The two-day USC Visions and Voices Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) events kick off this Friday, November 8th with How To Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event, which will take place at Lewis Hall (RGL), Room 101. In addition to the interactive workshop portion of the event, lead CCTA co-founder Chantal Bilodeau, the afternoon will start off with a student-driven staged reading of several short plays from the 2019 CCTA, now in its third iteration. Directing these plays are Jessica Doherty (double majoring in Theatre and Journalism) and Elizabeth Schuetzle (double majoring in Theatre and Political Economy), both USC seniors who believe theater is an effective method for helping people open up and relate to the realities of climate change.
I sat down with Jessica and Elizabeth to talk about their involvement with the CCTA 2019 at USC, their artistic vision for this project, and the difficulty and importance of talking openly about climate change.
How did you become involved in directing the student-driven
readings of CCTA (Climate Change Theatre Action) 2019 plays and what drew you
to the project?
ELIZABETH SCHUETZLE (ES): We
were both referred by our professors.
I always like working on theater that has meaning and impact. I think
all art is inherently political. Also, I really liked the plays. I thought they
were all so unique and different. Of course, that’s because playwrights from
like all over the world wrote them. I enjoyed the variety of voices that were
in the mix.
JESSICA DOHERTY (JD): I’ve just
been really interested in doing work about climate change recently. As a
journalist, I write a lot about the arts, mainly art criticism, but I’m always
interested in finding ways to communicate the bigger picture of creative works and
document how they’ve influenced people, or made them think differently about a
certain topic. I agree with what Elizabeth said, art is inherently political
and it can impact people. Storytelling can impact people. Working in the
newsroom here, its something that I am very aware of and struggle with—knowing
when to cross the line of like, “we need to get people to click on this
(article)”, but we also don’t want to sensationalize.
(NOTE: Jessica is the managing editor and writer for Annenberg Media.)
It sounds like you’re both very interested in Social Justice
ES: Jessica and I actually worked in a social justice theater group on campus, One & All, for like two years. We worked together all the time. This year we both decided not to run it anymore, then when we got this (CCTA) sent our way. Now we’re back together again. It’s kind of funny—this (CCTA) is the kind of event that our theater troupe would have been asked to do.
What kind of work did ‘One & All’ all do?
JD: We (One & All) did a workshop with the School of Social Work at Bovard (Auditorium) that utilized theatre of the oppressed activities to work out scenarios that they (Social Work students) would face out in the field. We did a lot of really fun stuff. It’s under new leadership now because we both were like, “we’re old and tired” but now there are some young bright faces running it. It still lives on.
I’m always interested in finding ways to communicate the bigger picture of creative works and document how they’ve influenced people, or made them think differently about a certain topic… Art is inherently political and it can impact people. Storytelling can impact people.
Going back to the CCTA event—what was the process like for selecting the plays that will be featured during the staged reading?
ES: There were some works that were
recommended to us by Paula, which we considered.
JD: But we basically just chose the ones
that we liked.
Tell me about some of the plays that were selected. What can we
JD: I really liked directing “It
Starts With Me” (Chantal Bilodeau)—it’s basically just a collection of
voices, female voices, saying that the climate change movement starts with
them. It was inspired by a bunch of different women involved in political activism,
which I thought was really neat. I think it’s a really effective play to round
out the event. Ending on an empowering note is important to me, and I really
liked that this piece deals with empowering yourself to make a change and make
a difference. Even if it is a small effort because it can build into something
Another one I’m directing is “A Dog Loves Mango”
(Georgina Escobar) which is like a really cute piece that tells the story of a
woman who gets stopped by TSA because her shoes are made out of mango leather,
which is actually a real material. It’s nice to have like a comedic piece in
there as well. A lot of people turn away from climate change news because
they’re afraid of it. If you scare people too much, they’re just going to back
away and not want to listen to you. So I feel like using theater and comedy as
a way to talk about this issue is a really effective way to bring it down to a
smaller scale that will help people relate and understand the impact that
climate change can have on them at a personal level, rather than at a macro
scale which can feel too heavy.
ES: Yeah, I think humor is a great way to reach people. I have a
couple comedic pieces. I think the one I really like is “Laila Pines for
the Wolf” (Hassan Abdulrazzak). It’s a fractured fairy tale of Little Red
Riding Hood with different iterations that show the Wolf having difficulty
getting across the bridge to encounter a Little Red Riding Hood because of
climate change. The last iteration is really short because there’s no Wolf in
it, he couldn’t get there. It made me think of a book I’m reading right now for
my Research and Development class called “The Challenge for Africa”
by environmental activists Wangari Maathai. In the last chapter of her book she
says something like, “The ecosystem is here—it’s always been here—and the
environment’s always been here. It’s completely fine without us as people. It
could go on forever. It would be okay. But us as people are not okay without
the environment”. And we’re slowly destroying it. I thought it was a nice
tie in to the fact that the Wolf is no longer present in the story and that the
story itself completely falls apart.
