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Actors perform dramatic reading of climate change play

Published: Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 08:02

polar bear

NOAA Climate Program Office via Flickr Creative Commons

Actors from the Cambridge-based Underground Railway Theater performed a dramatic reading of a new play, “Sila,” yesterday evening in ASEAN Auditorium.

Playwright Chantal Bilodeau wrote the play, which depicts the impact of climate change on the Arctic, after being inspired during a trip to Alaska.

“I went to Alaska some years ago and got fascinated with the Arctic,” Bilodeau said. “This was around the time when there was a lot of talk about the opening of the Northwest Passage, which this is not about, but that was my original idea ... in pursuing that, I came up with this play.”

“Sila” incorporates traditional Inuit myths with the contemporary landscape of Arctic politics and is performed in three languages: English, French and the Inuit language Inuktitut. 

The play, which includes two polar bears, a climate scientist, an Inuit man and members of the Canadian Coast Guard among its eight characters, displays the impact climate change will have on multiple aspects of human society and nature, according to Bilodeau.

“It’s about the impact of climate change on the Canadian arctic,” Bilodeau said. “The story is a little hard to tell because it is kind of seven interwoven stories that come together, but it’s about dealing with the changes that are happening up there and trying to figure out how to do the best and work together because there are different interests that are converging.”

Debra Wise, the artistic director for the Underground Railway Theater Company introduced the play and explained the important role the audience would play in providing feedback. Wise also played the part of a climate activist during the reading because the actual actress had other commitments.

“The point of this play is to do readings when it is in process, so that’s why you have in your program this goofy little response sheet,” Wise said.

Following Wise’s introduction, the play begins with Kuvageegai, an Inuit hunter carving soapstone. It then quickly transitions to another subplot — the role of Inuit climate activist Leanna, who is giving a speech at a climate change conference.

“I come from a place of barren landscapes and infinite skies ... I come from a place where North is where you stand and South is everywhere else,” Leanna (Wise) said. “I come from a people who kept accounts from the early days when the earth was rich ... When spirits roamed the land like polar bears and muskoxen and caribou. I come from a world where life and death walk hand in hand ... This place I come from we call Nunavut. It means ‘our land’ in Inuktitut. It’s where we Inuit have thrived for more than 4,000 years.”

Over the course of the play’s two acts, which last for approximately two hours and includes an intermission, tensions play out between coast guard officers, the climate scientist and native Inuit people. Through disagreements and discussions between characters, the play demonstrates the impact melting ice will have on polar bears, on shipping through the Northwest Passage and on the national security of the countries bordering the Arctic Sea.

After the reading ended, Wise invited the audience to provide feedback so that changes could be made if necessary.

Director of the Environmental Studies Program and Professor of Biology Colin Orians explained his interest in the play’s portrayal of a climate scientist and said that he was impressed with the play overall.

“In science now there is such a push to make broader impacts, to push to engage in the community in which you’re working, and so I think my initial reaction was that [Jean, the climatologist] was being pushed to be this scientist who couldn’t engage in the community and only did because he had to,” Orians said. “Perhaps you have an opportunity to suggest that maybe he wants to [which] you did at the end. Maybe that’s the beauty of it — that he grows. I’m not actually suggesting you change anything, I’m just telling you how you pull me in.”

“Sila,” which will be performed at the Central Square Theatre from April 24 to May 25, is part of the Underground Railway Theater’s mission to present plays on important modern issues, according to the Joan Lancourt, the company’s board president.

“Our mission is to do plays about vital issues of our time and climate change is about one of the most vital issues of the time,” Lancourt said. “We were looking for plays about that subject, we came across ‘Sila’ and we decided ‘yes.’”

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