It’s April in Ottawa. Now.
The surge of spring is wiping away an ice storm with a sudden surge of heat. I’m deep in rehearsals for a play called 12, which will open May 4. And I’m stuck.
Can I take you back in time?
In 2018, I met a group of 12 youths. That same year, I put my focus on creating theatre that puts the perspective of youth at the centre of the story, and aims to build work that happens in collaboration between youth with professionals, and performs for audiences of all generations.
That day, I asked the 12 of them to write on a scrap of paper what was going inside their minds and hearts right then. They wrote that they were uncertain for their future, and that the climate crisis was at the centre of that.
One week later, one of the 12 came into rehearsal with news: the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) had released a report right on the heels of COP24 in Poland that declared we had 12 years to prevent irreversible damage to the planet, with a threshold of 1.5 degrees of global warming in order to prevent climate “catastrophes.”
It was the 12th of December, the 12th month. “Irreversible” has 12 letters.
It was the 12th of December, the 12th month. “Irreversible” has 12 letters.
On March 20, 2023, the IPCC released their final report. It has an uncanny amount of identical language (irreversible, for one), numbers, recommendations, and “thin ice” warnings to the one five years earlier. “It’s like we’re starting all over again,” Jax, an actor in the 100 Watt Youth Ensemble, said to me.
This May, the new 12 will open at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. I say “new” because 12 is a production that continually changes with time: the script changes with changes in the Ensemble — not just the actors, but their current questionings. It changes with climate science updates and the “deadlines” the world repeatedly hears, and with changes in the receivers — the audience.
What does not change for me is the why: these 12 human beings who keep my heart big and my mind open to what is still possible. Maybe someday, 12 will no longer be a necessary story to tell. The youths will let me know.
When 12 had its first performance in 2019 and launched the Opening Ceremonies for UNESCO’s 30th Anniversary of the International Year of the Child, I knew 12 intended to share the voice of youth with regards to the climate crisis, and hopefully serve as a cross-generational awakening for audiences of all ages. I started calling 12 a “love story between generations and towards the planet we share.” A year later, I added the word “urgent” before “love story.”
Now, five years from its beginnings, I sit here and I am stuck. I stare at this page, unable to write this article because I keep stumbling on how to articulate something so simple as “what’s 12 about now?” And who is it for?
And then all the while, I freeze with this deeper wonder: since 12’s beginnings, audiences have (at least) five more years of climate information, speeches and evidence of devastating impacts all over. ”Who wants theatre with the climate crisis as part of its story?,” I wonder.
Still stuck, I do exactly what happens in each rehearsal.
I ask the youth.
It’s Saturday morning in the studio. We’ve just finished a writing exercise in which they’ve written about their relationship to Time in three minutes. Anonymously, they’ve read out loud what each other have written.
Right away, I know this will be a new scene.
Me (not able to sit still, wishing I’d brought more chocolate to rehearsal today): Everyone, what is 12 now?
This is what I get back.
Ensemble: Kristina, is this for the Intermission article?
Ensemble: Can we start by telling them what 12 is not?
They begin, and I write as fast as I can.
Sophie/7: Well, we’re not angry.
Ethan/4: It’s not condescending.
Sophie/7: 12 is not careful. But it’s meticulous.
Sofia/1: It’s not judgment —
Taiya/U/S: — or blame.
Brianna/11: It’s not a cat.
Marisol/6: It’s not all that long.
Jax/9: It’s not like, I guess, conventional?
Sebastien/2: It’s not what you think.
Sophie/7: It’s not apologetic.
Jax/9: It’s not new.
Brianna/11: It’s not fiction.
Ethan/4: We’re not edible.
Natasha/10: We won’t hurt you. But it may hurt?
Marisol/6: It’s not a musical.
Ana Clara/8: It’s definitely not a lecture.
11: It’s no less than 70 legs on one stage.
5: It’s not going anywhere.
