latter is: make sure your practice of anthropomorphism is free from implications of anthropocentrism—the world view that puts humans and their interests at the center of all reality, and participates in the kind of hierarchical-binary thinking that also sustains sexism and racism. In short, practice anthropomorphism (and zoomorphism, and even biomorphism) in the service of an ecological, biocentric world view, one that includes human but vigorously opposes the fantasy of human exceptionalism.

CLIMATE LENS is committed to multiplying the playful, delightful, surprising ways that humans can “play the non-human,” and vice-versa. As an example of the latter: we’re planning a project inspired by that eco-classic “Thinking Like a Mountain,” by Aldo Leopold. In “Tweeting like a Mountain,” we hope to help some non-human partners (including a glacier, a species of mushroom, a speak back to Twitter-Tyrants) while also keep their many human friends informed of life around the planet.

Naming our project CLIMATE LENS, we initiate a conversation and collaboration to use the distinctive elements of the arts of theatre and performance—in particular, their use of actual spaces, times, and bodies as their primary medium—to put human stories in a more-than-human frame. By paying attention to the entanglements, contests, and partnerships that humans habitually (though often unwittingly) undertake with other species, and with natural forces, we want theatre to help counteract the prevailing human exceptionalism that has contributed so much to the current crisis.

A climate lens can work through something as simple as paying attention to the physical life of dramatic characters (in addition to their social and psychological lives), pushing against one of the origins of ecological alienation: rationalism, with its twin derogations of the human body and the non-human world. From this perspective, such recent plays as Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds and Adam Bock’s A Life, neither of which appear to be “climate change plays,” can be thought of as “climate lens” plays, helping to nudge us towards an awareness of those levels of life we share with other animals and even (in the latter case) with the earth itself. These plays contribute to an “affirmative biopolitics” that may prove vital and inspiring in the age of climate change, a way to resist the “biopower” that French philosopher Michel Foucault identified as a defining feature of the modern state.

 

A climate lens can also uncover ecological perspectives in classic plays, vastly expanding the repertory for climate-concerned performance. Imagine a Tempest that foregrounds the fact that Prospero is, like contemporary humanity, a weather-maker as much as he is (as previous lenses have proposed) a patriarchal and colonizing tyrant, or A Wild Duck anchored in Old Ekdal’s cry—“The woods take revenge!” These dots seem easy enough to connect. More challenging—and perhaps more interesting—would be productions that brought biocentric perspectives to bear on plays that seemed utterly disconnected from ecological matters, classic plays that seem to be exclusively about human institutions like justice (Merchant of Venice), sociological concepts like gender (Shrew), or political history.

CLIMATE LENS, then, is interested in developing a creative and expansive perspective on the unfolding environmental realities that go under the name of “climate change.” While not avoiding the more frightening aspects of these, we are committed to making theatre that asks broadly about the current state of the earth, and the human place in it, and frames that vast subject in ways that are politically empowering, socially regenerative, and artistically joyful.

Participatory Performance, Activism, and the Limits of Change

This Article Comes From HowlRound

At HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Kenn Watt discusses how environmental participatory performance can point to a desirable future inclusive of humans, nonhumans, and matter, and incite communities to take steps towards realizing this vision.    Chantal Bilodeau

In a shady grove in the middle of the Civic Action installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in the summer of 2012, an imposing, incongruous structure on massive iron pilings rose through the treetops. What at first appeared to be construction scaffolding was revealed as a solidly engineered tree house with metal stairs climbing twelve feet to a plywood platform, a laminated table, and four office chairs bolted to its deck. It was equipped with Wi-Fi. With a direct view of Manhattan across the East River, Natalie Jeremijenko’s TREExOFFICE was open and remained in use during the park’s long summer hours. Its open-air exposure grandly surrounded the venerable oak tree that formed its central pillar and canopy, shading it with leaves. There was ample space to hold a dozen people without crowding. Occupying the space for more than a few minutes inspired several identifiable effects. We were amid the inquiring eyes of children and their guardians below, and the milieu began to feel like a performance. It was a kind of “invisible theatre.”

Yet, unlike Augusto Boal’s interventions in civic politics that model alternative responses to power and subjectivity, TREExOFFICE was a site of direct enactment of an alternative form of living, a witnessing of immersion into nature. Our presence there represented a proposition for a healthier future, a philosophy of sustainability in embodied form conceived at the fundamental level of where and how we work. We were modeling the behavior of the office worker of some utopian, restorative vision of the artist, meant to remediate the environmental health of Long Island City in summer 2012.


“These performative acts are meant to be generative, to point to possibilities. They are direct enactments of wished-for conditions, propositions that assert an alternative reality… They are invitations to affirm new configurations of networks among humans, nonhumans, and the material world.” 


As part of Jeremijenko’s contribution to the Noguchi Museum’s Civic Action project, the tree was conceived to be its own owner and landlord, modeled after a historical contract from the early twentieth century in which a Georgian landowner created a deed of trust for a favorite tree to sustain the tree’s presence and health in perpetuity. In an act of playful ventriloquism, Jeremijenko made the tree “speak” via wry tweets—able to enter into contracts, to determine its own use of resources, and to be in dialogue with human partners. In the exhibition catalog edited by Julie V. Iovine, Jeremijenko writes:

“Under the new property ownership regime of UP_2_U, trees can of course exploit their property for their own uses.…Further, the current technological opportunity transforms trees’ capacities to self-monitor and report, tweet, and account for their uses by people and other organisms…Using simple, inexpensive sensors, the trees assume their own voices and capacity to exert corporate personhoods within this new structure of ownership.”

Sometimes theatre enacts what it pretends to convey. Historically and traditionally, theatre has often been associated with the creation of a public commons, and the formation of citizenship. Artists working in environmental participatory performance experiments are on the edge of theatrical avant-garde, returning to these kind of concerns, along with activist political imaging and the incorporation of digital networking.

Jeremijenko’s work is one example of performance’s return to community, but with an important difference. The community on offer is triangular, encompassing humans, nonhuman animals, and the material world. This community even grants inanimates—trees, animals, matter—their own forms of agency that conditions, relates, and determines the survivability of the human within the context of the entire triangle. The work is political and the community of networks (animal, human, and material) are a response to environmental damage as a solution, a remediation, and a philosophy of survival. And yet, how is this inventive work performance? Paraphrasing Josette Féral at the Université du Québec à Montréal from “Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language,” we might say that TREExOFFICE offers several key theatrical aspects: separation from ordinary environments; opposition of the fictional (theatre) to the real (performance); and an alteration within the spectator, who can “perform” a new environmental personhood. We can almost imagine this display of forward-looking, environmentally conscious behavior on display as an exhibit in some kind of new world’s fair—reminiscent of unveiling the “kitchen of the future,” or the automobile with the space-age design. Except the new thing on display here is behavior and community, not a commodity behavior that represents direct performance, activism, and an ongoing commitment to redefining community as a form of environmental citizenship.

