Taking part over the course of COP21, the Climate Change Theater Action is a series of curated short plays from global writers co-curated by Chantel Bilodeau, Caridad Svich and Elaine Avila. How will the act of writing theatre change in relation to climate change?

In Paris, there is drama. Behind closed doors, the future of our planet’s resources is negotiated, while Leonardo Di Caprio tells Ban Ki-Moon “You’re the man!”. Fossil fuel lobbies deal behind the scenes in sponsorships, inducements and invitations, while activists defy Parisian police on the streets. The Chinese Pavilion’s robot calculates the emissions it took you to fly there.

The playwright seems more than hopelessly unable to represent such dramatic times. Play after play falls into exposition or familiar genre moulds – kitchen sink drama, or ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ monologue. Is there a genre called Climate Theatre emerging? “I hope not, because that would ghettoize it”, says Chantal Bilodeau, co-curator of Climate Change Theater Action. “But I hope it will have an influence. Climate change is a way to talk about something much bigger.”

Participating playwright Karen Malpede agrees the challenges are enormous for playwrights, whose common reaction is: “to be defeated before even beginning to grasp and grapple with the enormity of the problem”. The choice is either “to turn off and write about purely insular things, or to […] fabricate scenarios of post- or mid-disaster-ism”. For Malpede, such dystopian writing about climate change has two huge flaws in how it functions in relation to the the political imagination: it creates a perception that “we are doomed”, and relatedly, that positive actions are “equally useless – so we might as well give up, become cynical, alienated, cruel and pre-dystopian”. This type of writing affirms a version of humanity that is “essentially sick” – a collective self-image, the suggestion is, that the contemporary human being might find pleasure in.

If one lesson of climate change is to act hopefully in the face of an oppressive, system-wide crisis, it doesn’t fit with the traditional middle-class activity of writing a play. Nor does it, I point out to Bilodeau, fit with the supposed horizontal pitch of the project –most of the selected plays are in English and written by U.S Citizens, who are also over-represented at COP21. “This project is not funded. We had neither the time nor the capacity to find another 40-50 playwrights to balance out the American playwrights. However, collaborators (host theatres) were encouraged to include work by local writers.

“Everyone was free and encouraged to make their event as representative of their own community as they could. And a lot of them did. We tried to make sure we had every continent represented [in the authors selected]”.

So is the playwright’s traditional approach to authorship, relevant only in as much as it repeats a dominant structure, now finally defunct in the face of ecological crisis? Bilodeau responds: “That paradigm doesn’t fit anymore. Our world has become too connected and too complex. It’s more than just about articulating a new idea. It’s about articulating the entire frame that contains all of our ideas”.

Of course, some things are so embedded in the process of writing they may be difficult to ever let go of. When I challenge her that about the incompatibilities of the western writer with the demands of climate change: individualism, its solitude, its slow speed, its division of internal/external, its process of editing and review, its use of paper… Malpede must retreat to familiar, but beautiful ground:

“But it’s the writers: who reflect on what it means to be alive now, and who leave a record, if there is any to be left…”

Climate Change Theater Action is a joint venture from No Passport (USA), The Arctic Cycle (CAN) and Theater Without Borders (USA). Most global events end at the completion of COP21, on Dec 11, some are streamed live on the website HowlRound. The writer is producing some of these with collaborators in Melbourne, Australia.