This Month, to celebrate Earth Day, AussieTheatre’s Composting Costumier chats with environmentalist and comedian, Patrick Rehill, about how he approaches climate issues in his show Climate of Courage and how he aims to make a positive impact on the environment in his own life.
This interview occurred on Saturday, March 14, just after the cancellation of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival due to COVID-19. To support artists affected visit comedyfestival.com.au/2020 to donate and stream ‘Comedy Care Package’ on ABC iView.
So I guess now is your chance to tell the world what your show was going to be about if it was on.
Well, I hope it still will be at some point, it is a kind of character show, not in the sense that I’m playing a number of characters, but I’m playing one character who’s relatively close to me.
He’s spent ten years travelling the world, Al Gore style, giving presentations on climate change. He’s burnt out and he’s just lost a whole lot of money on some shows being cancelled (which is fitting) – just trying to stay afloat after exhausting himself over ten years when it seems like no-one’s listening… And obviously, funny things happen along the way.
Were you a comedian first and then started focussing on climate change in your comedy, or the other way around?
I’ve sort of done both at once. I did a lot of drama as a kid, I started doing improv comedy about six years ago and sketch shortly after, so I kind of developed it that way at the same time as studying. In the jobs I got after studying, I was working a lot on climate change research.
So by day, I was a researcher at an environmental NGO researching climate change issues and by night I did improv and sketch comedy – I just combined the two and I’ve got a show. I get to worry less about the climate stuff because I’m channelling that through my art.
So you started in improv and sketch comedy, is this your first time doing a full show yourself?
Yes, I’ve done a duo show before but never solo, so it was a very interesting process for me to put that together. I’ve done a lot of solo character sketches, but never a full-length project, so that was quite an exciting prospect. I feel like I really got a great experience developing a solo show, which was almost as valuable as it would have been actually performing it.
Do you have a main focus or issue that you talk about a lot in your show? Or is it a general overview?
The main issue I talk about is this idea of climate grief. I’m not there to tell the audience what climate change is because they already know, they’re there. I’m not there to tell them to change their behaviour, although I’d like it if they did because people should act more if they can. The demographic coming to the show have probably heard a lot of this already. The message of the show is basically to worry about it as much as you usefully can, make an impactful change but don’t allow it to tear your life apart. I think if we talk more about climate grief as a thing lots of people are experiencing, that might make people feel they have the power to do more.
I think if we talk more about climate grief as a thing lots of people are experiencing, that might make people feel they have the power to do more.
That’s apt because my next question was – How do you manage your own mental health when this can be such a dark topic?
By making myself busy with a comedy festival show (haha), so we’ll see how that goes. I think I already do a bunch of things to try and have a positive effect and the more I do the more that stops me worrying. We’ve all got hypocrisies and things like that, so having things you can do to counteract any harmful effects can help. Just general mental health management is good as well.
What sort of response do you get from other comedians on this topic?
One of the reasons I framed the show the way I did was because I’ve got a lot of comedian friends and non-comedian friends for that matter, who had all these feelings about the climate and they weren’t sharing. Like it’s this weirdly universal, widely felt feeling that we’re all anxious and dreading the coming climate catastrophe, but we’re not sharing it. I don’t know why that is, maybe it feels like you’re taking a global issue and trying to make it about you? So I wanted to put together a show framed around the emotional toll of thinking about this issue and that spoke about that experience.
What do you see as the biggest impact the arts can have on the issue of climate change?
There are two advantages I see, I don’t know to what extent the arts are capitalising on this right now. The first is that the arts have a real potential to reach people with information where direct activism isn’t going to. So there are so many fantastic topics I’ve learnt about because someone shoehorned them into a comedy show at some point. You know, I think the biggest example from comedy in recent years is Nanette. Hannah Gadsby could have written an article in a high profile magazine making exactly the same case but Nanette was a more effective way of communicating that message.
The arts have a real potential to reach people with information where direct activism isn’t going to.
I love audio comedy, I’m not sure why but audio is just a medium that I really love. So years ago I found that BBC Radio 4 (which are a spoken entertainment channel over there) they didn’t have a geo filter on their programs, so I listened to a whole lot of, mostly bad BBC radio content. There’s a comedian over there called Mark Steel who gave these fantastic, (even if they don’t hold up in retrospect) lectures about a whole variety of different topics. I learnt about the Romantics and the Sexual Revolution and the Russian Revolution, all because this comedian was giving this lecture and putting some jokes in there. That reached me where I wouldn’t have sought out lectures on these topics otherwise. So that’s a really fantastic way for the arts to reach people.
