Green Things to Love

In early March, my climate campaigning efforts dovetailed with my theatrical work (something I should be unconditionally happy about, but then I wouldn’t be me, would I?). Specifically, I directed two short plays by Nicolas Billon, a Quebecois playwright whose anthology Fault Lines won a Governor General’s Award in 2015. Both scripts dealt with environmental issues in complex ways.

The first play, Greenland, is composed of three interconnected monologues portraying a family in crisis. The first character, a glaciologist studying the effects of climate change, speaks scientifically about the problem, but the stark facts are merely a frame for deeper psychological questions: what do we inherit, how can we connect with others, and how do we cope when those connections are shattered.

The final, heartbreaking monologue is a teenage girl reflecting on the death of her twin brother. But it’s the central monologue that really challenges audiences. Judith, the glaciologist’s estranged wife, holds nothing back: “Fuck the polar bears,” she begins. “Fuck penguins. Fuck glaciers. Fuck Greenland.” And so on. Later, she concedes, “I’m not an idiot. I understand the problem.” But she can’t see past her own needs and desires long enough to care, much less take action.

While I was working on the show (with a stellar cast and crew, by the way), I came to recognize the three characters’ perspectives as somewhat exaggerated but honest generational attitudes towards global warming: The scientist has understood for ages that there is a problem, but can’t figure out how to communicate it; the wife resents the crisis for the damage it does to her personal life; and the teenager–well, she is effectively paralyzed, inheriting disasters that are in no way her fault.

So, y’know, fun times.

To lighten the mood after Greenland, I staged Faroe Islands, Billon’s short, comical excoriation of “armchair activism.” The only character is Dara, a young activist determined to end the grindadrap, or Faroese whale hunt. Dara is sincere yet sassy, and she wears her heart on her sleeve such that you just know she’s going to get hurt, but you root for her regardless.

I was less confident about realizing the themes of Faroe Islands. Although its characters are nuanced, Greenland felt very direct to me, demonstrating how we drift apart emotionally in the wake of loss. Faroe’s Dara was super-straightforward by comparison, yet I couldn’t get a clear handle on where she ended up. Her efforts seem fruitless; she ends the play by shouting “Whales are people too!” as her community hall meeting is disrupted prematurely. Yet I really wanted her idealism to count for something. Otherwise, I’m staging a play that says, “Try as hard as you like, but nothing’s going to change.”

Ultimately, the actress playing Dara helped me find and elucidate a character arc that allowed for hope. It isn’t the “everything will be fine” sort of hope, and that’s good. But I feel like the audience left wishing, at least, that they could be a little more like Dara in their own lives.

Both plays were staged as part of the Boardmore Theatre’s One-Act Play Festival. Greenland was particularly well-received, winning awards for Best Visual Design and Best Overall Production, among others.

So why can’t I feel unconditionally pleased? Because I know I’m preaching to the choir. Theatre can be a potent medium for changing hearts and minds, except the vast majority of theatregoers are already liberal-minded and well aware of global warming. That doesn’t necessarily mean they take action, either personally or politically — so maybe it’s not a bad thing to give them an artistic nudge every now and then. I just sometimes wish I worked in media that are more likely to reach the unconverted. I think I’d be pretty good at convincing skeptics (although perhaps not with plays like Faroe Islands).

Despite my reservations, I am already weighing my options for future shows. I am slowly revising the final scene of Good Animals — the scene which deals most directly with climate change — before I send the script afield to fish for more productions. And I have been reading the published plays of Duncan MacMillan, perhaps the UK’s most environmentalist playwright.

Two of MacMillan’s plays have caught my fancy, and while I’m not yet sure how or when or where to produce them here, I suspect they will remain on the top of my list. The one that deals most directly with climate change is called Lungs. It’s about an unnamed couple who struggle with the prospect of bringing a child into a world with no future — a very personal issue for me. In fact, I touched on that theme in my 2015 play, First Time Last Time. Now I kind of feel like, if I’d written FTLT in 2019, it would have wound up a lot more like Lungs.

The other MacMillan play doesn’t mention climate change, but it’s about an intrinsically connected human condition: depression. Every Brilliant Thing is a solo piece that gets audience members participating in a memory play about inherited clinical depression — yet it somehow manages to be very funny. It’s not my ordinary cup of tea, but I’m at the point in my career where I can’t justify sparing the time for a project unless it challenges me somehow.

