How do you capture, in a single play, the overwhelming environmental crisis that looms over us? How do you tackle a subject so daunting, and how do you avoid sounding preachy or panic-stricken?
More and more playwrights are taking the subject on, as the diverse range of eco-themed works at the Vancouver Fringe Festival is about to prove.
Whether they’re using comic absurdity (Wild/Society), stripped-down monologue (My Ocean), Brechtian ukulele musical (Waiting for Garbo), site-specific shorts (Generation Hot), or even funky shadow puppets (Space Hippo), they’re showing that art can work through the incomprehensible.
For playwright Sasha Singer-Wilson, the way through took the form of the voice of a 12-year-old boy. In her new solo script My Ocean, Nadeem Phillip plays Lenny, a kid whose story of a broken home melts into a presentation on our broken seas.
“I’m a quiet activist. I kind of don’t know where to take it. I’ll read something and I’m really shaken by it and then it’s ‘What next?’” the playwright tells the Straight over the phone from her Vancouver home. “It feels so big, so where do we even start? And the exploration of this story felt like a place to start.
“Every time I went back to write, I thought about the lone cry of a voice,” she continues. “Perhaps that’s my experience: there’s such a solitude to how we confront the destruction of our earth. I feel deep despair about it and little Lenny might be that little voice inside.”
It’s the first time the stage artist has brought her ecological concerns into her writing, and the Toronto native, who’s written for the acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre, theorizes that this might have something to do with moving to the West Coast.
“I really feel it being in this city—it is so powerful to live by the ocean,” she explains. “It’s easier to turn away when it’s not on your own doorstep. So the play is inspired by living by the ocean, but also wanting to show how it feels to live away from the ocean—as Lenny does. How can we feel connected to it when it’s not on our doorstep?”
In the moving yet funny solo, the young environmentalist is ready to make a Speakers League presentation on sea turtles. But the story of his past starts to derail his big speech. “What happens over the course of the play is like a microcosm—really reckoning with destruction and how we can find reconciliation and hope in the face of destruction,” Singer-Wilson says.
Local playwright Mika Laulainen has taken a completely different approach to broaching the bleak subject. Her double bill Wild/Society is as absurdist and silly as the Fringe gets.
In Wild, a city rabbit and a country raccoon meet for tea in an upscale townhouse during an urban real-estate crisis, while in Society, Laulainen and fellow actor Melissa Oei dress up as rich, capitalist penguins who are partying while the icebergs melt around them.
“A lot of people feel that ‘I’m just one person and I can’t do anything’ [about the environmental crisis],” Laulainen begins to explain to the Straight over the phone from the show’s stop at the Victoria Fringe Festival. “With people in my generation, and my parents’ generation, there’s a sense of apathy.”
That apathy has driven her to take the play’s action into the land of the bizarre and surreal. In Wild, Oei sports bunny ears, whiskers, a big petticoat, and a pom-pom tail; Laulainen wears a big fur coat as the raccoon; and the action takes place on a green shag carpet that stands in for grass. In Society, they don orange flippers and bow ties with their tuxedos, their penguin “one-percenters” downing vodka and snorting cocaine while sitting in a kiddie pool.
“Why we’re using animals instead of humans is it comes from a place of satire and it’s getting the message through without clunking people on the head,” Laulainen says, adding she’s inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s device of, as the legendary playwright put it, “making the familiar strange”. “It basically states that if you change your characters or protagonists to something just a little bit off, people actually connect in a stronger way. That way you can go, ‘I totally get what Raccoon is saying.’ You don’t feel like you’re getting cornered or attacked.
“Everyone knows comedy allows people to not feel so sensitive about issues that really they are responsible for taking on,” adds the avid bicycle commuter, recycler, and composter.
As she’s taken the show around the country’s Fringe circuit, Laulainen has heard a lot of people say Wild/Society feels like a very Vancouver show, with its ecological themes and references to the housing crisis. And she’s also noticed a wave of other shows tackling environmental concerns in fresh ways. “I do think it’s something that’s becoming more apparently talked about,” she says.
“I feel like, ‘Wow—there is a cry happening, a call to action,’ ” agrees My Ocean’s Singer-Wilson. “We’re opening up a dialogue and giving an opportunity to dive in differently than when we read a newspaper or watch a documentary.
“What can happen when we gather in a space together where we open up a dialogue? There are no easy answers. My hope is this is just the start of a conversation.”
My Ocean is at Studio 16 and Wild/Society is at the Revue Stage for the Vancouver Fringe Festival from Thursday (September 8) to September 18.