Kayak shows that art and politics are not as separate as they seem

A kayak and climate change. Battlestar Galactica’s Susan Hogan paddling through a vast stretch of water, screwball comedies and cherished perspectives.

It's seemingly random pairings like these that remind us of Thomas Mann’s observation centuries ago: Everything is political.

Playwright and UBC alum Jordan Hall proves the truth of this observation with her first full-length play Kayak, a clever and witty exploration of people’s attitudes about climate change. Though Kayak has only been showing since January 7 it has already won Samuel French’s Canadian Playwrights Competition and has reached critical acclaim across Canada. The play will be showing at Firehall Arts Centre until January 17 and includes a discussion panel with Hall herself following the 3 p.m. January 11 show.

“I’m in the Thomas Mann school,” said Hall of the influence of politics on art. “I actually believe that everything is political. If you think you’re creating something and it doesn’t have political implications then you’re not looking at it close enough.”

The play opens with Annie (Susan Hogan), a BMW-driving mother journeying out by kayak to save her son from the ideas of his radical environmental activist girlfriend. She then encounters a path of events “larger than she could ever have imagined,” a size suggesting the magnitude of climate change’s inevitable impact on people of all political interests.

“The actual facts about climate change are pretty much a foregone conclusion,” said Hall of the issues Kayak addresses. “For me, what was sort of troubling and funny was that most of us know that this is happening. But since we have to get on with our daily lives we end up contesting the facts about climate change. And that’s really where the conflict of the play sits.”

Hall isn’t alone in fusing literary works with environmental politics. She belongs to The EnPipe Line Collective, a group of roughly 16 playwrights who are working together in a “play relay” as a live act of creative protest against the Northern Gateway Pipeline. For an entire year ending on June 20, 2015, every 48 hours one participant will write a play responding to the proposed pipelines, and then pass that play onto the next participant as inspiration for the following day. This separate project reflects Hall’s personal politics and reminds her of how sustained a protest has to be since current events have short news cycles if nobody gives them attention.

But Kayak isn’t a piece of propaganda. Hall’s challenge was to make sure both sides had their humanity.

“I think we end up writing propaganda when we write either side of the conflict as not having their virtues and their psychological complexity. It was a big deal for me to write the character of Annie. [Some people may think of] Annie, ‘Oh my gosh she’s gonna be making a lot of excuses since she doesn’t engage more in climate change activism'. Which she doesn’t. It did become very important to me that we could feel where her heart was, that she loves her son. That both she and Julie [the activist figure] want to do the right thing. Her reason was human and sound and felt real.”

Hall’s advice for those who want to fuse art and politics is this: “If you’re making a political statement no matter what you do, it’s probably good to take responsibility for it. I think one of the marvellous things about art is you can do different things: you can engage with politics in form, you can engage with it obliquely -- the field is wide open. That’s awesome.”

Kayak will be playing at the Firehall Arts Centre until January 17.