Theatre, Climate Change, and an Election Year

Different artists have different relationships to systems, particularly political systems. To me, as an artist seeking to illuminate the flawed status quo and to offer space for alternative futures, confronting political issues is a given. The political realm has been at the forefront of my thinking for the past year, as the U.S. wades through a divisive election season. As time counts down to Election Day, I have been reflecting on the trajectory of this campaign cycle, and how the political issues that I care deeply about have or have not been addressed in the public sphere.

Earlier this year, during the United States Primary Elections and about two-hundred days before the 2016 United States General Election, I assisted NYC-based theatre company Theater in Asylum on their adaptation of the Democratic Primary Debates for the stage. Their production, The Debates: Democratic Primaries Performance, sought to illuminate the characters of the 2016 Democratic candidates for President, and to dissect their political histories. The production did not show bias for or against any candidate, and was intent on empowering audiences to cast conscious votes. As a creator on the show, I myself was reinvigorated in the U.S. political process and in collaborative play-making.

The events of this summer and early fall – from Brexit, and war in the Middle East, to protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline – proved challenging. Why now? Political and social unrest is not new to human history. The development of technology in the past decades has increased how much and how quickly coverage of world events is circulated. This includes the leakage of information on both the major-party candidates here in the U.S. This unprecedented degree of media coverage has led to what Peter Pomerantsev terms “a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world,” in his essay “Why We’re Post-Fact.” Pomerantsev’s notion resonates with me and my concerns around climate change, as he goes on to describe this world: “Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.”

What I find doubly troubling about this “post-fact” world is Pomerantsev’s explanation of how the lies play out in our everyday lives, with search-engine algorithms collating website searches and clicks to target and confirm existing biases. This also happens on social media, which Pomerantsev depicts as “echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.” As someone who relies on social media to stay in touch and spread word about projects important to me, this framing of social media is tricky but useful. As a theatre-maker, I see the possibilities in social media to attract audiences through a direct appeal to their emotions, in the way that social media sites can craft narratives. But I recognize the limitations of such stories, and the nature of their relative truth. Stories through social media can dangerously paint one-sided perspectives. Social media is just a tool, a tool among many. Another tool I am interested in wielding is directly connecting to the beast of the political system itself.

About fifty days before the Election, I moderated a HowlRound Twitter Chat on “Theatre in the Age of Climate Change in an Election Year.” Artists tweeted their questions, concerns, and suggestions around tackling the topic of politics within the context of theatre that addresses climate change. Participants via Twitter ruminated on the challenge to send messages through the form of theatre without alienating audiences. Others expressed feelings of overwhelm around the world of politics itself. One recent concrete example of reaching politicians comes from a New York University student from Montreal, who confronted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while he was visiting New York earlier this fall. In an exchange caught on video, this student asked the political leader “‘Will you reject the Kinder Morgan pipeline?,’” a British Columbia tar sands project, proposed by Texas-based company, Kinder Morgan. This student took direct, courageous action to engage a politician, if only for a moment. I cannot help but hope that instances like this, of undeniable human interaction, are what will change our world for the better.

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Poster for Theater in Asylum’s The Debates. Design by Ran Xia, 2016.

About fifteen days before the Election, I began rehearsals with Theater in Asylum on the continuation of their Debates project, The Debates: General Election Performance. The two-week rehearsal process commenced after all of the General Election Debates had taken place, so we had to prepare for scenes quicker than ever before. The condensed timeline for this project also highlighted where my interests lie, including my interest in using theatre to craft alternate realities. In an alternate reality, climate is regularly on our political leaders’ radars. Journalists both in the U.S. and abroad have noted the lack of attention on climate issues by the two major-party candidates over the past year. Being in a rehearsal room with collaborators on The Debates has provided necessary space to decompress from the absurd topics that are being covered in this campaign season, and to brainstorm what we can make of it all.

In the final days before the Election, I am ambivalent about the outcome. I anticipate I am not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the outpouring of media content throughout this campaign, especially around what he said or what she did. And as “facts” in our society become more relative, the more surreal the circumstances feel. The more surreal our political systems appear, the more we need each other – the stories, the human voices, the feelings we can share with other humans – as these elements will keep us tied to who and where we are, and avoid being sucked into the magnetic vortex that is the polarizing political candidates before us. I am not proposing we all disengage from the political process, not at all. I am propelling the opposite: that we join as communities to speak out about our dissatisfaction, about our disillusionment around our political processes, in order that we might surpass the surreality that is now overwhelming the airwaves. In an age of climate change, this is especially necessary, if humans are to continue living on this planet. On a smaller scale, coming together to engage politically is a necessity because – in a political system like that in the U.S. – decisions are made in local or national governments that impact individuals’ everyday lives. I do not know what the outcome of this election will be. Regardless of who wins, the shape of American politics has shifted. I am hopeful that we – artists, activists, citizens – can continue a shift in a direction towards more sustainable alternatives, in political and social circumstances.

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Rehearsal for Theater in Asylum’s The Debates: General Election Performance. Photo courtesy of Theater in Asylum, 2016.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In AsylumHonest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is a co-organizer with Climate Change Theatre Action. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The Food Plays, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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