Art on a Damaged Planet: The Theatre in the Age of Climate Change Convening

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

From 8 to 10 June 2018, HowlRound, in partnership with Chantal Bilodeau (The Arctic Cycle), Elizabeth Doud (Climakaze Miami/Fundarte), and Roberta Levitow (Theatre Without Borders), hosted Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, one of four convenings selected as part of the HowlRound Challenge. This effort brought together a collection of artists, activists, scientists, and educators working at the intersection of climate change and performing arts for three days of reflection, strategizing, and sharing. Much of the convening is archived on HowlRound TV.

I accepted my invitation to the convening with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome, insecure with my qualifications as an attendee. Perhaps you feel it too: this sense of confusion and inadequacy about what it means to be an artist-advocate. When HowlRound invited me to be the designated report-writer, I felt a huge wave of relief – this meant I could bear witness to the events of the weekend, participate to an extent, and put my anxieties about being among the incredibly accomplished folks in the room aside. But the event was inviting – it was a place for everyone to provide what they could towards a shared goal. By bringing together folks of different backgrounds, affinities, and – yes – experience levels, the convening was uniquely aligned to create a sense of shared culture and identify next steps. If I have a seat at this table, you do, too.

In this report, I will present a summary of themes and outcomes from the convening. The outcomes, of course, continue to form, grow, and change. Those who are interested should be inspired to affect and support their development.

The “How”

The convening used every possible detail as an opportunity to demonstrate its values – sustainability, equity, and collaboration – from the amenities to the format of the weekend itself.

In their proposal for the event, Bilodeau, Doud, and Levitow wrote,

Up until now, artists and organizations have been working in isolation without an identity or service entity to guide organizing efforts. But we can’t afford to let things emerge organically anymore; we must organize and leverage greater networking and resources to do this work, so that deep thinking can translate to more numerous and impactful projects by a wide range of practitioners.

To that end, the premise of the convening was unique: without hierarchy, every participant’s contributions and experiences held equal weight. Where most traditional conferences are often concerned with showcasing individual accomplishments and applauding progress (whether or not those are stated goals), this convening was concerned with critical reflection, idea-generation, and looking ahead. During her welcome to the group, Doud acknowledged the reality that the convening was conceived by three white women and shared that this element inspired them to connect the dots to racial justice through the weekend’s format. “We deliberately decided not to bring in an outside facilitator; we decided in the end it would be best to call on the wisdom in the room to do the facilitating… to share that charge.” Doud also placed a critical theme of the convening front and center, stating: “The work of undoing racism is paramount to the work of climate and environmental justice, and it feels like we need to have more conversations about that.”

Elizabeth Doud speaking to convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

The format succeeded in decentralizing leadership, providing frameworks for collective thought, and ensuring synergy among artists and ideas. Here’s what I mean:

  • Inner/outer circles: Three discussions were led (“What’s the reality? What’s working?,” “How do we double our impact?,” and “Are we thinking radically enough?”). In each, ten participants began a conversation in an inner circle, while the other participants listened actively from an outside circle. Eventually, the inner and outer circles melded and the conversation continued with all participants invited to speak. This format fostered active listening and discourse.
  • Creation of working groups: The group was invited to share specific and actionable next steps for advancing the goals of climate-concerned practitioners in the performing arts world. Some of the more outside-the-box ideas that came up included:
  1.  An app designed to promote the use of eco-friendly and reusable materials for theatre design.
  2.  A performance-art traveling tent revival focusing on testimonies related to environmental racism and injustice.
  3.  A campaign to inspire theatre companies from around the world to each present a “theatrical season for change.”
  4.  A series of public-facing residencies focused on stories about sustainable lifestyles, particularly food sourcing.
  5.  A curated series of cross-university collaborations of courses in dialogue with each other.

The group identified themes and links among these ideas and grouped them accordingly. Categorizing the ideas was, at times, contentious, but the group ultimately conceded that ideas could touch multiple themes. Participants then divided themselves into working groups, each connected to a theme.

