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!
As she powers through the week, continuing to organize and promote Climate Change Theatre Los Angeles: At the Intersection and its sister event, How To Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event: A Workshop with Chantal Bilodeau, I sat down with her to discuss her involvement with Climate Change Theatre Action and how its inspired the development of the aforementioned two-day Visions & Voices events.
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 involved?
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 being performed.
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 justice theater.
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 them.
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 choose.
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 expect?
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 really neat.
There’s also a micro opera.
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.
(Note: Paula’s 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.
Final question—what 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.
Thank you, Paula!
You’re very welcome.
Don’t forget to check out the CCTA /LA events!
Climate Change Theatre Action
Earth Matters On Stage
Visions and Voices
How To Create Your Own Environmental Justice Event: A Workshop with Chantal Bilodeau
Climate Change Theatre Action LA: At the Intersection
Program for Environmental and Regional Equity
Climate Change Theatre Action 2019 – The Claremont Colleges
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County