Engaging through Art: Evergreen Theatre Society
While the world has changed quite a bit in the last twenty years, some things have persisted. For example, the Evergreen Theatre Society, which won an Emerald Award twenty years ago for their unique style of environmentalist family theatre. Twenty years later, the company still shows no signs of stopping.
Established in 1991, the Calgary-based Evergreen Theatre Society is a group of artists, educators, and environmentalists who use musical theatre to engage and educate youth on environmental topics. They believe that small personal changes can have a massive impact, and they have been spreading this message on their tours to schools, zoos and museums.
To learn more about the Evergreen Theatre Society’s work and how youth engagement has changed in the past two decades, I spoke to their head of program development, Christina Chase-Warrier. Here’s what she had to say about engaging kids in the internet age, keeping adults entertained and using the power of art to save the environment.
Hi Christina! How did your group's particular approach to engaging audiences come about?
We started the company back in 1991 so we've been around for a while now and, thank goodness, still going strong. Our initial creators were a group of like-minded individuals who have their origins in the Parks Canada Interpretive Program. Coming from a Provincial Park Education perspective, they obviously had strong science and environmental backgrounds as well as the passion to share that knowledge with the public. From their professional and personal connection to that type of work, they thought there was an interesting opportunity to expand upon their audience in the Parks System and connect with a wider group of children in the school system.
What does engagement mean to your group? How do you approach your work as environmentalists who engage young people?
Well, we really try to prioritize impactful, contemporary work that opens up a dialogue with young people and inspires action. We want kids coming out of our show saying "yeah, I saw that great show about climate change and now I'm going to remember not to leave the tap running when I'm brushing my teeth" or "now I'm going to make sure that I don't throw something that's recyclable in the trash.” The goal is to inspire children to be more aware, engaged and open to positive action surrounding science and the environment.
Following that, how does engagement vary between youth and adults? I imagine that adults also make up a part of your audience. Do you ever aim towards engaging them as well, and do you see certain difficulties?
When you're appealing to educate youth or adults, it's essentially the same goal, just sometimes with a different method and different expectations. You can't expect a seven-year-old to listen to a ten-minute speech about how arctic glaciers are melting, while an adult would gladly attend a lecture and be engaged, entertained and educated by a presentation of that nature. So we have to be quite creative and unique with our approach.
Of course, you always want the show to be enjoyable for teachers and parents as well. We try and throw in a few quips for the teachers, like in a Disney movie, where they can have a giggle that may go over the kids' heads.
That said, it's always challenging to engage within the groups of children themselves – you can have a little five-year-old just entering school for the first time and learning to sit still or a sixth-grader with a chip on his shoulder, who thinks he's the coolest thing ever. It's always a challenge to appeal to a diverse range of children and their various backgrounds.
So these methods of engagement that you do use - how have they changed since 1998 when you won the award? Are there things that are easier now? Harder? I imagine that the content itself has changed quite a bit, moving from a focus on conservation to one on climate change?
From a content perspective, things have definitely changed. When we first started, the idea of recycling was something brand new. Now, it's almost second nature that we definitely have to recycle. But in terms of the methods, it’s a bit different in some respects today because there's just so much more competition for children's attention.
Twenty years ago, you could come to a school gym with beautiful, colorful costumes and some fun music and you would easily capture the attention and imagination of kids. That was prior to iPads, cellphones, and PlayStations - children's attention spans are more challenging to work with today than when we first started the company. So competing with that technology is tough because we're not doing a laser light show, we're doing musical theatre.
Having said that, the kids still love it. It's still a valid, entertaining and educational cross-platform experience that still very much works today. Because it's a bit tougher today means that we just really have to drill down to the aspects of the presentation that we do best.
Despite the challenges, do you think it has become easier in some ways to speak to kids on this topic, given that environmentalism and climate change have become such popular topics in classroom and even in children's TV?
Yes, because the very things that I just mentioned that are challenging from an attention perspective - the access to technology and social media – are very positive in terms of the background knowledge and awareness the kids now come with. They now have exposure to news on climate change. Kids used to only hear those narratives if their parents were reading the newspaper and keeping them up to date, whereas now, kids have this information coming up on their social media feeds and are more connected to global events than ever before. They now come with a solid background that we can build on.
Do you have any tips for artists and environmentalists, or both, hoping to bridge the gap between those two fields?
One thing that we have found is that you can do this sort of work with professional artists who are not at all professional scientists and vice versa. If you find people whose expertise is different from yours and are open to collaboration, then you can start to bridge that gap between art and science. Each individual can bring their strengths to the table to make something in an open and unique way, something that captures the attention of kids and adults.
As we come to a close, where do you see your theater in another twenty years?
Well, I certainly hope we'll still be around! I think that encouraging curiosity and empowering people with the idea that small personal actions can effect significant change is always going to be a goal, whether it's twenty years ago or twenty years from now. Unfortunately, I don't think there's going to be a shortage of environmental challenges in the near future so I hope we will continue to expand upon the things we do well and empower youth to make personal changes to affect issues globally.
(Cover Image provided by The Evergreen Theatre Society)