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Environmental activist Ann Cavlovic talks 'non-preachy' climate activism

Last Wednesday was Earth Day, one of the few days left that we actually think about the environment and how we affect it. Although we live upon its surface and exploit its resources 365 days a year (and that extra day every four years), it's not often that the average person thinks about the environment. Is that because we don't care or think about it? Or is it the fact that environmental activism can sometimes come across as preachy or holier-than-thou to the average carbon sucking vampires of our world? It's a toss up. However, there are some writers who are driving a stake in the heart of common conceptions around environmental activism.

Ann Cavlovic is an Ottawa-based writer who is doing it differently when it comes to climate change. Her first play Emissions: A Climate Comedy, which won "Best in Fest" at the Ottawa Fringe Festival in 2013, challenges the misconceptions that may come to mind when people think of a play about climate change. Purposely avoiding preachy-ness, Emissions was written to foster discussion about the issue. The play encourages people to think about their own lives and personal contributions to the problem. 

Can you tell me about Emissions? How did you get the idea for it and why did you decide to write it?

 It started with a really particular event… I had just had my son, he was about a year old and I told a friend that our efforts to live car-free with a baby weren't working and I was going to break down and buy a car, as much as that was something I was really trying not to do. I felt like I didn't really have much of a choice. This person, not quite a friend, more like a colleague called me 'immoral' for doing so. We both worked in climate change policy and most people would look at a guy like that and say, 'well he's a jerk and just move on.' He was a jerk, but at the same time I'm also as aware as he is of the acuteness of the issue and how little is being done. But I'm also just one person, but is that just a cop out? So I was wrestling with all of these kinds of questions. What is individual responsibility? What is collective responsibility? And because I was kind of festering on this, I had the idea for this play. It couldn't just be a short story or an essay that only the usual suspects would ever read. It had to be something that got people together in a room and I then realized that I had to learn about writing plays… 

Do you mind giving a general overview of the characters and the play itself?

It's sort of quirky. It's written in an episodic [format]. Every scene is linked together by two main characters, but every scene also stands on its own. Each scene, except for the beginning and the end, is exploring one of the reasons why climate change is a really tough problem for humanity to solve: the tragedy of the commons, the way information is communicated…the us-versus-them dynamic in rich and poor countries.

It has all the markings of basically a problem you really want to avoid, because it's tough, but [the play is] trying to poke fun and satirize the human nature underneath it. The first drafts of the play were really preachy, and that's kind of what you expect when someone is going to write a play about climate change. I had to write through that to deepen my own understanding, but also to avoid that preachy-ness because nobody wants that, that's not going to help anybody...I think most of the preachy-ness was scrubbed. Then people might have learned something along the way, not so much about the environment per se, but about ourselves. But it wasn't being shoved down anyone's throat.

The two main characters are sort of a modified Adam and Eve that went through their own progression during the play. They start at opposite extremes: Adam was more like your right-wing Republican, 'I don't need anybody' kind of guy and Eve was sort of your extreme lefty, 'the state should fix it all for me' type. [In the end] they kind of find a middle ground.

 

I noticed that Margaret Wente was a character. Why did you choose to include her?

 (According to the script for Emissions: A Climate Comedy, Wente is interchangeable with any "locally recognisable figure that is often misinformed.")

Yes! I got to play her on stage! I had a bit role and it was so much fun! Yeah, I just love to hate Margaret Wente…She just came on as sort of a bit part about how the media will treat climate change and not understand anything, but still comment on it.

 

Why did you decide to use a creative commons licensing for your play?

It was part of my original intentions for the play and partly a reflection of my own limitations. For the latter, I got a spot in the [Ottawa] Fringe Festival to do this initially, but normally it's a company that gets a spot in the festival, not a playwright. Because I had that spot, I found a director who was interested…

My initial goal was to write a play that high schools would put on that's why there's room for so many characters. Then I ended up going the Fringe route. So it's not the kind of thing that I'm going to set up a company and tour around on my own, it's just the reality. Also, my hope was that schools and communities would put it on. So we'll let them do that. 

I didn't write this play for royalties, I mean if I was in it for the royalties that's a great $15 a year. I'd rather see it live and happen. Then it's pooling, crowdsourcing the energies of all the people who want to put it on.

Where has the play been put on, besides the Ottawa Fringe Festival? Has there been international interest?

