Lighting the Way

By Chantal Bilodeau 

AN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT PLAYS ABOUT THE CLIMATE CRISIS

This fall, The Arctic Cycle, in collaboration with the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, published Lighting the Way, a volume anthologizing the short plays that made up Climate Change Theatre Action 2019. What follows is excerpted from the anthology’s introduction. 

This anthology is a leap of faith. It is one attempt to address the climate crisis, one item on a long list of efforts by scientists, engineers, academics, politicians, activists, writers, thinkers, dreamers, communities large and small, and, increasingly, artists. It is a tool for reflecting and grieving, for learning and growing, and for dreaming and acting. It was conceived to bring us together around a complex and polarizing issue, and to give us the strength to not only ask for, but also enact significant change.

The stories we tell each other matter – often more than we realize. Whether made-up or true, they are a reflection of our beliefs and values, of the many unspoken rules that shape culture and our understanding of reality. We grow up hearing them informally from our parents and families. They are further refined through formal education, conversations with friends and strangers, and our awareness of the moment and place in which we live. Ultimately, they are affirmed through personal experience. They are such an integral part of our identity that when challenged, we will fight to the death to protect their integrity. Our stories are, quite literally, who we understand ourselves to be. And yet, they are constructed – an act of imagination. (For more on how stories influence who we are, see The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaningby Jeremy Lent).

We don’t have to look very far to see the power of stories in action. In a court of law, although the facts are the same for everyone, the side most skilled at weaving those facts together – in essence, the side with the most compelling story – wins. In politics, narratives determine policy: whether we care about biodiversity loss, extractive practices, or environmental justice is a function of the story we tell ourselves about how important these things are and who should be responsible for them. In our personal lives, stories bind us together as families and communities – so much so that the first thing we do when we meet each other is to ask for a story: How are you?

The importance of narrative is why artists are well-positioned to contribute to the climate change conversation. Through their craft, artists can create stories that tackle huge, seemingly intractable problems and break them down into smaller, more relatable components; stories that weave the facts of climate change into meaningful narratives to help us understand what it all means; stories that present alternatives to the dominant discourse and dysfunctional status quo; and stories that start to imagine what a better future, not just for the privileged few, but for everyone, could look like.

In industrialized countries, the mainstream environmental movement has for too long been dominated by white male voices and experts. It is not uncommon for the lived experiences of frontline, racialized, and low-income communities, and the lived experiences of women, to be considered less important or less valuable than white male expert opinions, or to be ignored all together. While we decidedly must heed the advice of scientists – as we are painfully learning through the many failures to control the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. – there is also a need for subjective experiences, for hearing about the struggles of human beings no matter where they fall on the economic scale or color spectrum, for the messiness of emotions, and for every other unquantifiable thing that makes us human.

American poet Lucille Clifton famously said: “We cannot create what we can’t imagine.” Research has shown that imagining an act can activate and strengthen regions of the brain involved in its real-life execution. In addition to validating our experiences and giving voice to those whose experiences are not recognized, we have the power to shape our reality, to use our most unique human feature – our imagination – to dream up stories that can bring into existence what we want to actualize.

The global climate crisis is, well, global. Which means we all have a role to play in reversing it. We all have skills and networks of influence that can be called upon. That’s why a few years ago, Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), the project that is the impetus for this anthology, was born. As artists, we were not going to just stand to the side and watch the crisis unfold. There was something we could do.

What is Climate Change Theatre Action?

Inaugurated in 2015 and hosted biennially, CCTA is a worldwide series of readings and performances of short plays about climate change, presented to coincide with the United Nations Conferences of the Parties – the annual meetings where world leaders gather to discuss strategies to reduce global carbon emissions. It is spearheaded by The Arctic Cycle, in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts

We typically commission 50 playwrights (although this year we ended up with only 49), representing at least a dozen countries, to write a five-minute play about an aspect of the climate crisis. We then make this collection of plays available to anyone interested in presenting an event in their community during a three-month window in the fall. Events may range from readings to fully-produced performances, and from podcasts to film adaptations. Event organizers can design their event to reflect their own aesthetic and community, and include additional material by local artists.

To emphasize the “Action” part of Climate Change Theatre Action, we also encourage organizers to think about an action – educational, social, or political – that can be incorporated into their event. These actions may involve the scientific community, local environmental organizations, or political or direct action. In the past, organizers have hosted panel conversations with climate scientists, pledged to reduce consumption or adopt plant-based diets, and written letters to legislators to demand policy change.