  • Working group meetings: Each working group met three times with the stated goal of identifying actionable steps around their chosen theme. Participants were invited to move freely among working groups for maximum cross-pollination.
  • Open mic night: Participants from the convening and outside guests shared monologues, poems, trailers, videos, and songs demonstrating their own artistic practices – I even got up and read a monologue from my play (We Are) The Antarcticans. While, yes, the entertainment (and libations) made this especially fun, I found the open mic to also be among the most valuable events of the weekend: it was our first opportunity to directly encounter each other’s artistic work and sensibilities. The intimate sharing, opened up to members of the interested Boston public, allowed for interpersonal appreciations that became invaluable for final steps the next morning, and a rewarding opportunity to share our work more broadly.
  • Closing: Participants made pledges of individual goals to the group. While the premise of such an act may seem focused on discrete actions, this discussion led to an examination of our individual skill sets, networks, and resources and, by extension, opportunities to snowball them into collective and cooperative change.

A More Intentional Vocabulary

One of the benefits for a novice like me was clarification about some of the common vocabulary in this burgeoning field. Here’s a quick look at some terms that were unpacked:

“Extraction” was a new term for me; I only thought about “extract” as far as vanilla flavoring goes. “Extraction” may refer to the acquiring of naturally occurring resources – oil easily comes to mind. A movement exercise on Saturday morning led by Annalisa Dias and Jayeesha Dutta invited participants to create images with their bodies to illustrate “extraction” and “regeneration.” (If you’d like to read more about this powerful exercise, please read Dias’s HowlRound article “The Possibilities of Generative Futures and Embodied Practice.”) I won’t presume to quantify (or qualify) the artistic success of the exercise, but I would argue that it highlighted how these terms are rough opposites. The movement exercise seemed to resonate powerfully for many participants, opening up emotional and visceral sensations using a planetary point-of-view. In conversation with Dutta, I learned about StoryShift’s principles and praxis, which highlight ways in which storytelling itself can be extractive and provides frameworks within which storytelling can occur thoughtfully. It’s worth a read.

I always knew “sustainability” in reference to the endeavor of sustaining the environment, and I was surprised to be presented with its logical but contradictory other meaning: when “sustaining” means preserving problematic patterns and practices as they are. Practitioners in the room are largely interested in interrupting current patterns and practices, not sustaining them. For our purposes, “sustainability” was accepted to refer to “sustainable practice,” wherein businesses, organizations, and individuals match all their life practices with environmentally conscious methods.

“Climate change” is a phrase that requires unpacking and examination. “Global warming,” once popular, made way for “climate change,” as “warming” does not adequately describe all of the consequences of human activities that damage the planet, cause sea levels to rise, lead to the accumulation of toxins and ocean desalinization, etc. Because, yes, some regions cool rather than warm. During the Saturday morning reflection, Una Chaudhuri directed the group towards Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, a book whose title resonates with her as a concise description of current affairs. My understanding is the most basic: our climate is changing, and, political implications aside, the term “climate change” endeavors to describe that obvious fact.

“Climate change theatre” was not ever identified in strict terms. In fact, some participants represented disciplines that, though closely related, would not fall directly under “theatre,” including podcasting, filmmaking, television, education, scientific research, dance, and other performative modes. Among the practitioners in the room, there was invitation to challenge the premise of “climate change theatre.” In their own work, many practitioners regard climate change as a lens through which to examine stories whose features are not directly about climate change. Perhaps the term “work at the intersection of arts and climate change” is sufficiently all-encompassing.

Personally, I find this broad understanding of “climate change theatre” hugely relieving. By resisting the temptation to define it as a strict category, it keeps the door open to a plethora of styles, aesthetics, scales, genres, contexts, contents, and interpretations. In other words, nobody can tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Major Themes

1.  Culture and difference

Part of the work of thinking about climate change expansively requires imagining beyond one’s lived experiences. The convening offered opportunities to gain deep insight about culture and difference that illuminated not just the “what” of climate change, but how we understand its realities and how it impacts various communities around the world. We began to see climate change as less monolithic and more nuanced even across the individuals in the room.

Grisha Coleman leads convening participants through a movement exercise. Photo by Carolina Gonzalez.

For example, a series of important distinctions were made early in the convening during an exercise that asked participants to place their bodies on a spectrum between points that represented the statements “My community is directly affected by climate change” and “My community is not directly affected by climate change.” When one participant asserted they felt less affected and vulnerable to the effects of climate change because of their location in a city, another participant asserted that their location in a different city actually highlighted their vulnerability. Later conversations would further underscore the nuances of climate change impact across regions, but the group widely accepted the reality that lower-income communities (including globally) generally feel the impact of climate change soonest and most deeply, and that wealthier communities and individuals have the privilege to “buy” their way out.

