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Off-Broadway's 'Continuity' playwright Bess Wohl, in dialogue

The playwright behind the climate change play says "individual actions are not as powerful right now as collective action."

Rosal Colon plays Maria and Darren Goldstein portrays

Rosal Colon plays Maria and Darren Goldstein portrays Caxton in "Continuity." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

INT. APARTMENT — DAY

A phone call between a playwright, BESS WOHL, and a journalist, who goes by NED, about her new play "Continuity," at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center.

The story takes place on and around an ice sheet in New Mexico and tackles climate change — not the easiest subject to dramatize. Bess is an associate artist with The Civilians, a Brooklyn investigative theater company. She's originally from Cobble Hill — "before it was cool" the way it is now — and lives near Union Square.

Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

NED: My wife and I had an argument about your play on the way home. That's one reason I know it was effective. She was saying, "what's the point of recycling? It won't help. What can I do?"

Have you gotten that kind of a response to "Continuity?"

BESS: You mean, she was agreeing with the more nihilistic take on things? That's really interesting, because I definitely was trying to balance optimism and pessimism about the climate. I feel like so many people are trying to figure out which side to come down on. Of course, what I encountered in the scientific community was this meta-narrative about — should we give people hope, or should we freak people out? And what activates people the most?

In the play, when the character Nicole says, "So you're saying there really is no point in recycling," our science adviser says, "It's not enough at this point." The idea is not that everyone should stop recycling, but that it’s not enough to just recycle and feel like you’re doing your part. That was one thing I kept encountering over and over in researching this play — that individual actions are not as powerful right now as collective action.

So, you were saying to your wife, "No, no, keep recycling?" (laughing)

NED: Yes, I was. I was trying to be an optimist mixed with a realist. I was saying, "Well, the UN says we have 11 years left to change things, so it's not too late."

BESS: That's true. My hope is that the play puts a lot of these different points of view into the universe, and exactly that — that people will leave debating, and challenging their own ideas, and having the conversations, and thinking about things maybe a little more than they did before.

NED: What led you to the subject of climate change?

BESS: Oh man (sighs and laughs). How could you avoid the subject of climate change? It’s fascinating to me that everybody is not writing about climate change all the time, because it’s this glaring siren in my ears all the time … It just feels like it's this raging wound that is gushing all the time. But also, in a more concrete way, I got this commissioned from Manhattan Theatre Club via the Sloan Foundation, and their whole mandate is to get people to write about science. This was like seven years ago. I know. It took me a little while.

NED: I was taken aback when the play began and people started laughing. In retrospect, I thought it was going to be deathly serious. But these audience members saw the humor a lot faster than I did. How did you settle on writing about a climate movie within a play, and making it funny?

BESS: It's funny because the opening scene is sort of a misdirect. I always wonder, when are people going to catch on, and are they going to catch on, and we're trying — maybe this doesn't come across — but we're trying to play it very serious. We're not trying to get people to laugh at that first kill scene.

NED: That's part of what made it uncomfortable for me. 

BESS: Right. You’re like, why is everyone laughing?

NED: Yeah. I think some of the people knew the cast members, so they knew something of what was about to happen.

BESS: Right, right — so you're thinking, "Oh God, these people are getting laughed at, and they don't want to be."

NED: Exactly. But it worked out fine.

BESS: It's so funny, when my mom first came to a reading of this play a few years ago, she was like, "I was so worried for the first five minutes that you had just written a terrible, terrible, terrible play."

Why the Hollywood version, why the movie? I felt in trying to write about climate change, it was almost an impossible subject to tackle because it’s so enormous, and the stakes are so huge. The way time works is so extensive, and so I felt like I would stare at my computer screen and think about what’s happening, and just think gosh, why do anything?

I would get into this really, really dark place. So I became interested in even more than the scientific question of what’s happening, how do we tell stories about this? What is the role of storytellers in a moment like this? What stories are helpful, and what stories are not helpful?

When I talked to scientists about how they felt about the conversation around climate change, many of them said they felt like there had been, not a failure of science, but a failure of narrative.

NED: Larry the friendly scientist says, "You're making a disaster movie — but we're in a disaster right now."

BESS: It's like an invisible disaster. Not invisible to everyone, but invisible to a lot of people, or to many of the people who seem to be making the decisions. So, it's a very confusing time to try to understand what’s happening. The way time functions on a film set felt to me somehow connected to the way time functions in our current climate system, and that there’s this sense of crisis. Time is moving very quickly and very slowly at the same time.

NED: What’s the best part about working in theater?

BESS: Oh gosh … (laughs again) the money, the money. The best part of working in theater is the collaborative nature of it. It can’t be done alone, it’s incredibly team-oriented — a complete collaboration where you put these words on paper but they're nothing until they are embodied by actors, and synthesized by a director, and reflected by the designer, so it's really exciting to be part of that experience and see how a little germ of an idea can be supported and made better by all of the other people who come across it and invest their time and energy. It's very moving to me. And then being able to have the last piece of it, which is pretty recent for us with "Continuity," but just audiences, and hearing that you and your wife were arguing in the car on the way home, it's just exciting to —

NED: (Interrupting) We took the subway home, by the way.

BESS: Oh. Sorry. I don’t know why I’m picturing you in an Uber going back to the suburbs, I don't know, I'm picturing you in a car.

NED: I do drive three days a week to the suburbs, and I have climate guilt about that.

BESS: Good. Hopefully this play has only exacerbated that.

NED: I'm sorry, I derailed the last part.

BESS: That is the best part — the communal aspect of sitting in the dark with other people, and all confronting a truth or a problem or a question together. I find that really satisfying. Part of what I feel about climate now is there's no space for us to sit together and think about this and talk about it. It's happening all the time, but there's no moment for us to be quiet with it, and make room to live with the things that are happening. That's part of what I hope the play can start to do for people.

IF YOU GO: "Continuity" runs through June 9 at Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City Center (131 W. 55th St.). Tickets are $35 and are available for purchase at manhattantheatreclub.com.

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