Naturally, the conditions for a “lifestyle experiment” like TREExOFFICE are not yet optimal. Enormous practical concerns are unresolved, such as engineering of public space, cost, transportation, seasonal weather, and communications, which prevent a tree office from being realized now.

But as theatre, the tree provokes responses that question the status quo, open new vistas, and point us in the direction of how much utopia can be realized in the near term. The “performance” fails to realize what it represents, but succeeds as a leader of newly imagined communities and landscapes. It is a kind of “performative failure,” failure here not indicating a lack of success, but a conscious strategy on the part of the artist to gesture towards outside the performance space. Personal health, improved air and water quality, soil remediation, and increased use of urban farming and inhabitation with other species were clearly delineated as shared goals. These performative acts are meant to be generative, to point to possibilities. They are direct enactments of wished-for conditions, propositions that assert an alternative reality rather than lobbying for, or requesting such futures. They are invitations to affirm new configurations of networks among humans, nonhumans, and the material world.

An office was created around a tree trunk in London, 2015. Photo by Natalie Jeremijenko.

If not full realizations, Jeremijenko’s designs capture the full potential of imaginative placemaking. They feature a radical democracy of species and a palpable sense of individual becoming. She offers a fluid aesthetic, situating spectator-participants within environmental remediation, in which the role to be played is that of socially aware, right-sized steward.

Jeremijenko’s work can be read through the lens of current trends focusing on sustainability models and greening practices within the theatre. Unlike the Broadway Green Alliance in New York, or Julie’s Bicycle in London, the XClinic does not publish scientific studies or simply advocate for better practices of reusing material waste. Advocacy, journalism, legislation, and data reporting are left to those better positioned to be effective in those areas. The set of practices organized under the umbrella of the XClinic are a powerful expression of a new hybrid medium, environmental arts activism.

Other artists also use performance, spectacle, and participation to situate the viewer as co-creator of environmentally-responsible citizenship. For example, Earth Celebrations is led by Felicia Young, another New York artist. Since 1991, Earth Celebrations has presented pageants, performances, workshops, residencies, the creation of community gardens, and partnerships with NY-based schools and community groups. All events, which have reached over 10,000 individuals, address climate change, river restoration, the preservation of habitats, and a healthier urban environment.

Young’s river-based pageants, featuring dozens of actors, dancers, puppets and musicians, have performed with audiences to draw attention to the state of rivers, from the Hudson, to the Vaigai River in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India, which is in a severe crisis due to pollution, waste dumping, and the drying effects of climate change. Anyone can sign up to participate in the events on the organization’s website. The critical attention and publicity the events have generated have helped these community celebrations reach more artists and volunteers every year, and have been the subject of a documentary. Working alone as artistic director and producer, Young has built an impressive consortium of community partners over the years including: PS41, The River Project, Solar One, NYU, The New School, Greenpeace, The Hudson River Park Trust, various high schools, and many others.

Here, the focus is on commemorating threatened waterways, and another form of community arts activism. Unlike Jeremijenko’s alternative spaces, Young encourages a more overt arts focus, promoting a different, more familiar form of environmental connection that follows the counterculture traditions of Happenings, Fluxus works, and Bread and Puppet Theater. Jeremijenko’s work draws from more recent forms of work like the tactical media events of the late Beatriz da Costa and Critical Art Ensemble, which combined citizen science demonstrations and performances, scholarship, installation, and art as social demonstration. Earth Celebrations prefers the adoption of fictive, fantastical costume, and performing of spectacle and pageantry, music, dance, and community discussion, supported by workshops for all ages.


Environmental participation, comprised of actions touching on stewardship, consumerism, and concern for our shared existence is, by its very nature, political in orientation. In recent years, as prospects for a sustainable environmental future become more threatened and mounting scientific evidence that climate change is inevitable and has already progressed beyond our ability to control its effects becomes more evident, a new form of citizenship has been conceptualized, one that responds directly to a shared sense of commitment and responsibility to planetary unity. Andrew Dobson and Derek Bell’s recent text Environmental Citizenship offers numerous versions of actions stemming from concern for both local and global territories drawing on constituent elements of the citizen. Adopting an ethics-based approach to the twin concerns of altering people’s behavior and attitudes, Dobson and Bell introduce the concept of individual practices as an alternative to the state-sponsored, market-based incentives that have been, until recently, the primary tools for encouraging public actions that harm the environment. Holding to the idea that environmental citizenship is an inflection of historical ideas of citizenship, they and the other authors in their essay collection seek a balance of liberal, rights-based, and republican notions of what constitutes a citizen, stressing virtue and responsibility.

Both Jeremijenko and Young’s projects are a form of citizenship, and they strategize through what I call “performative failure.” In other words, not failure per se, but as incomplete realizations of the utopian worlds they present. This sense of incompleteness should not be viewed pejoratively, but rather as a call to further action and as a version of Alice O’Grady’s “risky aesthetics”—performance “designed to produce a sense of critical vulnerability in the participant to achieve affect, transformation or attitudinal shift.” They are offers of complicity, co-authorship, co-responsibility, and a contract of temporary community that serves as a blueprint for collective political activism.

Participatory performance is decidedly difficult to produce. One risks being trapped by the twin poles of performance versus activism. If the production were completely successful, one might ask: would it still be theatre, or would it become something else? As scholar Claire Bishop has written about such performance, one can’t rely entirely on good intentions or politics; there must still be an artistic object, something separate from the participants, to evaluate critically. These productions, and others like them, are raising those questions, asking how performance can be both art and activism, and beckoning us to answer them for ourselves.


Theatremakers vs the Climate Fools in the White House

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 19, 2017.

At the recent New York University The Reckoning: A Conference on Climate Justice on March 10-11, economist Jeffrey Sachs announced: “This is the end game.” And he was dead serious. Climate scientists predict we have fifteen years to decarbonize the economy if we want to avoid nasty consequences, including the distinct possibility of going the way of the dinosaurs. That’s very little time, and the obstacles are many. Some of them take the shape of rich, oil-stained, patriarchal, white supremacists, like the ones currently wreaking havoc in the White House and beyond. Others manifest as inertia and translate into a lack of social and political will. But what those obstacles are not are a lack of technology. The technology is here.

To be clear, climate change is not just about polar bears, melting glaciers, and acidifying oceans. Nor is it limited to CO2, oil, and pesticides. Our climate is on overdrive because we have an abusive economic system that disregards anything but its own gratification. Social and environmental injustices are a direct consequence of the unfair distribution of wealth and power, and there will be no climate justice until we have eradicated racism, gender inequality, and discrimination of all kinds.

It takes a village to accomplish anything of significance, but in this case, it will take an entire global community. The powers-that-be (Trump, Pruitt, Tillerson, Sessions, etc. and by the way, notice the incredible diversity in race, gender, age, and income bracket) are firmly holding on to their fossil fueled Republican throne. We, scientists, economists, attorneys, politicians, engineers, educators, activists, philanthropist, and yes, theatremakers, cannot afford to wait for them to grow a brain, let alone a moral compass. Time is a luxury we don’t have anymore. But what can a bunch of (mostly impoverished) artists do? I’m offering one idea called Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA).

