CAN LIVE THEATER HELP SPUR CLIMATE ACTION?

This year’s Ojai Playwrights Conference tackled the existential threat of climate change.

TOM JACOBSUPDATED:AUG 14, 2019ORIGINAL:AUG 13, 2019

Left to right: actors Robin Gerber and Carl Thelander, with artistic director Robert Egan.

(Photo: Peggy Ryan)

To get from the Pacific Coast to the idyllic, mountain-surrounded town of Ojai, California, you drive by a series of working oil wells, clearly visible just off the side of the freeway. They serve as a reminder that Ventura is the third-biggest oil-producing county in California—a fact that did not go unmentioned last Thursday night, as the Ojai Playwrights Conference, an annual event that attracts world-class talent, kicked off with an evening centering around climate change.

As several speakers noted, it has been nearly three decades since the publication of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, which helped put the perils of climate change on the national agenda. Yet we’ve done relatively little to change the disastrous trajectory we are on. Scientists have not been effective in getting people to grasp the problem and take action. Can artists do any better?

That question was the focus of this hybrid evening event, which began with readings of six new, short, climate-related plays, and concluded with a discussion among climate scientists.

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It’s hard to say which half of the program was bleaker.

“I thought I’d be the bearer of bad news,” Neil Berg, associate director of science at the University of California–Los Angeles Center for Climate Science, said as he took the stage following the play readings. “But that was dark.”

Berg was not criticizing anyone. Indeed, he praised the accuracy of the information and data that playwright Bess Wohl had woven into her play Continuity. The script includes a climate scientist, who delivers a long monologue explaining just how deep a hole civilization has dug for itself.

That particular playlet, set on the stage of a (wildly inaccurate) climate-themed disaster movie, had some moments of laugh-out-loud comedy. But it couldn’t transcend the fundamental problem that each of these playwrights was grappling with: Full and accurate information about the climate crisis is almost too bleak for us to take in.

As a recent study of climate change-themed visual art showed, imagery that portrays a bleak future tends to leave people feeling hopeless and dispirited and less likely to act. To inspire action—the stated goal of the conference’s artistic director, Robert Egan—an artist needs to convey hope.

But how do you do that without making false promises?

“It’s all about awareness and action,” Egan said a few days before the event. “The artist’s job is to raise consciousness and cut through the complacency. I asked playwrights to meditate on the theme of, ‘Wake up—act now!’ We’re creating awareness, and stimulating action.”

Egan argues that theater could be uniquely effective in this regard. “People in a live space, together with each other, can stimulate a kind of consciousness and awareness that may be more difficult to create if you’re staring at a screen,” he said. To emphasize this communal aspect of the experience, at one point during the event, he asked everyone to hold hands with their seatmates on either side for 30 seconds and meditate on what we had just seen and heard.

But while it is a collective experience, no one goes to the theater to be lectured at. They want to hear a compelling story, and perhaps learn something along the way. The playwrights on Thursday, including nationally known figures such as Bill Cain, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Jon Robin Baitz, approached this  challenge in different ways.

One playlet brought Saint Francis of Assisi back to life; another featured a family squabble between a scientist, her brother (who is moving to a commune in Mexico to live a spartan life off the grid), and her college-age daughter, who declares, “I’m scared of the world you made for us.”

The most compelling piece was Baitz’s The Aquifer, which painted a chilling portrait of a future world in which water is rationed out by a giant corporation. Patricia Wettig (of Thirtysomething) played a representative of a governmental district who travels to the company’s headquarters to describe her community’s polluted aquifer and to plead for help. The corporate honcho, played by Rachel Ticotin, admonishes Wettig’s character for exacerbating the water shortage by allowing in the least-deserving refugees imaginable: Americans.

There’s the seed of a good play or movie there, but, again, it’s questionable that such a frightening vision of the future will inspire audiences to take action, given what we know about climate, art, and persuasion. “We must tell the story of what’s happening—to each other, to our neighbors, to our communities,” Egan said ahead of the show. “We have to tell it until they start doing something.”

And yet, as Berg admitted later in the evening, there’s only so much we can do. An insert in the program included a list of 10 ways everyone can fight climate change, including eating less meat, taking public transit, and generally using energy more wisely.

Sure, everyone should do those things, Berg told the crowd. But honestly, even if everyone in California did so, “it wouldn’t make a dent” in the overall global problem, he said. It’s that big, and time is that short.

At this point, Berg argued, our focus should be on making ourselves, and our societies, more resilient to the climate extremes we are certain to face. The question we need to be asking ourselves at the moment, he said, is not, “How do we fix climate change?” but rather, “How do we prepare for climate change?”

Inadvertently, he was quoting Shakespeare. It was Hamlet, after all, who reminded us that “the readiness is all.”

BY TOM JACOBS

Tom Jacobs is a senior staff writer at Pacific Standard, where he specializes in social science, culture, and learning. He is a veteran journalist and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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