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With the world as polarized as it’s ever been, at what point do you accept it’s more important to bring folks together than drive them farther apart?
That question becomes an important one when wrapping one’s head around Are we not drawn onward to new erA from the boundary-pushing Ontroerend Goed theatre company.
Those who’ve followed the Belgium-based collective over the years know that Ontroerend Goed is more than happy to push buttons to make a point.
Recall, if you will, Audience from a decade ago, where a young woman in the crowd is insulted by a performer on stage, and told that the verbal belittlement will only stop when she spreads her legs. Some Fringe audiences used that as a springboard for examining how their beliefs, values, and sense of moral outrage can be manipulated by their fellow human beings. Others simply got angry and irate.
In a more sane world, no-one would be angry at the message of Are we not drawn onward to new erA. The play suggests we’ve fucked up the planet so badly we need to be taking drastic action before it’s officially too late.
And yet who among us hasn’t argued about climate change with a drunk relative, belligerent dinner-party attendee, or card-carrying member of the Pierre Poilievre fan club?
While it would be easy to spark discussion by pissing off those on both sides of the issue, in Are we not drawn onward to new erA, Ontroerend Goed’s approach is more clever than confrontational, the play running forward for the first half-hour, and then rewinding in reverse.
Things start with the dismantling of an apple tree, after which the stage is eventually taken over by piles of garbage and flying plastic bags, a soundtrack featuring William Basinski’s ghostly “Disintegration Loops,” and a language unrecognizable language, adding to the sense of chaos.
But, tied into the fact that the production’s title is a palindrome, there’s also a message that anything can be reversible if you try hard enough, which is cleverly depicted in the second half of the work.
Reached via Zoom at home in Belgium, his adorable three-year-old daughter wandering in and out of the room, Ontroerend Goed artistic director Alexander Devriendt notes that Are we not drawn onward to new erA started out with a climate-change conversation with his collaborators. That led to exhaustive reading about climate change, major inspirations including Collapse by Jared Diamond.
“He’s a wonderful scientist and writer, even though his ideas are sometimes disputed,” Devriendt says. “He sees Easter Island as a sort of microcosm of the world, and that’s what I based a big part of the play on.”
One of the biggest challenges was thinking about how to best reach people—all people—with the play’s message.
“If you follow the news there is so much polarization,” Devriendt notes. “And climate change is polarizing, even though it’s something that we should all be able to agree on. It’s easy to preach to the converted when people are coming to a theatre show, so we made an effort to really find a balance where we are also adding something to the discussion, instead of trying to make people feel guilty.”
That idea of not getting confrontational is important in Are we not drawn onward to new erA. We live in a world that’s increasingly being divided into “us and them,” making it hard to build the kind of bridges that lead to problem solving.
“I’m watching American politics and it’s fascinating,” Devriendt marvels. “Before Trump, I think I tended to make shows that woke people up and pushed buttons. After Trump, I think it’s more important to perhaps try and console than to try and wake people up.”
He acknowledges that doing something about climate change can seem daunting. Ask yourself this: no matter how concerned you might be, are you willing to make sacrifices like giving up air travel and your next vacation or trading in your car for public transit? And then ask yourself how hard it is to start taking reusable bags to the store, or to cut down on food waste.
“With Easter Island, new research has found that the reasons it collapsed is not so easy,” Devriendt says. “In the original metaphor they cut their own trees to make their statues and that made their own land unsustainable. That seems like a good metaphor for our time when we’re killing the Amazon rainforest, or any tree really.
“I also like that things are more complicated than that,” he continues. “The play is not so simple as ‘Let’s go back to nature.’ That idea is there of course, but at the same time if we go back, what do we give up, which can even lead to discussions like ‘Do you have a kid or not?’ Some people think it’s good for the world not to have a kid, and I understand that discussion. So I hope that the show, and the metaphors that it offers, get people talking and thinking. I really believe it’s important not to be pointing fingers. But if we all want an iPhone, is that something you’re willing to give up?”
Difficult questions? Devriendt could not agree more.
“This isn’t an easy discussion and the play doesn’t give any easy answers,” he says. “But hopefully it gives you a way of thinking about things where a solution feels possible, or opens up your mind instead of closing things off. I’m trying to put ideas in the minds of people who come to see the play, because we’re at the point where we really have to do something.”
Are we not drawn onward to new erA plays February 1 to 4 at UBC’s Frederic Wood Theatre as part of the PuSh Festival.