The first iteration of CCTA took place in 2015 in support of the United Nations Paris Climate Conference (COP21). Following the model pioneered by NoPassport Theatre Alliance, we asked fifty writers from around the world to write short plays that dealt with an aspect of climate change. These plays were then made available to producing collaborators worldwide who, collectively, presented 100 events in twenty-six countries. (In the US alone, we had fifty-three events in thirty-seven cities.) Events ranged from readings in classrooms to fully staged performances, and from screenings of film adaptations to site specific presentations at the foot of glaciers. They took place in theatres, high schools, universities, eco-centers, community centers, people’s living rooms, on radio, and outdoors.

CCTA is coming back this year as a collaboration between the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, NoPassport, The Arctic Cycle, Theatre Without Border, and York University. Events will take place October 1 – November 18, 2017 in support of COP23chaired by Fiji and hosted in Bonn, Germany. A diverse group of writers from fifteen countries and several indigenous nations was commissioned to write short plays about climate change with the following prompt:

Assume your audience knows as much as you do. Assume they are as concerned as you are. But they may not know what to do with this information and those concerns. So how can we turn the challenges of climate change into opportunities?

Sachs was clear: The time for reckoning is over. It’s time for action. And for action to be effective, we need inspiration. Doomsday scenarios won’t galvanize us; we need hope and a capacity to imagine the future we want to create. In short, we need new narratives. And who better to provide those than writers?

This fall, fifty new climate change stories will be released into the world thanks to all the producing collaborators who will join us between now and then. Each event will be uniquefeaturing a combination of local and international artistsand designed for a specific community. And since this is a Climate Change Theatre Action, each event will find its own way of incorporating an educational, social, or political/civic action. We define “action” as something that happens in addition to the theatrical experience, that is meant to connect and/or activate people. Examples of actions include:

  • Talkbacks with experts from the scientific community, other departments within a university, local environmental organizations, etc.
  • Partnerships with social and environmental justice organizations
  • Providing a list of resources (reliable sources for scientific news, local environmental justice organizations, etc.) and inviting people to get involved
  • Signing a petition
  • Writing postcards to local government representatives asking for specific action on climate change
  • Organizing to put pressure on universities/municipal governments/employers/boards of directors/etc. to divest from fossil fuels
  • Creating a buddy system to hold each other accountable for regularly taking action on climate change

In addition to addressing climate change on stage, we are incorporating backstage sustainability thinking into the project. Ten professional designers will be commissioned to provide sustainable design ideas for a selection of plays. These ideas will take the form of sketches or models that can be displayed during the presentations. Producing collaborators will also be encouraged to partner with local designers to generate more ideas. At the end of the project, we will collect all of the design ideas and publish them in a special report from the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts.

Earth Duet by E.M. Lewis performed by the students of Randolph Macon College in Ashland, VA as part of CCTA 2015.



They have money, but we have the arts. They have power, but we have the masses. We do need national and international action on climate change, but a lot can be done at the state and regional level, from community solar initiatives to green roofs to local food systems. And those initiatives always begin with an idea and a collective desire to make a change. So I invite you theatremakersno, I urge youto help us fire up people’s imagination this fall. After all, the Climate Fools in the White House will only succeed if we let them.

More details about the project can be found here. To host a CCTA event in your community, contact us at ClimateChangeTheatreAction@gmail.com. Follow us on Facebook.

(Top image: Still from the Pomona College movie adaptation of The Fisherman & the Rain by Giovanni Ortega, directed by Evan DeLorenzo, as part of CCTA 2015.)

 

Fish Soup, Mourning, and Hope at the End of the World

This Post Comes From HowlRound

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Dramaturg Walter Bilderback reflects on the production of When the Rain Stops Falling at the Wilma Theater in 2016, and on the difficulties in engaging audiences with an issue that manifests itself so slowly and incrementally.—Chantal Bilodeau

What does it mean to make theatre for the Anthropocene? (Leaving aside the question of when the Anthropocene started, or whether there’s a better name for it.) Outside of Republicans in Congress and the current administration, there’s wide consensus that changes in the earth’s climate and many of its chemical processes are now driven primarily by human activity.

There’s a growing body of writing about fiction for the Anthropocene: there’s even a catchphrase, “cli-fi,” although it’s possible that “all fiction is Anthropocene fiction now, some of it just hasn’t realized it yet,” to paraphrase a Facebook quip by McKenzie Wark. I’m not sure if the same thing can be said for playwriting and theatremaking. For playwriting, a challenge may be that our traditional, Aristotelian narrative structure doesn’t allow us to deal with the problem. Climate change reveals itself over long time scales, often longer than an individual’s lifespan. Its impact is sometimes dramatic and catastrophic, but often incremental, and it is ultimately a collective, rather than individual, problem.

 

At the Wilma Theater, we spent several years looking for a play dealing with the Anthropocene that addressed these challenges and still found a way to deeply engage an audience iemotionally. To open our 2016-17 season, Artistic Director Blanka Zizka chose Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. Rain is a sprawling epic of a play, a sleek, stark, emotionally raw meditation on the Anthropocene and extinction disguised as a family saga stretching from 1959 in London to 2039 in Alice Springs, Australia. The story unfolds in non-chronological order, and begins with a scene of magic realism: a crowd of people on the street in relentless rain. A man stops and screams, a woman falls to her feet, and a fish lands at the man’s feet. We later learn that the man and woman are in different eras, and that fish in 2039 are thought to be extinct. This layering of time characterizes the play: a scene from one era will bleed into another scene; two characters are portrayed by a younger and an older actress, who are sometimes onstage together. The play ends with a father trying to reconcile with a son he abandoned as a child, sharing family relics whose meaning is a mystery to him but not to the audience. Between them is a line of dead ancestors who bequeathed the relics to him.

We had looked at Rain a few times since I first read it in the summer of 2009. The main reason we had passed on the play in the past was that its emotional rawness and fatalism scared us: a readthrough ended with the entire cast in tears. Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene gave us a new insight on the play. Scranton is convinced that it’s too late to avoid breaking the two degree Celsius rise in global temperature. He writes:

The greatest challenge we face is…understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Scranton’s notion of mourning our losses allowed us to see the sadness in When the Rain Stops Falling in a different light. It was only after this that we became aware that When the Rain Stops Falling had originated in a workshop called “The Extinction Project” and that Andrew Bovell’s attendance at a Paris museum exhibit on Melancholia had given him the key to putting his story together; he believes we are in a melancholic age. Bovell found the motif of Saturn that repeats in the play, including the metaphor of “eating the future,” in the same exhibit. Mourning and melancholy are not the same thing, psychoanalytically, but were close enough to allow us to start working.

