Envisioning a Green New Deal on Stage

By Thomas Peterson

Last Earth Day, I wrote about the evolving iconography and visual culture of the day, lamenting its gradual cooption by corporate greenwashing – protest art replaced by bee-themed Google Doodles. I ended the essay with a call to action, encouraging a return to the radical artistic visions that accompanied the first Earth Day in 1970: 

This Earth Day, and for all the Earth Days to come, we must find a way to strike that balance again. The stakes are too high for cute utopianism. Earth Day may have devolved into a corporatized greenwashing opiate, animated flora and fauna masking collaboration in ecocide, but it can become revolutionary again if we pair an unblinkered exposition of the extremity of the crisis with a reaffirmation of our love for life on earth. We must make images that tell the devastating truth about what is happening to our planet and the life that inhabits it, images so powerful they cannot be sanitized into endless cute bee oblivion. These images must radicalize us, radicalize us with love.

In the past year, I have attempted to answer this call in my own work. In just a few months, communities around the world will begin to perform the short plays commissioned for Climate Change Theatre Action 2021: Envisioning A Global Green New Deal, a project I co-organize with Chantal BilodeauJulia Levine, and Ian Garrett, and to which I contributed a play for the first time this year. We commissioned fifty playwrights from around the world to reckon seriously with the intensifying climate crisis and then respond to it with visions of a world worth fighting for, visions of beautiful, sustainable futures for the people and communities we all know and love. 

Still from the Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 trailer, directed and animated by Kalia Firester.

This fall’s Climate Change Theatre Action, beginning on September 19th and concluding on December 18th to coincide with the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow, will be the fourth iteration of the global distributed festival. Founded in 2015, Climate Change Theatre Action is a biennial series of readings and performances of short plays about the climate crisis, and a project of The Arctic Cycle in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the ArtsClimate Change Theatre Action 2015encompassed 80 performances, reaching several thousand people around the world. In the fall of 2019, over 220 presenting collaborators in 28 countries produced events, engaging over 3,000 artists and reaching an audience of roughly 26,000 people. In the United States, collaborators presented over 150 events, reaching all 50 states for the first time. As we prepare for this fourth edition, we anticipate even greater global participation – these plays will soon grace stages, Zoom screens, classrooms, parks, perhaps even mountains, deserts, lakes, and seas.

Coming into this year, 150 short plays had already been written for Climate Change Theatre Action, 50 for each edition. If a through-line can be identified in this formally diverse and multi-faceted collection, the common theme is courage in the face of crisis. The 2017 plays search for kernels of optimism, provoked by the question “Where Is the Hope?”, while the 2019 plays portray climate heroes who are “Lighting the Way” to a just and sustainable future. As we considered guiding themes for CCTA 2021, straining for hope in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that the necessity for positive visions had never been less urgent, nor had the need for rapid, dramatic action to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and redress environmental injustice. So we asked playwrights to envision the societies and communities they hope to see on the other side of the unprecedented societal transformation that we must achieve if we are to mitigate the worst effects of a warming climate.

Facing the intersecting, compounding crises of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, racist violence, and skyrocketing economic inequality, people around the world are turning to a common framework for solutions: a Green New Deal. Just as policymakers worldwide are considering massive investments in clean energy, care jobs, and a regenerative economy, we asked the CCTA 2021 playwrights to consider what an equitable, sustainable, decarbonized, and just society might look like, in their communities or beyond. What would it look like if Green New Deals were adopted around the world, and these plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while addressing interwoven social inequalities became realities?

Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 trailer, directed and animated by Kalia Firester, voiceover by GiGi Buddie.

Fifty-one playwrights took on the challenge, hailing from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Uganda, the UK, and the US, and representing seven Indigenous Nations. 

The call for 2021 producing collaborators is now live, and the 50+ plays are available for perusal. Individuals and organizations are invited to host an event in their communities this fall – anything from an intimate reading to a fully staged show, and from a podcast to a site specific performance. I invite each and every one of you to explore the plays in the collection and to take action by envisioning a Green New Deal on stage.

I sincerely hope that as artists and activists around the world gather to enact these visions on stage this fall, the performances will radicalize us with love and catalyze the societal transformations we so desperately need.

(Top Image: “Climate Change Theatre Action 2021: Envisioning A Global Green New Deal” by Alex Lee)

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Thomas Peterson is an organizer, writer, and director whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, with whom he co-organizes Climate Change Theatre Action, and a field organizer with Green Corps. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College and was a Williams-Lodge Scholar in Paris. He has written about theatre and locality, climate propaganda, the aesthetic of the sublime in climate theatre, and about the cultural history of the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn. He is currently developing The Woods Avenge Themselves, an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck.

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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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