The Story of CCTA: How Theatre Artists are Raising Climate Change Awareness
Anthony J. Piccione
Over the past couple of decades, it has become undeniable that climate change is happening, and is one of the most critical issues facing our planet. If bold actions aren’t taken to do something to reserve the current trends, scientists say that the long-term impact could be catastrophic. While our current political leaders are largely ignorant of these issues, that’s not stopping the artists working on the Climate Change Theatre Action initiative from doing what they can to increase awareness of what’s happening to our environment.
Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) started out in 2015 as a collaboration between NoPassport Theatre Alliance, The Arctic Cycle and Theatre Without Borders, and in 2017 expanded to include the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and York University. Many of the organizers and collaborators involved are talented playwrights, actors and directors who have dedicated their work to these issues, and for this article, I had the chance to speak with just three of them here in New York City to hear about their work as artists, and what they are doing for CCTA.
One of the co-founders of CCTA is Chantal Bilodeau, the founder of the Arctic Cycle and a playwright whose work focuses on science, the environment and social justice. “I had always been interested in the environment and social justice, and I decided it was time to bring these interests into my work,” she says, while adding that she believes that “artists have much to contribute to the climate change conversation and I wanted to feel like I was doing my part. I wanted to be actively engaged in making our world just and sustainable.” Ms. Bilodeau is also the founder of the Arctic Cycle – an organization dedicated to theatre that starts a dialogue about climate change – after her first time in the Arctic, when she had the chance to walk across the 66th parallel, aka the Arctic Circle – a moment she describes as when suddenly “climate change became personal” – which led to her first writing the play Sila – a play about the competing interests shaping the future of the Canadian Arctic and the local Inuit population – and has since grown into an organization that does many other events focused on issues concerning the Arctic, and the environment more broadly speaking.
Ms. Bilodeau – who founded CCTA alongside Elaine Ávila, Roberta Levitow and Caridad Svich – says that they founded CCTA largely to “create a space where conversation is possible outside of politics and ideology.” She says their hope is that the initiative will spark conversations that “embrace the totality of the human experience including the emotional and subjective side,” while adding that their goal “is to bring climate change into day-to- day conversations so we can start imagining the future together.” After they first started the initiative in 2015 to coincide with the U.N. Paris Climate Conference, it gradually grew far beyond initial expectations. “What was at first going to be a fairly small and local initiative quickly turned into a much bigger international event,” Bilodeau said. “With very little preparation, we managed to get 100 events organized in 26 countries.”
Here in New York, another one of the leading organizers is Julia Levine, a playwright and director originally from the St. Louis area who says she has been interested in environmental issues since her middle school, which is nearly as long as she’s been involved in theatre. “I studied theatre in college, as well as Anthropology, which took my thoughts and questions about the environment to a new level: a cultural one,” Ms. Levine says. “My concern for environmental issues also traces back to my middle school days, in science class when we learned about climate change. I've been connecting social, political, and environmental issues ever since.” Her undergraduate thesis was a concept for a play she created and directed called GAIA (Watch the video performance here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqL--ErYikg&t=3s) which deals with issues of energy, food and transportation, and how humans interact with each of them. More recently, Levine’s play UPROOT was presented at the HERE Arts Center by the Food Plays initiative, which is dedicated to issues of food and agricultural justice and she says “was inspired by multiple food and agriculture documentaries, articles and books on food and environmental topics”. Now, as a collaborator of CCTA in New York City, Levine is one of many who are using theatre as a means of combating and raising awareness for the climate crisis through CCTA.
Another collaborator here in New York is Keith Paul Medelis, who is doing his first CCTA collaboration in Brooklyn this fall. “We're starting to have important conversations about sustainability in our work,” Mr. Medelis says, “and the good people at places like CCTA, Superhero Clubhouse, and others are important parts of that conversation.” The work he is referring to is largely that of the company he founded called the Upstream Artists’ Collective, which is planning an upcoming storytelling event connected to CCTA called This One Time in Nature and other big thoughts over a small fire, a collaboration with Gabrielle Resiman at the Brooklyn Yard which Medelis says will feature a new play by playwright Eliza Bent and also will include “songs, interactive storytelling, s'mores, and cocktails”. This event in Brooklyn is just one of the many CCTA collaborations taking place across the country. “I'm excited by the mission of CCTA to get the conversation started all over the globe,” said Medelis of the many events that are occurring worldwide, while adding that he sees “the questions we are asking now as mandatory ones in the coming years.”
While many of the organizers are also doing their own events, the main event coming up that has largely been the focus of CCTA since its inception is a series of 50 short plays focused around climate change – written by various playwrights all across the globe – with readings and performances scheduled to take throughout October and November. During that time, this worldwide series will be taking place in theatres, high schools, universities, eco-centers, community centers, on radio, and outdoors, with the overall goal raising awareness of the UN Conference of the Parties on climate change.
All across America and the rest of the world, there are many CCTA-related events going on. Not only are they occurring here in New York, but also in other cities in America such as Los Angeles, Denver, Boston and Chicago, along with events in several other countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Mexico, Japan, and many more. (For a full list of the events and where they are, visit www.thearcticcycle.org/ccta-2017/)
Looking forward, many of the organizers seem optimistic that CCTA will continue and expand over the coming years, as they continue their mission of fighting for the environment. “My hope is that CCTA returns again in 2019 and every other year after that, and that it continues to grow”, says Bilodeau on the future of CCTA, going on to say she also hopes that “the action part of the event becomes more and more important because that means people and disciplines coming together in new ways; it means more dialogue, more collaborations, and a better chance to overcome whatever is coming our way.”
To get involved in CCTA, those who are interested are encouraged to visit www.climatechangetheatreaction.com to find the full list of events and participating playwrights, and to follow them on Facebook at “Climate Change Theatre Action”. If anyone is interested in hosting their own CCTA collaborating event, participating in the New York City Launch, or otherwise getting in touch with CCTA organizers, they are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anthony J. Piccione is a playwright, producer, screenwriter, activist, essayist, critic, poet and occasional actor based in New York City. His plays have previously been produced in NYC at various theaters and festivals such as the Midtown International Theatre Festival, the NYWinterfest and Manhattan Repertory Theatre, as well as Connecticut venues such as Playhouse on Park, Hole in the Wall Theater, the Windsor Art Center and Windham Theatre Guild. Additionally, his one-act play “Ebol-A-Rama” was recently published this year by Heuer Publishing (www.hitplays.com), and he has also previously worked as a teaching assistant at Hartford Children’s Theatre and New Britain Youth Theater, in addition to his work with OnStage Blog. He received his BA in Theatre from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2016, and is a member of the Dramatists Guild. To learn more about Mr. Piccione’s recent and upcoming productions, please visit www.anthonyjpiccione.com and be sure to follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and Instagram (anthonyjpiccione).