People like the idea. People like the script. People like YOU. Stop acting like it won’t happen. It’s about to! There was a long stretch of time toward the beginning of the production process where I would tell people “I don’t know, I think I’m gonna direct the play this summer? Maybe? We’ll see.” I said this up until the week I left for New York. I said this even when we had cast people and onboarded producers. There’s so much rejection that happens with creative pursuits because art and writing is — as I like to say — objectively subjective. It is so dependent on the reader or interpreter, and sometimes you have to create a team of people who are going to like what you have to offer, and then hope they develop the skills to see it through.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elson Bankoff.
Elson Bankoff is a rising senior in high school in Washington, D.C where she runs the environmental action team. She is heavily involved in environmental justice advocacy on a global and community scale. She helped mobilize around 500 people with Fridays for Future DC for the March 25 Global Climate Strike in Washington, DC. She also runs a biweekly environmental justice publication called Ecosystemic Magazine. She has seen the power of organizing and sees this publication as a means to change the course of the movement. Ecosystemic not only provides moving art and narratives, but is gradually becoming a political force through our goal of creating Proactive Media. She wrote If the Bells Would Ring her sophomore year of high school and has been revising it ever since. This is her first time writing and directing a play, but she sees the endeavor as a necessary part of the climate movement. She loves leading projects and taking creative approaches to making change.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Thank you so much for publishing this piece! I appreciate the coverage of our show and mission. I have lived in Washington DC my whole life, so I’ve grown up in a very politically dynamic city where activism is super easy for people who want to help out. I have two younger brothers, a dog named Eddie, and my education has allowed me to become curious about the world around me and seek to change it in various ways. I’ve led a fairly normal life and would by no means consider myself a hero, rather an energetic teenager with ideas and capacity to care.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
The most important factor in developing a voice and amplifying others as a young person, comes down to emotional appeal. Especially when we’re discussing issues as complex, politicized, and scientific as the climate crisis and its implied injustices.
Because of my desire to create and explore, I have a fairly broad (but also weirdly niche) “career” in climate activism. I have led strikes with Fridays for Future, started a biweekly magazine called Ecosystemic, and perhaps the greatest endeavor of all, wrote directed and produced a play during New York City Climate Week. That’s the “organization” I’ll be discussing.
If the Bells Would Ring is a two-act play — written and produced by youth activists — about the greed, devastation, passion, and resilience surrounding the climate crisis. As the generation who is ultimately the most affected by our changing climate, it is important that young activists be able to communicate the power imbalances that continue to propel this crisis. That’s straight from our press release!
This show is proactive media (which I define as media that does more than inform or entertain, it resonates and inspires). Live words spoken through intense eye contact can reach parts of people that other media simply cannot. A movement as broad and transformational as climate justice needs to be presented in a way that helps viewers form a relationship with the issue, to ultimately propel us to action. As the climate crisis has gradually entered public discourse, new climate-themed works have been produced and staged, but none have been produced by youth activists at the scale of this show of ours.
The process thus far, if describable at all, has been creative, grassroots, and embodied the whimsical yet determined aspects of both New York and the youth climate movement at large. The writing process, which occurred far less collaboratively than the production, left my walls covered from floor to ceiling in plotline brainstorms, character development, unpassed legislation, artwork, scripts, and plans. I initially wrote the show as a screenplay which took three weeks to write after a year of research and writing practice. But I wasn’t satisfied. After a few months I had converted the screenplay to a play, changing every dialogue scene to a poem, and every camera angle to a lighting change.
Two years went by, and the world opened up. I’d been very active in the climate advocacy scene, and I was able to use some connections — mainly ones from Fridays for Future and UN Youth Envoy call I had attended — to get the ball rolling on production. I decided that self producing this play — this vision — that had occupied by dream space for nearly three years, would occupy my last summer in high school. I didn’t accept internships or take more classes, but succumbed to a creative urge to help better the inspiring movement I’m so lucky to be a part of.
By month number one, we had onboarded a precision team, some of whom had experience, most of whom — like myself — were figuring it out as we went. We secured The Tank, a non-profit Off-Off-Broadway theater for three nights of performance, confirmed Fridays for Future among other youth organizations as our sponsors, and used backstage.com to cast the majority of the show.
