Rhino 2020: A Playwright Looks at Climate Change

This photo shows a young woman sitting on a downed tree trunk and a young man leaning on the same trunk.
Rachel Nunn (left) and Ali Namayandeh are collaborating to produce a staged reading of “Rhino 2022” during Communicating Science Week in March. Photo courtesy of Shaghayegh Navabpour.

During Communicating Science Week 2022, a theatre student and a geosciences student will stage a reading of a play about climate change, social extremism, and rhinoceroses.

Rhino 2020 will play at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15, and again at 4 p.m. on Friday, March 18, in Haymarket Theatre at the Squires Student Center.

The original script, by geosciences Ph.D. candidate Ali Namayandeh, uses Eugene Ionesco’s classic Absurdist work Rhinoceros as the backdrop to explore our own relationship with extremism, fascism, and social unrest in the face of our changing climate. Namayandeh also holds an MFA in theater and is collaborating with theater MFA student Rachel Nunn to produce this work. Nunn is studying eco theatre trends and practices along the way through a self-designed independent study.

To learn more about their adventures thus far, read the conversation below between Nunn and Namayandeh.

Rachel: Tell me about your journey as a playwright. What drove you to get an MFA in playwriting?

Ali: I was interested in writing short stories when I was very young. But I didn’t know anything about plays or read a lot of plays at the time. I got exposed to the theater when I was in elementary school for a class project. We were doing a very small play, and we didn’t have anybody to direct us, so I volunteered to do it and invited my classmate to come to our home to rehearse. That’s what I have been doing for the rest of my life: finding people and making theater. In the beginning, I really wanted to be an actor and just do something, but we didn’t have the material to perform. So I started to create material. By the time I was 18, I was writing plays for other people. I mostly learned writing through reading plays and making theater. But later, I went to the College of Fine Arts at the University of Tehran, Iran, and got an MFA in dramatic literature and playwriting. I’m still very interested in directing, and that was how I got my start, so I’m passionate about both. I enjoy theatre for the ability to express thoughts and feelings. I think theatre is a great way to convey your understanding of the world indirectly and artistically.

Rachel: Let’s talk about Rhino 2020, which I know has gone through a couple of iterations. Where did the initial idea come from?

Ali: Rhino 2020 is the third version of a play I’ve been working on over the past 15 years. But the play entirely changed when I came to the United States as an immigrant; I have some experiences now that I didn’t have in the past. I wrote the current version of the script amid the COVID crisis and Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.

Rachel: Rhino 2020 deals with some huge themes–global warming, xenophobia, extremism, fascism, etc.–and you examine them in this play through the lens of Absurdism. Why do you think Absurdism is valuable for telling this story?

Ali: First of all, I really like the Absurdist playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Albert Camus, to name a few. I’m significantly influenced by their works and how they see the world. I also think Absurdism is a good way to look at what’s happening in our society now, for example, climate change. We see it happening, but everybody acts like it’s not happening. We act like it’s not an existential threat to all of us. It’s very absurd! And the way we reacted to COVID—it’s been very hard to get people to cooperate, even though it poses an existential threat. So I think our life today is actually very similar to Ionesco’s experience and the social conditions he was writing about.

Ali: Why did you want to work on this play?

Rachel: Firstly, because I also love the Absurdist playwrights! I lecture on Absurdism in a class here at Tech, and it’s been a passion of mine for a long time.

I come from a background as an actor, director, and all-around theatremaker. I’m also a visual artist and a singer. It’s always been the arts for me, from the time I was very little. But my dad is an environmental scientist, and the topics of climate change and climate care were always very present in my upbringing. For a long time, I felt like those two passions I had were different parts of my life, and it wasn’t until I found eco-theatre that I found a way that they could merge. Eco-theatre covers both theatre about eco issues and also eco-friendly ways of making theatre. In my academic work this semester, I’m looking at trends in eco-theatre and also learning about sustainable ways to make theatre.

I also wanted to learn more about producing. I’m interested in studying how producers can be generative for the artists they work with. You know, the stereotype of the producer is as the naysayer; the person who turns up with the reality check (and the literal, dollars-and-cents check). What does a generative, co-creative producer/director relationship look like? I think it’s a question that goes hand-in-hand with the question of sustainability. Sustainable environmental practices begin with sustainable relationships between people working on these issues.

Rachel: You are both a trained playwright and a trained scientist. Can you talk a little about the intersection of those identities and what you think you can do with information through playwriting, specifically?

Ali: My training in science is in environmental geochemistry, but I always wanted to find a way to address the social aspects of my science. The topics I’m working on as a scientist are so specific that sometimes scientists in the same field who are working on slightly different aspects of the same question can’t even communicate. I think it is a very important problem. We should reach a larger group of people to communicate the significance of our research. If we want to solve our huge environmental problems like climate change, we have to educate ourselves and others by bringing all the tools we have to the table. We have to find effective ways to communicate with people outside of science, and I think theater could be a powerful tool for this.

Rachel: What do you hope this play does for its audience?

Ali: I hope it drives home the point that environmental and social crises are happening and aren’t getting better and also reminds people that they have the free will to change course.

Rachel: You founded a new student organization here at VT, Art for Environmental Justice (AEJ), with which we both work. It’s all about using the arts to amplify the voices of those disproportionately impacted by climate change. What was your drive to create this club, and what do you hope to do with it?

Ali: I think it’s an effective way to find people through organizations like AEJ. I was writing this play, and I thought, this is what I’m thinking for the club. Let’s see if there are other people who share the same concern. Sometimes we think we are alone with our ideas and thoughts, but if we go out and present them, we can find so many people with the same concerns. We are not alone; we just need to find each other. That’s what we are exactly doing in AEJ, bringing people who care about environmental justice together.

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