David Suzuki and Tara Cullis put their love and life on stage in “What You Won’t Do For Love”

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      The first time David Suzuki and Tara Cullis performed their show What You Won’t Do For Love back in 2020, they were understandably nervous. It was in front of a hometown crowd (New Westminster’s Anvil Theatre, to be exact), and while the life partners and lifelong environmental activists are no strangers to speaking in front of people, theatre isn’t exactly their medium.

      “We were so self-conscious,” Cullis says in a joint video call. “We’re not actors.”

      Even so, they struck an emotional chord.

      “And at the end, a friend of mine came down from the stands and he was all choked up,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Tara, I cried four times!’ That was fantastic—no one’s ever said that to me after any kind of speech.”

      Suzuki agrees that a theatre production offers something different—both for the audience and for the two of them.

      “It certainly gets a response,” he says. “There’s a relationship with the viewer that I’ve never had. In radio or television, that’s just a one-way thing. The immediate response of the audience is, to me, electrifying. It’s a very different way of communicating.”

      With insights and anecdotes from Suzuki and Cullis’s 52-year partnership, What You Won’t Do For Love asks us to examine our own relationships as vehicles for action. Can our devotion to one another inspire us to save the world?

      What You Won’t Do For Love is being billed as a “theatrical experience”—a sort of play/think tank hybrid. The script, which is performed by Suzuki and Cullis alongside actors Miriam Fernandes and Sturla Alvsvaag (who are also a real-life couple), leans more on dialogue, memory, and emotion than A-to-B plot. The Why Not Theatre production originally debuted on that emotional day in New West, though it only managed one performance before the pandemic shut everything down. That inspired the team (including show director Ravi Jain and dramaturgist Kevin Matthew Wong) to pivot into making it a film, which was released online in December 2021. It then returned to the stage in 2022 for Toronto’s Luminato Festival, and now, finally, it makes its triumphant homecoming, this time to Vancouver Playhouse for four nights in February (including a Valentine’s Day show for all of you romantics).

      “It’s kind of self-indulgent to write and act in a play about oneself, one has to admit,” Cullis says with a laugh. “But it also kind of makes you refocus again on why you do what you do, and why you love it and, and why we love each other.”

      That love is never far from the surface. What’s immediately evident when talking with Cullis and Suzuki is the unwavering respect they have for one another. There’s a sense of genuine adoration and deep-rooted trust—when you’re looking at them, you’re looking at a team. They are undoubtedly each other’s biggest fans.

      “David’s always game for pretty well everything, and that’s been a huge part of his impact on the world,” says Cullis. “People would come along with an idea, whether it was for a film or a book or anything, and they would say, ‘David, I know that seems a bit strange, but what do you think about this?’ And he would say, ‘Sounds great. Sure. Why not?’ ”

      She credits that open-mindedness with giving her the confidence to participate in What You Won’t Do For Love. For her, it was an opportunity to engage people in a new way.

      “I thought, ‘Okay, we’ve tried lecturing to people, we’ve tried writing books, we’ve tried doing television programs,’ ” Cullis says, “ ‘but we still have so far to go to reach the public in a way that does change behaviour. Maybe we should try this, because the whole artistic side of things in terms of poetry, plays, drama, and so on is very, very powerful.’”

      Perhaps best-known for his role as host of the beloved docuseries Nature of Things, Suzuki is an icon of environmental activism and social justice. And Cullis has been steadfastly alongside him the whole way, though her contributions have not been as publicized—until now.

      “The thing I loved about the play, basically, is: Tara was in the position of a lot of women in that she has provided so much of the support system that allowed me to do whatever I’ve done,” Suzuki shares. “She’s really the star of the play, without question. It was just thrilling to see the role that she’s played in starting the David Suzuki Foundation; in her academic career teaching at Harvard; her PhD thesis—all of that came out in the play, and I was really delighted to see that side that is so often hidden.”

      At once a tender love story and a call to arms, What You Won’t Do For Love never strays too far from its central mission: to get people engaged in the fight for our environment. Or, as Suzuki puts it, for our species.

      “The planet’s not in trouble; the planet was here for four-and-a-half billion years before humans even arrived, and it’ll be here long after we’re gone,” he says. “It’s about our ability to survive in a changing atmosphere.”

      As for how we do that, Suzuki points to two action items. One: start hammering our local politicians with phone calls and emails asking what they’re doing about climate change. Two: try to reduce our individual annual carbon footprints by 50 per cent.

      Ultimately, he and Cullis both believe that there’s plenty of work left to be done, but that there’s still a chance for us yet.

      “Hope comes from the fact that we are trying,” Suzuki says. “When you’re an activist, you’re saying, ‘I believe there’s a different outcome.’”

      “What You Won’t Do For Love” runs from February 13 to 17 at the Vancouver Playhouse.