The five-minute format of the CCTA plays is not accidental. We want the plays to be as user-friendly as possible so they can be presented in a variety of contexts and fit in a wide range of budgets, including no budget at all. The short format means that the plays require few resources to perform, can be presented individually as part of larger events – like conferences or festivals – or grouped together in any number to create an evening of theatre. They can also be studied in classes, shared at family gatherings, read in podcasts or at marches – the possibilities are endless. 

Lighting the Way

CCTA 2019 took place from September 15 to December 21, 2019. Earlier in the year, we reached out to playwrights, keeping an eye on gender and racial representation to make sure that our group was well balanced. Once we had the playwrights assembled, we offered the following prompt:

This year, we want to give center stage to the unsung climate warriors and climate heroes who are lighting the way towards a just and sustainable future. These may be individuals or communities fighting for justice or inventing new technologies; they may be animals, plants, or spirits imparting wisdom; or it may be a part of yourself you didn’t know was there. Feel free to be literal – or not – and to travel forward or backward in time.

The prompt was intended as a starting point for the research and writing process, with each writer free to interpret it in their own way. But it also hinted at a route we prefer that the narratives avoid, which is the apocalyptic route. For one thing, as my friends Lanxing Fu and Jeremy Pickard, co-directors of eco-theatre group Superhero Clubhouse, often remind us: the apocalypse is a privileged narrative. It assumes that the terrifying future that is imagined, with food shortages and power failures and wars over resources, doesn’t already exist. It suggests that this is the worst thing that could happen to society while completely disregarding the fact that many communities already live under those conditions.

Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, the brain can be activated to actualize what we imagine, so if we only imagine the worst, the worst is what we’re going to create. Writers often cite the desire to scare people into action – to make so vivid the consequences of our shortcomings and inaction that audiences will be compelled to act differently. And yet, it seems like the opposite may be true. In a recent paper examining the impact on readers of Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopic cli-fi novel The Water KnifeMatthew Schneider-Mayerson found that:

A vivid depiction of desperate climate migrants engaged in a self-interested and violent struggle for survival can backfire, since even liberal readers might not empathize with climate migrants, but fear them. This is a real risk, and it’s one that authors and other cultural producers should take seriously. It’s possible that narratives like The Water Knife might not motivate progressive environmental politics, as authors and critics often hope, but support climate barbarism – callously allowing the less fortunate to suffer – or even ecofascism.

There should still be room for these apocalyptic narratives in the climate conversation, but they certainly shouldn’t dominate our imaginary landscape as much as they currently do. Between scientific predictions, extreme weather events and their coverage in mainstream media, blockbuster movies, and artists’ dystopian depictions of the climate crisis, we are surrounded by narratives of failure. Our CCTA prompt was intended to encourage the playwrights to look beyond the apocalypse and bring to the surface the stories that are not being told.

Going Forward

Local communities are often isolated in their environmental struggles, even when the problems are systemic and widespread, such as sea level rise or pollution from fossil fuel extraction. My hope is that through stories from and about various parts of the world, this book can help unite people who share a common experience, an essential feature in driving action at the scale required to address the climate crisis. For example, a play about deforestation in India might resonate with a community in Brazil, or a story about Indigenous land rights in New Zealand might have echoes in Canada.

I also hope that the 49 CCTA plays included in this anthology can help people find common ground across political and ideological boundaries, and across disciplines. In the past, they have provided a means for stakeholders with very different perspectives to come together and build trust. Past presenters have commented on their ability to bring together people from disparate ends of the political spectrum to discuss charged issues, or to build bridges between different departments at their institutions.

Finally, it is my sincere hope that this anthology will encourage more people to think and talk about the climate crisis in ways that are thought-provoking and empowering instead of demoralizing and paralyzing. May this book inspire students to find out more and get involved, professors to consider new ways of teaching about the climate crisis, and artists to lend their voices to this most pressing and dire of issues. May it contribute to showing the role that the arts and storytelling can play in shifting our culture toward greater resilience and justice, and, ultimately, toward sustainable living.

Lighting the Way: An Anthology of Short Plays About the Climate Crisis is available as a paperback and ebook on Lulu.com.

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Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the founder of Artists & Climate Change, and the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle, an organization that uses theatre to foster dialogue about our global climate crisis, create an empowering vision of the future, and inspire people to take action.

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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.

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