I have been on the lookout for plays that deal with climate change for quite some time. Being interested in the subject myself, I’m curious to see how other playwrights are tackling the issue. Two plays by Ken Weitzman were recently brought to my attention:
Fire in the Garden (Indiana Repertory Theatre, 2010), co-winner of the Fratti/Newman Political Play Contest, is inspired by a true story. In 1965 Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, drove to the Pentagon and, in protest over the U.S. policy in Vietnam, doused himself in kerosene and lit himself on fire. In his arms as he did this, was his one-year-old daughter. Morrison died within minutes, Emily (his daughter) survived. Fire in the Garden explores this act through the eyes of a new father whose son is one week away from his first birthday. As he delves into and learns more about Morrison, about his beliefs (that the human family should be valued as much as one’s own nuclear family), about historical cases of extreme self-sacrifice, about the continuing legacy of Vietnam, about Quakerism, and about the most pressing moral imperative of our day, he comes to see Morrison’s act (and fatherhood itself) in a very different light.
Reclamation (developed at the O’Neill Conference, 2012) is set in the American West in year 2020 when water shortages are forcing entire Western towns to relocate to “conservation clusters.” On the very brink of relocation, Leland and Zach, a water manager and his nephew assistant, must strike a deal to save their town and what they call the “spirit of the West”. (You can read an article that was crucial to the creation of Reclamation here.)
I asked Ken to talk a little bit about his experience writing and presenting those plays.
What compels you to write about climate change and environmental issues?
Climate change is the moral imperative of our time. To me, it’s impossible to avoid as a writer. It’s something I certainly wrestle with daily. As I say in Fire in the Garden, I know one day my children (and grandchildren) will ask me if I knew, if I knew what was coming. I will have to say yes. And I can imagine the question that follows my admission will be: “Then what did you do?” I wonder every day what my answer is going to be, what my answer should be.
Unfortunately, and obviously, my writing plays about climate change is hopelessly inadequate. I do believe theatre has the power to reframe a debate, to use metaphor to fundamentally change the ways in which we see things but, ultimately, it’s not action or at least rarely incites it on a level that can bring about change. Perhaps it can be a step along the way? That’s the question at the end of Fire in the Garden anyway. Though I must say, this quote, from an open letter written in response to Norman Morrison’s self-immolation (the subject of Fire in the Garden) sticks with me: “…at some point you may be required by the exigencies of your time to come down from the mountain and sacrifice yourself – or at least part of your life – because there are certain moral evils that cannot be countenanced.” That quote has resonates for me on a number of levels. I’m fascinated, horrified, and inspired by acts of extreme self-sacrifice. Such acts are often what inspire me to write plays, as with Norman Morrison and Fire in the Garden. But at the same time, writing and exploring and wrestling with such acts as Morrison’s makes me question and doubt my writing, and theatre in general, as a useful response to the pressing issues of our time.
What was the audience’s response to Reclamation and Fire in the Garden?
I’ll discuss Fire in the Garden first. I had people ask me, after a reading in which I performed the character, if I thought an extreme act such as self-immolation was what was necessary now? And was I planning to commit such an act? My answer was no, of course not. I’m not planning to light myself on fire to raise awareness or in the hope of spurring change or action. But I do think that kind of extreme action is indeed necessary, and on a daily basis I feel cowardly for not doing more, for not doing something extreme. I write my plays, I call Congress, I write letters to the editor, I sign email and facebook petitions, etc., etc. But in the end I agree with what Morrison wrote, the quote found somehow unburnt in a little notebook in his suit pocket,
“Without the inspired act, no generation resumes the search for love.”
Some audience members, after the Indiana Repertory Theatre production, said “your play, your play is the inspired act.” They meant for me, not in general, that writing, that this play was how I would answer my children’s future “Then what did you do” question. But all I can think in response to that is, as Hemingway said, “isn’t it pretty to think so.” No, this play, in my heart of hearts, is meant not as an answer in itself. It’s meant as a note to explain some future extreme act that the character plans to take to hopefully bring about real and lasting change, as Morrison’s very nearly did.
“Then what is ‘the inspired act’ that will finally make us finally address the coming catastrophe?” asked another audience member. A good question. And at the risk of sounding pessimistic (which I am), I’m afraid the inspired act that will finally make us address climate change will be one of mother nature’s design, not ours. That drought, hurricanes, fresh water shortages, heat waves, disease, etc. will be what forces us to act, desperately, reactively, and out of necessity. I think we’ve passed the point of delaying and/or truly stopping climate change with a change of behavior and lifestyle. I think it’s now about finding and inventing ways, carbon sequestration or some other technique, to address the inevitable. Sorry, I feel I should be more hopeful than that, but I’m not.
This is not to say, at least not completely, that citizens or artists have no role here. I’m not advocating a total abdication of personal responsibility. The response to Reclamation was interesting in light of this. Reclamation deals with the current and coming fresh water shortage as perhaps the single biggest consequence of climate change. And many people responded to the play by saying they hadn’t realized a fresh water shortage was something that was so inextricably linked to climate change. Many, especially on the east coast, had very little knowledge of the interstate and international issues related to water rights and the dwindling Colorado River. (This is the quote from the National Research Council, in 2007, that I put on the title page of Reclamation: “More than 25 million people in seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming – rely on the Colorado River for water and power. The combination of limited water supplies, increasing populations, warmer temperatures, and the specter of recurrent drought point to a future in which the potential for conflict among existing and prospective new water users will prove endemic, and the basin will face increasingly costly, controversial and unavoidable trade-off choices.”)
Most audience members knew nothing of the water settlements reached in the last decade with western Indian reservations and how the reservations have had to, and continue to battle for a reasonable allocation of water (which they’ve been denied for well over a century.) So I suppose I’m saying that consciousness-raising is one function the writer can serve as related to climate change. Though I’d be lying if I said that was the main reason I wrote Reclamation. I do feel a responsibility, as a writer, to wrestle with, as I say above, the moral imperatives of our time. But, cynically, selfishly, the issues and the story of Reclamation were so rich metaphorically, with ideas about original sin, self-sacrifice, and spirituality, that I couldn’t help but write it. My political agenda was, I will admit, secondary.
I will say, though, that the theatre offers a unique way to explore and collide with environmental issues: obliquely and metaphorically. Personally I find such techniques and explorations to be more effective and affecting than straight-up agitation propaganda or plays that address the issues directly. But that’s a gross generalization and I want to take it back now (or at least temper it by expressing my desire to take it back, without actually taking it back.)
What do you think is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?
I suppose I addressed this a bit above. But I think my most direct answer would be to take to the streets. Write, create art, sign Facebook petitions, yes, but also take to the streets. I’m not sure why I haven’t yet. Why we all haven’t.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright and translator whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, art, and climate change. She is the Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle – an organization created to support the writing, development and production of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight countries of the Arctic – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is a co-organizer of Climate Change Theatre Action, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented in support of the United Nations COP meetings.