The second is that when you’re talking about an emotional topic, like climate grief, the arts are about discussing emotions, so you can reach people and touch people in ways that you couldn’t with other forms of communication.
The arts are about discussing emotions, so you can reach people and touch people in ways that you couldn’t with other forms of communication.
What do you do in your own life in terms of individual actions to combat climate change?
I work in the environmental NGO sector, I’m vegan & I cycle. I try to do small things in my life. The one thing I wish I was better at was actually being an activist myself. Part of the show is when I’m doing satire: it’s not interesting to me, you know, coming out and pretending to be ‘Scomo’ and making fun of that demographic to an audience full of my inner city peers who already have the same views I do. Like we all already agree on everything I’d say. So whenever I’m doing satire, I tend to satirise very close to myself – like an alternate universe me because I’m so aware of the hypocrisies of myself and that it’s very easy for me to be truthful in taking apart a lot of it.
Part of the reason I did the show was that I’m trying to tackle so much for this issue and I just wish I could protest more. That said, I find them really emotionally draining and I know I should be better. I work in the sector, I’m into Effective Altruism but I have this hypocrisy on activism.
What made you get into environmental science in the first place?
My parents were pretty big on environmental issues growing up. I got taken to a lot of marches and things as a child. My dad years ago went and protested the building of the Franklin Dam when that was a big thing in 1982. So I feel like it’s always been around. I don’t have a singular attachment to the environment, I came at it from a place of wanting to do good for the world and other people and animals. I got to do the honours year of my BA and I thought to myself, “What’s an honours project I can do?” I don’t have any particular attachment to any particular topic, I wanted to be of benefit to something in some way. “I guess climate change is a way I can help things and it’s going to be an issue that will continue to be important, so I guess I’ll do that”.
How long ago was that?
Five years ago. So I’ve just stuck with it thinking it’s the most effective way to have an influence on the world. There’re a lot of other causes I care about like international development and nature (as excluded from climate change) and animal welfare. But I just thought climate change was the best place to put my marginal effort.
What do you recommend is the easiest and most effective way for people to make an environmental impact themselves?
My pet issue is veganism, for a few reasons, particularly environmental and impact on animal welfare. I don’t think that’s necessarily the easiest but I think it’s one of the most effective changes people can make.
The one I’m really struggling with is flying, it’s so hard, particularly as an artist wanting to tour things, so that’s a big hypocrisy for me.
What’s the most challenging aspect of approaching the issue of climate change or even doing comedy about it?
One of the challenges I came across in writing the show (and that I realised was a broader issue in my approach to climate) was that I wanted to be able to say to people “Hey it’s fine to be scared about this, it’s also fine to not beat yourself up about it 24/7”, but at the same time I wanted to say, “this is an existential threat to human civilisation that we all need to be working on really hard”. There needs to be a balance.
“Hey it’s fine to be scared about this, it’s also fine to not beat yourself up about it 24/7”
It’s a physical responsibility rather than an emotional responsibility?
Yeah, but then how do you drive that physical responsibility without making an emotional case to people? Do you have to tailor your message to every single person in the audience?
Everyone’s brain works differently – like there are two related things I think we can try and change as activists, people’s actions and their conceptualisation of the issue.
The first is the changes – different changes make sense for different people, like I’d been vegetarian for 15 years before I went vegan, that was a relatively easy change for me, I just had to cut milk out of recipes, unlike some other people in my life who hadn’t been cooking vegetarian all their lives and who it’s a much harder change for. If you’ve got kids, it can be hard to change from a car to a bike.
The other set of concerns is how people conceptualise the issue, different ways of understanding an issue mobilise different people. So for some people it’s seeing, you know, burnt koalas – that’s what’s going to latch onto them. For me it was seeing the broader social “cost-benefit” of some of my choices. So I can continue eating dairy and eggs and things like that and the cost of that to the world 100 years from now is somewhere between $20 and a couple of hundred dollars US per tonne of carbon emitted by those activities. That’s just not something I can justify now, especially when that cost is going to be borne by people who are already disadvantaged and people who are going to get much more disadvantaged.
