By Chantal Bilodeau
While world leaders convened at the United Nations 2015 Paris Climate Conference in November and December 2015, artists across the world mobilized to present cultural events in support of a global agreement reducing carbon emissions. One such event was the international Climate Change Theatre Action, a joint venture between NoPassport, The Arctic Cycle, and Theatre Without Borders.
CCTA consists of a series of worldwide readings and performances of climate change-themed plays, poems, and songs curated by playwrights Elaine Avila, Caridad Svich, and myself. The goal of the project was to invite as many people as possible who may not otherwise pay attention to this history-in-the-making conference to participate in a global conversation.
A collection of one- to five-minute pieces, by writers from all six continents, was made available to producing collaborators worldwide. Over 100 collaborators in 25 countries hosted events ranging from informal readings in classrooms to day-long festivals, from radio programs and film adaptations to site-specific performances.
Four of the 25 participating countries were Arctic countries: the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway. In the United States alone, 50 events were presented in 35 cities. Among them, Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska partnered with University of Alaska Southeast and the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center to present “A Pain in the Crevasse: Short Plays on Climate Change.” Selected plays were read outside at the pavilion of the Mendenhall Glacier while blankets and hot beverages were provided to attendees. The event was followed by a post-show panel discussion with glaciologists and Juneau climate change experts.
Just across the border, Canada boasted five events: four in the Vancouver area and one in Toronto. In Vancouver, The Only Animal and Playwrights Theatre Centre accomplished the Herculean task of bringing together 14 local theater companies to collaborate on one event. At Vancouver Island University, faculty from sciences and technology provided displays in the theater lobby and answered questions after the presentation of “Twelve Scenes from the Anthropocene.” Vancouver also organized the only CCTA event for kids.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Teater Viva in Denmark chose to read a selection of CCTA plays as part of the annual solstice celebration in Andelssamfundet, a cooperative society in Hjortshøj. The theme of the celebration for 2015 was hospitality, specifically people’s hospitality and the hospitality of the earth that gives us shelter. Andelssamfundet’s residents invited a group of refugees from a refugee center nearby to celebrate with them. Musicians composed and played acoustic music on instruments from all over the world to accompany the reading of the plays.
Finally, at Dramatikkens Hus in Oslo, Norway, the group Concerned Artists Norway presented “Vorpsiel to People's Climate March: Climate Change Theatre Action.” They read a selection of CCTA plays and added distinctive Norwegian voices including meteorologist Rasmus Benestad and poet Inger Elisabeth Hansen. This reading was followed by a presentation of my full-length play "Forward." "Forward," set in Norway, presents a poetic history of climate change, from the initial passion that drove explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the North Pole to the consequences of over a century of fossil fuel addition.
CCTA was successful on many levels. First, it was both local and global. It drew on the expertise and resources of local artists while uniting multiple countries and cultures around a common issue. Second, it made climate change more accessible by communicating it through personal stories, provided a forum for public conversation, and helped build community.
“I think the most successful part was the play readings themselves, and specifically the comedies—people really enjoyed getting to laugh about a subject that is often presented in a dry, boring, and scary way,” Elizabeth Buchanan, artistic intern at Perseverance Theatre, wrote in a statement to World Policy Journal. “I think the impact in the community was that this event reached an audience that may not have been so politically inclined, and maybe now they are more likely to get involved.”
Elaine Avila, who had a hand in organizing one of the Vancouver events, commented: “Our action had a wonderful sort of fluid, exploratory feeling, ranging from kids who were probably on stage for the first time to some of Vancouver's most seasoned professionals.” The event, planned in collaboration with First Nations and featuring a sung blessing by Gloria Eshkibok, placed importance on inclusion and diversity.
Nelson Gray at Vancouver Island University echoed Avila’s feeling: “One of the most positive aspects of putting on this event was the community-building that took place, which—it seems to me—will have a considerable ripple effect, affecting the spirit of this university and its relationship with the surrounding community.”
Many other CCTA events around the world were just as successful, and to our surprise, the project is having a longer life than we expected. After theater director Aiste Ptakauske and violinist Karen Bentley Pollick presented an evening combining CCTA plays and live music in Lithuania, they were asked to tour the show in Belgium, Poland, Belarus, and Germany.
In Ethiopia, a fully funded program for countrywide performances led by Tewodros Tessema, artistic director of the Documentary Film, Creative Arts & Ad Center, and supported by the Ethiopian Ministry of the Interior will take place in 2016. Several collaborators are talking about mounting fully produced versions of the plays. We also regularly get requests from educators who want to use the pieces in their classrooms.
One of my goals when we were gathering collaborators at the beginning of the project was to find scientists working in the Arctic. I hoped someone would read one of our CCTA plays or poems while out in the field and record him or herself on a smartphone.
Since the impact of climate change is so acutely felt in the North, I wanted that region to be represented. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to find the right person in time. But scientists beware, when we do the next installment of CCTA, a passionate theater artist may be coming after you.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle, the founder of the blog Artists and Climate Change, and a co-organizer of the 2015 Climate Change Theatre Action.
[Photos courtesy of Box Collective, Teater Viva and NASA HQ PHOTO]