Welcome to the Ensemble. 12 of them. There are 11 Characters in the play, and each one is a Number and a Month. Math and Time. Our 12th in the team is Taiya, the Swing Understudy (U/S), a young tour de force who has learned all of the parts in case…well, in case.
As their Number, the Ensemble transform into others of their generation, others such as Jamie Margolin, Jaden Antony, Howey Ou, Marinel Ubaldo, Sofia and Andre Oliveira, Boyan Slat, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, and perhaps the more recognizable name in young leaders fighting for climate justice, Greta Thunberg.
4: But mostly it’s us. In a way, all the characters are us. In a theatrical form, we ask adults in particular to stop for a moment and listen.
I turn to them again.
Me: A few years ago, we said that “12 carries the voice of youth with regards to the climate crisis and a future that they’ve inherited.” Is it still that?
7: Sure, it’s still that, but now it’s not just that.
8 (her words bursting out): Change! We’ve changed. The world’s changed. Climate continues to change. But why’s there so much that’s still the same? Five years later, and..? (gestures)
It’s true. Their new 12 is as much about climate change as questioning change itself. Why is it so very hard, so intolerably uncomfortable, even in the smallest of ways, to make changes that may serve something bigger, something that is now both present and future? We’re really asking, ourselves included. As Sophie says, “we hold ourselves accountable, too.”
I’m 17….I feel like I’m 15 though. I haven’t caught up. Kristina, this is really hard.
Later that day, I message them as part of our continuous exchanges between rehearsals. Sometimes it’s me asking them how their math test went, or asking if they left their boots in the studio, or Olivia telling me that chocolate has a LOT of palm oil. Just yesterday, one of them texted me that the fungus from a sloth’s back can be helpful in cancer treatment.
Me (typing): Can you finish this sentence, “At the centre of 12 is…”?
Seconds later, my phone keeps pinging.
7: Heart. It’s a plea to listen in the form of a play. It’s a very raw play for us because we really do leave our thoughts and emotions bare for the audience. It’s an invitation to do the same with us.
6: At the centre of 12 is 6. In the literal way (lol emoji).
9: At the centre of 12 is a rickety pile of stools.
11: Complicated and true feelings about hope.
5: Urgency – like every minute that we do something, or don’t, counts.
U/S: An intergenerational bond trying to be repaired.
2: If it had been a few years ago, I would have responded “Savva,” because he was the tallest.
This year, my answer is “a series of facts that aren’t cold but empathy-filled”.
8: The need to take action.
That’s it. Us.
By 2023, I’ve known some of the Ensemble for about a third of their lifetime. Just as valuable as their artistic growth, I’ve witnessed them evolve through a pandemic, handle broken hearts, and make epic life decisions. And I have felt their support of me as much as I’ve been there for them. 12 is as much a story about what it is to be a teenager today as it is about a climate crisis.
Me: Next question: “Who are you?”
3: Ugghhh! Kristina, that is so general.
7: Ok, I’ll go. If I were to answer that, I’d start with my name. Sophie. I like drawing a lot. I would describe myself not as a nerd, but a geek. It’s an important distinction. I have rosy cheeks. They’re my proudest feature. I like my friends — number one priority. Let’s go with that.
5: I’m just going to wing it. When I think of our group, we’re different, but we work together really well — and I think that’s why we work so well, because we’re so different. I think. We have all these different perspectives.
3: Well, I guess, if someone asked me that, I’d say my name is Olivia, I’m 17….I feel like I’m 15 though. I haven’t caught up. Kristina, this is really hard.
4: I am Ethan. I’m a beast on guitar, I love movies, and my hands are weirdly flexible. But I’m also a part of a collective. A collective that’s trying to keep things alive.
11: We come from different schools, different provinces of Canada, speak different languages, have different styles… I guess I would describe us as partners in this little revolution that is 12.
8: I think that as a room, as a group, we come together in a moment of pause. Outside the room everything is so busy and overwhelming that climate change is forgotten about. That happens to me.