It sounds like if you’re
both very interested and informed on issues of climate change.
JD: I follow a lot news outlets,
that I trust, that keep me up-to-date with climate change news. I’m also doing
a project for one of my journalism classes that focuses on the small changes
people can make to live more sustainably. I also attended a town hall about
climate change issues—many of the presidential candidates where there. I like
knowing where political candidates stand on climate change—I think its one of
the most important issues we’re facing right now because it impacts a bunch of
different social, political and economic issues that we have, and as climate
change progresses, we will ultimately have more of those issues. So it’s
important to do this type of work that will help people consider changes they
can make in their own lives.
Can you talk to me about
the cast and how they were selected for this project?
ES: It is a pretty small cast too. We’re each working with three
actors for the six pieces.
JD: We reached out to people we knew who also care a lot about the environment.
What has the rehearsal process been like?
JD: It’s just been really fun because, you know, they’re staged readings so they’re not really technically involved. I’m lucky that my actors care about climate change and are attuned to the issues present in the plays—we even started talking about the issues openly.
What have those conversations been like?
JD: I definitely feel like we’re on
the same page a lot of the time.
ES: Same. It’s been pretty casual
and fun. I almost feel like, at least in my sect of cultural peer
group, I’ve never had incredibly vocal conversations with people about climate
change, even though everyone accepts that it’s a big problem, so this is
inspiring. It’s kind of crazy because in the class I’m taking right now
(Research and Development), so many of the issues discussed are linked to
climate change, yet the materials we’re looking at are from like the nineties.
I understand that you’re working with music composer and fellow
student, Cyrus Leland, for this project. Can you talk about that collaboration
and what brought about the decision to include music?
ES: I know Cyrus because last Fall I
directed a production of FUN HOME and he was my music director. He’s always
down to compose and collaborate. Staged readings can be a little lame because
you don’t have all the technical stuff involved, but I thought incorporating
music would make it feel way more elevated.
Also, one of the plays I’m directing, “The Goddess of Mt. Banahaw” (adapted by Giovanni Ortega) has a lot of Tagalog in it. I was very lucky because Cyrus is also a linguist. So I had him come to rehearsal the other night and he helped out the cast.
I almost feel like, at least in my sect of cultural peer group, I’ve never had incredibly vocal conversations with people about climate change, even though everyone accepts that it’s a big problem, so this is inspiring.
Has your engagement in this project encouraged you to continue to be part of the CCTA project?
JD: I didn’t really know much about it
(CCTA) before this, but I would be interested in continuing to do work that
focus on climate change because it’s something I really care about.
ES: Definitely. From the very beginning,
it’s been a really interesting process. When I first got the email, the first
thing I did was go in and talk to Paula (Cizmar) for like an hour. She’s just
so cool, and has done a lot of interesting work. She’s just so passionate about
it (CCTA), which made me passionate about it. So I would love to do more stuff
down the line.
What’s up for you next, creatively or otherwise?
just directed and self-produced a student show here (at USC) and now I’m doing
this (CCTA), but since I’m a double major, next semester I need to do a
capstone project for my journalism major. So I’ll be working on my capstone
project as well as applying to jobs. I’m already applying to fellowships. While
I don’t know what lies ahead for me creatively; I’m excited, focused on
graduating, and curious to see what comes next.
ES: Next semester I’ll be working with
another student-run company on a theatrical project that focuses on intersectional
feminism. I’ll be doing a verbatim theater piece about fem and visibility in
the queer community. So I’m like really just getting started on that and am
hoping to find people to interview. I’ve always really liked verbatim theater
but I have never done it before, so I’ll be learning as I go. I’m trying to really
enjoy that process– working collaboratively, taking advantage of all
resources, trying and failing–while in my last year at college.
Thank you both and good luck!
Don’t forget to check out How To Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event on Friday, 11/8/2019, starting at 2pm at USC Lewis Hall.
