PGC's Q&A with Chantal Bilodeau

Playwrights Guild of Canada caught up with PGC member, Chantal Bilodeau to discuss the critical success of her play about climate change in the Arctic, Sila, what drives her continuing fascination with the Far North, and what originally drew her to playwriting.

1) Your play Sila has already won First Prize at the 2012 Earth Matters on Stage Ecodrama Festival and the 2011 Uprising National Playwriting Competition, and now it has been shortlisted for the 2013 Woodward International Playwriting Prize. Could you tell us a bit about the play and what you think is the key to its critical success?

Sila is the story of a place. It started with the idea of writing something about the projected opening of the Northwest Passage to commercial maritime traffic as the Passage becomes ice-free in the summer. But after spending some time on Baffin Island to do research for the play, I realized that the story of the Canadian Arctic is not one story but several interconnected stories, and that trying to reduce it to one narrative would be doing it disservice. The people I met and the experiences I had while up there were so diverse and compelling that I wanted to capture them all. So I shifted my original idea to something broader in scope and more complex in structure that allowed me to represent many points of view and highlight how profoundly connected those are. My goal became to try to capture the complexity of the place – in terms of geography and climate, of course, but also in human terms – and to make it accessible to an audience for whom the Arctic is still a very exotic and inaccessible place.

As to what the key to critical success is, I would be hard-pressed to say. Time and again, I have seen mediocre work receive high praises, superlative work being ignored and countless variations on the same theme. Early in my career, I made myself crazy trying to figure this out, thinking that success was something that happened “out there.” But throughout the years, I have come to believe that success is simply expressing who you are in the deepest and most authentic way. (No small feat.) And if other people respond to this, great! But critical success is dependent on so many random factors that I don’t think it should be taken too personally. Otherwise it gets in the way of what really matters.

2) Sila is part of a planned six-play cycle about climate change in the arctic. What drew you to this theme and setting?

In 2007, I went to Alaska on a summer vacation. I have always loved hiking and losing myself in Big Nature but had never been that far North. And I don’t know, something happened. It sounds ridiculous but the best way to describe it is that it was love at first sight. The vastness, the ruggedness, the quality of the light, the unforgiving climate, the colorful characters – it all got under my skin and suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of it. It took two years before I could go back (to Baffin Island that time) and I remember during those two years feeling such longing for the place that it was physically painful. But as I learned more about it, I also realized that what makes the Arctic so unique is terribly fragile and under tremendous pressure from our warming climate. So beyond my own personal interests in the region, I saw a need to capture a moment in time, to acknowledge a transition, to bear witness to disruptions that are so massive that we are still struggling to comprehend them.

3) The story follows the intertwined story of seven individuals — including an Inuit hunter and a polar bear. Can you speak a bit about how you approached the challenge of finding a voice for such a diverse cast of characters?

The challenge was kind of the other way around. When I finally sat down to write, after doing so much research that it became overwhelming, I had these very distinct voices in my head. What took some time was to find a way to let them all exist at the same time, separate but connected. Each voice is part of a bigger whole and I felt that whole could only be expressed from the inside out, so to speak. So my challenge was to find a way to connect the dots, to create a meaningful and cohesive story out of what first appeared like very disparate elements.

4) Could you tell us a bit more about the other five plays in the cycle? What’s next?

The next play in the cycle is titled Forward, which is the English translation of the word “Fram,” the name of the ship that took Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the North Pole in 1895. Set in Norway (every play in the cycle is set in a different region of the Arctic – Sila is in Canada, Forward in Norway and subsequent plays will explore Greenland, Iceland, Russia and Alaska), the play follows a series of seemingly unrelated characters, going back in time from present day to 1895. The question guiding me is “How did we get here?” I’m interested in looking at small moments that seemed insignificant at the time, but in hindsight, turned out to be important markers in the history of climate change. I’m also very intrigued by the contrast between what our hopes for the future were at that time versus how we explain where we went wrong today.

5) What originally drew you to playwriting?

Coincidence. I was a graphic designer for several years but felt somewhat constrained in that profession and longed for more creative freedom. I had always been interested in documentary filmmaking and had shot a few shorts on my own so I decided to enroll in film school. The film program I attended was a general program, which meant that we were doing a little bit of everything – writing, directing, editing, etc. But since the School of Film was small and didn’t offer many classes, the students ahead of me were going to the School of Theatre for writing classes. I followed in their footsteps and after some time realized I was more comfortable behind a computer than behind a camera. Still, I remained ambivalent for a while because English was my second language and it seemed preposterous to think that I could write – as my main activity – in a language I didn’t master. (I was studying in the U.S. so at that time, writing in French was not an option.) But my teachers and the people around me were very supportive so I stuck with it and eventually was able to move beyond my own insecurities and believe that I could do this.

6) Which Canadian playwright has influenced you the most stylistically?

The theatre artist who had the greatest impact on me while I was growing up wasn’t a playwright. It was Québec actor/director Robert Lepage. I followed him on TV when he was with the National Improvisation League, saw most of his productions in Montreal in the 90s and recently, have been able to catch some of his touring shows in New York City. For some reason, Lepage’s aesthetic captured me very early on. Maybe because he was of my generation and I felt he was speaking directly to me. Or because he was going places – thematically and formally – that were new and exciting and were allowing all of us in Québec to dream new dreams. Whatever it was, it defined theatre for me. Now, I would never pretend that my work is anything like his but there is something about his ability to capture the intangible that I always strive for in my own plays.

7) What are you currently working on?

I always have several projects going on at the same time. That way, if I feel like procrastinating with one project, I can shift my attention to another instead of doing something silly like surfing the internet or eating junk food. Right now, I’m in the process of writing Forward (the second play of my Arctic Cycle), I’m doing rewrites on Sila in preparation for an upcoming production, I’m working on an article about artists/scientists collaborations for American Theatre Magazine and I have started doing research for a book about artistic responses to climate change.

8) Many authors have a favourite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. Please share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer.

I don’t have a single quote I go back to; instead I find one or two quotes that encapsulate what I am exploring in a given project and use them as a barometer. If I feel at a loss or am afraid I am straying from my original impulse, I turn to the quotes and am reminded of what started me on that particular journey. The two quotes I used for Sila are:

“The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.”
– Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

“We must correct the global imbalances caused by the great disconnections that have grown between us.”
– Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Inuit Climate Change Activist

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Chantal Bilodeau is a New York-based playwright and translator originally from Montreal. Her plays and translations have been presented in theatres across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Italy. Her translations include a dozen plays by contemporary playwrights Mohamed Kacimi (Algeria), Koffi Kwahulé (Côte d’Ivoire), Étienne Lepage (Quebec) and Larry Tremblay (Quebec).

She is currently at work on a six-play cycle that looks at the impact of climate change on six regions of the Arctic. For more information, please visit her website: www.cbilodeau.com and http://artistsandclimatechange.com

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