Climate Crisis Theatre by Youth for Adults: Interview with Kristina Watt Villegas

by Matthew Venner*

Kristina Watt Villegas is a multi-award-winning actor, director, theatre creator and educator. Currently based out of Ottawa, Canada, Watt has worked as an independent artist in Colombia, the United States and the United Kingdom, and she is the founder of 100 Watt Productions, a theatre company known for collaborating with young people to create inventive, ecocentric, eco-curious theatre, staging playful yet political explorations of humanity’s relationship with the planet. Her work carries significant research potential for recent youth-led manifestations of the global climate movement; her most recent production, titled 12, created in collaboration with young Ottawans age thirteen through seventeen, is the company’s most urgent call for climate action to date, having toured theatres, schools, board rooms and government offices across Canada’s capital region. The performance is elastic, raw and multi-faceted, composed of a mixture of brief vignettes, poetic compositions and verbatim excerpts regarding climate crises. Watt describes it as a “cross-generation love story—a playful theatrical invitation [by young people] to stop, listen, and to consider what it actually means to take action at this point” (Watt, “Creations 12”). The newly developed 12 will be at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in May 2023.

For my Master of Arts’ final research thesis, I wrote about 100 Watt Productions and applied theatre created by young people that targets adult audiences, rather than youth audiences, a TYA-inversion of sorts. The thesis project is available to read through the University of Ottawa’s digital repository for research and includes full-length transcripts of my interviews with Kristina Watt Villegas. In the following condensed version of these interviews, we discuss her company, her creation process, her pedagogy and 12’s particular political resonances.

Kristina Watt: Photo: Courtesy Kristina Watt

I guess we may as well start from the beginning: how did you come to name your theatre company?

So, 100 Watt Productions’ long name is 100 Watt Productions: Innocent Anarchy, and that innocent anarchy is consistent through all the work I do. It encapsulates, in particular, what happens when the work is in collaboration with youth—this beautiful collision of innocence and idealism, or maybe it’s the hope with the courage to look, really look at anything, any entity, with an innocent eye, which I actually believe could happen at any age, and should happen at any age. And then the word anarchy, which I feel is inherently within the spirit of young people, this desire to rebel, this desire to kind of shake the rafters a little bit, even for the sake of shaking them sometimes! That spirit of courageous questioning. It resonates in all my work.

When you dig into those two words, innocence and anarchy, what immediately jumps out to me is that they both emphasize curiosity.

Absolutely. And I think, living in the time we’re living in now, curiosity demands courage. When I think about youth in particular, there’s a certain age when to be curious or in awe, or going: “I don’t know,” requires a type of courage to admit you do not know . . . yet. It’s anarchic as well, because to be curious about a system can be a bit of a threat. There’s also self-consciousness, the whole idea of fitting in and peer pressure. I feel at that age, they’re living through that clash. And they vacillate, beautifully. So, within maybe one day at rehearsal, they become the complete child, and then, within a moment or some kind of reflex or trigger, it’s suddenly: “How am I seen by the others?” And what does that do to the self and the self as a creative voice? I like that collision, that friction point.

Sophie Dean, poster for GCTC production of 12. Photo: Courtesy Kristina Watt 2022

So, when you’re starting a new 100 Watt project, how do you first bring these values into the room?

Number one for me is play. And with innocent anarchy, fearless play. I play with language, or questions, always in a game-like fashion, and maybe some of the questions might just happen to be in the world of the project ahead. So: “What’s your favourite kind of garbage,” right? And so, we’re building, but it’s also within the realm of the silly.

In terms of making that fearless play possible, could you expand on your approach to building trust with young collaborators?

I would say one of the fundamental things is that they have a voice in the room. And that they know I’m extremely interested in their voice, genuinely so. I’ve seen it, and maybe you have too, when it’s not genuine. And they’re used to that, they can smell that insincerity. But I’m fiercely more interested in them than I am myself; I am consciously making space so they are more present. And I consciously create a space where they are absolutely fascinated by each other.

An example of that would be, for instance, instead of taking attendance or taking names, they have to call out what they had for breakfast, right?  A silly example, it might seem, but right away they have to come up with something, a memory, and it’s vulnerable, right? They have to say something truthful of their own life, and I don’t give them time to worry about it, and people have to ask questions about it. So, if one says: “I had cereal with milk,” what cereal? With a lot of milk? Half-milk? So, I’m also building a room in which life is insatiably fascinating and it’s the details not the generalities that are the spark for what we may create.