I arrived in New York on July 11 and we began rehearsing. I had never directed a play before, and it’s strange to tell an actor, who happens to have played Gaston on a Broadway run of Beauty and the Beast, how to read a line solely based on a little intuitive inclination I have about his character’s mannerisms. I was like a policymaker when I was writing and a bureaucratic city planner when I began directing. Things began to ramp up soon after rehearsals began. We became an official NYC Climate Week event, onboarded an even larger youth production team, and found our lighting and sound designers through random connections. I hopped on trains, stayed with friends, had a lot of ice cream, attended the climate clock event, and now own the production as an LLC.
The production will have its world premiere in New York City on 16–17 September, during Climate Week NYC 2022 at The Tank, 312 W 36th St., New York City 10018.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
There are two parallel scenes in our show where these sisters become exposed to the reality of climate change. Both of them grow up with the privilege of living in Washington, DC which isn’t necessary the climate disaster hotspot. But both daughters are educated by some form of lesson, media, or story, so then they learn to care. It was similar with me. When I was around eight years old, I read a book that mentioned global warming and got scared and upset by inaction.
Since that moment, I have had an obsession with finding the best ways to resonate with as many people as I can. I’ve spent my youth exploring mediums that have the power to really captivate people emotionally because you have to for something as deeply politicized and scientific as the climate crisis.
Writing in all different forms and then putting those words into some form of production, like a musical, or a movie, or a play, does exactly that.
I think as we’re drifting from that mode of experiencing the climate crisis as something that’s only like, “Oh, it’s nature. Oh, Rachel Carson…” Now it’s being described more as an intersectional symptom of capitalism, which is so what it is. I think, as people are dying, ecosystems are being tarnished, and leaders are remaining passive, we need to urgently evaluate why it’s happening on a really human level.
I look at other social movements and see how incredibly effective and impactful writing is. Black liberation movements always have this really strong element of writing, and storytelling. You see all these stories about immigration and how that’s evolved throughout the years. As humans, we have a gift and obligation to personify these economic, and political, and social issues. I think that’s how you actually get people to motivate themselves and one another. It’s more than just reading an article or seeing a stat. You have to get down to the flesh and bones and mentality. Art and words are just the best at that.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I was at a film camp a few summers ago and the name “If the Bells Would Ring” popped into my head. It’s as simple as that. I knew what the metaphor meant, and that I wanted it to be about climate passivity, but that was all. I wished there was some kind of alarm. I wished people would really feel as awake as I do about the climate crisis and all that it entails. I didn’t start writing until a year later in the thick of the pandemic. In July 2020 I was reading the book, The Uninhabitable Earth, by David Wallace-Wells, and he included all these horrible stats and information about the climate crisis and what it actually meant for humanity. I had been writing in the margins of the book and, in a matter of minutes, wrote the titular poem “If the Bells Would Ring.” The poem’s title became the title of the screenplay, and the screenplay became the play. The name was the Aha moment. If only the bells would ring! Then we would have action. If only bells would ring, if only they would understand! Then the question shifts from, why don’t they get it to why won’t they act despite a thorough understanding?! When will the bells ring? It’s phrased as a hypothetical because I want it to be open to many interpretations.
As far as the production process went, it was Sora, my friend from Fridays for Future, who urged me to put the show up. As a female writer with an unsolicited script (having been a minor for most of the script’s existence) it’s fairly hard to get your idea picked up by anyone. My theater experience is very unimpressive compared to my activism experience, so I figured it was best to self-produce a play being like “hey this is actually climate advocacy taking a new form, not a random show that a 17-year-old wrote.” Sora told me I had to come to New York, and I did. The Tank was affordable, the passion was there, and our team was growing. I just had to convince my parents, which happened after we began casting. From there on out there was no going back. The ball was rolling, and the show was happening. This show has been the ultimate dream. It is the green light that I chase and the thing I imagine on walks listening to music. I can’t believe we’ve done it.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I think I compulsively start things because I dislike the idea of having to rise to a leadership role or prove my worth at such a young age. There’s a creative side to starting a project or organization, and then there’s a social-enterpenuership side. I started a project during the pandemic called The Covideo Project where teenagers from around the world documented themselves living through a very abnormal reality. We compiled videos, promoted nonprofits, aided Covid relief, and build this massive international community. With Ecosystemic Magazine and If the Bells Would Ring, I just wanted to fill a gap in the climate justice movement. I noticed how many people loved art and writing but didn’t know how that could be used in a proactive way. In a time of crisis, we have to be strategic about how we’re using our strengths. When starting a collaborative project or organization, you have to think of everyone else outside of yourself. Acting on your vision should compel you enough. With every project I’ve worked on, we end up bringing on young people with all of these talents that they can’t boast in a school or club setting. In the case of If the Bells Would Ring, we’ve built a team of artists, set designers, stage managers, producers, actors, fundraisers, composers, communications directors and more. Oftentimes when starting a project, you find the right people at the right time, and oftentimes, said people don’t necessarily have the experience you need. One of our producers, Anna is a Fridays for Future activist. She is by no means a “professional” stage producer. But now she’s directing fundraisers and coordinating twelve schedules at once. The star of our show, Sora, another Fridays for Future activist, is learning how to stage act for the first time. And she’s nailing it.
