Writing a play about extinction isn’t easy – not when the climate crisis is a widely discussed topic, and especially not during a pandemic.
Yet, Brooklyn-based playwright, Miranda Rose Hall still managed to write A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction. It’s about main character Naomi as she retells the story of life on Earth.
“The play is a one-woman show about extinction and the climate crisis,” said Hall. “I started to a joke that it’s a life-affirming play about mass extinction. So it’s my way of trying to tell a story that can metabolize the times that we are living in with the tools of the theatre, a character who’s trying to work through something, humour and audience interaction.”
Performance becomes connection
The play follows Naomi, a dramaturg who works mostly behind the scenes in theatre production.
“She’s normally running the lights and running the sound and driving the van for her small theatre company,” said Hall. “But when we meet her, she is thrust on stage in an unexpected moment. And we are watching her try to figure out what to do.”
Hall began writing the play in 2018 and it made its online debut in April 2021. Directed by Rose Plotek and staring Warona Setshwaelo, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction asks questions like: What does it mean for millions of species to be under threat? and What does it feel like to be a grass who is struggling in a bay that is overheating?
When Hall began writing the play in 2018, some people were surprised by her decision to write about extinction.
“I think that now that we’ve all lived through the pandemic, the spirit around the work has changed,” she said. “Mortality is at the surface for us culturally – in a way that it just was not at the surface in 2018.”
She explained that the consciousness around the climate crisis has evolved. Writing about the climate is no longer a “fringe, scary thing”.
A Play for Living in Montréal
The Montréal premiere is special. Unlike previous performances, which took place online, Hall will get to sit alongside other audience members.
“I wasn’t able to be around the people who are experiencing it,” she said. “The premiere was only digital, so people would just watch it in their homes. You don’t get to hear what people are saying in the bathroom to one another. Like ‘I like that’ or ‘I didn’t understand that part’. That’s the part you miss out on – the human element.”
Montréal chose Hall.
Plotek caught wind of the play because it was nominated for a prize for women, playwrights writing in English.
“What makes the Montréal production so special, is that it’s the first time I get to sit in an audience. With other people experiencing the work. It’s not in the black hole of the internet,” Hall said.
Writing About the Climate Crisis
Hall, like many people, is worried about climate change.
“It keeps me up at night and it’s very confusing,” she said. “It’s a very complex and distressing thing to live through and to try to write about.”
But it wasn’t just the climate crisis that inspired her to write. Hall also mentioned The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, a book by author Amitav Ghosh. The Great Derangement examines the inability to grasp the scale of the climate crisis through literature, history, and politics.
Hall described it as a way for novelists, in particular, to ask: Why can’t our novels talk about the climate crisis? and Why is the climate crisis relegated to science fiction or nonfiction?
“People who write narrative fiction are supposed to be telling the story of what it means to be alive and what the human spirit has to deal with,” she said. “Here’s this major thing that’s happening in our lives and we haven’t figured out how to talk about it. Probably because it’s so big and messy and confusing.”
In response, Hall took on the challenge of writing a piece of narrative fiction that attempts to work through the difficult aspects of writing about climate change while leaving the audience with a feeling of connection to the earth.
“I think the biggest challenge is just trying to contend with the grief and the rage of what’s happening,” she said. “And the sense of despair and paralysis is really hard to work through.”
A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction will run at the Centaur Theatre until May 15.
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Olivia is a Montreal-based journalist who loves writing about arts, culture and identity. Fueled by espresso, you’ll most likely find her scribbling a story idea in her notebook or detangling her hair.