Otherwise, I like to get them writing very early. But writing in a way where it is absolutely inoffensive in its obligations, in its standard of being right. For instance, I intentionally use scraps of paper, and I rip them, and they just grab them, so there is already a casual association with the form. And then, I use short prompts that allow for something private to come out on paper; but I never, in this initial phase, have their names on it. I’m setting trust in place from the beginning within a spirit of play. I read them all out loud, and because I’m reading them all out loud without any names, and because I’ve set up this room where everyone’s of interest, I’m getting them to hear a whole. And then, I don’t ask them about individual thoughts, I ask them: “What is the voice of the room?”

Brigitte Pellerin, an episode in 12. 2019. Courtesy Kristina Watt

I usually work with a creative time constraint so that doubt and all those other critics don’t get in the way, so that their true impulses, which are 90% of the time phenomenal, won’t have time to correct themselves.

For 12 specifically, I had a list of writing prompts, little words, so: “I feel, I wonder, I know, I hear, I see,” and they had to write the end of each sentence, and I read them out at the end of class. Right away we knew what the cloud in the room was, even if a beautiful cloud. One side is: “There’s a lot expected of us.” And “We’re really worried and scared about what lies ahead.” It felt like a room that very authentically, vulnerably expressed that they feel judged; that there are assumptions about their generation; that they don’t know what to do about their future on the planet; and that there’s anger that I could tell they didn’t want to express. It was in their words: they feel they’ve inherited a situation that they should fix.

Then, we just played within that world. Suddenly, we started talking more with regards to the climate, to the planet, to their love of animals, their concerns, their guilt, and we built material. And then, one of them starts to talk about how the United Nations had this big meeting where they declared we have twelve years left and that window of 1.5 degrees; and believe it or not, at that point, there were twelve actors in the room. With kids, when they’re free and open, even in late high school, everything’s really cool, right? So, it’s like: “12 years? There’s 12 of us!” And then we kept finding more of these numbers and everything became about numbers. That scene where they riff on 12 members in a jury, 12 days of Christmas? that was a game.

It reminds me of that critique of political theatre, that even with the Brechtian stuff, theatre still takes place in a building that’s meant for entertainment, so people can use that as a way of almost unconsciously dismissing any political intent; but what interests me is what happens when you acknowledge the entertainment factor and the game-ness of these things, and your politics leans into it, rather than trying to cover it up. How does that affect the potential political effect?

In fact, Brecht was number one to say it: ultimately, it has to entertain. And I actually think one releases the other. The joy and the laughter is a great foil for what we find ourselves laughing at, so one of the things that we constantly had to work on was to play against the gravitas.

Anyways, from there, I want them in their bodies a lot. Never let the room get too cerebral, and if it does, we change it. I’m also establishing that impulse—it’s a counter-scholastic view—that thoughts of the body and thoughts of the head, the move of a wave or a thought from a word, have equal weight. These all establish a code of values in the room so that we can create together.

12 chatroom. 2019. 100 Watt Productions. Photo: Courtesy Kristina Watt

Yeah, and to bring it back to that breakfast cereal example, I think there can be this tendency to treat curiosity as an ephemeral sort of spark, as something to wait for, but it sounds to me like you, instead, treat it as a skill. You apply it and ask these little questions and play with patterns.

My belief is that curiosity is within us all, but that it’s also a muscle that gets dulled. I noticed when they get to a certain age, to be in awe, to be in the not-know or to be in wonder, is not cool. And especially not because at any time we could log on and find the answer. So, there’s a unique energy to a young person in particular who tolerates: “Yeah, I wonder why that is.” Big thing for me.

So, anyways, once we’ve got some core material, whether it’s going to be thrown out or not, I can play with it and train them with it and discover from it. For example, I often play with tempo and precision. We do a lot of explorations based on 5 tempos: 0 is stillness, 1 is as slow as you can possibly go, 2, 3, 4; and 5 is as fast as you can possibly go without running. I don’t like working with actors in: “Speak louder, speak slower, speak faster,” I go: “Let’s try that moment in tempo 2.” And so, you’ve got a young person who’s been told their whole life that they talk very fast, but I’m actually giving them a more interesting way in. It tends to be an obstacle if they’ve been told their whole life: “Oh you talk too fast.”

And if I were to tell someone: “Can you do that slower, can you do that faster,” it’s very much something they’re doing right or wrong. Whereas if it’s: “Can we try this out in a different tempo,” then it’s much more about what we’re hoping to get out of the scene collectively.

Absolutely! It fits into what always excites me: it’s a game!

Yeah, and a shared vocabulary.

