The voices of playwrights are powerful tools in creating social change, including being an active force to address climate change. Some of our region’s members who have written plays about climate change share their thoughts on writing, activism, and their potential impact.
Gina Russell Tracy has written a trilogy of climate change plays (Starlight, 1969, and permafrost). While all the plays have received numerous readings individually, the trilogy was the background for Tracy’s presentation at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education’s 2018 conference, a workshop on the history of immersive theatre and its role in global social activism.
“I believe that every artistic endeavor is, in its fulfillment, activism,” said Tracy, who has written on many social issues. “Everything I’ve written has been activist, either directly or obliquely. As for my hope about their impact, we’ve seen science undermined over the last four years. Whether an audience leaves seeking more information, or heads to their local government building with signs demanding action, I hope they start to believe in science again, and act.”
Kato McNickle does not see themselves as an activist, despite writing two plays on climate change, Leak and Chance of Rain, both of which have won awards. “Ever since my fourth grade teacher mentioned that there was evidence that the planet was warming due to human activity, I have been studying weather,” they said. “Writing about climate and its effect on our world is part of the lens that I view the world through. So, it isn’t writing as activism, it is my understanding of the fabric of our modern human experience.”
Additionally, both plays deal with intergenerational interaction, with older characters trying to protect younger characters. Yet, clearly, the young people will bear the burden of solving the problems created by the generation in charge. “I’m hoping that young actors will start asking questions about what they can do, and begin making changes based on their inquiry,” they said.
Charles Gershman’s play Quik-Mart is the exception in his body of work. “I am not usually an activist writer and I wanted to be subtle with activism in this play. I set out to write a climate change play that didn’t feel like a climate change play. I wrote about a bodega in Upper Manhattan in the future that’s run by climate refugees.”
Workshopped at the Lark Play Development Center in 2019, Quik-Mart had a public reading at The New Group in 2020. As Gershman reflects on the play, he says, “I hope people will feel moved, concerned, and also optimistic about ways we can be creative in approaching climate change.”
Victoria Z. Daly’s ten-minute play, High Water Line, has been published, received awards, and has productions planned post-COVID, despite having been written with the assignment that it be ‘impossible to stage.’ Writing about issues is not new to her. “Some of my plays have more obvious activist intent than others, but this was the first one deliberately to address climate change. By the time High Water Line’s mother realizes she’s doomed, it’s too late. Ideally, [the audience] might feel prompted to do something about the escalating crisis.”
Lesley Becker is as much an activist as she is a playwright. Environmental issues are of great interest to her, as are women’s rights and other social issues. With multiple climate change plays to her credit, including the full-lengths The God of the Hills and Winds of Change (both of which address renewable energy and related propaganda), Lesley hopes her plays encourage people to look more carefully at issues and make up their own minds as to how to see an issue.
Optimism and action are strong themes for these playwrights. Writing is perhaps the first action taken. Hopefully, these plays will beget actions that lead to lasting, positive change.