...There's people in Sydney, Australia and Halifax, Nova Scotia who are interested, but they're still setting it up. A group in Wakefield when they had a climate change panel put on one scene, the scene of international negotiations as a way to sort of frame the discussion…

I should probably do some more promotions and marketing, but I'm spending my time writing.

 

What are you currently working on with your writing?

Right now I'm working on something that has nothing to do with environmental issues at all actually. It's about mother-daughter relationships and it's a short story. There's a couple short plays I've written, 10-minute things. I follow what interests me and where my curiosities lead next.

I saw that The Peptides did the musical score for Emissions… could you tell me a little bit more about them?

You should check them out! They're a really cool Ottawa band! That was the really neat thing about setting out in this world in Ottawa. Theatre is just really collaborative, so I managed to get an excellent director who pulled in people that she knew, and she happened to know this very, very talented musician for The Peptides. They're a very fun band in Ottawa. I don't know how to describe them, kind of retro, 50s, funk, very fun. [It's a] big band, I think there's about 10 people in the band. So they provided the live score and that just sort of added some artsy, campy fun to the whole production... 

So there was musical score accompanying a particularly campy, hopefully funny scene involving the office microwave as sort of a microcosim of the tragedy of the commons. If six people can't keep a microwave clean, how do you keep the planet clean? 

 

What sorts of suggestions does the play offer about fixing the problem?

None. It intentionally avoids any sort of top ten tips or these sorts of things, but it does maybe ask people to look deeper at our own personal responses and to just see the issue in a different way...

The conversations that would happen after the play are more important than the play itself. If it gets people in a room who, especially would normally not engage in that kind of an issue, and get them thinking about why it's so tough, and why we are in this boat and what it all means, and asking questions and discussing with their friends and peers, that's really valuable. There's top ten tips all over the place. You don't need anybody else telling you "bad, bad, get out of your car, bad, bad."

Have you overheard any of these conversations or has anyone engaged with you after the show?

Yeah, overall there was a lot of positive feedback about the play. The thing I've head to learn as any kind of a creative person is that you hear, maybe if you're lucky 20 or 30 per cent of the positive feedback, but you probably hear about 90 per cent of the negative.

Overall, it got really good reviews. There were a lot of people who were just elated. Some people told me about some of the conversations they had afterwards and that was really, really important to hear. At the same time, I ultimately don't know all that it does and there was one grumpy man who said, "That was the worst play [I've] ever seen in [my] whole life."

You get all manner of commentary. But that's ok! A zen monk once told me that if you do something and everybody likes it, it's probably mediocre. So, it wasn't mediocre. 

I've never seen so many suggestions for putting on the play. Was there a reason why there are so many suggestions for production?

I did that maybe because I'm naïve about scripts, but also because I was trying to enable high schools to do it, recognizing the limitations there...

 

Has anyone ever approached you with changes that they wanted to make?

Not yet. Well, I think in the Wakefield one there was one small change, which I thought was an improvement to the script. But I've asked people to run any changes past me because I want to make sure the integrity of it is not compromised, and it doesn't suddenly turn into a climate denial play…

 

Could you tell me a bit about the trailer for the play?

So that's actually not a direct scene from the play, but it is the two main actors and it kind of gives you a flavor for the dynamic... So, in a minute it gives you more of a flavor for the mood and spirit of the play…
As soon as people think about a play about climate change, they have certain expectations. We had to very quickly blow that out of the water, that this is not going to be a bunch of people on stage saying 'Come on now, recycle.' We're going to try to do something, but different.

 

Is there anything that you would really like your audience to take away from the play?

Again, I want people to ask the questions that they need to be asking, and hope that that provokes whatever needs to be provoked in their lives. I'm enough years into my environmental activism to have beaten out most of my missionary tendencies, because I just don't think that's helpful. If people see it in a slightly different way then I'm really happy. I mean, so many things contribute to the choices that we make, I can't say that that one play will lead people to have certain epiphanies and totally change their lives, but if it contributes more awareness, that's great!

Is there anything that you'd like to mention that I forgot to ask you about?

We could mention the website is www.climateplay.ca and the whole script is there, and some reviews and other information about it. If anyone wanted to contact me with any questions I'm always very open to that and am easy to reach via that website!

 

Click here to watch the trailer for Emissions: A Climate Comedy! (Credit: Andrew Alexander Photography)

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