AMY DRAKE, Playwright

Theater and Climate Change

December 8, 2021

Playwrights are contributing their talent to the global discussion surrounding climate change. The Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) encompasses worldwide performance art dedicated to bringing attention to the crisis of climate change. CCTA was founded in 2015 to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) Three remarkable CCTA playwrights share their views.

Paula Cizmar

How did you become involved in climate change activism?

I had some problems writing about climate change early on. For too many people, climate change connotes a far-off problem in a far-off time in a far distant land, i.e., The glaciers are melting! The sea level is rising! Save the whales! People think, ‘well, that doesn’t affect me.’ But when you frame the issue as environmental justice, suddenly it becomes easier to get people to recognize the human rights violations happening in their own backyard — polluted air that schoolchildren breathe, streams tainted with industrial toxins, oil wells that cause health problems because they’ve been placed too close to residences, badly eroding infrastructure that exposes citizens to chemicals. And this happens most blatantly in low-income neighborhoods, often neighborhoods where most of the residents are people of color. All of these are contributors to environmental decay and climate change, and all of these are also byproducts of the root cause of climate change — our insatiable need to consume and burn fossil fuels. Suddenly, as a playwright with a conscience, I can’t let this topic pass me by.

BTW, those of us who live in California can’t escape the consequences of climate change; they are right in our face 24/7. I wrote my first climate change play — a short, post-apocalyptic piece — during the fourth or fifth year of a drought that went on for a few more years afterward. That short script became a part of a triptych of plays called WATER RITES which deals with water in the past, present, and future — because you can’t live in California without being aware of water. Or actually, the lack of it. It becomes very clear very early on that we are at the mercy of the elements, at the mercy of nature. The water crisis affects everything — crops, the drinking water supply, the salmon run, the extra-dry conditions that spark wildfires every year. And it is intersectional. Climate change affects people across race, gender, ethnicity, age, economics. Well, that’s one of the few parts of the spectrum that isn’t quite so affected — you can buy your way out of a climate change crisis, up to a point, so the super-wealthy have a bit of an advantage. But that can only last so long.

So I wrote several plays that had some element of climate change woven into the fabric of the worlds of those plays — extinction, what is green power, who protects the land. And then I realized — because no one wants to produce these kinds of plays — that I had to become more of an activist. I had to create an action and produce it myself. So I took advantage of the Visions and Voices program at USC and applied for funding to do a few play festivals. One of them was LA — At the Intersection, where I commissioned 10 women playwrights to write super-short pieces about environmental issues unique to Southern California; they were produced at the Natural History Museum in the Hall of Mammals. It was a remarkable setting — a great place to start a conversation about what matters, how we become decent stewards of the land and the river, etc.

Environmental justice advocates always point out that climate change affects us all. Because sometimes the wind blows in a different direction — and though the toxic air might not be created in your neighborhood, you never know when wind is going to shift and the pollution is going to blow your way.

Tell us about creating SEVEN. How did the project come together?

Carol Mack got the inspiration for SEVEN and invited six other women playwrights to join her in interviewing women human rights workers from around the world and weaving the stories together into a documentary play. Most of us were already friends from The Women’s Project in New York, so we all gladly jumped onboard. The play has become a phenomenon; it has been used as an organizing tool for people trying to start anti-violence-against-women campaigns and was even performed by Nato generals to bring awareness about gender violence in the military. It has been translated into 20+ languages and been presented in 30+ countries — and the performances have been as meaningful in Croatia as they have been in India or the U.S. We keep hoping that the play will become irrelevant — that the issues of domestic violence and corruption will be solved so that the play becomes a relic. Sadly, that hasn’t happened.

Why opera is a great form to relay your message. (I believe it is and would like to get your take on this.)

Opera has had a long history of being an art form that addresses power and political dissent. We tend to think of traditional opera as lots of pretty arias and a story where the soprano dies. But when you look at the plots, you notice that a good amount of opera takes on oppressive leaders or social upheavals — it’s just that the stories are frequently masked by metaphor or by being set in ancient times. So yes, opera is a great form to relay a social justice message, and I believe that a lot of contemporary opera is doing that. Many of the composers and librettists writing today want to continue the tradition of opera questioning authority — and often this is reflected in the music which frequently is very experimental and not particularly similar to what people might associate with operas of the past. I love the form. I love that it is so open, that musicians in particular are willing to take risks. I want to keep working in opera, because it engages all the senses, and it offers up an opportunity to appeal to an audience on so many different levels — and therefore invites them to be present for a story that provokes them to think. I love it and want to keep writing for it.

