Little Victories: Climate Change Theatre Action at Pomona College

By GiGi Buddie

Last month I had the pleasure to return (virtually, of course!) to my college, Pomona College in Claremont, California, to attend an event presented by the Department of Theatre and Dance. As a rising third-year and theatre student currently taking a gap year, this event was the perfect way to stay connected with the department, professors, and students in the midst of my leave and the pandemic. The event was produced in response to and in celebration of the release of the 2019 Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) anthology

Founded in 2015, Climate Change Theatre Action is a worldwide series of readings and performances, where every other year, fifty professional playwrights representing all inhabited continents as well as several cultures and Indigenous nations, are commissioned to write five-minute plays about an aspect of climate change based on a prompt. The 2019 prompt, “Lighting the Way,” was designed to specifically give center stage to the unsung climate warriors and climate heroes who are lighting the way towards a just and sustainable future. 

In fall of 2019, I was lucky enough to produce the Pomona College CCTA event, perform a handful of the plays, and facilitate talkbacks with the audience and invited experts. I had an incredible experience, and this year, I have gone one step further to help organize CCTA 2021, by interning with The Arctic Cycle, the organization behind CCTA, and even lending my voice to the soon-to-be-released CCTA 2021 trailer! 

Since I have been so involved with CCTA, I was excited to see what this year’s event would look like, especially since it could not be performed live. The Pomona College Department of Theatre and Dance, in conjunction with the Pomona College Environmental Analysis ProgramEnvirolab Asia, and The Arctic Cycle, presented a number of environmentally-focused plays live and over Zoom. Performing from all over the world were first-year students in the freshman seminar class “Theatre in the Age of Climate Change,” taught by Professor James Taylor.

On November 11, 2020, the small seminar class of eight students, directed by Professor Giovanni Ortega, utilized the strengths of the Zoom medium to create an intriguing performance. Accompanied by virtual backgrounds, snapchat camera filters, and sound effects, the production was a wonderful encapsulation of the power of theatre and the mission statement of CCTA – to gather communities around personally-resonant stories, foster conversations, and encourage action around the climate crisis. This production was certainly global with actors performing from across the United States, Turkey, Belgium, and Jordan. The project succeeded in bringing communities together from across the Claremont Colleges Consortium and from around the world.

In the wake of the U.S. presidential election, now more than ever, we artists need to find ways to celebrate the “little victories,” and this project was certainly a little victory. This year has been full of loss, tragedy, and hardship, and many of us seem to overlook the little pockets of happiness that surround us. The election of a new U.S. President has brought a wave of hope to the country, and has allowed me to finally celebrate the little victories and little pockets of happiness that were waiting to be found at the edge of a seemingly brighter future and new presidency. 

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made personal connection difficult to find, especially in the performing arts, which heavily rely on groups of people getting together in the same physical space, and has taken hope from many of our lives, these students found a way to keep that connection alive by celebrating through a new platform and bringing awareness to the climate crisis. To me, this production was a culmination of what hope and little victories look like. A new generation of scholars, artists, and students are defying the odds and emerging into the world despite all the challenges that 2020 has brought. They have decided to use their voices to speak seriously about our planet. These are the voices we need, and these are the stories we need to tell.

Our younger generations inform and tell these stories. They hold the power. 

Giovanni Ortega

I sat down and spoke with director and professor of acting, Giovanni Ortega, to talk about his experience with this CCTA event, and the victory of adapting theatre for the Zoom platform. During our conversation, since it was so soon after the election, we spoke candidly about what a gift it was to witness the first woman of color, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, deliver her victory speech and, days later, hear the inspiring words of playwright Chantal Bilodeau’s It Starts With Me, a play that brings a whole new definition to female empowerment. It Starts With Me is a piece written for female and female identifying performers to reclaim their voice. The play holds a mirror to society and asserts that we [women] have the power to enact change… and we will:

MULTIPLE VOICES: It starts with me

SINGLE VOICE: Because I may be young
But I can stand in front of world leaders 
And demand that they do their job 

SINGLE VOICE: Because I may be poor
But I can fight to address female wellbeing and ecological health
Together

SINGLE VOICE: Because I may be marginalized 
But I can draw upon indigenous traditional knowledge 
And heal the Earth

[…]

SINGLE VOICE (softly): It starts with me 
Because without me there is no salvation for anyone
Or the planet

Ortega was adamant about finding creative ways to use the venues and environments the actors were in. Most notably, for their production of Canary by Hanna Cormick, he utilized filmmaking to juxtapose the modern world with Belgium nature. Canary is a beautifully written piece that brings awareness to elements contributing to the climate crisis that are often forgotten, like petroleum-based chemicals in our detergents, makeup, lotions, etc. It then shows how these chemicals affect a human being – the writer herself, personified by the actor – who is struggling to live in such a polluted world, even at a micro level: 

I am standing here amongst you for that body 
whose genes have mutated, developed a warning signal
A body whose white blood cells attack petrochemicals 
Treat them like an allergy, a poison
With a potentially fatal immune response

[…]

Her cells, on a hair-trigger
Changing system pathways to explode at will
Stuck on a feedback loop until every single source of food and water and breath is lost to the rising tide of reactivity
A body injected with biologics and chemotherapy and pain
Just to only barely survive the uninhabitable spaces we create around it

A body whose throat swelled up because her nurse accidentally wore eyeliner
A body swollen with hives from a piece of plastic
A body shaken by 100 seizures daily because of the propylene glycol in your soap

A body that can smell your laundry powder from across the street
Smell what you ate three days ago through your skin
Smell bacteria
This body stands here for a body that doesn’t know if it is an evolution or an illness

It’s important to note that the students studied many of these plays in class with Professor Taylor before performing them, and Ortega was quick to note that the interpretation of these young creators could not be overlooked; they added another layer to the meaning of the plays. During the post-show talkbacks, the students spoke as scholars with a comprehensive knowledge of the environmental crises on which the plays focused. The project was collaborative and aimed to uplift the ideas that the students came up with. Most of them were pushed outside their comfort zone in taking on the task of performing live theatre through an online medium.

Mai Dang in a Zoom performance of Earth Duet by EM Lewis

These first-semester, first-year students, many of whom are not trained as actors, tackled a huge theatrical and Zoom feat with grace, dedication, and excitement. I believe that by studying these plays before performing them, which is something that rarely happens in a “normal” production process, the students formed a closer connection to both the scripts and the climate issues that the plays deal with, and they were able to translate that knowledge into their performances. Oftentimes, the most important thing missing from the climate conversation is personal connection and stories, and with this event, these young artists helped fill that gap. The point of an ecodrama is to open avenues for further exploration and reflection, and to incite change, even if it’s on the smallest scale. After all, as Ortega said: “If we can affect just one person, we’ve done our job.”

(Top image: Selim Bayar in a Zoom performance of there are a lot of stories you can tell about humanity by David Finnigan)

____________________________________

GiGi Buddie is an American Indian artist and student studying theatre, with an emphasis in acting, at Pomona College. Whether it be through acting or working in tech, GiGi has dedicated much of her life to the theatre. In the summer of 2019, her passion for art and environmental justice took her to the Baram River in Malaysian Borneo where she, alongside Pomona professors, researched the environmental crisis and how it has been affecting the Indigenous groups that live along the river. As a result of her experience researching and traveling, she student-produced the Pomona College event for Climate Change Theatre Action during the fall 2019 semester.

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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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