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!
- Belgian beer
- Mint chocolate
- Messy yet grandiloquent films
- Role-playing games
- Fresh roasted coffee
- Receiving praise for my cooking
- Writing in cafés
- Pride parades
- David Bowie
- Storytelling podcasts
- X-Men comics
- Historical animation, 18th Century division
- Slacking with old friends
- Deli sandwiches
- Posters from old shows
- Invader Zim
- Indigenous cultures
- Community (Seasons 1-3, 5-6)
- Getting grants
- Having my freshly shaved head rubbed
- The smell of weed
- Arriving somewhere new
- Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
- Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Doctor Who
- Fancy pens
- Raccoons’s paws
- Maple syrup
- Aurora borealis
- Goth girls
- Public street art
- Staying friends with exes
- Spiders spinning webs
- Watching Prestige TV with drunk friends
- Watching Indiana Jones with my kid
- Superhero movies
- Cave art
- Finishing a draft
- Hot tubs
- Black forest cherry cake
- T.S. Eliot
- Electronica with female vocalists
- Immersive or promenade theatre
- Onion rings
- Fritz Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar
- Van Gogh
- Slings & Arrows
- Grasshopper pie
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Small public parks in the middle of big cities
- Fantasy maps
- Funky bluesy rock
- Squirrel Girl
- Asymmetrically exposed shoulders
- 8-bit video games
- Narratives about parallel timelines
- National Film Board animation
- Getting my hair cut in foreign countries
- Green onion cakes
- Genderqueer performance
- Key lime pie
- Soul Coughing
- Beer with vanilla flavouring
- Mark Rothko
- Ani DiFranco
- Nanaimo bars
- M.C. Escher
- Soft, snuggly housecoats
- Bright, weird hair colours
- Freckles, birthmarks, and unusual irises
- Asian pears
- Snow forts
- Clothing or jewelry with secret compartments
- Furniture with two or more functions
- Train trips
- Seeing my name in print
- Monty Python
- Douglas Adams