Another concept that proved useful for Blanka and the design team in conceptualizing the production was “slow violence,” a term coined by Rob Nixon. Nixon defines “slow violence” as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all,” and sees it as a challenge for literature in depicting climate change in emotionally resonant fashion. Bovell doesn’t use the term, but his layering of scene upon scene creates a presence of deep time onstage. The family becomes a collective protagonist, and the impact of slow violence on the family and on the climate is made physically present for the audience.

Understanding the play’s melancholy also allowed us to see a ray of hope. In an email exchange with me, Bovell wrote: “In the final scene of the play there is hope that the damage of the past can be undone or at least understood and there is a suggestion that we have the capacity with this understanding to move on in a different way.” The final moments of Blanka Zizka’s production, with a line of ancestors seated on simple chairs and passing the relics from father to son, radiated a quiet beauty that was simultaneously heart-breaking and hopeful, reminiscent of a Donna Haraway remark on a resilient, post-Anthropocene community, whose members “knew they could not deceive themselves that they could start from scratch. Precisely the opposite insight moved them; they asked and responded to the question of how to live in the ruins that were still inhabited, with ghosts and with the living too.”

Lindsay Smiling as Gabriel York in When the Rain Stops Falling. Photo by Matt Saunders.

The Wilma attempts, as often as possible, to surround our productions with ancillary material. In this case, we had a lobby installation and two panels.

For the lobby display, Austin Arrington, from the local company Plant Group, and I coordinated with several local organizations to create an installation that incorporated both small things individuals can do now to address problems of contemporary Philadelphia (e.g., rain barrels to reduce run-off problems) and a vision for a sustainable Philadelphia in 2039, the year in which Rain begins and ends. Blanka came up with the idea for a local focus that was more optimistic on the future than the play. I found a wealth of reports by local agencies, including the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in Philadelphia, examining a range of local climate futures for the 21st century and suggesting strategies for meeting them. Incorporating some of these ideas, and extrapolating on existing projects, I sketched a future that is far from paradise but a step toward Scranton’s idea of “adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.” George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It proved useful here: I particularly tried to heed his recommendations to “build a narrative of cooperation, relate solutions to climate change to the sources of happiness, and frame climate change as an informed choice.”

We held two panels following Saturday matinees. The first, “Art in the Anthropocene,” featured E. Ann Kaplan, author of Climate Trauma; Philadelphia poet and Pew Fellow Brian Teare; and playwright/translator Chantal Bilodeau. The second, “What’s Next?” focused on “what we can do as individuals and as citizens to meet the challenges of a changing climate.” This panel featured Ashley Dawson, author of the forthcoming Extreme Cities: Climate Change and the Urban Future; Christine Knapp, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability; Ron Whyte, founder of the Deep Green Philly blog; and Judy Wicks, a Philadelphia activist and sustainability entrepreneur.

Did the panels make a difference? I find myself a little pessimistic. The discussions onstage were stimulating and provocative. But they were attended by a handful of audience members, less than our usual turnout, despite publicizing them in print and through social media, which may reflect a continuing head-in-the-sand attitude of many Americans toward global warming.

When the Rain Stops Falling closed on November 6. Two days later, most of us found our sense of what this country was shaken. In the play, Andrew Bovell has the 2039 character Gabriel York refer to the current book he’s reading: The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, 1975-2015. When Bovell wrote the play in 2007, the end date lay in the future. 1975 aligns easily the US defeat in Vietnam; for the actor glossary, I created a description of the book’s thesis (I attributed authorship to my Australian friend Van Badham, a playwright and Guardian columnist). I wrote, “According to Badham, Donald Trump’s candidacy, announced June 20, 2015, provides a useful endpoint for American power and prestige.” We’ll see.

The Post Fish Soup, Mourning, and Hope at the End of the World Appeared First on HowRound. Visit Their Website Here. 

Requiem for a River: Operatic Reflections on the Euphrates

This Post Comes from HowlRound:

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Dutch opera director Miranda Lakerveld reflects on the prominence of water imagery in traditional music dramas from the Middle East and on the connection between conflict and ecology. —Chantal Bilodeau

I am writing this article the day before the Dutch elections. Far-right populist Geert Wilders has been leading the polls, and Turkish-Dutch youngsters are marching the streets waving dramatically large Turkish flags. For the first time in my life, I see military police trucks (and water-tanks) drive past my window. CNN and Al Jazeera discuss the “situation” in the Netherlands. Unimaginable things are happening to my country.

I create operas as a platform for dialogue in a multicultural society. My artistic work stems from research on music dramas from around the globe. I was fortunate to be able to do research on a wide range of music- drama practices, for example Tibetan Opera at the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts; passion play Ta’ziyeh in Iran; and the ancient Maya dance-drama Rabìnal Achi in Guatemala.

Ironically, I found the richest traditions in places where cultural identity is under pressure, especially after a history of violence. For example, one of the first official actions the Dalai Lama took when he arrived in India after fleeing persecution in Tibet, was to establish the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts to preserve Tibetan Opera. We might conclude that these music dramas can be extremely important in times of uncertainty and conflict.

jh Samira Dainan in Why Yemen Matters. Photo by Jan Boeve/De Balie


“Why does cultural identity create such conflict? And, how does the environment influence the dynamics between cultures?”


 

While I was doing my research, tensions between communities kept rising at home. Since 2014, my company World Opera Lab has been working mostly in the diverse neighborhoods of Amsterdam-West, applying the aesthetics of music dramas from Iran, India, Tibet, and Middle America to opera. The aim is to create a form of opera that reaches across cultures and artistic traditions.

In these creative dialogues between cultures, I have often wondered: what “makes” a culture? Even in the diaspora, what makes people attached to it? Why does cultural identity create such conflict? And, how does the environment influence the dynamics between cultures?

A series of debate operas on conflict in the Middle East, presented in collaboration with the Debate Center De Balie, has shone a new light on these questions. Why Yemen Matters, created in 2016, deals with the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and why the violence received so little attention in the West. The opera revolves around the story of the Queen of Sheba, who was originally from Yemen. Music from Händel’s oratorium Solomon, played on the Arabic ud and viola da gamba, was countered with traditional songs from Sana’a. The staging was created in dialogue with the work of Yemeni photographer Amira Al-Sharif, who also helped with finding appropriate traditional music. Interestingly, the traditional songs that “floated up” during the work had extensive references to water and its sources:

The leaf of the grape appeared
To collect water, she comes to source: Wadi Bamaa
Passing by me
Passing by me

I, oh my father, I
Glory, oh people, glory to the source, Wadi Amaan

“Ghuzan Al Qina” (Traditional song from Sana’a, Yemen)

Through these songs, I understood the importance of water sources in the region and how they affect conflicts. The songs also taught me how cultures are very much influenced by the environment. The environment shapes the culture, and consequently it shapes cultural identities.

Samira Dainan and Mireille Bittar in Why Yemen Matters. Photo by Jan Boeve/De Balie.