I think that’s a really interesting way of looking at it, the idea of carbon emissions as monetary value. Can you explain a little bit more about that idea if it’s not too complex?
The idea is that for every tonne of carbon released today, within the next hundred years that tonne is going to cause $X of harm to the world i.e to fix the harm caused will cost this much in the future. Whether that’s going to make disasters more difficult, going to cause crops to fail more, obviously it’s not having a marginal effect on every bushfire or crop failure or flood around the world, but you’re averaging out what the effect of a certain amount of emissions will be and with a lot of guesswork trying to put a number there. That’s what a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme is trying to price into decisions. It’s useful, but by no means a perfect way of understanding the issue.
What do you think the importance of comedy is in our current climate?
I find it useful doing comedy as a performer because it gives me an emotional outlet and it gives me the opportunity to make people feel good when the world is making people feel bad, which is a really valuable thing to be able to do. In terms of consumption, I go back and forth between whether or not comedy is an important thing at all in a time of crisis or not – to the extent people are enjoying it, I’m glad and I want to make things if people are enjoying them.
I find it useful doing comedy as a performer because it gives me an emotional outlet and it gives me the opportunity to make people feel good… which is a really valuable thing…
I think that is the hard part about being in the arts, that some people in broader society don’t view it as important but it is a part of life and how you view life as normal and if it disappeared, everything else that’s going on at the moment would be worse because it would be abnormal to not have that there.
And we’re about to see what that looks like over the next few months. The thing that really scares me is not, not being able to see things, whether that’s comedy or music or movies or what have you, the thing that really scares me is whether some of these institutions if they shut their doors for a couple of months, will the doors will ever reopen? I’m really hoping that the governments is going to be granting a bunch of extra money to institutions big and small to make sure that they can weather this crisis. And if they can’t maybe we’re really going to see what it’s like without the arts.
If you were talking to other activists or people focussing on this topic in the arts what would you say if they’re feeling discouraged?
There are a couple of levels at which you could be discouraged, the first is you could just be discouraged about the art and the fact that you’re not getting a response from people and in that case I’d say – I now don’t have the success or failure of my show to base this on – but I’d say [climate is] an issue that is worrying a whole lot of people right now and I think people are hungry for art that helps them make sense of what they’re feeling and I think if you can make good art around this topic, you’re going to get a response and you’re going to be doing some good. As to whether the art is leading to good, like a positive change or not and is inspiring people to activism, I feel like our understanding of how we communicate with people and change people’s behaviour on this issue is so nebulous that you’ve just got to try. We don’t know what will work for certain people, you’ve just got to hope that if you do it for enough people it changes minds.
I think people are hungry for art that helps them make sense of what they’re feeling and I think if you can make good art around this topic, you’re going to get a response and you’re going to be doing some good
Are there any other people you’d like to plug, especially comedians who are working in this scene?
Rose Bishop is the only one I really know. It’s tough because most of my peers are improvisers who tend to stay away from this kind of stuff, like satire is so hard to aim correctly [even] when you’ve got six months to prepare a show – as improvisers, we try and stay away from it on stage because we can mix that up so badly. I think a lot of my peers in sketch are often doing really good workaround satire in other topics, but I don’t know anyone apart from Rose who’s doing work on this. My tech/sidekick in Climate of Courage, Pedro Cooray, was in a great show, with materials that will probably see light someday about the experience of being an immigrant and in an ethnic minority in Australia and particularly in comedy (The Tokenists). And my director for the show, Hayley Tantau, she does a lot of great satire around feminism, she had another show in the festival called Polygamy Polygayou. She has another great character called Cindy Salmon, and the reason I wanted her to direct this show was that it was like this heightened version of a lot of her feelings who was doing a seminar on being a high powered businesswoman in the 21st century. I’m sure a lot of people are doing great satirical work more broadly but these are the two people I’ve been working with for the past few weeks so they come to mind.
And last but not least – What’s your compost situation?
It’s difficult because we don’t have a garden for my apartment, so we hoped there would be a curbside compost that we could use, but there isn’t and we were worried we would have to put stuff into landfill which is a shame. But we discovered an app called ShareWaste where you can find people who have space in their own compost bin and are happy to accept other people’s food waste so that’s helped a lot to reduce our impact there.