Changing the Climate Narrative Fifty Plays at a Time

“I suspect future generations will look back and judge us not so much by what we said and did about climate change but by what we didn’t. Climate Change Theatre Action may be a small gesture in the grand scheme of activism, but to do nothing is a far greater gesture.”
—Jordan Tannahill, CCTA 2017 playwright, Canada

We live in dark times – socially, politically, environmentally. The gap between rich and poor is increasing, countries around the world are embracing authoritarian ideologies, and the latest IPCC report warns that we have 12 years to decarbonize the economy and prevent climate catastrophe. Though it would be tempting to sink into despair and conclude that nothing less than an apocalyptic future awaits us, the truth is, as Rebecca Solnit points out in her article “Don’t despair: the climate fight is only over if you think it is,” the future hasn’t been decided yet. We still have a chance to enact the best possible scenario instead of the worst. That is, if we all take action now.

CCTA 2017 event presented by Drama Dogs in Santa Barbara, California.

It can be hard to figure out where to start, but we’re not without role models. There are plenty of (largely unsung) climate warriors and climate heroes who are working tirelessly to bring us back from the brink. These are the people who fight abusive power, invent new technologies, protect the vulnerable, organize, protest, and believe that we owe it to ourselves to stand up for what is right. They’re the quiet leaders who inspire with their wisdom and optimism, and who would never dare give up because they know all too well that we can’t afford to. They’re also the kids who, by their very existence, make it immoral for us to use pessimism to justify inaction. And they’re our nonhuman friends who go to great lengths to adapt to their changing environment so they can continue to share this Earth with us.

Now more than ever, we need to celebrate these role models. We need to shine a bright light on them so we can be reminded that we’re not alone, and that determination and courage go a long way. And what better way to do that than through theatre? As a playwright, I have experienced again and again the power of live storytelling and know that it brings us closer together. In fact, a recent study showed that our heartbeats synchronize when we watch a live theatre performance together. I also know that stories – as opposed to dry facts – are what get us out of bed in the morning and inspire us to take action.

Rebecca Agbolosoo-Mensah performing in a CCTA 2017 event organized by One World Theatre Productions, Shanghai, China. Photo by Alejandro Scott.

In 2015, following a model pioneered by NoPassport Theatre Alliance, I co-founded Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) in order to bring more climate change stories into the world. A biennial initiative, CCTA engages a diverse community of artists and audiences to foster sustainable change on a local and global scale. Fifty playwrights, representing every continent as well as several Indigenous nations, are commissioned to write five-minute plays about an aspect of climate change. The resulting collection of plays is then available to international producing collaborators who are invited to present an event in their community during the project’s time window, using one or several plays from the collection.

Our first year, a pilot year, didn’t have a theme. But for CCTA 2017, we asked “Where Is the Hope?” Our 50 playwrights answered the question, writing plays that looked beyond doomsday scenarios and disaster-centered narratives to offer kernels of hope. The plays were presented in more than 140 events in 23 countries – including Brazil, Canada, Chile, Czechia, Iran, Romania, UK, and the US, just to name a few – reaching 12,000 people (a 75% increase from 2015). Venues included theatres, parks, churches, schools, universities, libraries, backyards, community centers, cafes, and street corners. Plays were presented as readings and full productions, read on radio and podcasts, adapted into films, and livestreamed.

Participants in a CCTA 2017 event organized by the Drama Discourse Society, Auckland, New Zealand.

To emphasize the “Action” part of Climate Change Theatre Action, collaborators are encouraged to think about an action – educational, social, or political/civic – that can be incorporated into their event. It may involve the scientific community, other departments within a university, local environmental organizations, etc. Examples of actions that have been taken in previous years include: hosting panel conversations with climate scientists; inviting personal pledges to reduce consumption, and; writing letters to legislators to demand policy change.

We’re currently gearing up for CCTA 2019 – a collaboration between The Arctic Cycle, the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, and Theatre Without Borders. CCTA 2019 will take place September 15 – December 21, 2019, to coincide with COP25, the United Nations Climate Change Conference that brings together world leaders to discuss strategies to reduce global carbon emissions.

CCTA 2017 event organized by Upstream Artists’ Collective, New York, New York. Photo by KBMedia.

As our theme “Lighting the Way” suggests, for CCTA 2019 we are giving center stage to the climate heroes lighting the way towards a just and sustainable future. We are looking for the inspirers among us and making sure that their work, whether practical or spiritual, is known. In no way do we intend to minimize the suffering of frontline communities, or dismiss the severe disruptions awaiting us in favor of a naive “happy ending.” Given where we are, loss is and will continue to be inevitable. But in addition to grieving, we also need to celebrate our successes and provide an alternative to the dark climate narrative put forward by mainstream media. The truth is, efforts are being made – on a local and global scale – and their impacts are adding up. These are also part of the climate narrative.

There is no doubt the stories we tell ourselves about who we are in this rapidly changing world will determine how we move through it. Our narratives directly impact how we feel, which in turn determines how we act. If we tell ourselves that we are powerless, we will be. If we tell ourselves that something can be done, we will act accordingly. Climate Change Theatre Action cannot, on its own, completely reshape our climate narrative, but it can offer a more nuanced story that lets light shine through the darkest spots.

CCTA 2017 event organized by Cathrine Winsnes, Paris, France.

If you would like to organize a CCTA event in your community in 2019, sign up for The Arctic Cycle’s mailing list. You’ll be the first to hear when we put out our Call for Collaborators.

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We are running a Kickstarter campaign until December 13, 2018 to commission our 50 playwrights and get the project underway. Consider joining us in this effort and becoming part of our community.

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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 – a New York-based 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 – and the founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change. She is currently working on a series of eight plays that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight Arctic states.

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