This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog
The thing thatâ€™s so annoying about climate change is that it affects all of our systemsâ€”political, economic, environmental, culturalâ€”so thereâ€™s no way to hide from it. The thing thatâ€™s so great about climate change is that it affects all of our systemsâ€”political, economic, environmental, culturalâ€”so weâ€™re forced to take a hard look at what works and what doesnâ€™t, for whom, and why. The stakes are as high as in any good play: If we donâ€™t change our ways, the status quo will, quite literally, kill us.
In the theatre, our internal systems are every bit as detrimental to the earth and other human beings as the larger systems of which we are a part. We waste resources. We hoard money at the top. We discriminate. We talk a lot about doing better and sometimes we do but on the whole, if we look at statistics likeÂ theseÂ andÂ theseÂ andÂ theseâ€”weâ€™ve all seen themâ€”we are not the model of responsible stewardship and inclusiveness that we would like to be.
Is it surprising? Yes and no. We are a product of this country, this culture, this moment in time. Many of us grew up, whether on American soil or abroad, with American values forced down our throats: Freedom is gold. Growth is infinite. The hero (preferably straight, white, and male) always wins. We have internalized these values and, consciously or not, they continue to inform our behavior.
To be fair, many artists and organizations are working tirelessly to address these problems. But while these efforts are laudable, they remain marginal. Once in a while we have a conference where we acknowledge them and reassert our desire to do better, and then little changes.
Itâ€™s worth asking why, even though these issues have been identified for decades, we as a field have only moved a few percentage points in the right direction. Granted, a theatre canâ€™t fire its entire staff and start anew overnight, but theatrical seasons are put together every year. Every year, new creative teams are hired. Every year, there are opportunities to sayÂ fuck the systemÂ and be inclusive and fair. By now, we should have movedÂ dozensÂ of percentage points in the right direction. But no, we hover more or less in the same place. We pat ourselves on the back forÂ talkingÂ about these things, and ignore the fact that our actions donâ€™t support our words.
If climate change was solely about reducing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the problem would have been solved a long time ago. The reason itâ€™s so difficult to address is because it requires a complete overhaul of the ideology that made it possible. As we have seen in theÂ recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, patriarchy and white supremacy, which underpin our economic system and by extension, the fossil fuel industry, are well and alive in America. AndÂ the extreme violence and sense of entitlementÂ of â€œUnite the Rightâ€ marchers show that those who feel they have most to lose (whether they are justified in that feeling or not) by switching to a new order wonâ€™t let go easy.
The same is true in the theatre. Itâ€™s not difficult to produce a female playwright or cast a person of color. Whatâ€™s difficult is to recognize that cultural standards are not objective, and to stop coming up with â€œgoodâ€ reasons for discriminating. â€œItâ€™s not what our audiences wantâ€ is a cop out that enables theatre leaders and audiences alike to be sexist and racist. And if thatâ€™s where we stand, can we look at what happened in Charlottesville with a clear conscience? Can we honestly say that we had no part to play in creating the culture that made the alt-right possible? It doesnâ€™t matterÂ whatÂ we say in our plays ifÂ howÂ we say it indicates in no uncertain terms that the only valid perspective on our society is that of the straight white man.
As I write this, hurricane Harvey isÂ wreaking havoc in Texas and Louisiana, displacing tens of thousands of people, destroying houses and infrastructures, and bringing Houston, a modern industrialized city in one of the most powerful nations on earth, down to its knees. The climate change apocalypse weâ€™ve been promised is here. I see the photos, watch the videos, read the articles and the posts on social media, and my heart breaks. I can only imagine the magnitude of the pain and sense of loss of those whose entire lives are now under water.
How much longer are we going to go on like this? How many more people have to suffer and die? We, as a society, need to take responsibility for both Charlottesville and Harvey. And we, in the theatre, also need to take responsibility. Artists make culture; thatâ€™s our job. Every day we put ideas on stage that either reinforce the status quo or challenge it. Every day we engage in practices that are either wasteful or sustainable. Every day we interact with each other in a way that is either oppressive or nurturing. We make choices and then we put those choices on stage for everyone to see. Thatâ€™s what theatre is. Never mind the witty dialogue, clever blocking, and fancy designs. At its most basic, theatre is a sharing of beliefs and values that make a production possible, from who is involved to what resources are used to how people are treated.
