For Youth, Theatre is Action

By Kristina Watt

Over the past two years, I have had the privilege to invite a group of teenagers in Canada, ages 13-17, to consider theatre as a possible means to fight for climate action. These ten youth, Natasha Knight, Anna Carsley-Jones, Sebastien Cimpaye, Sophie Dean, Quinn Lesaux, Jaya Matiation, Olivia Smith, Ethan Whidden, Kaatje Yates, and Paige Young, are all driven by a concern and love for the planet – and are deeply anxious about a future they feel they have inherited. As Sophie says, “We’re a group of teens with a goal and the passion to achieve it. We’re not all the same; we have different backgrounds and ambitions, but we’re united in our goal for climate action through theatre.” Quinn adds, “I would describe us as a group of teenagers who have a strong opinion on climate change; we’re trying to get our voice out there for older and younger audiences and trying to inform them how they can use their voice to control this problem.”

Together, we created and toured our collective theatre creation, 12 – not just to theatres but to corporations and inside government offices. Olivia describes the project as “…a question. A question in desperate need of an answer. We ask for help, we ask if you knew this, and ask you to think about it. And we hope you’ll take action – that 12 will stay with you.” Jaya adds, “12 doesn’t have a traditional plot or storyline. We use physical movements, words, numbers, and twelve stools to portray the calm and chaos of our world now. Many characters are present only momentarily. They are youth activists from around the world and people from Ottawa. But mostly, they are us: it’s our hope and desire for help and cooperation. We ask adults to confront themselves, to care, to question, and to take action.”

However, when theatres shut down in March 2020, their means of taking action came to a standstill. After deliberation, the youth decided that 12 couldn’t be replicated online; it had to be live. From the isolation of all of our homes, we built a digital theatre creation, While We Wait, as a means to question how to navigate a life-on-hold while still wanting change. “We felt we needed to take action, somehow. We didn’t just want to wait till all this was over. Climate change wasn’t waiting so how could we?” says Natasha. “It’s a new way to share our experience and still ask questions while living during COVID,” Anna adds. In While We Wait, the ten teens tell the audience that the world has now become more motivated to take action and cooperate due to the pandemic crisis, but what is happening with climate crisis action? And why did it take a devastating loss of human life when there has been an ongoing loss of all life?

When I was invited to write this article, I felt that I shouldn’t be the only voice but should include the youth themselvesThe goal of my work with young people is to allow theatre to communicate their truth, fears, and hungers to audiences of all ages. Speaking from isolation this summer, these ten “unstoppable youth” share their thoughts with me.

Do you think that theatre can actually change people?

Jaya: Yes, I think theatre can change people. When we started creating 12, we didn’t want to talk down to our audience or have a one-sided conversation. We wanted them to question themselves and the world in which we live. Theatre can do just that: ask questions. Change, however, requires more than questions; change requires action. In12, different characters deal with action in different ways, from being unsure of what to do to taking on big corporations. Change is nothing without action and change starts with asking questions. Theatre should ask questions. That’s how it creates change.

Anna: I don’t believe theatre can “change people,” but I absolutely believe it can provoke thoughts and feelings that lead to change. Maybe theatre can be thought of as emotional information – it all depends on what you do with the information. Some may watch a production, feel something, then go home and never think about it again. But others – I hope 12’s audience – will watch, feel and think, then go home and reflect. Reflection means they look deeper than their initial reaction, and hopefully that leads to responding, and responding means changing behaviors. If theatre can do that, then our job has been successful – though it is never complete. 

Natasha: Theatre can absolutely change people! When theatre brings up complex topics in an emotional way, the audience starts to think about the topics. Eventually, they’ll think about the world in a different way. I’ve changed since working on 12. Before, I was aware of the climate crisis and doing my best to help, but since I became part of the project, my climate anxiety has gone up because I’m facing the facts. Instead of just trying my best to help (reusing grocery bags, etc.), I now want to spread the message and share the facts far and wide. I think audiences we’ve had so far also felt the need to spread the message. I hope they’ve actually done so.

Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

Jaya: Yes. 12 is a conversation about climate anxiety and the lack of action from governments and corporations everywhere.

Sophie: But we don’t want to rant. We want theatre to send a wake-up call to all of us, including us actors. Yes, we’re doing what we can, but is it enough? And if it isn’t, what else should we do?

Kaatje: We created 12 out of our fears regarding climate change and the role that it plays in our futures. You know, I always wondered how theatre groups could tour plays for years and never get bored of them or the roles they played. After performing 12 for as long as I have [8 months], I see that it’s constantly changing, improving, and updating with current events. It’s never the same thing. It’s taken so much effort from all of us to become what it is today. I am very proud of it.

Olivia: Our planet is dying, and it’s terrifying to me. It’s easy to get swept up in the panic, but it’s also easy to ignore the problem. We need an answer to our question, a solution to our problem. We want to act, do you?

In March, you were told that you couldn’t perform live anymore due to the global pandemic. What did that mean to you?

Sebastien: The pandemic came at a time when we were productive. We had a lot of shows on our schedule and were rehearsing every weekend. After CID shut us down, we stopped. Then we had the idea to continue spreading our message through a screen. But we didn’t feel the internet was the right medium for 12. In the live show, we use a lot of movement; we have human pyramids and we make formations with our bodies. This is necessary, it adds something to the story. Would the audience react the same watching us on a screen? Probably not.

Paige: We knew an online version of 12 wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t have the same impact. Stuck inside little Zoom boxes, unable to move around or even see the people watching us? We lost the connection with each other and the audience. We needed to look them in the eye and ask why they leave the burden of climate change to us. On top of that, even though we actors were together online, it felt like we weren’t together in the same space. Theatre on a screen can be great, but not for 12.