“The environment shapes the culture, and consequently it shapes cultural identities.”


 

A River Runs Through It
Requiem for a River picks up where Sheba left off. It is a new debate opera that will be presented in the spring of 2018, as part of the on-going collaboration between World Opera Lab and The Middle East Report in the Debate Center De Balie.

The Euphrates River is the main character in this opera, where religious stories about the iconic river are the point of departure. Currently the Tigris and Euphrates, the two main arteries in the Middle East, are rapidly drying up. According to a 2015 article published in Foreign Affairs, the mighty rivers that feed Syria and Iraq may no longer reach the sea by 2040.

The Euphrates, an important “figure” in religious texts, is featured in central stories on conflict in the region as well as in classical operas. After the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, Israelites are brought into exile in Babylonia and sing, mourning their lost homeland at the bank of the river. Psalm 137, in which this scene is depicted, inspired Verdi to write Va pensiero, the famous chorus from Nabucco. According to the Islamic hadith, the Euphrates will dry up and uncover a mountain of gold that will incite bloody conflicts.

In the Ta’ziyeh of Abbas, a Shiite passion play, the Euphrates River is occupied by the Sunni army, while the Shiites are on the losing side. General Abbas goes to the river to get water for the dying children in the camp. After gathering the water, Abbas is attacked and both his arms are amputated. Abbas continues to carry the water bag in his mouth. One arrow hits the bag and water pours out of it. This image of Abbas without arms, and the water sack in his mouth is iconic in the Shiite culture.

According to Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi, the characters in Ta’ziyeh are metamorphic: “The metamorphic aspect of Ta’ziyeh characters makes them at once extremely potent allegories of cosmic significance, and yet instantaneously accessible to contemporary re-modulations.” In this way, Abbas becomes a potent symbol of the conflicts in the Middle East, drawing our attention to those who are suffering the consequences, and to major underlying themes such as water scarcity and ecological problems. Today in Karbala, Iraq, where this story takes place, farmers are in despair about water shortages.

We learn that water shortages have shaped our civilizations. The very first civilization emerged only when governments where able to provide access to water. Already in ancient times, city-states were cutting off each other’s water supply. And this still goes on today.

In Ta’ziyeh performances, the Euphrates is represented by a large bowl, in which the audience is invited to empty their water bottles. Stagehands then fill up the bottles with water from the bowl, and give them back to the audience. This water is now considered sacred and wholesome. This scene has an important lesson for us: it connects religious conflicts and cultural identity to ecology.

Ta’ziyeh of Abbas in Ziaran, Iran 2012. Photo by Miranda Lakerveld.

The River Reaches the Sea
I am editing this article a few weeks after the elections. For now, The Netherlands seems to have dodged the populist bullet and the eyes of the world are now on France’s elections. Spring has started, and the country is relieved. At the same time, the conflicts in the Middle East are erupting with renewed violence.

I am reading poetry from Iraq, and I am reminded again of how many water sources are shared across cultures. The Euphrates is the river that shaped the first civilizations. She runs through all of us. Or in the words of the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab:

…The echo replies
As if lamenting:
‘O Gulf,
Giver of shells and death.
And across the sands from among its lavish gifts
The Gulf scatters fuming froth and shells
And the skeletons of miserable drowned emigrants
Who drank death forever
From the depths of the Gulf, from the ground of its silence,
And in Iraq a thousand serpents drink the nectar
From a flower the Euphrates has nourished with dew…

—from “Rainsong” (1960)

The Post Requiem for a River: Operatic Reflections on the Euphrates Appeared First on HowlRound. Visit Their Website Here. 

We Are the Climate

This post comes from HowlRound

At HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Writer and director Katie Pearl discusses how theatre, climate, and politics are inevitably linked, and asks whether artists should bring more of their artistry into citizenry. —Chantal Bilodeau

The task here is to look at theatre and climate change within the context of the current administration. Yep, that administration. The one that is attempting to eliminate climate consciousness from the national narrative by removing the climate page from the White House website, threatening to slash the EPA by one-third, and green-lighting the Keystone Pipeline project in the face of enormous coordinated dissent. Yep, the one that favors entertainment—heck, the one that is entertainment—but is not at all interested in artworks activating complex, nuanced conversation around current issues, and proposed to eradicate the NEA and the NEH completely from the federal budget. Yep, that administration.

Well, shall we start the way we often do? Theatre is a storytelling, community-based phenomenon that manages to survive, if not thrive, on next to nothing and is the perfect means to effectively counter the current administration’s “alternative facts” and erasure, especially in these divisive times…blah, blah climate blah f*cking Trump blah Pruitt EPA zzz blah NEA slashed z zzzz Betsy DeVos zz zzz education zzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzz.

I’m sorry, I fell asleep.

It’s not the argument that’s wrong. It’s just exhausting. Theatre may be the perfect vehicle to keep necessary counter-narratives alive, but has never, under any administration I’ve ever known, been well-positioned to do so. Embedded in the familiar argument about theatre’s potential is the deeper argument about theatre’s worth. I’m tired of endlessly justifying on grant applications, in marketing campaigns, and in fundraising letters the relevance of what we do. On a federal level, our country just doesn’t believe in theatre’s worth. This feels especially true now under Trump, but even under administrations more friendly to liberal creative causes, theatre is rarely considered necessary to our national well-being. For a time, the NEA’s tagline was “Because a great country deserves great art”—an assertion I find problematic because it makes art seem like dessert, rather than something with actual value, like grains, meat, and vegetables.

The conversation amongst the theatre community about ways to keep (or make) our theatre relevant, equitable, and inclusive is ongoing. There is rigorous debate and concrete action, including the way so many of us—regional theatres, and independent artists, and companies—are putting more resources towards building relationships with the communities we work with and for. I’m also thinking of nation-wide actions like The Jubilee, The Ghostlight Project, and the wave of support for projects in Creative Placemaking, and other socially engaged work. But in light of the ongoing global climate crisis and the Trump administration’s policies, the conversation is ready to take another giant step, brought to a head, like it or not, by the sheer, audacious rebuttal of things that we artists and citizens know to be true and important.

Let’s talk about climate.

At the end of eight hours, the build team for HOW TO BUILD A FOREST (PearlDamour + Shawn Hall) extracts the last bit of breath from their forest ecosystem. Photo by Paula Court.

New Allies: Theatre and Climate
Imagine this: Theatre and Climate as allies, thrown together by the Trump administration as being two things it discredits, discounts, and largely disregards. Well of course! Both have power beyond the control of a single man or administration. Interestingly enough, both have that power because they’re situated outside the administration’s market-based lexicon. Environmental issues don’t sit easily within a profit-based model. Creativity—like theatremaking—doesn’t either. When the environment is forced to bend in order to “produce,” the effect can be similar to when theatre artists are pressured to produce—and when humans are seen only in terms of their use. The soul gets squished. Language gets co-opted and compressed.