And now, the training aspect of that is: everyone’s tempo 1 might be slightly different. Their ability to sense each other is everything. The whole premise in the room is: “Look after each other.” So, I’ll go: “Get in a circle,” and they’ll know that they need to be equidistant from each other.  After a while in this process, they’ll almost feel awkward when they’re not.

Do you pursue this type of synchronization in all of your work?

I long for precision of listening in all ensemble building. I want that baseline of vocabulary to be in their muscles so that unexpected things are possible.

Was your approach to this ensemble building process affected at all by the subject matter of 12, being youth’s relationship with the planet?

12 standing. 2022. 100 Watt Productions. Photo: Kristina Watt

For me, they’re one and the same. When I look at the necessity for conflict and tension in the room, I draw on that necessity in nature, when, for instance, a season changes, explodes into something new because of this meeting up of resistance. And when I look at the behaviour of a human being and in my own work as an actor, I might find how they walk from the movement of a leaf. I look at the behaviour in the natural world and a lot of the principles that nature operates by, and I find that problems arise and even creative problems arise when we’ve strayed farther away from that. And so, I think of the room as this ecosystem of different personalities, and the way the room navigates through knowing to not-knowing, from explosion of tempo to stillness, from curiosity rather than socially imposed judgment, I think it’s the same as nature. Either in the training techniques, imagery on stage, or innocent anarchy—it all comes from nature. And innocence doesn’t necessarily mean an age; it’s a quality, an approach, a vulnerability, a humour.

It also interests me because, if they’re capable of being so physically conscious and in-sync with one another, it elevates those moments when they aren’t in sync and when tension has emerged.

Absolutely.

I mention tension because I was thinking about my research into applied theatre and Helen Nicholson, who talks about how the goal of applied theatre shouldn’t just be developing a total harmony within a group, the goal should be to acknowledge any tensions or frustrations that might arise, and to actually address them.

Conflict is essential in the room. I do not shut conflict down.

It’s a difficult impulse to fight as an educator.

You see, Matt, this is personal. The majority of my family are from Colombia. I lived part of my life in Canada, and then I went away for a long time, and I lived in New York for eight years, and I went back and forth to Colombia until it wasn’t really possible anymore with my career, but for a couple of months every year. I thrive on human beings that live with a freedom of interaction, that it’s ok if they disagree, if they interrupt each other. And I often felt this conflict moving back and forth to Canada. I had a very split existence, and I developed a real questioning of what I felt to be the core values of some places in Canada, which seemed to be to remove discomfort at all costs. And really finding that problematic as an artist because I would feel it in the room, and then I would feel it on the stage, as an audience member. And I couldn’t understand it. It’s in my blood, to resist at all costs any degree of dishonesty about what is being said or not said, can’t be said and why. And I’m not reckless and looking for fistfights, it’s nothing to do with that!

Catherine Robson, 12 Stools. 2019. 100 Watt Productions. Photo: Courtesy Kristina Watt

When I talk about fearless play, it’s about developing the skills to not be in agreement with each other all the time. And what I relish with them isn’t teaching them how to shut it down or avoid it but how to get through it, and sometimes the creative discoveries that come out of those problems. It’s actually like a secret goal of mine [laughs]. I’m infiltrating Canadian spaces with the courage to disagree and to question constant conformity for the sake of comfort where there obviously isn’t comfort. It is fascinating: the dangers of repressing true-thought are much more frightening to me than expressed-thought, or expressed-feeling. I actually think, and I’m certainly not inventing the wheel here, a safe space isn’t a space where everyone agrees. That’s an unsafe space. A safe space is when there’s permission to disagree.

Is it easy to find like-minded artists in these terms?

I would say I’d like to see more of it. Not to say that there aren’t some!

As a leader in the creation space, what is your approach when anger or frustration do emerge?

I guess I’m not scared of anger. What I’m more scared of is a society that tries to make people, especially very young people, know that anger is highly unwanted. The group was feeling unjustified with their anger, and it was all over them. So, I felt like I needed to hear from them: “Well, what does piss you off?” So, some of them would go: “When my dad does this,” or “when my parents do this,” and I would go: “Why would they do that?” I wouldn’t indulge them if they just went: “Well, I don’t know, they’re just idiots.” I don’t let it go to a place of personal attack. I was constantly going: “Well what does that mean?”

In my practice, I try to remember that anger doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It always comes from somewhere more interesting, whether it’s a place of vulnerability or fear or hurt. And when you’re describing anger in this way, it makes me think of how you’ve chosen to frame 12 as an invitation to dig a bit further into that anger and to explore it and contextualize it. Because 12 isn’t necessarily combative or antagonistic, in the ways one might expect.