Tell us about your documentary pieces.

I’ve done a good amount of documentary work in the past several years. It was a departure from the fictional plays I had written up to this point. But it’s a very useful form when you want to go into a community and have the residents tell their own story. The latest project is a documentary play with multimedia, SACRIFICE ZONE: LOS ANGELES, which I am putting together with multiple collaborators at USC. We’re taking on backyard oil wells and the threat to public health. My co-creator/co-producer, Michael Bodie, and I have assembled a team of something like 10 writer-researcher-interviewers, another dozen designers and video makers, an amazing director (Fran de Leon), and a fabulous community organizer, Hugo Garcia of the People Not Pozos campaign of Esperanza Community Housing. Plus a dozen or more community members who have been so generous with their time. We put together a prototype performance in March 2021 on zoom, and now we’re creating an interactive website that digs into the concept of sacrifice zones and stewardship of the land — and what happened when the land was taken away from the people who originally cared for it and was exploited by industry. It’s huge. Complex. And very exciting. When we can be in person again safely, we’re going to present a live performance of an expanded version of the play — and with any luck the interactive website will be launched at that point and people will have a way of taking a cultural and spiritual tour of the issue on the site.

How did you become involved in CCTA?

I was lucky in that I met Chantal Bilodeau at a climate change event at Pomona College (hosted by Giovanni Ortega and James P. Taylor); we were on a panel together and we hit it off. Then I saw her again at an Earth Matters On Stage conference in Alaska — and it was clear we were speaking the same language. She invited me to be one of the CCTA playwrights for 2019 — and I was thrilled. Chantal has created an incredible movement — and it is so exciting that the work gets done all over the world, frequently as a grassroots effort, and that, to me, has become so satisfying. The work gets directly to people. I love that.

What are you currently working on?

Right now, I am working on a play about a biologist who is searching for the last remnants of an endangered species, but what she is really looking for is a key to her own past; the play is called STRAWBERRY and it has been part of the year-long development program at Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with the four other playwrights and the dramaturgical team at Boston Court. I’m also rewriting THE CHISERA, which is about water rights and green power; it’s going to be part of the New Years/New Play Festival at Palm Beach Dramaworks in February 2022. Again — another amazing experience with smart, passionate people. I’m also finishing up a kind of crackpot play called ANONYMOUS, ME, which is kind of a take on the food world (farm to fork/vegan politics/food deserts, etc.) set against the framework of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. And I’m collaborating with composer Guang Yang on a new opera called THE BOOK OF CHANGES; we kind of want to combine traditional Chinese instruments and electronic music this time. And I started a new play with older female characters, but I keep getting distracted by my day job. (I teach.)

Wren Brian

I was honoured to be asked to write a piece for Climate Theatre Action 2021 as it is crucial for us to collectively re-learn how to care for our natural environment in order to not only survive, but also, to more deeply care for each other. I was very fortunate to grow up on the territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation & Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, and still return as often as I can. Comparing my experiences living in the north to my experiences living down south significantly influences my writing and my views on how humans interact with nature and each other. I wanted to share these views in my piece in the CCTA in the hopes that it would be thought-provoking and inspiring to fellow creators and audiences.

Nicole Pschetz

I’m a theatre maker and performer based in Paris and the artistic director of Poulpe Électrique: a physical theatre and multimedia company that focuses on contemporary themes through a critical and poetic dialogue between physical expression and the digital arts.

I wrote this play in an attempt to talk about what we will lose if we continue to relate to our planet as consumers. In this text I focus particularly on the conservation of the Brazilian Cerrado. Apart from being a place that is very dear to me, it’s the second largest biome in South America, the most biodiverse savannah in the world, and the birthplace of several rivers. Its conservation is important not only for the existence of its unique fauna and flora but also to human existence. Unfortunately, in recent times, its devastation has been accelerated. Deforestation and fires have increased. Climate change is happening and if action isn’t taken it will be too late. In my ideal future, Half-Earth and rewilding could be a solution to stop mass extinction in this area. This would help sustain biodiversity, as well as allow native people to continue living in harmony with these ecosystems.

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