Featured plays from the 2019 CCTA are:
Chantal Bilodeau – IT STARTS WITH ME Paula Cizmar – APPEALING Giovanni Ortega – THE GODDESS OF MT. BANAHAW Marcus Youssef – DUST Alister Emerson – SIX POLAR BEARS FELL OUT OF THE SKY THIS MORNING Hassan Abdulrazzak – LAILA PINES FOR THE WOLF Georgina Escobar – A DOG LOVES MANGO
Actors: Juan Dueñas, Grace Power, Jessica O’Connor, Katherine Jacobs, and Karl Kristian Flores
Paula Cizmar is an award-winning multi-genre writer, associate professor of theatre practice in dramatic writing at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, CCTA/LA producer and my former professor. I LOVE HER!
Can you talk to me about Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA)?
Climate Change Theatre Action is a grassroots event that happens every two years and it always coincides with the UN’s International Conference on Climate Change, which this year is in Santiago, Chile.
Chantal Bilodeau, a native of Canada who was writing climate change plays, wrote a beautiful play called SILA and in the process of doing that, set up a kind of grassroots list of playwrights who were also writing climate change plays. In maintaining that list, she realized there were a lot of writers doing this work and that a climate change theater action would be a really good thing to do. And so, what she does every two years is commission 50 playwrights to write very short plays that are then made available to anyone who wants to do them, free of charge. The playwrights represent 20 different countries and their own different languages—some of the ones that aren’t in English have been translated and others aren’t. Anybody who wants to do a Climate Change Theatre Action can just sign up and do one. If you go on the website I think you’ll see that they are being performed in 20 different countries and almost all 50 states. People can do a major production and turn it into a fancy theater event or they can do readings in their classrooms. It’s very grassroots.
How did you become
In 2017, I got invited to go to Pomona College to talk about
one of my plays, THE CHISERA, which
is about climate change and I worked with Giovanni Ortega (CCTA/LA: AT THE INTERSECTION director, 2019) there. He also brought
on Chantal as a guest speaker so I connected with them. Then I went to an Earth
Matters On Stage conference, which is a conference of theater people who do
climate change work, and forged more of a relationship with Chantal.
I also did a Climate Change Theatre Action event with my
graduate seminar in eco-theater (2017). We just performed the plays in our
classroom and then we took them outside and performed them on campus.
This year, for the 2019 Climate Change Theater Action, Chantal asked me to be one of the playwrights that were commissioned to write a play, but I also decided that I wanted to do something that was a lot more elaborate, so I applied for a Visions & Voices grant and got the funding.
And what is that
elaborate undertaking? 😉
We’re doing a two-day climate change event. This coming
Friday’s event (HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE EVENT, 11/8 at 3pm) is on campus. I would love for
people to attend this first event because this one has the CCTA plays from
around the globe. Of the 50 plays that were commissioned, six of those are
The really cool thing is I put the word out to some of my
colleagues and asked if they thought there were any students who might want to
direct these and two wonderful young undergraduates, Elizabeth Schuetzle and
Jessica Doherty, stepped up and are directing three plays each. They’re also
working with their friend, music composer and fellow student Cyrus Leland,
whose created music for this student-driven event.
After the performances, Chantal will speak about how to create your own climate change—or any kind—of social justice event because these things don’t require money, they just require commitment and time.
Awesome. I think
Chantal will be a great resource for anyone interested in creating social
Absolutely. And, I think this is something all playwrights,
and everybody, should step up and do at least once—create some kind of
grassroots action to make the world a better place. If you sit around and wait
for someone else to do it, they’re not going to. It’s important for us as
playwrights to not sit around and wait. I understand the impulse, because
playwrights like to be left alone. We like to be alone in our rooms, and we
tend to be passive but every once in a while we have to come out of the cave
and not be passive.
I’m in my cave now.
After this, I’m going into the cave.
Let me reel it back
in—What is the second event? 🙂
The Saturday (CLIMATE
CHANGE THEATRE ACTION LA: AT THE INTERSECTION, 11/9 at 2pm) event is all
Los Angeles playwrights and what that one addresses is not just climate change
around the globe but specific issues that affect Los Angeles directly. The
climate change issues in Los Angeles are very different from say the issues in
the Pacific Northwest or the issues in India or Costa Rica. I wanted to pay
attention to that because I think a lot of times people don’t think climate
change is an urban problem but its actually really important to urban areas and
its particularly important to neighborhoods of color and people who come from
low-income neighborhoods because they don’t have the political clout to fight.
I consulted with some people from the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences) about what the chief LA climate change issues were and they enumerated air quality, incompatible land-use, unfair distribution of water, the feast or famine problem of water in LA, and drilling , fracking and the storage of liquid natural gas. And added to that is our unique geography.
Definitely! With this
past week’s fires, I keep thinking about one of the pieces in particular.
