In New Climate Change Play, The Story’s The Thing
In Bess Wohl’s Continuity—a new play about a movie about a warming world—we find a movie set, somewhere in the desert. There, a a styrofoam iceberg is the scene of a mad ecoterrorist’s last-ditch attempt to spur action against climate change: He’s setting a bomb that will trigger a tsunami to wipe out “the entire West coast.”
But the movie is going nowhere near how the director originally envisioned. What follows is the film director’s frustrated attempt to tell a story about climate change that will stir hearts and minds, change behavior, and ultimately save the world… maybe.
Playwright Bess Wohl joins Ira to talk about science, storytelling, and her own frustrations with the contemporary conversation around climate change—and where she sees room for improvement.
Bess Wohl is the playwright for “Continuity.” She’s based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATLOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In a world where the globe is warming rapidly due to human activity, a mad eco terrorist has a brilliant idea– make a bomb that would trigger a tsunami that would kill millions and finally wake people up to the danger of climate change. In my movie trailer voice there– or at least that’s the plot of a blockbuster movie being filmed in a new play Continuity, a play which opened at the Manhattan Theater Club last week, peers behind the movie camera at the personal dilemmas of the actors, a director who just wants to tell a good story, and a science advisor who ultimately questions the merits of any of it.
Here to explain is Bess Wohl, the playwright for Continuity. She’s here in our studio in New York. Welcome to Science Friday.
BESS WOHL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
IRA FLATLOW: Did I summarize the play at all? Come close to– help me. It’s about making a movie, but it’s really talking about climate change, right?
BESS WOHL: Yeah. It’s about a group of people in Hollywood trying to make a movie that will increase public awareness and engagement with the issue of climate change. So well-meaning Hollywood people who go astray in the making of their movie.
IRA FLATLOW: And you have great caricatures of all the people in them. And the director of this movie isn’t really happy with how sensational the studio has made everything, because the studio has its own idea about how to entertain people. The tsunami bomb, for example. [CHUCKLES] She just wants to tell a nuanced, convincing story. Right?
BESS WOHL: Yeah. She’s trying to make a smart movie about climate change, and the studio keeps pulling threads and shifting it, and making it more and more commercial.
IRA FLATLOW: Did you find that yourself, that problem as a writer in crafting the play, that the producers wanted you to go in a certain direction that you didn’t feel very comfortable with?
BESS WOHL: It was funny making this play, because I found that the dilemmas of my characters, the screenwriter in the play, became my own dilemmas as the playwright. How do you tell a story about climate change that’s also entertaining, without completely avoiding the truth or selling out? So I definitely related to that question of balancing truth and entertainment. And telling a story that gives the audience hope, but also gives them a dose of reality.
IRA FLATLOW: Because it has a love triangle in it.
BESS WOHL: Mmm-hmm.
IRA FLATLOW: It has great humor. There is a comic relief going throughout. You purposely put that in?
BESS WOHL: I did, because I felt like the issue of climate change is so devastating and so hard to think about, that I felt like it was really important to balance it with some humor and give the audience a reprieve from the devastation of the whole topic.
IRA FLATLOW: Because, as you say, you’re playing yourself in the movie in the film, and in the play the screenwriter character says at one point do you know how hard it is to get the science of climate change on point? The news changes every day. A species gone, and other species gone. Is he is he’s speaking, this playwright, how you feel about climate change and the problems of keeping it up today?
BESS WOHL: Definitely. In the making of this play, that line came right out of my own struggles writing the play. And I’ve been working on this for a number of years, and in the years that I’ve been working on this, the conversation about climate change has really evolved rapidly.
IRA FLATLOW: That’s what I was going to ask, because it took you how many years to write the play?
BESS WOHL: It took me– the first workshop of it was in 2017.
IRA FLATLOW: So we’re talking two years–
BESS WOHL: Yes.
IRA FLATLOW: — when you first started going, but our evolution about talking about climate change has rapidly changed. I’m thinking of 2016 when it wasn’t even mentioned as part of a campaign issue, and now it’s near the top of the list on people’s minds. Has that helped you advance your play?
BESS WOHL: It’s changed the story that I’ve wanted to tell in the play. When I started it in 2017, the idea that climate change was something that we should be alarmed by felt like a new and groundbreaking idea in the mainstream. And of course now everyone, or many more people, are alarmed. So the play has pivoted to really be about how do we tell stories about this? What is helpful in the storytelling around climate change? And what is not helpful.
Balancing all of those questions. And the idea that this is happening is no longer the point of the play.
IRA FLATLOW: I’m going to ask you to tell me what is helpful and what is not, but first I’m going to give out our number– 844 724 8255. If you’d like to talk with Bess Wohl, playwright, author of Continuity, here in New York. 844 724 8255. So what’s helpful and what’s not helpful?
