It’s March, 2020, and the world has gone quiet. 11-year-old Savannah sees an opportunity to heal our planet, if only we can resist the urge to get back to our gasoline-guzzling normal. But Savannah isn’t the only one who has noticed the sudden quiet. The Council of All Beings, made up of fauna, flora and forest deities, see a once-in-a-generation chance to communicate with humans about the crisis facing their habitats.
If only they can find a human who will listen.
A new play for young audiences from Margaret O’Donnell, Not Normal reminds us of the connections between all living things and the power we have to use our voice to make a difference.
Not Normal is set at the same time as O’Donnell began writing it – when movement and travel were brought to a halt by the Coronavirus pandemic. Without the noise of highway traffic and airplanes, “I heard birds I’d never heard before here in this urban, industrialized area,” she recalls. “I chose this suddenly quiet time in Seattle when people get motivated to say ‘What if it’s like this all of the time, and what if we get rid of gasoline cars?’”
A retired immigration attorney, O’Donnell initially turned to playwriting as a way to connect audiences with the issues of justice and equity at the heart of immigration reform. “As an immigration attorney, for many, many years I did community presentations with facts and statistics about why we need immigration reform that would bring in, instead of marginalizing, undocumented people,” O’Donnell says. “I did so many of those. But it wasn’t getting to people, to where their hearts and their minds are.”
Her play The Detention Lottery sparked conversations and performances across the Puget Sound. “Theater and art addresses us in a different place. Statistics don’t stick, but stories do,” she continues. “And you add in music and myth and everything that theater has: the spectacle of it, the lighting, the set, and it is powerful. It’s powerful communication in a way that really nothing else is.”
“It’s This Imaginative Engagement With Art That Can Bring People To Want To Learn More.”
For the last few years, O’Donnell has turned her artistic attention to the climate crisis. “I’m just fascinated by the poetic nature of the world around us, that we as humans so often devastate and ignore and pretend that these aren’t sentient beings; that we’re the only ones; that the whole world is made for us and we can destroy it if we want to,” she says.
O’Donnell decided to focus on young audiences to engage them in the conversation about protecting our planet early and to empower them with a sense that they can do something about it, inspired by her own childhood experience.
“I was in grade school when Lady Bird Johnson, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife, did a campaign called ‘Keep America Beautiful’ and it was the first time that I – and probably the nation – had ever heard that kind of environmental plea,” O’Donnell says. “‘Keep America Beautiful’ was against littering, which now seems kind of quaint to us, but that campaign stayed with me my entire life.” O’Donnell remembers the campaign as a starting point for a cultural shift against littering, and the critical role children played in changing adult behavior.
“If You’re Learning About The Climate Crisis, Not Using Gasoline Comes To You,” Says O’Donnell. “Not Using Gasoline Is Part Of A Huge Mosaic Of Things We Need To Do And It’s An Important One. It Affects Everything In The World Around Us — Each One Of These Beings Is Affected By Our Use Of Gasoline.”
And while O’Donnell’s primary audience may not be buying gas-powered cars, they can influence those that are. “It’s a very immediate thing that a child can say to a parent,” says O’Donnell. “‘Let’s not drive there, let’s not use a gas-powered car, if we can.’ And that’s why I had Savannah starting out with this idea of the gasoline strike.”
But despite her convictions and deep desire to make a difference, Savannah is plagued by self-doubt. “A lot of Savannah’s doubts were mine, especially starting at age 11, about my power in the world,” recalls O’Donnell. Not Normal aims to remind children and adults alike of their own power, and the power of hope.
“There’s so much despair,” says O’Donnell. “I’ve heard it from adults as well as young people that it’s too late, I don’t have any faith that anything will change. Teachers have been telling me that too, that’s what they hear from kids, this enormous despair that it’s all over anyway, there’s nothing that can be done, it’s too late.”
O’Donnell has found hope in the connection and interdependence she found among all living things while researching and writing Not Normal — a perspective she hopes to spread to others.
“There is this undercurrent or part of climate activism that says: people are only the problem; if we didn’t have people wouldn’t this be so much better,” she observes. “But I see ourselves as not only these rapacious, invasive species, but as having a right to be here as well, equally with other beings.” And if human being’s choices and actions are at the root of the climate crisis, then they also hold solutions.
“I’ve been encouraged and engaged by Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark,” O’Donnell says. “So that was a huge part for me of this play, that hope in the dark. It’s the only way. The future is always dark, it always has been. We know what our inaction will do. We can’t be sure of what our action will do.”
She hopes children – and adults – leave the performance with the sense that “I can do this, I can be important in this fight. If Savannah can do it, I can do it.”
O’Donnell invites teachers, educators and parents to use Not Normal in the classroom and their lesson plans. She hopes to eventually offer a partner curriculum that teaches students about the endangered animals and plants included in the play’s Council of All Beings, the role they play in their ecosystems, and the threats facing them.