When my company  PearlDamour was researching our piece HOW TO BUILD A FOREST, we met with people in the timber industry. They spoke to us of “product” instead of “trees.” On our tours, we often saw a field of trees planted around the same time in regular, mathematical rows just to be cut down for profit as soon as they matured, therefore, “product.” But calling trees product shifted both my perception of them and my relationship to them. It severed our connection as fellow living things. Words matter. What changes in our country when, as Toni Morrison notes, we go from being called “citizens” to being called “taxpayers”? When the new administration took down Obama’s climate policy page on the White House site and replaced it with the America First Energy Plan, a friend posted on Facebook: “Since when does ‘Energy’ mean ‘Fossil Fuel’?”

That word is being shut down, actually enervated, by being forced into a one-to-one relationship with oil. What does “Energy” really mean? So much more than solar versus petroleum. If we look at the word through a Theatre Lens, energy means: connections, interactions, and reactions. It’s powerful to remember that the only meaningful way to really understand climate and environmental systems is this way as well, via connection, interactions, and reactions. Energy in both the theatre and the climate is its dynamism, its process, its transformation. Energy is story.


Storytelling

I watch Trump as a storyteller and for the first time, I really understand storytelling’s power as a market-driving medium. Trump is a professional entertainer and racketeer, a storyteller who knows his audience and knows how to play to them. Where the climate is concerned, his stories affect the entire planet. He boils complex issues down to sound bites that sway mass markets, sell tickets, cement opinions, erase experiences, and win elections. And they have the advantage of being carried by every media outlet into living rooms, kitchens, car stereos, and ear buds across the country—an advantage our plays and performance works don’t have.

Can we compete? Our storytelling offers a different kind of narrative, driven by a different kind of energy—one that deepens thinking, expands empathy, introduces new worlds, explores imaginative possibilities, and rebuts current conditions. We could take it as our responsibility, our mandate, to keep using our storytelling to keep the realities of our climate in front of audiences, even as Trump’s cabinet is doing everything it can to make those same audiences believe those stories don’t matter.

Sure. We could do that. But the focus can no longer be on impactful storytelling. We can’t stop there because those stories aren’t reaching enough people. We can’t stop there because our current metrics of success, including getting reviewed in major publications, keep us from heading towards different kinds of performance work that might have a different kind of impact, and affect more change. We can’t stop there because as theatre artists, our power doesn’t merely exist in the plays we create and the stories we tell. It also exists in our creativity itself. It also exists in the way we move through and think about the world, as people, as artists, and as citizens.

In Lost in the Meadow (PearlDamour + Mimi Lien),climbers get ready to hoist a giant megaphone up a 60-foot towerso the meadow can speak directly to the audience. Photo by Katie Pearl.


The Artist Citizen is also a Citizen Artist

For years, I’ve responded to current events by making theatre about it. It made sense that as a theatre artist, I would do that: “Oh, I’ll do a performance about Hurricane Katrina…” or “I’ll write a play about the Dakota Pipeline, or building a wall, or the BP Oil Spill…” It was how I brought my citizenry into my artistry, and it led to some good work that many people saw and were affected by. But lately I’ve been thinking about those two words “artist” and “citizen” and wondering if I haven’t been giving myself—ourselves—enough credit. We spend so much time arguing about the power of theatre, and the importance of our product, that we’ve neglected the fact that we as theatre artists have power too. My provocation here is: how can we bring our artistry into our citizenry, rather than the other way around? How can our creative minds, our ability to make imaginative leaps, envision futures, and empathize and connect with others serve the communities that live outside of our theatremaking?

Perhaps we need to start showing up not only as people who make plays and performances about issues, but also as people who think deeply and have smart things to say and know how to say them well. We know how to tell a good story—do we only need to tell it on a stage? What about in board rooms? In Town Halls? At the Parent Teacher Association?

Inviting versus Welcoming
I’ve spent the past four years working in small towns named Milton across the US. One thing The Milton Project has taught me is the difference between “inviting” and “welcoming.” Over and over I hear, particularly from one racial community regarding another, “we invited them, but they didn’t come.” The lesson is this: inviting is very different than welcoming. Ironically, to welcome someone into a relationship with you, you often have to invite yourself to where they are. To their space. As theatre artists, a quality many of us share is a sense of adventure. We can use this quality to propel us not just towards new projects but towards new people. Towards new issues, new places. As this administration seeks to divide us both from one another and from our relationship to the natural world, we cannot wait to be invited to connect. Let’s welcome ourselves into civic, policy-making conversations about the climate and otherwise. Let’s welcome ourselves into conversations with political leaders, neighbors, disenfranchised communities, small town conservative communities, and business executives. And then, bam! Suddenly, our expansive, imaginative, and creative thinking is right in there, opening up possibility, creating connection, and making space.

Intersectionality
At the Women’s March in Washington, DC, California Senator Kamela Harris described a time when she arrived at a meeting and someone said, “Oh good, you’re here, we’d like to talk about women’s issues.” Kamela responded, “Oh good. Let’s talk about immigration. Oh good, let’s talk about climate. Oh good, let’s talk about race relations, about civil rights, about education, about health care, about poverty. These are all women’s issues because they are all issues.”

The Women’s Marches empowered us by shifting the idea of multiplicity from being something that diffused power to intersectionality—something that increases it. I started this essay proposing the alliance between theatre and climate, but as I finish, I want to widen our gaze. Alongside theatre and climate, there is an extensive network of phenomena sharing a debased status under the Trump administration. Rather than feeling drained by the fight to assert our relevance and importance, let’s feel empowered and energized by the new collaborations and cross-currents of our intersectionality! Here’s a partial list:

The dangers of climate change
The importance of theatre
The systems of racism
The realities of classism
The saturation of white privilege
The pervasiveness of xenophobia
The prevalence of misogyny

These phenomena aren’t just aligned by being maligned by the Trump administration. More interestingly, in terms of storytelling, they are deeply, dramatically linked. Issues of climate cannot be extracted from economics; economics cannot be separated from race and class; issues of race and class cannot be untied from white privilege, xenophobia, and misogyny. Can you tell a story about any one of these issues without involving the rest? Sure you could—many of us have. But the final provocation is: let’s not. Let’s welcome this intersectionality into our stories, performance structures, collaborative models, and visions of where we make work and who we work with. Let’s keep the climate foregrounded in both our artistic and our civic lives (and perhaps there will be less and less of a difference between them) by seeking out and acknowledging its connection to, and influence on every story we tell.

There is no us versus them when it comes to our climate because we aren’t just in relationship to the climate, we are the climate. And if that’s the case, then every story is about climate—no matter how loudly the administration argues otherwise.



The post We Are the Climate appeared first on HowlRound.



 

The Journey to an Eco-Play

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 18, 2016.

When I started to think about writing a play about climate change, a comment made by a philosopher-scientist struck me with such blunt emotional force that I got the shivers: “These are things that we can easily put out of our mind. And so we do.”