Anna: Theatre is about sharing art live. And 12 is about sharing our perspectives about the climate crisis through theatre. We weren’t sure what to do. How can we share when we can’t be within two meters of each other or have an audience in front of us? It was disappointing and still is. But I’m definitely grateful that we brainstormed and created the digital project While We Wait.  It’s a new way to share our experience and still ask questions while living during COVID. But it’s absolutely not as thrilling as being in the same room with an audience.

Natasha: Digital theatre is very different… We recorded some scenes together on Zoom and others by ourselves around our house. It was odd reacting to others’ boxes after repeating a line instead of just looking directly at the actor or audience!

Sebastien: COVID is a weird thing. I think it might be interesting to address performing 12 with a post-COVID audience. We didn’t know this was coming so we haven’t had time to write about it yet. I think that’s what we should do next.

What’s your biggest climate change concern these days?

Quinn: I’m scared that humans are going to cause more animal species to go extinct – maybe even some that haven’t been discovered yet. Also, humans are going to completely eradicate forests and jungles and those are very, very important for life. What we’re doing right now is exactly what we’re not supposed to do!

Anna: One of my biggest concerns is the animal agriculture industry (e.g., factory farming). Animal agriculture causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation added together… yet diet is something that many people (capable of eating sustainably/plant based) aren’t willing to change. 

Ethan: I’m worried about the next generation of humans. If we don’t fix what we’re doing now, me or you might not feel all the effects, but the next generation will have to go through the horrors of climate change. They will go through seeing entire cities go underwater, entire species of animals go extinct. They won’t see what life could have been. They will see the downfall of humanity, and that it’s our fault.

Quinn: So many are clueless about what’s going on in the world! Climate change is a real thing, it’s not something to make jokes about.

Anna: I’m concerned about rising temperatures and lack of water. Many people in the Global South face increased temperatures and therefore a lack of resources (e.g., water and food). Since water dries up in the heat, and lakes and rivers shrink, there’s less water to drink or to grow any food, causing susceptibility to diseases, malnutrition, and death. And the most affected countries are the ones with more poverty and more BIPOC people, and not as much attention and aid is given to them from countries with more resources. So they are more deeply affected by climate change. The climate crisis involves racism, classism, and elitism. Why won’t many acknowledge this?

If you could ask one question to other youth around the world, what would it be? And how would you answer?

Quinn: I would ask them, “How are the challenges you face different from the challenges I face?” Different people face different issues in different parts of the world. If someone asked me this, I’d say some of my challenges are missing the bus, getting to school late, or not knowing what clothes to wear. My challenges are minimal. But kids around the world like in Mexico City or Iran? I’ve heard that they’re scared to go outside, scared to go to school by themselves. That makes me think of how privileged I am compared to them. So what do you struggle with?

If you could ask your parents’ generation one question, what would it be? And, if you were them, how might you answer?

Sebastien: I would ask them, “Was the information we now have on climate change out there at the time? Were others trying to tell you about it?” And if I were one of their generation, I think I’d say that the information was out there but I wasn’t looking into it.

The last line of 12, written by you all, is: “It’s as if I’m a spectator, but it’s real.” What keeps you going?

Olivia: Hope is a tricky thing. The majority of the time, I’m putting all my energy into just getting out of bed. What really gives me hope is 12 and our group. It makes me feel like I’m really doing something. I’m making my voice heard and people are changing as a result.

Kaatje: I often lose hope. I hate to say it but I do. I think it’s hard to stay optimistic when those in charge seem to have “more important” things to do. And as much as people talk about climate change, there’s rarely any real action… at least not where it counts. For example, our government keeps giving the oil industry economic advantages rather than putting money into sustainable energy options. Our prime minister says he plans to ban single use plastics by 2021, but how can I be sure a bill like that will pass?

Sophie: Our powerful generation keeps me going: our refusal to stay silent, and our ability to use the internet for activism. Fear also motivates us – fear of what will happen if we don’t act. The idea that our future is in danger drives us in powerful ways.

Kaatje: It’s easy to blame others. I’m often just as guilty. I contribute to fast fashion… I try not too… I use plastic straws even though I know they end up in the oceans. Let’s just say I don’t have a clean record when it comes to being green. I feel guilty and somewhat hopeless, especially when doom seems to be around the corner. But I know being negative won’t help me. As hard as it is to be positive, I have to have hope. I have to do better. Otherwise, how can I expect others to do the same?

Paige: What gives me hope is the knowledge that, despite it all, there are people out there who are fighting to make a difference. If they can still see a better future for this world, then so can I. 

Courage, all, and thank you.

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I would like to note that there were eleven youth in the ensemble until June 2020 when Saava Boguslavskiy left the group, saying, “I don’t really have hope for the whole situation. From my point of view, it’s all too late. I feel my contribution to the play is only going to deteriorate and I don’t want to have a negative impact.” Saava, age 16, continues to contribute in his own way; he composed the music for While We Wait and for the live version of 12.

(All photos except screenshot by Brigitte Pellerin.)

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Kristina Watt is an award-winning actor and theatre creator with an unshakeable passion for collaborating with youth on projects that question our relationship with the planet and with each other. She is driven to question where science intersects with the arts, and to create theatre that sits within that fusion. She is the Artistic Director of 100 Watt Productions and since relocating to Ottawa from New York City where she worked in theatre and TV and taught youth in inner city schools, she has performed at theatres including the National Arts Centre, Great Canadian Theatre Company, New Theatre of Ottawa, Third Wall, and St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival.

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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

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