Yes. It’s really interesting. Julie Taiwo Oni wrote a piece (ROOMIES) about the fires. Interestingly enough, when she turned that one in back in June I was glad someone took that (issue) on but didn’t think it was particularly relevant, and then last week happened. Suddenly, Julie’s is the most relevant of all of them. Not that they aren’t all relevant, they’re all interconnected.
Can you talk to me about the event’s subtitle, AT THE INTERSECTION?
One of my major issues is that people tend to think of climate change as a white middle class issue, and they also think of it as something that is distant in time. The fact of the matter is that environmental catastrophe affects low-income people more than it affects anyone else because they don’t have the means to buy their way out of it. It also affects people with very little political clout because they don’t have the means to influence their way out of it. I’m interested in intersectionality, hence, AT THE INTERSECTION, which is kind of a play on words. It’s not just that LA is a city of freeways, streets and lots of intersections, but I see this as “at the intersection” of art and science, and also at the intersection of many other cultural and identity movements. I think climate change is a feminist issue, I think it’s a racial issue… it’s definitely a status and economic issue. So that’s where the At the Intersection comes from.
It occurred to me that if I really wanted to see these works, I had to do it. I was probably the only person that was going to.
So, I know you
primarily as a playwright, but here you’re taking on the role of producer. How
did that come about?
Being a female playwright in America is kind of thankless. There are few opportunities. And being an older female playwright makes it even worse. And also the idea of trying to interest a theater in plays about important social justice issues or environmental justice—they honestly just don’t care. They may pay lip service to it, but we don’t see them producing these plays. It occurred to me that if I really wanted to see these works, I had to do it. I was probably the only person that was going to. I tried to interest other people in doing it and got no response, so I had to step in. I’ve produced with Visions and Voices before, on campus, but usually on a smaller scale. This one has been really challenging. Of course, Gio (Ortega), Simon Chau (production stage manager) and the people at the museum have been really helpful.
Yes. The Natural
History Museum! How did they get involved? Did you reach out to them?
I did. I thought “you know, we could do this on-campus”, but
then I thought, “Who else is doing this kind of work?” And what’s really
wonderful about the Natural History Museum is that they take the city of Los
Angeles and its diversity very seriously, and by diversity I don’t just mean in
terms of population but also the diversity of its interests and topics. So
climate change is one of the things that they actually have programs about. I
figured that if I could get them to partner with us, then we would have a
really interesting performance space.
And we do! We’ll be
at the Hall of Mammals.
Yes, it’s going to be in front of, you know, those dioramas
of the mountain goats… North American mammals.
*I do a happy dance on the inside and think about selfies with said mountain goats*
So yeah, I brought it to them, and lo and behold, they said yes. The really cool thing about this event is that it’s free to the public. That also means that if you make a reservation for the event, you get in free to the museum. You literally could spend the day at the museum and see all the really cool things that they’re doing there. They’re not just a museum of dinosaurs, they’re a museum of the natural history of Los Angeles, which is fascinating.
They’re actually trying to pay attention to what this city
really is and where it grew from. They also have a climate change program now
that they’re starting to develop. I’m very happy that we’re partnering with
How were the writers and production team selected?
A lot of the writers on this list were already writing about
climate change, so I didn’t have to go out of my way and try to find LA writers
that I was going to force into this topic. These are already people who are
concerned about this and are writing about it. It’s interesting to me that
there are a lot of women doing it. I also wanted to make sure that I had young
and old represented, and I wanted to hit the culture of Los Angeles, so we
have—Latinx writers, Asian American writers, black writers, white writers, and
mixed race writers. I’m trying to re-create the community of Los Angeles via
the playwright’s voices.
Gio (Ortega) has been interested in climate change—its one
of the topics that he takes on. He’s into social justice theater too. And
that’s really what this is, social justice theater. Gio is the director in town
that I know for whom this work matters. He’s traveled and done research on this
work, leads a program at Pomona College’s theater department that also does a
climate change theatre action in Pomona. He was a natural person to
I’ve worked with Simon Chau and Alex Rehberger (Production
and stage management) in the past. They’re both USC grads. And Howard Ho is our
go-to sound guy. That’s the team.
Talk to me about the
short, original works that have been created for this event. What can we
We have plays about children being affected by the toxic waste in their neighborhoods. Plays about gentrification. Plays about the Los Angeles River—the rehabilitation of it and the pollution in it. Plays about low-income people who have pumpjacks in their neighborhoods. Plays about trees and how LA needs to be more proactive about planting them because not only do they create shade, thereby lowering the temperature of the city, but they also help clean the air. We have plays about all of these topics, including incompatible land use, which you would think “How the hell would you write about that?”
