One wouldn’t think that climate change and theater have much in common, but the two were bridged together on stage last Sunday, Nov. 17, in an effort to bring climate change awareness to artists and activists. The sound of waves washed over the audience as readings of five short plays began, each exploring a world facing the effects of climate change.
The Climate Change Theatre Action, Columbia University’s The Year of Water, the Theatre Program, and Columbia University School of the Arts presented Climate Change Theatre Action x The Year of Water: Play Readings for Change at the Lenfest Center for the Arts.
The biennial Climate Change Theatre Action aims to “connect theatre and environmental activism.” The short plays were commissioned for the event, all engaging with topics regarding the environment and were followed by a panel discussion.
The event was a part of the School of the Arts’ Year of Water programming, an interdisciplinary examination of water in “all its social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental complexities,” that have included the WATERLICHT art installation and the Ushui film screening. The collaboration with Climate Change Theatre Action brings an artistic perspective through storytelling to spur reflection, discussion, and action about climate change and aims to involve the School of the Arts in the University’s broader climate change initiatives.
Following the play readings, a panel discussion addressed the approaches taken by different scientific and artistic fields to make sense of climate change. During the talk, panelist and Extinction Rebellion activist Christina See emphasized the role of artists in bringing awareness to the climate change movement, highlighting the urgency of the crisis.
“To get people’s attention, to actually realize that our way of life is one of the things that is pushing us to this point, is scary. Most people don’t want to have to admit they are apart of it, and that’s not saying we are all bad people because of it. But we are living in a time that has built up these systems that have basically made it so we are apart of it,” See said.
The first short play, “Bigger Love” by Peterson Toscano, provided a futuristic lens into the impacts of global warming and addressed some of the unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community perspective as well. The play is a conversation between a gay couple, Kyle and Joey, who have finally found a moment to themselves in their New York City apartment in the near future. Their intimate conversation details the repercussions of rising sea levels that have caused flooding and inspired them to open their home to those displaced across the city amidst a society plagued by a refugee crisis.
Besides taking a look at the immediate environmental effects of rising ocean levels, the play also inquired about less obvious effects, such as access to equitable healthcare for the LGBTQ+ community, and highlighted the couple’s efforts to house displaced members of their community.
While the first play operated within an urban setting, the next, “Heliconia” by Kanika Vaish, SoA ’22, was set both in a courtroom and the Amazon Rainforest. “Heliconia” deals with four people, Harriet, Liam, Heidi, and Diego, who have been found guilty of polluting the Amazon River, and receive a sentence that sends them to the Amazon for purification efforts. The play comedically derives inspiration from the character of Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In “Heliconia”, Paz, the personified forest, turns the guilty into insects to fulfill their obligations.
Both “A Letter From the Ocean” by Caridad Svich and “Sunglasses by the Sea” by Greg Nanni, SoA ’21, brought the sea to life. In “A Letter From the Ocean,” the Ocean writes to a woman who has set out to live and forage in the woods away from an apocalyptic world. In “Sunglasses by the Sea,” the Ocean serves as an anthropomorphized backdrop, occasionally commenting on the dialogue between two best friends. The two friends, relaxing on the beach, have several conversations over the course of their vacation pertaining to their fears of climate change. Inevitably, they become swallowed by the sea.
“Coast” by Zizi Majid, SoA ’20, was concerned with the effects of the oil industry on not only the climate but people too. The play centered around a wife, Anne, and an indifferent husband, Jeff, taking a scuba diving trip. Anne forms a bond with Harry, the diving instructor, and through their conversations, the instructor learns that her husband is part of a business that will start drilling for oil in the sea near a community already heavily affected by rising sea levels.
The proceeding panel also brought together See; playwrights Vaish, Majid, and Nanni; climate scientist Dr. Adam Sobel; and adjunct professor, climate science journalist, and writer for the New York Times, Claudia Dreifus. The speakers brought to light some of the inspirations of the plays, from a comedic take on rising sea levels to an indigenous perspective on the pollution of the Amazon River. The discussion also revealed the difficulties of humanizing climate change.
“That’s one of the directions I think science journalism needs to go and, when it’s done successfully, talking about the human impact. Now one of the things that’s changed is that the human impact is not the future anymore,” Dreifus said.