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Propelling Climate Action through Theater

Equity in the Arts
A group of panelists sit in front of a red curtain in The Lark's BareBones studio, engaged in a discussion with the audience members, who sit in three rows of chairs across from the panelists.
A discussion at The Landing in The Lark's BareBones Studio.

Last month, new and familiar faces gathered on a dark Saturday evening in a warm studio for a shared purpose: celebration. This gathering, The Landing of Climate Change Theatre Action, celebrated seven full weeks of international climate-theater action, with performance, laughter, and forward momentum.

Now in its second iteration, Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) is an international initiative founded in 2015 by Elaine Ávila, Chantal Bilodeau, Roberta Levitow, and Caridad Svich. This year, in addition to the original collaborators –  NoPassport Theater Alliance, The Arctic Cycle, and Theatre Without Borders – we joined forces with the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and York University.

CCTA commissions fifty playwrights from five continents to each write a short play about climate change. The playwrights were prompted with: “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?” From October 1 to November 18 – the two weeks of the United Nations COP23 meeting where world leaders met to discuss our future, and the five weeks leading up to them – collaborators from around the world hosted CCTA events, using at least one of the plays in our collection and incorporating some sort of “action.” We define “action” as something that happens in addition to the theatrical experience, that aims to connect and/or activate people.

These events ranged from living room readings, to presentations at schools, to productions in theaters, backyards, and beyond. The full variety of this year’s CCTA events can be found on our website and Facebook page. In New York City, where most of the organization stems from, we hosted a Launch event to kick off this year’s action.

To bookend this kick-off, Artists Rise Up New York (ARUNY) held The Landing at The Lark on November 18 for an invited audience comprised of CCTA playwrights, collaborators, and “climate warriors.” I have the privilege of being both a member of Artists Rise Up New York and co-organizer with CCTA, so this event was doubly special for me.

ARUNY was founded in response to the 2016 Presidential Election by playwright Jessica Litwak (NY) and Sue Hamilton (LA). In line with ARUNY’s mission to create performative actions for justice, peace, and change, we formed an ensemble of performers and directors to present six of this year’s CCTA plays, themed around animals. Prior to the reading presentation, we set up the space with art installations and interactive stations: photo booth with endangered species puppets (which we made and marched with for the March for Science); toothbrushes from My Toothbrush Killed an Albatross?!; Dear Climate posters; “What’s Your Spirit Animal?”; and a sociometry chart with the prompt “What Aspect of Climate Change Concerns You Most?” Audiences were invited to visit and participate in these prompts, mingling with fellow audience members and the performers in the process.

We introduced the performance with a blessing on the land from Ryan Little Eagle Pierce of The Eagle Project, in recognition of the original occupants of Manhattan: the Lenape people. Our first CCTA piece in the performance was Nocturne, by Jordan Tannahill (Canada). We heard from Juilliard pianist Joseph Mohan, who beautifully performed the first two hundred notes of Chopin’s Nocturne, one note for each species that died that day. Two hundred.

Seven actors dressed in all black stand in front of a red curtain and read from binders of scripts in their hands.

The energy propelled us into the more comedic, yet still profound El Toro Sagrado at the Car Repair Shop, by Mindi Dickstein (US), with three humans witnessing a bull on the loose in Queens. The progression of these CCTA plays was deliberate in that more animal characters were present, as we got to The Narcissism of Small Differences by Jessica Litwak (US), with two animals – a porpoise and a gorilla – supporting a concerned citizen’s work on endangered species. We sang together as an ensemble to transition into Idea Moose by Kendra Fanconi (Canada). As an ensemble, we each tried different tactics to spot a wild moose, using movement, sound, and props. The roles of humans and other species became completely swapped with The Penguins by Elspeth Tilley (New Zealand), as three penguins observe two human scientists, through hilarious, poignant, and uplifting commentary on humanity. Our final play was Oh How We Loved Our Tuna! by Amahl Khouri (Germany/Jordan), with more humor and the realities of human desire. With our curtain call, we taught a Sweet Honey in the Rock song to the audience, to share our voices and to bridge the transition into a dialogue with everyone in the room.

The discussion started with direct comments regarding the plays and what they brought up. As people hooked onto the issues raised, others offered personal anecdotes about their own entry point into climate awareness and action, and various solutions and resources were shared. The conversation weaved through moments of general sentiments, to very specific concerns, fears, and hopes in the face of the current climate crisis. Jessica highlights that: “Everyone both familiar with the topic (climate and animal rescue experts were in the audience as well as several CCTA playwrights and collaborators), and those who had never had the chance to speak about this before participated in the very full, informative and moving discussion.” It was magical to see how the shared experience of the performance unfolded into a community of artists, activists, and citizens – all because we intentionally created such a space.

As part of the evening, CCTA co-organizer Chantal Bilodeau offered some reflections on what was accomplished this year. From the number of participants and audiences, to the various actions taken by collaborators (which included raising money for hurricane relief efforts, donating to local environmental organizations, and writing letters to government representatives urging them to take action on climate issues), the impact of the project has been specific, tangible, and real. Chantal notes: “One of the best comments I heard that night was from a man who had been concerned about climate change for some time but had remained an observer. After watching the plays, he said he was now ready to make a change in his life and become more active in the fight against climate change. That’s what CCTA is all about.”

As more emails trickle in with requests for the CCTA plays, and more interest is springing up in using theater to address climate change, I am feeling like this initiative, which began modestly and came together rapidly, is a microcosm of just what needs to happen in this current political and cultural climate: spaces for safely sharing amongst strangers and friends. We’ve seen and heard about these spaces happening all over the world during this year’s CCTA. We can’t track every single participant, but the momentum is strong for a more resilient, compassionate, and galvanized Climate Change Theatre Action in 2019!