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Adding a human dimension to climate change

Chantal Bilodeau wanted to bring climate change down to the small scale. She quickly found that was a huge task
Nunavut, where the cycle begins

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Chantal Bilodeau’s idea was simple: tell the story of climate change, from a human perspective, in the intimate setting that only the theatre can provide.

She quickly found out, however, that climate change was far too big for just one play to contain. In fact, she decided, it takes eight.

“I had planned just one play but found that it was too small to all the things I needed to say,”  Bilodeau, a translator and playwright from Quebec, but now living in New York, says. So instead, she decided to break down the issue and tell the story through the eyes of those who it is affecting most: the people of the Arctic.

Her eight-part Arctic Cycle, in which each play takes place in a different Arctic country, took the stage in April in Boston, where ‘Sila’, set in Nunavut, has been met with positive reviews.

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She says she’s aware of the risk of getting repetitive when using eight plays to present a topic that we all hear about every day. However she feels the vast differences in the region – everything from climate to culture – means there is plenty of material to draw on.

And then there is issue of the sheer amount of time she expects the cycle is going to take to write. Bilodeau has already started on the second instalment, titled ‘Forward’, focusing on Norway, and in all she estimates that it will take more than a decade to complete the eight works.

“There is a risk of saying the same thing, but while the plays are being written our relationship to the climate will evolve. The plays will reflect that and I don’t expect to be telling the same story in the last play as I did in the first.”

With eight countries (Canada, Norway, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Russia, Sweden and Finland) to write about, all of them sharing only a geographic location in common, Bilodeau doesn’t necessarily expect to be able to present a common thread when the cycle is complete. Still, though, she expects certain topics to continue to pop up.

“Oil, primarily,” she says. “The entire region is dealing with increasing access to oil and other resources. I think we’re going to see one theme being how natural resources specifically, and climate change generally, will impact people’s lives.”

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Some of the characters in ‘Sila’ are Inuit, and Bilodeau hopes to be able to include indigenous populations in as many of the plays as possible. But, really what she hopes to show is how climate change affects us. All of us.

“This is a problem shared by humanity. I would like to explore how we as people deal with the issues it brings up.”

Asked whether she wants her plays to be considered a climate project or a culture project, Bilodeau takes a long pause before answering.

“Both,” she finally decides. “Really, though, it’s about how they feed on each other.”

As an example, she points to the Inuit in Canada. “For them, the climate is the future. Climate change will determine where they can navigate, what resources are available to them and with that what kind of economy they have.”

While doing research for ‘Forward’ she saw that the effects of climate change on Norwegian society were less pronounced.

“The relationship there, by contrast, was much less clear. For me, the explanation is because the country is more developed to begin with, which makes it easier for them to adjust.”

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When it comes to climate change, Bilodeau says she tries to be realistic, rather than pessimistic.

“It brings opportunity, particularly for those living in the Arctic, but the real question we face is how do you take advantage of the changes without causing more problems? That’s a huge challenge. But I think it comes down to making smart choices so that we don’t make things worse.”

Part of her realism is that it is beyond our capacity to turn back climate change. What we can do, she feels, is to add a human dimension to the political and scientific discussions currently taking place.

“Climate change is a big event, but when it gets that big, people’s personal stories disappear. Theatre brings it down to the small scale, and I think that by doing so we can bring hope and motivate people.”

Bilodeau has yet to settle on the next country in her series. She expects some to pose more of a challenge than others, due to bigger cultural and linguistic differences (she singles out Russia), but the more she gets more involved with the story of climate change and how it impacts the region, the easier she feels it will get.

“It’s about making connections with people and listening to them and then telling their stories.”