These young artists bring so much more to the project than “just” their role.
Sofia/1 edits and researches, such as into the glaciers/glaciology.
Sebastien/2 supports with his eye for effective transitions. And punch lines.
Olivia/3 is the lead on costume design, along with Jax and Sofia.
Ethan/4 contributes to sound design and is learning lighting.
Anna/5 assists in research and script-editing.
Marisol/6 reports on animals such as jellyfish and brings Spanish to the script.
Sophie/7 draws the sketches that accompany our ongoing process and created the art for our poster (you can see her artwork in this article).
Ana Clara/8 writes, researches and shares her Portuguese heritage. She was the former Understudy and now mentors Taiya.
Jax/9, a creative writer, leads our publicity ideas such as “12 Weeks till 12,” a video countdown that you can find on our TikTok page.
Natasha/10 contributes her playwriting skills and passion for the Amazons.
Brianna/11 is redefining the mysterious role of #11 and adds French to the script along with Sebastien.
Taiya is our generous Swing Understudy.
The script for 12 comes from the Ensemble’s writings, our games and improvisations, conversations they have with their peers and parents, and interviews they did with citizens of Ottawa, citizens of all ages. The script comes directly from their current experience, their research into climate science, and their curiosity about the lives of youth around the world.
We’ve plunged further and further into our relationship with numbers: numbers as data to measure truth or to mask it, numbers as statistics that either calm or alarm.
3: The words we use in 12 are a mix. Some are our own words, but then there’s verbatim text like from COP24 in 2018 —
9: — and actual words spoken by youth who are taking a lead in climate action such as Howey Ou and Xuihtezcatl Martinez —
2: — and sometimes it’s more abstract — like in one section, we try to win a game of the most ways to use “12” in a sentence. Then there’s the “green” olympics. But that’s all I’ll say.
10: 12’s not a regular play —
4: — it doesn’t have a traditional storyline.
10: It’s more like a series of moments. By the end, they all add up to a moment when — and that’s all I’ll say.
8: In every scene we move: we create geometrical formations using 11 bodies and just 12 black stools.
After that day of coincidences back in 2018, we’ve plunged further and further into our relationship with numbers: numbers as data to measure truth or to mask it, numbers as statistics that either calm or alarm, numbers that distance us from seeing individuals, numbers to measure time left or passed — “Wait! Now! Soon! Not yet!” — and the ambiguous power of science to manage the unknowns.
U/S: Unknowns!? I don’t know if I should say this —
3: Say it.
U/S: Here goes: I was talking to my friends about 12, and how excited I would be if they came to watch. I noticed a reaction when I informed them that it is a play to do with the climate crisis. “Oh, is this going to be a downer?” they asked, in the most respectful way possible. “Will it leave me feeling shame?” “Will it make me feel like there’s no hope left for this planet, or that we are stuck and are all doomed?” I didn’t fully know how to respond, as I know the state of our climate crisis is a heavy topic, and I respect that some don’t want to watch something that might not make them feel good. But I really don’t know what to say. I don’t feel that 12 is a play about defeat.
They burst into debate as I fade into the background, as I should. I watch them interact, so gently yet fiercely. The innocence and the anarchy, just like Nature. I discover that 12 grapples with how we get along: that how we treat the planet and how we treat each other are one and the same.
Me: So what do you think? Why should anyone come?
1: Because it’s us.
Me: Any other reasons?
1: Because we still need you.
Me: And….what about that four-letter word, Hope?
4: Hope?! You want hope? (he gestures to all of them and out to the audience) We’re here.
I realize that I probably should add some kind of pithy conclusion to this article, some marketing plug or “please come see our show,” but I think I’ll leave it at that.
12 opens at the Great Canadian Theatre Company on May 4. With thanks to the GCTC, proceeds from 12‘s ticket sales will go towards future 100 Watt professional projects with youth.