And so we do. We have no difficulty noticing the day-to-day hate speech that fills the news, or social injustice, or the madness of out-of-control gun policies; it’s hard to avoid the micro-aggressions and violent acts directed against women or people of color or migrants just struggling to survive. But a catastrophe that is only going to have full impact in the future? How do we respond to that? When is the future? Who can see a polar ice cap melting? Who can see a river disappearing? Or a species of bird that suddenly just fails to show up one year? Who does this matter to anyway?

And is any of this something that should be/could be in a play? This was the brain-swirl as I thought about writing plays set in the American West. Because it occurred to me: Well, here in California, we actually can see a river disappear. We can note that butterflies aren’t returning to their favorite nesting spot, or the wetlands of the Pacific Flyway are drying up and fewer migrating birds can make their way. For playwrights—not that we’re ghouls—our storytelling often thrives on doom, and in the arena of climate change, there is plenty of doom to go around.

Still, as counterpoint, while beginning to write an eco-play, I was introduced to the teachings of the Deep Ecology movement, led by Arne Naess in the 1970s and making a resurgence now. Naess pointed out that to use scare tactics, to operate from a place of fear and humiliation, never really has a lasting impression on people, especially in the area of the environment. The fear/shame tactic isn’t solution-related—it just provokes a quick knee-jerk reaction, but does it truly drive anyone to make any kind of transformative change? Naess believed it was better to operate from a place of joyful action.

Petroglyphs carved into rock by Paiutes in the Coso Range, immediately south of Owens Lake. Photo by: Paula Cizmar.

The process of digging into an eco-theatre play is so complex. There’s the geography, the people, the recent and ancient history, the science of it, public policy, nature itself, the artists who have travelled this road before, the ongoing investigations and new revelations. I have likened writing an eco-play in the past to going down a rabbit hole. But it’s so much more than that. Dig a bit at an ancient site and whole underground civilizations are revealed. Start off with one idea, peer under a rock, and discover a whole new perspective that challenges what you thought was right in the first place.

That’s what happened with my play The Chisera (AKA Lost Borders). It started off as a piece inspired by a woman naturalist. But that led to whole new ways of looking. It should come as no shock that I believe we must all be united and work together to save this planet, and I believe in renewable energy. And of course, I am opposed to the wasting of resources. Living in the drought-stricken American West, I am particularly sensitive to water issues. (Which is a whole other can of worms, by the way, and pardon the mixed metaphors, but I invite everyone on the planet to write about water, because it affects everything. It intersects with power, economics, politics, of course; but it also affects issues of race, immigration, gender equality, human rights, etc.)

Mary Austin.

The play had always begun with my love of the Owens Valley in California and my love of Mary Hunter Austin, an early-twentieth-century nature writer ahead of her time. The Owens Valley is one of those places on this planet that make you feel the deep mystery of being alive. How to describe it? Snowcapped, rugged peaks on one side. Lower, redder, smoother peaks on the other. And in the middle, a high plateau—not very wide—with a small river winding through it and a canopy of blue overhead. But it’s not merely geography that makes it so special: It’s the pervasive feeling that this place was here for eons, that you can feel a deep connection to the thousands of people who loved it for centuries, and that it is one of those places where you can sense the presence of some deeply alive spirit. Mary Austin loved it. Writing in the early 1900s in the Eastern Sierra, she was one of the few people who truly understood the region—the mountains, the river valley, and the desert—in a holistic way. She understood it the way the native Paiutes understood it, because unlike many white settlers, she actually talked to them. Learned from them.

Here’s what set me off in the first place:

East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders… Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit… This is the nature of that country. There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, and squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermillion painted, aspiring to the snow-line…Here are the long heavy winds or breathless calms on the tilted mesas where dust devils dance, whirling up in a wide, pale sky. Here you have no rain when all the earth cries for it, or quick outbursts called down-pours for violence. A land of lost rivers, with little in it to love; yet a land that once visited must be come back to inevitably. If it were not so, there would be little told of it. —Mary Hunter Austin, Land of Little Rain

The lush area around the Owens River after a rainy season—and after a mandatory reclamation project was initiated. Beyond the riparian area is dry desert. Photo by Paula Cizmar.

This was a starting point—but I always knew that I didn’t want to write a historical play. Somehow I wanted there to be a story told from the present point-of-view, too. I needed a character who could mirror the past in her actions. Or even a character who would be happy ignoring the borders of time and space. The past figures into every inch of the American West, and I wanted somehow to tap into how we, in the present, owe a debt to those in the past from whom we took something valuable—so that we can figure out how to not repeat these mistakes in the future.

The Owens Valley is one of those past/present/future places: It’s where the Water Wars were fought in the early twentieth century—small bands of citizens versus the Department of Water and Power—and it’s where, since 1913, a significant portion of the water for the city of Los Angeles has been taken. Some would say stolen. I usually do.

So the play started to evolve with all my various personal requirements (strong roles for women, the landscape, the language reflecting the geography, past and present interwoven, characters who drive the piece and make change)—and it also started to take on an ethical quandary: How do you build something that will cause someone or something to grow while at the same time do no harm to others? There are hundreds of these stories: Reroute a river to prevent flooding and an endangered fish loses its spawning grounds. Build a dam in a wilderness area to light up an urban area downstream and lives upstream are changed and a culture is lost. And in the case of many places in the US, the culture that is lost is that of the people who were here first. In the Owens Valley, a large portion of the people who lost out were the Paiutes.

An old mining shed on the shore of the dried up lake bed of Owens Lake, with the Inyo Range in the background. Photo by Paula Cizmar.

But I didn’t want the play to be a polemic. I wanted it to be personal, with flesh and blood characters. And I wanted to hear directly from the people who still battle the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power today. So I headed once again to the Owens Valley—really, it doesn’t take much of an excuse for me to go there—and was fortunate to be offered friendship and rock solid information from members of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Reservation’s environmental office: Mel Joseph, Jeremiah Joseph, and April Zrelack. Ideas, ideas, and more ideas—and images of what the place once was, what it is now, what it could be; ideas about how everything intersects.

The interconnectivity of it all is staggering. Economics. Politics. Race. And the land itself. It is not possible to alter one teeny portion of the environment without inflicting consequences on another. Often, the place from where we propose to take a resource—or build a questionable structure—is suffering from job loss and poverty, and has been for a long time. Why else would a community accept a new toxic waste storage facility, for example? These types of institutions create jobs—and that is what the community is desperate for and ends up accepting.

But I wanted to go beyond the simple, clear-cut binary of People = Good, Power = Bad. There needed to be a struggle, a choice that was difficult. I learned from my Paiute advisers that a solar plant was proposed for the area—and my “I-love-renewable-energy” mind was immediately excited. The present-tense portion of the story, I thought, could be a scientist doing an environmental impact study for a new solar plant. Great! Solar = Good. Except, as I kept listening to the people of the tribe, I began to wonder: Is that equation accurate? With renewable energy like solar, we get cleaner air, less dependence on burning carbon; we avoid the problems of nuclear waste, we can harness the truly natural, renewable resources the planet provides and go green. Go clean. Except. Where does the solar plant get built? Do we put it in the backyard of a wealthy neighborhood? And what exactly is industrial solar?