BESS WOHL: I wish I had the exact answer to that. I think a lot of people who know a lot more than me are debating that. But one thing I found as I talked to scientists and researched this play, was there was a debate over whether it’s helpful to the alarm people or whether it’s helpful to be optimistic and give people hope. And I think that’s one of the questions in the play. And the different characters come down on different sides of that.
The science advisor, who works on the Hollywood movie in the play, is pretty pessimistic. And the screenwriter and the director and the actors are more hopeful. And the question is, is that hope Hollywood ending, that’s fictional? Or is that hope actually the one thing that will sustain us?
IRA FLATLOW: And speaking of the science advisor in the play, he really comes out at the end of the play, without giving away anything about the play. He’s really questioning whether what you’re doing by creating a movie is helpful at all to advancing people’s knowledge about climate change.
BESS WOHL: Yes. And of course that was my question as a playwright also. Is the making of this play advancing people’s understanding? Or as the science advisor in the play says, are you making people think they’ve done something by watching your play or movie? When really they haven’t done anything at all.
IRA FLATLOW: And he says really the most important part of climate change is not the sensational parts, but it’s the boring, little details that people don’t pay attention to.
BESS WOHL: Yeah. The more boring thing is, the more effective it is. It’s one of his lines, and of course if you’re trying to make a piece of entertainment, that’s actually the opposite of what you’re looking for. You’re looking for the exciting part. So the question of how we should be talking about this is a big, big piece of the play.
IRA FLATLOW: One of those lines, those phrases in the play, refrigerant management.
BESS WOHL: Hmm.
IRA FLATLOW: Tell us what that was all about.
BESS WOHL: That came from research that I did, a website– Project Drawdown. That is their top solution to climate change. They have a wonderful list of solutions and ways that people can help. And one of the ideas in the play is that these seemingly boring solutions are the thing that can move the dial.
IRA FLATLOW: Did you find any other climate change play in your research when doing This?
BESS WOHL: Not a lot. Not as many as you would expect, given the scope of this problem and how urgent it is. And that was one thing that really fascinated me, was why aren’t artists engaging with this more in the theater? And I have my own theories about that, but I really was curious about whether it was possible to do a play about climate change and wondering why nobody was.
IRA FLATLOW: Mmm-hmm. And you got very good placement for your play, and the Manhattan Theater Club is big time Broadway. Were you surprised, yourself, that they were receptive after you heard so many people saying you’ve got to make it– if you make it here you’ll make it anywhere, but you’ve got to make it a little more entertaining.
BESS WOHL: [CHUCKLES] Yeah. One thing that one theater said to me, not the Manhattan Theater Club, but one person who runs a theater, said don’t tell anyone your play is about climate change, because people’s eyes glaze over. They disengage. And so I was really heartened to see that, for all of the resistance to talking about it, there’s also this great hunger to talk about it. And to create a space for us to think about these things, because we have to think about them.
IRA FLATLOW: Let’s go to the phones. 844 724 8255. Ian in Duluth, Minnesota. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
IAN: Hey guys. I hope you’re all doing pretty well today.
IRA FLATLOW: Go ahead.
IAN: I just brought up the question– I, myself, am an actor, and when you have a show that with the sort of thing that is unfortunately– that is political regardless of how you talk about it, was there any response in the workshop rooms, with the actors, with casting directors, with producers, that sparked you to change anything in the script?
BESS WOHL: Yeah. It’s a great question. There definitely was a lot. The actors had a huge impact on their characters, and less about the science, but more about the humanity of the characters and making sure that they were playing multi-dimensional people. And also just as human beings, giving me their perspective on this issue. The script evolved up til opening night. We were putting it changes on the day that we opened.
IRA FLATLOW: What’s interesting, though, is that the main character, who has a shirt off more than he has it on, the buff guy. He knows more about climate change than anybody else in the play.
BESS WOHL: Mmm-hmm.
IRA FLATLOW: Give us the idea behind that.
BESS WOHL: That was important to me, that that character who could, at first glance, seem like the typical buff Hollywood actor who knows nothing, be actually a really smart engaged person who has done a ton of research, and really has a lot to say about climate change. And that’s something I’m always trying to do in my work, is set up an expectation of who that character is going to be, and then slowly unpack it and reverse it and surprise people.
IRA FLATLOW: And it’s interesting also at the end of the play, we see this physical dismantling of the iceberg movie set. Is there a hidden meaning in that imagery that you’re creating? Subliminal, I guess is what I’m saying.
BESS WOHL: Obviously the actual icebergs are falling and melting, so to me there was this poetry in watching them dismantle this Styrofoam iceberg that they’ve been shooting on and watching it fall. And of course it’s just the fictional one falling. But I think it resonates with what’s actually happening in a playful and fun way.
IRA FLATLOW: Have you run from this past scientists themselves? Have they seen it, and their reactions to it?
BESS WOHL: I absolutely have, yeah. I had my own science advisor on the project, which was funny because she was very different from the character of the science advisor in the play.
IRA FLATLOW: She would have to be.
BESS WOHL: She was [CHUCKLES] very different. Nothing in common. But she was involved, and other scientists that I spoke to– and as I did workshops of it, one of the early workshops was at Cape Cod Theater Project, which is right near Woods Hole. And of course, that’s a big scientific community. And so a lot of scientists came from Woods Hole. And I learned a lot from them. And I actually Stole things that they said and put them in the play.
IRA FLATLOW: So why did you give us a weird, nerdy-looking scientist as a science advisor instead of your woman-type friend?
BESS WOHL: Yeah. I really don’t know. I think I knew that I wanted the science advisor to feel like he was from a completely different world, than the more groomed actors who were in the Hollywood world. I wanted him to feel like he had just walked in from another planet, so that there was a real discrepancy between the way he presented and the way everyone else in the play presented. And I think I was interested in him not caring about anything except the science. So–
IRA FLATLOW: Yeah. And so how did you arrive– you must have come as a point as a playwright, do make it a hopeful ending? Or do I make it a doomsday ending? Not giving away what you said. [CHUCKLE] How did you decide? Did you, in your research, figure out which is more memorable or influential?
BESS WOHL: I really struggled with how much hope to leave the audience with. And of course, the screenwriter in the play is also– he has a line, a good story has to end with some kind of hope. And I think I believe, as a playwright, that you do need to let people walk out of the door with something that will sustain them. At the same time, you want to provide something truthful. So hopefully the ending of the play walks that line.
IRA FLATLOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with the Bess Wohl, who is playwright author of Continuity. You’re running here in New York for– what? Till when? One week in June?
BESS WOHL: Yeah. Till early June.
IRA FLATLOW: We hope to get– Here. I have a tweet from John, who says, “Is Miss Wohl’s script published? I’d love to use it as reading in my environmental sciences class. Please.”
BESS WOHL: Oh. How cool! It will be published. It’s not published yet, but it will be published once this run is over.
IRA FLATLOW: And some other people are interested in their theater. So maybe the time is right–
BESS WOHL: Yeah.
IRA FLATLOW: — for a play, because I, as an observer of the scene, things really have turned over in the last couple of years about people’s interest in this.
BESS WOHL: I think people are hungry for ways to engage with us and think about this, because it feels so overwhelming. That anything that can provide a space for conversation, I think, is meaningful to people right now.
IRA FLATLOW: Now, I was wonder for a while where the play was going, because there’s so much wonderful physical humor in the play, and recurring sight gags that come home over and over again. I guess you did feel like you need to pull back a little from the message about climate change, so people can exhale a bit.
BESS WOHL: Yeah. It’s that balance. You don’t want a play to feel completely like eat your vegetables, because no one will come and no one will have a good time. At the same time, you want to say something real. So I did feel like– and to me, the two things go hand-in-hand. I think life is full of ridiculousness and comedy and absurdity, and also very serious things.
IRA FLATLOW: Let’s see if we get a phone call in from Mike in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Hi Mike.
MIKE: Hi. So I just wanted to say that I saw the workshop of this play at Goodman Theater I think in 2017.
BESS WOHL: Oh, right.
MIKE: And I think the comment of the scientist at the end, I think it’s really effective, because when [CHUCKLE] the idea that just watching a play or a movie about climate change doesn’t necessarily change anything. Because I feel like that now haunts my thinking when I’m thinking about what’s the right thing to do about climate change. So I feel like that play was fun and enjoyable, but that line still haunts me in my thinking. So it keeps it in the back of my mind all the time. Whereas before, I might have forgotten more about it.
IRA FLATLOW: Yeah. Good line.
BESS WOHL: Yeah. That’s great to hear. Thank you. Yeah. I think about it myself, because I think is it enough to write a play about climate change? No, you have to actually do things. So it’s a message to myself as a writer, as well.
IRA FLATLOW: It’s a great play, Bess, and I hope everybody gets to see it at the Manhattan Theater Club before it closes. And maybe you’ll get on– or maybe some people were listening and say hey, let’s open up in our city.
BESS WOHL: Yeah, I would love that. Thank you so much.
IRA FLATLOW: You’re welcome. Bess Wohl, playwright for Continuity here in our studios in New York. And it runs through June 7th at the Manhattan Theater Club. Condolences today at the passing of physicists Murray Gell-Man at the age of 89. He was one of the century’s great thinkers. He is best known for coining the name “quark” after predicting their existence, and winning a Nobel Prize in 1969. Condolences to his family.