The rate of change in the Arctic is greater than anywhere else. The Arctic Cycle—a series of eight plays by the playwright Chantal Bilodeau that looks at the social and environmental impacts of climate change on the eight Arctic States—was created to capture this, and bear witness to disruptions that are so massive that we will be struggling to comprehend them for years to come. Each play involves on-the-ground research, collaboration with international artists across disciplines, consultations with Earth and social scientists, and partnerships with communities and educational institutions.
The first play of the series, Sila, premiered in the USA in 2014, and has had three more productions since then. It examines the competing interests shaping the future of the Canadian Arctic and the local Inuit population. The second play, Forward, presents a poetic and humorous history of Norway, from the initial passion that drove explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the North Pole to the present-day anxiety over the rapidly changing climate. Woven through this history is the passionate love affair between Nansen and the character Ice. A blend of theatre, opera, and electropop music, the play progresses backwards from 2013 to 1893 and zeroes in on over 40 characters whose choices have unintended consequences that ripple through the generations. The play takes its title from Nansen’s ship Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward.”
Forward began when Bilodeau took a two-week sailing expedition around the fjords of the Svalbard archipelago. She also travelled to the Norwegian mainland to consult with climate scientists at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute in Oslo, and the Polar Institute in Tromsø. She visited the Fram Museum (which houses Nansen’s ship) and the Nansen Institute and read books written by Nansen, such as Farthest North, and many articles and papers about climate change and oil development in Norway.
The play was developed over several years in the USA and Norway. Collaborating artists included Tale Naess, dramaturg (a script consultant for the theatre); Aggie Peterson (also known as Aggie Frost), composer; and Jennifer Vellenga, director. Week-long workshops were held in Kansas, Chicago, and Tromsø. In Tromsø, English-speaking Norwegian actors shared stories and some of the more subtle nuances of Norwegian culture with the team, contributing many poignant details to the stories and characters. A conversation with an audience member who was working for a Norwegian oil company had the same effect. University students were involved at various stages in the process, providing them with a unique learning experience and a way to approach climate change through storytelling instead of data.
Forward has been presented to audiences as a script-in-hand reading at Akvavit Theatre (Chicago), The Brick (New York), Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas), Rådstua Teaterhus (Tromsø), and SoriaLab (Oslo). It was fully produced at Kansas State University in February 2016 where the two Norwegian collaborators joined the US artists to work with students. Four of the six performances were followed by discussions with experts in biological and agricultural engineering, geography, landscape architecture and community planning, natural resources and environmental sciences, physics, and soil microbiology. They provided context for the play, explaining aspects of climate change science to the audience, and drawing parallels between Norwegian climate change issues and local issues.
© Kansas State University. Jacob Edelman-Dolan and Sterling Oliver in the Kansas State University production of Forward, 2016.
In addition to being a model for international collaboration, the rehearsal process in Kansas was a rich experience for the students who had mostly conservative backgrounds, opening up a new world. Moreover, the university president attended a performance of Forward, and university administrators, art supporters, climate scientists, and students all interacted at a pre-show reception.
The play is currently being translated into Norwegian for a possible production in Norway. It will be published in English in the fall of 2017 and eventually the entire Arctic Cycle series will be published.
The production of Forward in Kansas was covered by the local newspaper. And both Forward and Sila have been the subject of academic papers, theses, and dissertations examining how the arts can inspire behavior change. Excerpts are often presented in non-traditional contexts such as scientific and policy conferences, and as part of disaster preparedness programs.
How might this work support the global transformation to sustainability?
Forward examines how complexity and interconnectedness are expressed through time spans that exceed a single lifetime. It provides a broader context for understanding our complicity in creating the conditions that made climate change possible, and our propensity for inertia despite the increasingly urgent need for action. It is a way of showing the magnitude of the challenge we are facing while at the same time distilling it into human-sized components. The play invites people to think about their current actions and what they are likely to leave behind for future generations.
© Kansas State University. Kristan Crawford in the Kansas State University production of Forward, 2016.
Chantal Bilodeau is a playwright, translator, and research artist whose work focuses on the intersection of science, policy, culture, and climate change. She is the artistic director of The Arctic Cycle, founder of the blog and international network Artists & Climate Change and a co-organizer of the biennial CCTA.
Last edited: 14 August 2017
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