In The Chisera, that’s the problem that comes up: The Owens Valley, a hundred years after the first lost environmental war, is now faced with another potential for harm: an immense industrial solar plant—the kind, I learned, that would not only cause massive destruction of habitat in its construction, but would also burn major amounts of natural gas to fire it up every day. And it is to be built on land sacred to the Paiutes. To provide power for a city 200 miles away. The question becomes: Will it do no harm? Is it really green? Is it really clean? Or are those convenient sales pitch buzzwords that jumbo power companies use to rationalize coming in once again and exploiting an area?

All of this was tremendously complicated for me emotionally, because I don’t just love wild rivers and jagged rocks and the strange wonderful beauty of deserts and its creatures. I also love cities, places to come together and communicate, places to socialize, places that truly do celebrate the awe-inspiring accomplishments of humankind. And I’m not a Los Angeles hater; it’s one of the most diverse cities on the planet with new immigrants arriving every day and over 150 languages spoken, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? In the desert, I can take in the vastness of this world. In the mountains, I can look at the sheer rugged beauty and fearsomeness of the landscape. At the ocean’s edge, I can meditate on the depths of the human spirit and our connection to nature. But in the city, I can be inspired by the sheer audacity of humanity’s ability to evolve, grow, build, startle, expand, achieve, dream. No good/bad, no love/hate. Just a lot of wondering and wonder.

That’s what The Chisera takes on. I think that’s what all of eco-theatre looks at. How do we live in this world ethically? How do we love this earth and explore the wilderness areas without turning them into theme parks? How do we turn on the tap and watch water flow out without thinking of who is really paying the price for it?

And what do we do to make it all fair?

(Top image: The unirrigated desert floor, with snowcapped peaks of the Eastern Sierra in the distance. Photo by Paula Cizmar.)


About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

How Theatre Renewed My Perspective on Climate Change

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 21, 2016.

Last February, I had the wonderful opportunity to perform in the new play Forward by Chantal Bilodeau at Kansas State University. Going into auditions for the production, I knew they play’s message was, at its core, about climate change. I’ll go ahead and admit now that, at the time, I was more excited for the opportunity to be doing a new play than I was to be performing a show about climate change as all my life, save for one special day in the eighth grade, I’d never really had my own, solid opinion on that subject. However, working on this play, the second in the Arctic Cycle series, completely renewed my perspective.

I was raised in a very small, very rural Kansas town of about 3,000 people. This town, as you might expect, is predominately conservative. Both of my parents held conservative values, and made sure to push them on me. Don’t get me wrong, I do truly love my family and my little hometown and to a certain extent, I respect all people of all political stances. But looking back, I definitely think there were issues with some of the things I was taught.

Up until the eighth grade, I had never really heard the words “climate change” or “global warming” or any other variation of these. I might have seen them in passing on the internet, but if I did, I had never paid any attention. Then one day, in my Physical Sciences class, my teacher attempted to enlighten us on the issue of climate change using, of course, pure scientific research. I vividly remember being shocked at how we were destroying our environment, and discussing the topic with my friends at lunch, talking about the issue and how we could change our own behaviors.

That mindset unfortunately did not last very long. I went home that evening and told my parents what I’d learned in school that day, my naïve fourteen-year-old-self unaware of the—what I consider to be unwarranted—controversy around the subject. My father became upset that I was learning something that he didn’t agree with due to his political stance. I’m sure you can imagine how confused I was—I had just been shown pure evidence that global warming was a real issue and here my father was getting upset as I was discussing it, telling me that it was a hoax and not to worry about it.

As a teenager, my mind was malleable. So, just as quickly as I had learned about the issue, I forgot about it. I think something similar happened with my friends. Either that or they became bored with the subject overnight and the next day none of us discussed it anymore. Later on, my father mentioned going down to the school to talk with my teacher. My teacher never mentioned it, nor ever talked about climate change again.

Sterling Oliver as a father saying his goodbyes to his child before leaving to work on an oil rig. Forward, Kansas State University Theatre, 2016.
Sterling Oliver as a father saying his goodbyes to his child before leaving to work on an oil rig. Forward, Kansas State University Theatre, 2016.


This was the extent of my knowledge of global warming for some time. Around my junior and senior years of high school, I became more and more politically independent from my family and community, and learned some more about climate change, but I never again had as solid or passionate a stance as I did in that one day in school. There was never another reason for me to think about it…until I went to Kansas State University and got cast in Forward. Almost immediately, as I began to read the script and fall in love with the story and subject material, that spark I had found in my science class was reignited. I completely immersed myself in research on the history of global warming and on our current state of affairs as a country and as a planet.

Now, thanks to Chantal and Forward, my lifestyle has changed and I’m pushing others to change, too. I haven’t had the opportunity to do a whole lot of work in the theatre since Forward closed, but I know that many times throughout my career and the rest of my time at Kansas State, I will make it a point to pass along messages and advocate for change in the way we go about our lives. If there’s one thing I want people to take away from this story, it’s to never silence a person’s desire to discuss topics that are new to them, and never close your mind to new subjects and ideas—it just might save the world.

Sterling Oliver (left) and Jacob Edelman-Dolan (right) as hikers, looking across the quickly changing landscape. Forward, Kansas State University Theatre, 2016.
Sterling Oliver (left) and Jacob Edelman-Dolan (right) as hikers, looking across the quickly changing landscape. Forward, Kansas State University Theatre, 2016.


Another is to not be afraid to push boundaries with your work, especially in a field like the theatre. Because of Chantal my attitude has changed and I know others’ attitude has changed as well, including that of my parents, whom I am happy to say are now changing their lifestyle and talking to others to help make an impact on our planet. While I was home over the summer, we made many attempts to cut down on our usage of non-renewable energy and recycle more. Any electronics we were throwing out, we remembered to take to a nearby recycling facility. Every Saturday morning, our hometown has a recycling drive where you can drop off recyclables so we tried to go every week and encourage others in the community to go as well. I’m hoping the small things we’re doing as a family will impact others in our community and create a snowball effect where green living becomes the norm. (Now, if only I could do something about their supporting a certain Republican presidential nominee… anybody know of any plays to help me with that?)

I want to leave you with a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson that I take solace in whenever I have to discuss the subject of climate change with somebody who doesn’t believe that it is real, or more specifically, when they try to push that mindset on to me: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Now, of course, this quote isn’t really inspirational or ground-breaking, but it’s humorous and impactful, and to me, that’s the best kind of message.

______________________________

Sterling Oliver is a sophomore at Kansas State University studying Theatre and Music. He plans on using his degrees to create works to spread the messages closest to his heart around to others and hopefully make an impact on audiences worldwide. For now, he’s doing what he can to make changes in the lives of those closest to him.



About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog