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Creating Work in Series in the Anthropocene

February 2024

Global temperature monthly average: 1.40 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

I’m in awe, my senses soaking in every detail of this vast expanse of—what—nothingness? Everythingness? The air is crisp, the cold invigorating. The Arctic midday sun casts long shadows across the landscape, and there are more blues and whites and blacks and grays than seem possible. It’s as if I have stepped back in time, back pre-us humans, back to when the earth was just raw matter trying to figure itself out. In reality, I’m here in Iceland with my colleague, composer Matthew Burtner, doing research and field recordings for a new play—my fourth in a series of eight plays about the social and environmental changes taking place in the Arctic.

I don’t know what this play is yet. It doesn’t have a title, characters, or even the beginning of a story. But I do know this: it’s about glaciers and deep time and it will take the form of a ritual. I also know this: I want to invite audiences into a sacred space where grief, anger, and despair can be laid bare and transformed into joy, courage, and hope. As I stand here, surrounded by the vastness of Iceland, I start to formulate a question: what happens once we have so thoroughly imposed our will on the earth systems that we no longer feel small?

A photo of a glacier.

Iceland, 2024. Photo by Chantal Bilodeau.

August 2007

Global temperature yearly average: 0.66 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

I’m staring out the window of my friend Greg’s Cessna as we fly over the Alaska Range in Denali National Park. It’s my first time in Alaska, my first time seeing glaciers from above, my first time experiencing the Arctic environment, my first time learning about Alaska Native cultures, my first time seeing the effects of the changing climate on this delicate ecosystem, my first time getting my heart broken over what’s happening to our blue planet, my first time thinking I have to do something.

April 2014

Global temperature yearly average: 0.77 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

The house lights dim. It’s taken five long years of workshops and readings all over the United States and Canada, but my play Sila is finally opening at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the Inuktitut word sila, pronounced “see-la,” means air, climate, or breath). Thanks to a commission from the now defunct Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, my desire to do something led me to spend three weeks on Baffin Island in the territory of Nunavut, Canada in 2009 to research what is happening in the Canadian Arctic. I’m fascinated by the people I meet and what I learn, by the complexity of the issues unfolding in Canada’s North, and the interconnectedness of it all. Inuit climate activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who I interviewed and is one of the inspirations for the play, says it well: “The land and culture offer more solutions, I think, than most institutions can.” The play is about all those things and more: climate science, colonialism, identity, motherhood, interspecies relationships, Inuit-settler relationships, geopolitics, compassion, grief. When two life-size polar bear puppets—Mama and her daughter—walk on stage, I feel the audience lean forward.

A child pilots a large polar bear puppet.

Sophorl Ngin and Danny Bryck in Sila by Chantal Bilodeau at Central Square Theater, 2014. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Scenic design by Szu-Feng Chen. Costume design by Albulena Borovci. Lighting design by David Roy. Sound design by Emily Auciello. Puppet design by David Fichter. Prop design by Joe Stallone. Master puppet building by Will Cabell. Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography.

September 2011

Global temperature yearly average: 0.63 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

Sometime between my trip to Alaska and the premiere of Sila, between environmentalist Bill McKibben’s call for “art, sweet art” and scientists’ warning to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, I have to do something becomes I have to do more. In my search for what that might mean, I land on the idea of writing a series of related plays. Since there are eight countries in the Arctic—United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia—I will write one play for each country. At first, I don’t say this out loud. The only playwrights I know who are writing plays in series are not just men but famous men: August Wilson (Pittsburgh Cycle), John Guare (Lydie Breeze Trilogy), Sam Shepard (Family Trilogy Cycle), Robert Schenkkan (Kentucky Cycle). Who am I, a young female unknown, to embark on such an ambitious project? Eventually, I muster the courage to say it out loud—until I’ve said it enough times that I start to believe myself. My series will be called the Arctic Cycle.

The idea of a series is appealing for several reasons. I’m craving the long-term commitment to an idea that allows for deep exploration. I’m interested in the story a body of work can tell in addition to the story each individual play tells. And because of the time it will take to complete all eight plays, assuming that I do, this work will hopefully bear witness to the massive changes taking place all around us in a way that hasn’t been done before. Perhaps that has some value.

April 2016

Global temperature yearly average: 1.03 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

In a fit of rebellion, I publicly break up with Aristotle. If content truly dictates form, then the dramatic structure we, in the United States, have been predominantly using over the last fifty years is inadequate. After Sila, and after a series of trips to Norway to write and develop Forward (the second play in the cycle), I’m becoming aware that we cannot use the tools of yesterday to tell the stories of today. Or as Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Our world is vastly different from the worlds of Aristotle and Freytag. It is vastly different from the post-World War II economic boom and middle-class expansion era. “Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people,” writes sociologist Arthur Frank. We can’t advocate for a shift in beliefs and values—a shift that would support a more just and regenerative world—through means that have traditionally served to reinforce the colonial, patriarchal, and extractive status quo.

Forward, which unfolds over 120 years, premieres at Kansas State University in February 2016. Building on my exploration of form in Sila, which features multiple storylines and more-than-human voices, the play presents a poetic and humorous history of Norway—from the initial passion that drove explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the North Pole to our present-day anxiety over the rapidly changing climate. Nine actors play forty-plus characters. There are no polar bear puppets this time but Arctic sea ice is embodied and expresses herself through song. A student involved in the production, whose family was dismissive of climate change, expresses how working on the play changed his outlook and influenced his family’s behavior.

What do you do when the thing you’ve been fighting for disappears from under you? Is writing plays really the answer?

Sometime in 2019

Global temperature yearly average: 0.98 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

By now, not only is my entire playwriting career focused on how climate change is impacting our lives, but I also serve as artistic director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, an organization whose mission is to use storytelling and live performance to foster dialogue about our global climate crisis, create an empowering vision of the future, and inspire people to take action. There is no doubt in my mind that culture is one of the best tools we have to shape our future and I’m determined to enlist as many theatre artists as I can to tackle this herculean task.

But.

Was it a slow dawning? A single event? At some point it hits me: oh, we’re not going to make it. I realize, based on what scientists are saying, that the much hoped-for 1.5 degrees Celsius upper limit of global warming, which I have organized my thinking around, is going to come and go in my lifetime. It took us too long to take action; there is no staying below the amount of warming that is considered “safe” anymore, at least not without dubious carbon-capture technology that doesn’t exist yet. The Anthropocene is here to stay. Glaciers will melt. Seas will rise. Cities will bake or flood or both. Rivers and lakes will dry. Millions of people will be displaced and species will continue to die. What do you do when the thing you’ve been fighting for disappears from under you? Is writing plays really the answer?

October 2017

Global temperature yearly average: 0.95 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

The pandemic hasn’t happened yet. My existential crisis hasn’t happened yet. So much hasn’t happened yet. But what has happened is Hurricane Harvey making landfall in Texas and Louisiana in August, causing catastrophic flooding and killing more than a hundred people. As the character in No More Harveys, a play I haven’t written yet, says:

First, it was Harvey the hurricane. When it hit Texas a few years ago, I spent days glued to the TV, obsessing over the news. I don’t live in Texas but for weeks afterwards I dreamt of biblical floods, floating furniture, and wet cats.

Then in October, eighty women make allegations of sexual harassment or rape against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Later, I write:

Then it was Harvey the Hollywood producer. When it was revealed that he had been assaulting women for decades, I went down a rabbit hole of #MeToos and ate nothing but ice cream for weeks.

The convergence of these two Harveys is so monumental to me (who do you think dreamt of biblical floods and ate ice cream for weeks?) that I wait for some smart journalist to draw the connection… but no one does. Yet these Harveys perfectly illustrate the consequences of a system gone awry and its impact on the most vulnerable among us. Always, those with money and power are free to prey on others—be they people with marginalized racial identities, women, or ecosystems.

April 2022

Global temperature yearly average: 0.91 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

No More Harveys, commissioned by Cyrano’s Theatre Company, premieres in Anchorage, Alaska. Somehow and despite the pandemic, I have managed to pull myself out of the existential crisis that threatened to swallow me in 2019 and written this play, in no small part thanks to the support of a community of artists (and scientists) who believe the arts have an important role to play in addressing the climate crisis. Yes, we will most likely go over 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming in my lifetime but any fraction of a degree that we save protects us from the worst. And so, the work continues.

A performer stands on a dimly lit stage in front of a whale setpiece.

Danielle Rabinovitch in No More Harveys by Chantal Bilodeau at Cyrano’s Theatre Company, 2022. Directed by Codie Costello. Choreography by Gilmer Duran. Scenic design by Rachael Androski. Costume and prop design by Giselle Nisonger. Lighting design by Frank Hardy. Sound design by Seth Eggleston. Scenic construction by Bill Heym. Photo by Galen Eggleston

While with Sila and Forward, I put entire communities on stage, No More Harveys features a single actor and an Alexa (Amazon’s virtual assistant). Traveling from New York to Alaska to reunite with her two bravest friends, the unnamed woman tries to follow the path of “the whale from fifty million years ago.” She believes the whale, a marvel of adaptation, will show her how to defeat the Harveys of this world and find her way back to herself. As the audience files in, my eyes settle on the huge humpback whale, built from chicken wire and papier mâché, that fills half of the stage. She’s majestic. Perhaps this is hope.

What happens once we have so thoroughly imposed our will on the earth systems that we no longer feel small? What will we do when there is nothing left to remind us to be humble?

February 2024

Global temperature monthly average: 1.40 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels

My upcoming play about Iceland draws inspiration from the research of Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer who, in 2019, held a funeral for a glacier that had been declared dead. The event was attended by a hundred people, including glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson, who signed the glacier’s death certificate, and Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. As part of the ceremony, a bronze plaque was mounted on a rock, “a letter to the future” written by author Andri Snær Magnason:

Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

A plaque with text.

Replica of the plaque created for Ok at the Perlan Museum in Reykjavik, Iceland, 2024. Photo by Chantal Bilodeau.

My colleague Matthew and I plan to hike to the deceased glacier but the road that would take us to the foot of Ok (pronounced “auk”) is closed in the winter. We try another way the next day but to no avail. We have to resign ourselves to staring at the outline of the mountain from a distance. There are over four hundred glaciers in Iceland, several of them with names and stories. By 2200, most of them will be gone. Again, I wonder: What happens once we have so thoroughly imposed our will on the earth systems that we no longer feel small? What will we do when there is nothing left to remind us to be humble?

April 2024

Global temperature prediction: There is a 45 percent chance that 2024 will be the warmest year on record and a 99 percent chance that it will rank in the top five warmest years.

Back in 2011, committing to writing a series of plays (or creating a series of performances) about the climate crisis was lonely. Thankfully, I have since found other artists who are doing the same. Three of them are featured in this year’s iteration of the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change series: Tannis Kowalchuk shares her joy of producing theatre on an organic farm in Pennsylvania and how the setting lends itself to community building; Deke Weaver takes us on a fifteen-year journey of writing about extinction and highlighting the connections between the personal and the political; and Ayesha Jordan, a New York-based artist now living in Norway, writes about the intersection of performance and permaculture and the value of slowing down. Other artists doing similar serial work have written for this series before, including Jem Pickard and Sarah Cameron Sunde.

I’m reminded, through the simple act of gathering around stories the way we’ve done for millennia, that change starts small, often with a single seed. The rest is care and vision and faith.

Given the long time horizon of the climate crisis, perhaps it’s no coincidence that artists are craving the deep dive that creating work in series provides. Speaking for myself, I can say that this process has and continues to be life-affirming. Not only do I find solace in imagining the work into being, in feeling that I am contributing in some small way to making the world better, I’m reminded, through the simple act of gathering around stories the way we’ve done for millennia, that change starts small, often with a single seed. The rest is care and vision and faith.

I didn’t know this at the time but my trip to Iceland in February coincided with it being the warmest February on record. When I got back to New York on February 11, winter was already over. In addition, February 2024 marks the first time the Earth was 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than in pre-industrial times for a period of twelve months. There it is. In my lifetime. But still, the work continues.

Happy Earth Day.

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Thoughts from the curator

The climate crisis has been called a “crisis of imagination.” The phrase refers to our inability to grasp the magnitude and violence of the changes we are facing, our reluctance to let the reality of it permeate our collective consciousness, and our resistance to envision positive futures. But imagination is the currency of artists. In this ongoing series, Chantal Bilodeau, playwright and artistic director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, invites theatre artists, practitioners, and scholars to reflect on the ways in which they use their imagination to create the stories that will support us through, and lift us out of, this transformative moment.

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change

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