I also think the idea of taking on one career or working on one project constrain creative energy. I had never written nor directed a play before If the Bells Would Ring, similarly I had no experience that would has led me to serve as Editor-in-Chief of a multimedia magazine. Qualifications don’t matter when you have a good idea that will uplift narratives and add something new to a medium — or maybe even create a medium! Don’t doubt yourself because you’re young, and don’t worry if things don’t gain traction as quickly as you want them to. Sometimes you do smaller things to meet people and they’ll care so much about that little project that they’ll stick with you and motivate you to start a larger one.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The ways I have met insanely talented people are always so interesting. I attended a youth climate summit this past July and met Allison Begalamn, founder and executive director of YEA! Impact. She introduced me to Emily Bice who, completely, astoundingly coincidentally, happened to be producing a climate play of her own at The Chain the same day as our show. The three of us teamed up and created this double feature, also being put up as an NYC Climate Week event. So then we basically just used our respective networks and put together this incredible panel of environmental change makers. Here’s some more information: https://www.broadwayworld.com/off-off-broadway/article/Two-New-Plays-Kick-Off-Climate-Week-NYC-20220906
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?
As I’ve mentioned, I have had absolutely no experience doing anything in theater. I was in a musical or two in middle school and that’s where it ends. Everything I’ve done has been a mistake of sorts, but it’s made me realize that art isn’t entirely formulaic and if you’re passionate enough, you can create without following precedent. That being said, I’ve been hilariously naive at times. The best moment was when Sora and I hosted callbacks for some of our actors. I was 17 and she was 16 and we dressed up like grown women and tried to act very professional. We were auditioning grown adults — most of whom we ended up casting. Then, on our first read through I announced that I was a rising senior in high school and it was funny because we had sort of fooled them. People were a little shocked that their director and casting director were both minors. We also had rules in place where, because we were minors, Sora and I couldn’t go outside alone, so if we wanted to get food, we needed an actor or stage manager with us. That definitely obscured the power dynamic! Midway through rehearsals, I turned 18 and could be Sora’s legal adult presence.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
So many people I could go on and on. I’m dumbstruck by the support I’ve received for this play. I wrote this when I was 16, and finished it at 17, and will watch the live performance at 18. I’ve grown up with it, and therefore, everyone I’ve grown up with has shaped it. I’ve been writing this play as I’m being educated by my amazing teachers. I’ve been in and out of New York City because of my parent’s trust in me and our friends housing me. I have had this beautiful movement to back me up, support the mission, fund us, and encourage creative ambitions. Our crew is brilliantly motivated, our cast is talented and kind, and everyone in my life has shown me so much love in the past few months. I can’t express how grateful for everyone from that snowy
February 2021 read through with friends, to the actors building our story as they stand looking at our audience under the beam of the green stage light.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Theater is interesting because it’s a more abstract form of activism where you can’t necessarily see something as direct as a mouth being fed or someone being escorted out of a fire. I can’t speak for our audience yet, but I will say that it has been one of the most moving experiences of my life to see our cast and crew become increasingly informed and passionate about climate issues. We never shove ideas down anyone’s throat, because that’s not effective. But when I direct, I’ll say things like “look up Hurricane Maria clips when you get home” it will make it easier to understand the emotional context of this scene. We have an eleven-year-old, Raya, who has been in shows at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and she’ll talk about all of these articles she’s read in school, and the climate anxiety they provoked. I love talking with her because she’s younger than all of us but has grown up in the same messed up reality. I think that empowers her to be able to play a character with a similar story. Another cast member sent a picture in our group chat of his republican grandfather’s solar panel covered roof. He said his grandfather never talked to him about the panels, but the play prompted him to inquire. His grandfather wants his grandchildren to have a future.