It started with an idea: to get playwrights to write plays about the social and ecological issues related to climate change. After six months of coordinating, it coalesced into Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), a series of worldwide readings and performances presented in support of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) that lasted Nov. 30–Dec. 11, 2015 in Paris.
At first, our aim was modest. Theatre Without Borders core member Elaine Ávila, NoPassport Theatre Alliance and Press founder Caridad Svich, and I—representing the Arctic Cycle—asked 21 American and Canadian writers to write 1- to 5-minute plays on the topic of climate change. We then made these plays available to our producing partners in both countries and invited them to organize their own event. The collaborators were also encouraged to include work by local playwrights.
The goal of the project was to invite as many people as possible, including those who would not otherwise pay attention to the outcome of COP21, to participate in a conversation about climate change. CCTA was modeled on previous NoPassport theatre actions that focused on gun control and the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill; we wanted to draw on the expertise and resources of local artists while being national in scope.
But when Roberta Levitow, cofounder and director of Theatre Without Borders, came on board, we suddenly had access to a huge international network of theatre artists. Eager to include a wider variety of perspectives, we reached out and increased the number of writers—including poets and songwriters—to 50, representing six continents.
We did the same with the producing collaborators, and soon we had more than 100 events scheduled in 25 countries, including Costa Rica, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Lithuania, and the United Arab Emirates. The events ranged from readings to fully staged performances, from pop-up street theatre to site-specific presentations. They weren’t limited to theatre, either—there were also radio programs and original films. We didn’t know when we started whether the theatre community would embrace our project. But we quickly saw the value of a frame to unify and support people’s efforts.
Audience members looking at people’s hopes for COP21 written in the tree at Tricklock Company in Albuquerque, N.M., as part of Climate Change Theatre Action. Photo by Juli Hendren.
The kick-off event was in New York City, on Nov. 2nd, and the final happening was in Denmark on Dec. 20. Throughout those two months, CCTA events occurred on a daily basis, with sometimes up to five events in one day. We used Facebook to rally the community, connecting writers to collaborators and collaborators with each other. Not only was the impact of local events enhanced by the fact that they were part of a global initiative, but collaborators were energized in knowing they were working in tandem with artists in other countries, raising awareness about an important issue.
In addition to the theatrical presentations, there were also talks with scientists and environmentalists, which provided concrete facts to support the artistic work. Artichoke Dance Company in Brooklyn had a representative from the local chapter of the environmental organization 350.org talk about their current initiatives; Rogue Machine Theatre and HeatWave Theatre in Los Angeles had a presentation by climate scientist Joshua Fisher of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Arizona State University invited Chispa Arizona, a program of the League of Conservation Voters, to make a presentation on the importance of civic engagement on climate change.
The producers also found creative ways to engage the audience, like Tricklock Company in Albuquerque, N.M., who invited audience members before and after the show to add to a mural displaying hopes and dreams for COP21, and memories of a time spent in nature. Each event had its own unique flavor. Some of my favorites included:
- A week-long series of activities organized and performed by the students of Baker High School in Baldwinsville, New York
- A solstice celebration in an eco-village in Denmark that included refugees from a nearby refugee center
- A site-specific reading of A Pain in the Crevasse: Short Plays on Climate Change at the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier organized by Perseverance Theatre in Alaska
- Intimate living room events for a group of friends in Paris, France and for kids in Vancouver, Canada
- A film by Italian artists called Video Postcard From the End of the World, shot in Armenia, based on texts from over 27 CCTA plays and poems
If the project had stopped there, we would have been more than satisfied. We had succeeded in activating artists, educating students, and getting audience members to pay attention to local and international climate change policies. But CCTA, like the Energizer bunny, kept on going. Lithuania has been invited to tour their show, Nothing Is Forever (containing five CCTA plays, and live violin and viola solos), to Belarus, Belgium, Germany, and Poland.
We have partnered with the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts to organize a contest inviting designers to submit sustainable design ideas for pieces in the CCTA collection. Recently we made the CCTA collection available to educators for use in the classroom. And in the fall, NoPassport Press will publish an anthology of the CCTA plays, with introduction by NYU Professor and eco-theatre pioneer Una Chaudhuri.
Thanks to the international theatre community, CCTA has grown into a global movement. Theatre artists reached across geographical and cultural borders, and united in our common concern for the planet and the creatures that inhabit it. It was inspiring to see everyone jump in and gather the resources necessary to make these events happen.
Did we change the world? I don’t know. But the plays worked on us as much as we worked on them. The project asked us to deeply consider climate change; to imagine loss, survival, and resilience; and to expand our methods of telling stories and making work. Maybe we made a case for how the arts can contribute to social change. Maybe one of the CCTA artists or audience members will become activists in the mode of Naomi Klein or Bill McKibben.
I do know that all of us who participated now see the world in a slightly different way and will, consciously or unconsciously, inspire others to partake in that vision.