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Climate Change on the stage: Community theatre at work

The shadow of the climate crisis looms large over every facet of our modern lives. As something that impacts and informs all areas of life, the arts are no exception, with genres such as ‘ecopoetry’ and ‘cli-fi’ (climate fiction) emerging as artists try to grapple with our warming world. While ecological discourse centres on geopolitics and the physical sciences, the arts retain their power to influence, educate, and inspire. The arts and culture sectors are often viewed as a luxury, but if what we need is cognitive change and political action, they are a necessity. Climate change has moved from a recognised fact to a catastrophic reality, yet our personal and political responses are no match for the emergency we face. If we are to break down psychological barriers and rouse political awareness, it falls to the arts to force this change.

As an art form that can mobilise the masses, where better to look than the theatre. From Ancient Greek drama and its critique of Athenian democracy, all the way up to the modern-day Theatre of the Oppressed, the stage has always been a site for change. The state of modern theatre is not perfect: massive inequalities run right through an industry that remains largely a wealthy, white space. That being said, in the past decade, we have seen pioneering productions that remind us of the political impact that drama can have. As we stare down the barrel of the greatest threat we have ever faced, we must not forget the ability of the arts to make a difference.

Although more and more plays are gradually dealing with ecological concerns, with productions such as The Contingency Plan at the Bush Theatre and Earthquakes in London at the Cottesloe, the key issue of our time is still too often left backstage. There might be a relatively simple reason for this: it is not easy to write. After all, how do you write about something as massive as climate change? Something that is simultaneously global yet personal, scientific yet emotional – how is one to compress this into a satisfying two-hour play?

In Disclosure, the recent Netflix documentary about the representation of trans people in the media, Laverne Cox put it quite simply: we just need more of it, then clumsy representations would not be as important. I believe the same is true of climate change theatre: even if productions miss the mark, it is the process that is important. Theatre at its heart is a laboratory for testing out ideas and for interrogating those ingrained in our societies and our selves. It is a kind of ‘thought experience’, opening up conversation and collective exploration in a space that is safe and experimental. Though the climate crisis is omnipresent in our modern lives, this all too often results in apathy and desensitisation. Art can renew our perception and defamiliarise us to the ecological devastation we have come to ignore – it can dismantle our indifference so that we truly recognise the threat we face. Dramatic portrayals of climate change allow for the audience to begin an exercise in imagining – what does the future hold? What needs to be done? What can I do? But for this to work, theatre needs to engage explicitly with our climate crisis. It must create new narratives, rather than just tacking its ecological themes onto tired, hand-me-down plays of the past.

No one wants to pay money to spend their evening off being lectured to, least of all when we already agree with the message being hammered home. Herein lies the problem of politicised theatre, where activism is entwined with entertainment. Although political drama has a long history, the climate crisis poses a new challenge in that everyone is implicated, no one is exempt. It is not a question of party politics, but of survival. Faced with this conundrum, many playwrights just choose to sidestep environmental themes, relegating them to the subtext rather than allowing them to take centre stage. If we want to do political theatre effectively, I believe we can look to the past decade for inspiration.

Recent productions such as Fairview and Slave Play interrogate the white gaze and the racial voyeurism of the theatrical world. In essence, these are political plays with didactic aims, yet they do not just lecture their audience – rather, they shock, entertain, unsettle. In challenging the viewer, these productions force a reconsideration of entrenched values and concepts. If climate change theatre is to be effective and leave a lasting impact, it must make the audience think, rather than just consolidate what they know. Rather than allowing for comfort and detachment, experimental and innovative forms can hit the audience where it hurts and can pierce the seal between spectator and stage. Theatre is a vital tool for breaking down psychological barriers and provoking political change, but in order for this to happen it must take inspiration from contemporary politicised plays.

Theatre tells stories to a particular group of people, in a set time period and a set place. This specificity means that playwrights and directors have the ability to tailor their focus to the community they are addressing.

The stories of climate change are not homogenous: they are different for every community within every country. This presents a unique opportunity for local theatre to address local environmental concerns, which in their multitude can have a significant ecological impact.
The notion that a play must have universal appeal to be effective does not ring true for climate change, where thinking globally has all too often led to defeatism and ennui. Scaled-down drama is better suited to a world in which the impacts of global warming are not equal. Community-based theatre can remove hierarchies and bring more people into the conversation, provoking actual change rather than merely preaching to the converted. It can nourish a grassroots, diversified theatre which brings environmental concerns closer to home, motivating the audience to take action in a way that commercial plays cannot.

As our ecological crisis spirals out of control, our response to the slow-burning catastrophe is insufficient. Coronavirus has closed theatre doors for the indefinite future, but we must use this period to reflect on our priorities. It can act as an interval, a time to question and evaluate, before we take our seats once more. In its long history, theatre has been instrumental in galvanising change on both the personal and the political level – it is time it turns its attention to the issue of the day.

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