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes! At its heart, If the Bells Would Ring is about tarnished American democracy and what happens when we grow numb to crisis in order to maintain power. I think electoralism has a chance to work in the context of implementing climate policy, but we need the right people on the ballot. As far as communities go, we need more than just elections to combat injustice. If everyone is able to form personal connections with our neighbors or fellow city residents and take a moment to research local issues, there’s a lot of powerful organizing that can occur. The climate crisis at large requires making connections and building a large network. Individual actions don’t mean much, but if we get a collective all fired up, then we begin to recreate society and change our reality. Local policy is so important with this issue, and I can’t stress that enough. We’re too polarized to be yelling at world leaders on the street. We need to convince people in our cities that change is needed. We need stories, narratives, art, persuasive charisma, and restless grit to do that. Anyone can do that because anyone can learn to care.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- This is not going to be your happy-go-lucky creative project, Elson. You’re going to deal with real world logistics, and they’re going to blow your mind. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time on my family vacation on calls with our lawyer setting up ownership rights and making the show an official LLC.
- There are so many types of people you are going to be working with, and sometimes everyone is going to forget about the real reason we’re all here. It’s your job to remain calm, remind them, ground them, and re-inspire them. This is off of the first point. Everyone is doing the show for a reason. And we’ve been lucky to have a team of generally well intended
- Being director means you can tell people what to do: be confident. I’m a good 10–40 years younger than most of our cast, and that’s intimidating. Some of them just got out of acting school and one of them has been on Broadway. I don’t really do theater, so there’s a lot of (honestly justifiable) imposter syndrome. Everyone respects me and that I’m learning, but sometimes I feel bad telling them how to do their art.
- You’re probably going to have to drop your physics class because you’ll miss a week of school for tech week, so don’t waste your time stressing out about that class in advance! Not much of a story here, I’m just probably going to have to drop physics.
- People like the idea. People like the script. People like YOU. Stop acting like it won’t happen. It’s about to! There was a long stretch of time toward the beginning of the production process where I would tell people “I don’t know, I think I’m gonna direct the play this summer? Maybe? We’ll see.” I said this up until the week I left for New York. I said this even when we had cast people and onboarded producers. There’s so much rejection that happens with creative pursuits because art and writing is — as I like to say — objectively subjective. It is so dependent on the reader or interpreter, and sometimes you have to create a team of people who are going to like what you have to offer, and then hope they develop the skills to see it through.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
It’s motivating to know that you have the power to help protect something. And that something is our planet and it’s all we have. You can do anything you want with your life and choose to consider the larger picture instead of yourself. That’s all it is. You don’t have to plant trees every weekend or go vegan. I’m making a play and running a magazine, they just happen to be pushing forth an agenda because we’re living through multiple crises and it’s hard to ignore that.
There’s this culture of individualism that oil companies often exploit. I don’t believe in individual carbon footprint reduction stuff. However, I do think that anybody doing something that’s going to have a big impact, must be conscious of their environmental or societal impact. The climate justice movement can be a frustrating one to be involved in, especially for young people, because there are insane amounts of pressure. We’re told to step up and change the world by world leaders. We’re told to change our consumption habits by large companies. But overall, I think as long as you’re inspiring people, you’re really genuine about what you’re doing, you have a real mission, ideas, and momentum, that’s good enough.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I want to talk to AOC. AOC, if you’re reading this, we emailed your office and invited you to the show but you were busy, unfortunately. I admire you and want to talk about climate messaging and going into a policy career. I see your motivation and energy in myself and I want to talk about how to maintain it for the rest of my advocacy career. Also, if you’re into acting, I’d love for you to play a role in the show…
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m @elsonbankoff on Instagram and @bankonbankoff on Twitter, though I don’t really use Twitter often. Also, go to ifthebellswouldring.com for more information about the play and to buy some tickets!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Elson Bankoff Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.