Yes! But also, it
wasn’t t only a matter of how to approach these topic that I found challenging,
but the short format too. These pieces are each roughly 3-4 minutes long. So
even though I wrote a play, it also felt like I was writing narrative poetry.
That’s really wonderful. Almost everyone addressed them
poetically. And in fact, a couple of people have actually written spoken-word.
We have this really wonderful mix of plays that are scenes, and some that are
either wonderful comedic monologues or spoken-word kind of chats. It’s all
There’s also a micro
That just happens to be mine. I work with this wonderful
composer, Guang Yang—we have a full-length opera we’re working on—and I thought
“we like to work together”, so I asked
her if she wanted to do a piece for this and she said yes. We took on the
impossible topic of incompatible land-use. Ours is about a little girl whose
school is under a freeway—because we don’t have zoning to protect kids, schools
and playgrounds from being near a landfill or toxic waste or freeways. So the
little girl comes home from school and tells her mother that she learned
there’s a hole in the sky and her mother doesn’t want to hear about it. She
doesn’t want to hear the bad news. So the little girl spins a fanciful tale of
a Chinese goddess who’ll fix the hole in the sky, which helps the mother come
around. It’s really neat. It’s a very experimental opera. The full length opera
that Guang and I wrote has ten-singers, is orchestrated for an orchestra… but
this little short opera is just one instrument—a keyboard—and some percussion
sounds on a computer.
full-length opera is being done in Pittsburg next summer!)
Can you talk a little
about the theme guide created for this event?
My graduate students from my first year 574A (Dramatic Writing Across Media) class stepped up to create this. One of the media I’d pointed out to them is multiplatform media—creating theme guides and websites that have hyperlinks embedded in them so that people could go and see a video and get more resources. What they did was create theme guides for this entire event that has articles about environmental justice, the issues in LA, and organizations that you can support and join to help make change. It’s a really wonderful, colorful, beautifully printed guide that will be about 5-6 pages long and will include the program.
… I could keep doing it (CCTA/LA) but then I’m the one that keeps learning these things and its time for somebody else to step up and learn about not only how to do this but also about the issues.
Is CCTA/LA something
you’re hoping to continue to do every two years?
I would love for that to happen and I would love to be the
guide and the advisor, but I would let somebody step up and take over. I think
that’s one of the important things about being a playwright in America and that
is that you don’t sit around and wait. And I also feel as if I could keep doing
it but then I’m the one that keeps learning these things and its time for
somebody else to step up and learn about not only how to do this but also about
the issues. The best way to learn about them is to be directly involved.
excites you the most about the CCTA/LA:
At the Intersection event?
What excites me the most, and I hope this happens, is that
regular visitors to the museum, who are strolling through the galleries with
their kids, drop in and see something happening. My dream is that we see little
families seeing that there’s a theater event going on and that they stop and
take it in so that they are, as a family, not only introduced to theater, but
also introduced to the issues. I think its great that people are making
reservations, I love that, but I also would love for all the casual passerby’s
get drawn into it because I think it will be fun.
While my scheduled week was randomly selected (at least to my understanding) by the LAFPI team, it seems to have been bestowed upon me at the perfect time because *DRUMROLL*… I HAVE SOMETHING TO PROMOTE!
This coming Saturday, November 9th at 2pm, USC Vision & Voices, in partnership with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, presents Climate Change Theatre Action LA: At the Intersection—a presentation of short play performances, spoken word pieces, and a micro opera that will “explore the effects of climate change on Los Angeles communities” with the aim to use theatre to start a conversation about they ways in which climate change is impacting our neighborhoods.
Playwrights include: Velina Hasu Houston, Tira Palmquist, Diana Burbano, Mary Kamitaki, Amanda Black, Jennie Webb, Jennifer Maisel, Carlyn Flint, Paula Cizmar, Julie Taiwo Oni, EM Lewis, and ME! 🙂
All works will be presented at the Hall of Mammals at the Museum, which personally, I think is very cool.
This event is free of charge, family friendly (my 4-month-old niece and three-year-old nephew will be there and I’m beyond happy to share my work with them, even if they won’t remember it down the line) and includes entrance and access to the museum! All that is required is that you RSVP, and you could do so here: https://nhm.org/calendar/climate-change-theatre-action-la-intersection
In support of Climate Change Theatre Action LA: At the Intersection and its related event, How to Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event: A Workshop with Chantal Bilodeau, my articles this week will be highlighting members of its creative team, their work in putting these events together, and documenting the brand spanking new short-plays (all written by LA-based, female playwrights) that will be presented at the Natural History Museum of LA County on the 9th of this month.
I hope you will come out and support these events!