It was very conscious. I’m cognisant of stereotypes about teenagers. I mean you can see them everywhere, and so you might see in some of the show’s media descriptions: “12 is not a rant.” I brought that in the room, and then they were so on board with it. We talked a lot about what’s going to happen if the audience feels attacked. What’s going to happen if it seems like you’re perfect and they’re the problem? It was earned: we did a lot of work where they, through games, through exercises, through writing, through researching, they talked about what frauds they feel they are, they talked about: “Oh my god, I believe in this, but I’ll still take the ride to school!” And somebody would come in with research and everything and then admit: “I am fast fashion.” So, they knew that 12 needed to be like you just said: “Can we just talk about this?”

It also addresses the air of shame that can surround all of this stuff and the ways in which that emotion’s rarely productive.

Yes.

Catherine Robson, “We march.” 2019. 100 Watt Productions. Photo: Courtesy  Kristina Watt

Speaking of which, could you speak a little bit to the scene when several famous youth activists pop up? I’m thinking particularly of the moment when your performers feel the need to defend their own behaviours to activists and innovators like Greta Thunberg, Marinel Ubaldo, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Jaden Anthony, Jamie Margolin and Boyan Slat. How would you describe your participants’ relationship with those figures?

Part of our process, unplanned, was that they all had to go out and research and find who’s doing what out there. And so, they came in going, “Did you hear about this guy? I want to tell you about him!” So, within that, they were a little in awe of these people. That led to some conversations like: “Well, these people, they gave up their whole lives—I can’t do that. And I don’t even know if I want to.” And one of the dominant questions that came out early was, if I just check a box, by putting out my blue bin or something, is that enough? So, representing the kind of human instinct to go: “Well, I’m doing my best because I do this,” and wanting the respect of, you know, these kinds of gods! But they were gods that none of the teens actually thought they could ever be. They recognize that it takes an extraordinary cluster of circumstances, not just “I’m not great enough.” It’s a discomfort. “What does it take to make a change?” they asked. Then: “Does doing this play really make a change?”

And I think there can be this assumption from adults towards youth, that: “Oh, if you’re a kid, then you just idolize Greta.” I appreciate that 12 goes: “Well no, there’s actually so much more to unpack about how kids feel about the figures that have attained this status.” Like, to use your words, you describe it as “being in awe,” and there’s two sides to awe, there’s the fear side too, there’s insecurity.

And how do you make peace with the maximum that you’re willing to sacrifice? And the size of your voice as a provocation for change?

This question of voice makes me think about how you’ve often described 12 as: “for adults but, by necessity, by youth.” I was wondering how influential that idea was to the show’s development, and have you had that type of consideration of target audience in the past?

I knew that I was drawn towards a type of theatre where there could be a range of ages in the audience, and what does that mean the piece needs to do—or can’t do? And then, at the same time, I was looking into material, pieces of theatre that were written specifically for teenagers that were speaking about their values in relation to the world. I was always drawn to that more than an isolated silo of when teenagers and youth perform mostly just for their age and younger. I just wanted to bust that open and wanted to counteract: “Oh it will be of less quality, less creativity, less whatever, because it’s younger people.” That is very conscious.

Now with 12, as it started to define itself, we fell into a place where it needed to be an adult audience, mostly. And in fact, in November 2019, 12 was invited to open the 30th anniversary of the United Nations Year of the Child by the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This was a big deal, there were going to be members of Parliament and many inspiring leaders, but it was going to be in auditorium of about 800 people with 400 of those people being high school students and younger. These were their peers, so would 12 still work? Are we preaching to the converted?

Rhea Sawan, rehearsal collage. 2022. Photo: Kristina Watt

Yeah, it would definitely have value, but of a totally different kind.

So, as the piece started to define itself, what was always on my mind was: “Who is the audience now?” An example would be what I call the Intervention scene, where they suddenly all come and sit downstage, and they imagine a gigantic living room where the audience is their parents and adults. That scene is one of my favourites because it’s the most frightening to adults. You can feel the room change. But first, a performer stands up and breaks away from what the group wanted. He kind of loses his courage to be on attack, and he starts with: “First I want to thank you, for everything you’ve done for us.” I had them looking at each other, almost as if he broke from the pact, like we’re trying to keep a strong front. The scene is about revealing.

It’s a good example of this tendency to view the different generations in a combative way, where they’re almost at war with one another. But it’s exploring that idea without necessarily giving into it and just becoming an example of it. It instead remains an invitation.