A common reason for people to not take action on climate change is a sense of powerlessnessâ€”a belief that individuals canâ€™t make a difference and that change has to come from the top. It is, of course, politically convenient for those in power to cultivate that feeling. Powerlessness keeps masses docile, money flowing in the right directionâ€”from bottom to topâ€”and power secure. ButÂ chaos theoryÂ tells us that a small change in a nonlinear complex system, which is what our highly-connected world has become, can result in large differences later. Think of the butterfly effect:Â Does the flap of a butterflyâ€™s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
Moreover,Â science also saysÂ that when just ten percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, that belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.Â Ten percent. Thatâ€™s one in ten artists. One in ten theatres. One in ten plays. Is that so out of reach? Can we not, in a profession that prides itself on the resourcefulness and imagination of its practitioners, find one in ten people to turn the tide? Can we not acknowledge the damage our systems are inflicting on our fellow artists, our fellow citizens, and on the earth, and start to chip at them?
I do see hope. When Native Americans gathered atÂ Standing RockÂ to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline, they saidÂ fuck the system. When youth filed aÂ constitutional climate lawsuitÂ against the US government, they saidÂ fuck the system. When cities and states announced that they wouldÂ uphold the Paris AgreementÂ after Trump pulled out, they saidÂ fuck the system. And every time we marchâ€”for womenâ€™s rights, LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, for the climate, for scienceâ€”we are collectively sayingÂ fuck the system.
I see hope in the theatre, too. Caucasian actor Mandy Patinkin, who was set to replace African American actor Okieriete Onaodowan in the Broadway production ofÂ Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,Â dropped outÂ after realizing he would be harming his colleague. There was anÂ unexpected outpouring of supportÂ from audiences after the announcement that Paula Vogelâ€™sÂ Indecentâ€”one of the rare plays on Broadway both written and directed by a womanâ€”was going to close despite taking home two Tony Awards. And organizations likeÂ Broadway Green AllianceÂ continue to serve and educate the field so we learn to be more sustainable and less wasteful.
And these are only a few examples. Hundreds of small theatre companies across the country, theatres too small to be counted in the statistics, are carving a place for those usually left out of our overwhelmingly monochrome and monogender theatre ecosystem, and are making efforts to use resources responsibly.
In addition to these individual efforts, institutional changes are desperately needed and funders could and should help. In July, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio gave New Yorkâ€™s museums and arts groups anÂ ultimatum: Embrace diversity, or say goodbye to your city funding. When are funders going to hold theatres up to the same standard? On the other side of the pond, Arts Council England, working in collaboration withÂ Julieâ€™s Bicycle, has made environmental reporting a funding obligation for all major revenue funded programs over the last few years, withÂ great success. Can more countries not come up with similar programs?
The burden of fighting for justice shouldnâ€™t always fall on those already disadvantaged. Most of us in the theatre enjoy some form of privilege, whether racial or economic or both. Maybe once in a while, we should be willing to take one for the team. Maybe once in a while, we should have the courage to stand up forÂ all of us, even if it comes at a personal cost. What if, for example, some of the most sought after male playwrights among us refused to be produced by theatres that donâ€™t show gender parity? What if white playwrights required that the cast for their plays reflect the diversity of our society? What would happen then? What if playwrights and directors contractually required that the set be recycled at the end of a production? What if theatres had to disclose the gap between their highest paid employees and their lowest paid employees? Weâ€™ve been waiting for too long; our statistics have got to change. Our systems have got to change. And if it takes some form of disobedience, then so be it. Otherwise, we might as well have voted for Trump.
Naomi Klein is right when she says thatÂ this changes everything. We cannot address climate change without addressing the systems that are feeding it, and we cannot address those systems and still make theatre as if these were the good old days. The theatre community may only represent a small percentage of the population but because it is directly involved in shaping culture, it has a big percentage of the responsibility.
Itâ€™s not difficult. Letâ€™s stop saying that itâ€™s difficult. Letâ€™s stop saying that itâ€™s complicated. Letâ€™s stop saying that itâ€™s expensive or risky. Being rescued from your house by a helicopter because the water is up to your roof is difficult. Making the theatre more inclusive, sustainable, and fair is not.
Fuck the system. Itâ€™s rigged. It has always been. Sadly, it took a dangerous accumulation of CO2 particles in the atmosphere for us to finally face it, but here we are. Letâ€™s not wait until the white supremacists are in power (oh wait, they already areâ€¦) or until weâ€™re all under water to make a change.
Chantal BilodeauÂ is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director ofÂ The Arctic CycleÂ â€“ an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic â€“ and the founder of the blog and international networkÂ Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer ofÂ Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.
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.