On Tuesday night, a gentle buzz of excitement (and perhaps a bit of pre-show anxiety) filled The Hive. Students clustered around tables and benches rehearsing lines and laughing over pastries from 85°C Bakery Cafe, while Pomona College theater professor Giovanni Ortega made rounds around the open room, greeting guests and laughing with his students.
This was Pomona College’s production of Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA), a worldwide series of performances formed in collaboration with environmentally-focused organizations The Arctic Cycle and The Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. Founded in 2015, CCTA commissions 50 playwrights every two years to write short plays focused on climate change, which are then distributed to collaborators across the world to perform for their communities. Pomona has been working with CCTA since its inception, and engagement has proliferated in recent years alongside the rise of climate anxiety.
On Tuesday night, students from Ortega’s acting class continued Pomona’s legacy of engagement with CCTA, performing eight short monologues on topics including human history, imagined futures, mock YouTube video scripts, accounts of insect extinction and natural disaster displacement. The environment was comfortable and engaged, and each play flowed smoothly into the next. When one performance was finished — marked by the reading of the play’s title and playwright, along with audience applause — the next performer stood and seamlessly began their piece.
The Hive’s space allowed for a different kind of interaction between performers and audience. Rather than the prototypical theater setup — one which may include rows of chairs surrounding a stage, firmly distinguishing between “audience” and “actor” — the Hive’s seating plan is open and scattered. Performers sat mingled with audience members on tall yellow stools, couches and bean bags, standing up and removing their masks when it was their turn to speak.
Toward the end of the program, Paula L. Cizmar, University of Southern California professor of theater, playwright and activist, expressed appreciation for the venue.
“This is the perfect place to go to a live theater event because it’s not a ‘traditional’ space,” Cizmar said, placing air quotes around the word. “Because we’re looking at non-traditional ways of storytelling.”
The openness of the setting heightened the intimate atmosphere and sense of personal connection to the work. Making eye contact with audience members — some of them former neighbors — the actors varied their movement and body language, some moving through the crowd with ease and some standing grounded, powerful and in place.
This personal connection is ultimately a vital part of CCTA’s mission, a reason why the program has returned again and again to the 5Cs. Climate change impacts everyone, in ways both dramatic and subtle. Every audience member and actor has a personal stake in the art performed.
“The more I started working with my piece, the more I started connecting with this character that’s rooted in this problem of climate change, which is a problem that affects all of us,” actor Vicente Valdes HM ’25 said. “You start having these realizations as you’re working with a piece, like, ‘Damn, I can relate to that,’ or, ‘I’ve really felt this impact.’”
After the final performance, Ortega sat with Cizmar, co-founder of CCTA Chantal Bilodeau and playwright and environmental activist GiGi Buddie PO ’23 to speak about their experiences working in the intersection between theater and climate activism.
“How do we engage people in a topic that nobody wants to hear about?” —Paula L. Cizmar
The panelists articulated the anxieties and difficulties that come with thinking about and creating art about climate change. As Cizmar put it, “How do we engage people in a topic that nobody wants to hear about?”
Ortega elaborated, “How can you create a narrative with empathy and compassion when it’s so scientific?”
These questions are crucial when it comes to climate activism, when approaching environmental justice can seem overwhelming, overly technical and even hopeless.
“With the academic jargon that surrounds our environmental crisis, I’m really worried for everyday people who lack the education to really get involved,” Buddie said.
While there might not be one clear answer, part of the key seems to reside in making the movement more accessible through the arts.
“I think my role is bringing [climate change] into our daily lives, making it something we talk about with each other … something we can engage with,” Bidoleau said, regarding her work in CCTA leadership.
And when it comes to engagement, few art forms are better than that of the short play.
“I think theater does this really beautiful thing … where you can talk about big scary things, and then bring them to people with a lens that goes straight to the heart,” Buddie said. “You can talk about big scary issues and make them not as scary, you can make them digestible, you can make them accessible … And perhaps when you leave here, after seeing these wonderful monologues that were performed, maybe you think about it a little bit more.”
This expression of intimacy and optimism, of action and contemplation, is exactly what was provided by the student performances at CCTA — in voices full of passion and promise.
Correction: This article was updated to correct the spellings of Chantal Bilodeau and Vicente Valdes. TSL regrets the errors.