One thing about Every Brilliant Thing has already inspired me, in a way. The play’s narrator spends his/her life creating an enormous list of “all the brilliant things” — from the mundane (“3. Staying up past your bedtime and being allowed to watch TV”) to the sublime (“253263. The feeling of calm which follows the realization that, although you may be in a regrettable situation, there’s nothing you can do about it”) — to justify carrying on in the face of depression. It’s an ingenious dramatic conceit, but it’s also a great idea for those of us living in uncertain times, or times which may call for relinquishing attachments.

Here’s how it works. Write down a list of 100 Things You Love. Don’t think about it too much, and don’t try to impose any sort of order (that is, item #1 is no more important than item #100). Just brainstorm: people, places, things, times of day, songs, smells, sexual positions, whatever makes you happy.

Once you’ve got 100 items (and this took me a long time), go through the list and label anything that’s green — that is, anything that you can enjoy without significantly increasing your carbon footprint. This isn’t a precise process, and your mileage may vary, but I skipped items which involve air travel, or luxury import items (like Belgian beer, alas).

When I did this, I was fearful that I would end up having to part with most of my pleasures for the sake of the planet. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that 83 out of 100 items could be enjoyed without incurring significant harm to the planet! That makes me feel less dismayed about having to give up some of the remaining 17 (or at least restricting them to very special occasions).

Let me know what you come up with in your list!

  1. Belgian beer
  2. Mint chocolate
  3. Messy yet grandiloquent films
  4. Role-playing games
  5. R.E.M.
  6. Shakespeare
  7. Fresh roasted coffee
  8. Receiving praise for my cooking
  9. Writing in cafés
  10. Pride parades
  11. David Bowie
  12. Storytelling podcasts
  13. X-Men comics
  14. Historical animation, 18th Century division
  15. Slacking with old friends
  16. Paris
  17. Deli sandwiches
  18. Sunshine
  19. Tattoos
  20. Posters from old shows
  21. Invader Zim
  22. Raspberries
  23. Swimming
  24. Indigenous cultures
  25. Community (Seasons 1-3, 5-6)
  26. Getting grants
  27. Having my freshly shaved head rubbed
  28. The smell of weed
  29. Arriving somewhere new
  30. Sweaters
  31. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
  32. Cathedrals
  33. Bridges
  34. Star Trek: The Next Generation
  35. Doctor Who
  36. Fancy pens
  37. Raccoons’s paws
  38. Puns
  39. Rehearsals
  40. Maple syrup
  41. Aurora borealis
  42. Goth girls
  43. Public street art
  44. Staying friends with exes
  45. Spiders spinning webs
  46. Watching Prestige TV with drunk friends
  47. Watching Indiana Jones with my kid
  48. Peaches
  49. Hookahs
  50. Superhero movies
  51. Cave art
  52. Finishing a draft
  53. Hot tubs
  54. Black forest cherry cake
  55. T.S. Eliot
  56. Electronica with female vocalists
  57. Immersive or promenade theatre
  58. Onion rings
  59. Fritz Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar
  60. Van Gogh
  61. Slings & Arrows
  62. Grasshopper pie
  63. Edgar Allan Poe
  64. Amsterdam
  65. Vancouver
  66. Monkeys
  67. Small public parks in the middle of big cities
  68. Labyrinths
  69. Fantasy maps
  70. Pickles
  71. Vampires
  72. Funky bluesy rock
  73. Squirrel Girl
  74. Asymmetrically exposed shoulders
  75. 8-bit video games
  76. Narratives about parallel timelines
  77. National Film Board animation
  78. Getting my hair cut in foreign countries
  79. Green onion cakes
  80. Bebop
  81. Genderqueer performance
  82. Key lime pie
  83. Soul Coughing
  84. Beer with vanilla flavouring
  85. Mark Rothko
  86. Ani DiFranco
  87. Nanaimo bars
  88. M.C. Escher
  89. Soft, snuggly housecoats
  90. Bright, weird hair colours
  91. Freckles, birthmarks, and unusual irises
  92. Asian pears
  93. Snow forts
  94. Clothing or jewelry with secret compartments
  95. Furniture with two or more functions
  96. Train trips
  97. Seeing my name in print
  98. Monty Python
  99. Douglas Adams
  100. Meditating
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