Thank you. I remember having an interview with Eric Coates at the GCTC and saying: “I think it’s a love story.” Whether it’s between us and the planet and between generations. And within love, there’s that conflict, there’s resentment, there’s hope, there’s disappointment, all those things that you said could be the seed of anger, if not rage, if not violence, right? Cicely Berry of the RSC says [paraphrasing] “When words fail, violence prevails.” So, maybe in a sense, 12 is kind of like this group’s last ditch hope to talk.

Everything on the table.

And if it doesn’t work, then we tried.

Thinking of this invitation, are there any audiences who have ever tried to participate or engage with the performance? I’m thinking particularly of that moment very early on, when all of the performers take out their cell phones and put them in a pile near the front edge of the stage, and they then pause, silently staring out at the audience. I remember in that pause, I personally felt that slight impulse of: “Should I stand? Should I add my phone to the pile?”

Oh!

Kristina Watt Villegas, 12 at PSAC. 2019. Photo: Courtesy Kristina Watt

And I don’t know why I didn’t stand in that moment, but there was that slight electricity in the air of: “Is anybody in the audience going to stand up and add their phone to the pile?” In my case, nobody did, which, in hindsight, is also powerful. Has anything like that ever happened in a performance?

To answer your question, no; but a similar example is when they put a stool down at the end of the performance, as an invitation for the audience to join them on stage. That stool was never in the initial performances, but there was, by coincidence, a little girl from France who was here in Canada on exchange and living at one of the actor’s houses, and her mother had heard about this project and asked me: “Could she observe the rehearsals? Can she play and assist you?” And she spoke some English but mostly French, and she was due to leave back to France a couple of months later. And it was totally by chance that in the script, it used to end with, they call out “11?” waiting for an audience member to respond, and nobody responds, and they move forward, and the performance ends.

What we did at the UN show is I planted this little girl in the audience amongst 400 raucous high school students. They call out “11?” and she stands up and she goes “11!” and she walks all the way down the audience and joins onstage and the cast all stand, and they go “12?” and then it ended.

A big part of this was so that I could say to her and her mom: “Do you want to be in it?” And she did it perfectly; she had her little coat on and her boots as if she was totally from the outside. It worked. And when she left, we knew we wanted something more at the end because of adding her. We couldn’t go back to the other version. So, if we get to keep playing it, I don’t know where it’s going to go, it’s going to keep changing.

Kristina Watt Villegas, poster for Conflux Canada production. Photo: Curtesy Kristina Watt, 2019

Yeah, and I think that, whether you change 12 or not, it all comes back to this invitation. If these moments are invitations to join, like inviting this little French girl to join, then it almost says just as much when nobody chooses to join. It raises that as a question. I’m the perfect example, where I was like: “Wait, why didn’t I stand up? Why didn’t I add my phone to the pile?” And, in terms of reflecting on my own politics, that was almost more effective than if I had stood up. It was that lingering feeling after I left the theatre of: “Oh yeah, I didn’t engage, what does that say about me?…”

That’s the real conversation, isn’t it?


Bibliography

Watt Villegas, Kristina. “About Kristina Watt.” 100 Watt Productions. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

—. “About 100 Watt Productions.” 100 Watt Productions. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

—. “Creations: 12.” 100 Watt Productions. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

—. “For Youth, Theatre is Action.” Artists & Climate Change, October 2020. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.

—. Personal interview. 8 Jan. 2021.

—. Personal interview. 8 Feb. 2021.

—. Personal interview. 7 Mar. 2021.

—. Personal interview. 7 May 2021.

100 Watt Productions. 12. Directed by Kristina Watt Villegas, 25 Jan. 2020, Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa.

—. 12. Directed by Kristina Watt Villegas, 21 Nov. 2021, Ottawa Children’s Festival.

—. ‘12.” 2020. Theatrical script draft. 


Photo: Kaitlin Adeline

*Matthew Venner (BA, MA, PGDE) is a theatre creator and educator based out of Ottawa, Canada. His research focuses on applied theatre, climate crisis theatre, and experimental theatre pedagogy. He is a recipient of the Charles Haines Memorial Prize for drama or theatre criticism. Matthew is passionate about providing new platforms for young, emerging artists, having served as Senior Producer of Ottawa’s Youth Infringement Festival and Artistic Director of Sock ‘n’ Buskin Theatre Company; he is also the co-founder of Two Kind Boys Theatre, which won Outstanding New Creation at the Prix Rideau Awards in 2016 and Best Director at the Halifax Fringe Festival in 2017.

Copyright © 2022 Matthew Venner
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