During the first inner circle, Meaza Worku recounted the cancellation of the climate change–themed festival Crossing Boundaries because “there was a set of emergencies in Ethiopia, and lack of funding, and also very few applications.” Later, she elaborated, “Most people think, especially in Ethiopia, climate change is a Western issue or it’s a luxury.” This highlights the reality that theatre – or, indeed, any kind of arts – that addresses climate change is a form of privilege. This is an urgent concern, given that developing countries have the potential to contribute an enormous amount of carbon emissions to the atmosphere as they inevitably try to catch up with Western standards of living.

David Dower leads a small group discussion. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

Societal norms are powerful forces, capable of both inhibiting change or promoting change in attitudes, behaviors, and perspectives. Memorably, Xavier Cortada posited that while it may have once been culturally acceptable to spit on the floor, he would likely fail to persuade anybody in the room to do so today. Peterson Toscano did oblige, but the surprise in the room – I was shocked – highlighted Xavier’s point.

2.  Disruption

In her welcoming address, Levitow shared that one of the convening’s intentions was “to look at what lies beyond what’s wrong, and to imagine what’s possible.” The pervasive sense of doom that often accompanies conversations about climate change has kept me from fixating on “the apocalypse.” So, reimagining accepted notions was a welcome portion of the conversation for me.

Several methods of disruption and innovative thought came up throughout the weekend:

  • Dismantle denial: “I hear so many climate presentations where basically it’s saying see, it’s really happening, which is a tremendous waste of time and energy,” complained Toscano. (In the video of this moment you can totally see me nodding enthusiastically.) “And I often wonder,” he continued, “what if there was no climate denial? What would we be doing?” With this mode of thinking, artists could create stories that simply operate within the reality that climate change is happening and begin to strategize about what to do to address immediate threats.
  • Reclaim sustainability as fiscally smart: Opponents to environmental regulations often dismiss advocacy for the environment as costly and fiscally wasteful when, in fact, several methods of cost-effective media production—and energy production, for that matter—can have it both ways. For example, cooperation among theatre designers to support recycled use of scenic elements would be both cost-effective and resource-efficient. (Broadway Green Alliance has emerged as a leader in this kind of effort.)
  • Divest: Annalisa Dias wondered aloud, “What if we in this room could create a call out to the American regional theatre or universities that have theatre departments, that have endowments, that are invested in fossil fuels… Can we call the arts community to divest from fossil fuel interests?” Concern came up that such a plan’s impact may feel numerically negligible in the grand scheme, but it would be an opportunity to make a clear statement even when the content created by performing arts practitioners is not addressing climate change.
  • Employ arts practices towards protest: There is a rich tradition of activism in the arts and performance as protest. Some participants discussed opportunities to directly disrupt the meetings of those whose work reinforces the status quo through artistic demonstration and other forms of civil disobedience.

During the second inner circle, Alayna Eagle Shield commented on the tendency for audiences to feel overwhelmed by the threats of climate change, sometimes to the point of denial or paralysis. She drew a direct parallel to the suppression of Indigenous language education:

Each and every one of you were meant to not know anything about me or my people, and that was intentional. And I think when it comes to climate change it’s the same thing: we were meant to think it was a hoax and not real. I think we’re building the sidewalk as we’re walking, and so we almost have to do how-to… so people aren’t overwhelmed and they can be entertained at the same time.

Thus, as Julia Levine added, theatre can be reframed as a way to talk to audiences, rather than at them.

Worku suggested, during the Saturday morning reflection, that the answer may not involve theatre as we know it. After the final inner circle opened up, Cheryl Slean added: “What we’re all talking about moving towards is the same, and it only seems radical because we live in this insane system.”

3.  Reframing

After the final inner circle expanded, Rob Davies brought up President Eisenhower’s quote, “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.” Along those lines, the group sought ways to think expansively and radically about the problem faced in order to find more expansive and radical solutions.

Eagle Shield looked for opportunities to examine what climate change–themed theatre is for rather than what it is against. Lydia Fort stressed that it may be framed as non-Western and anti-empire, but that it is more inspiring when it seeks to offer an invitation-to instead of—or in addition to—a prevention-of.

During the first inner group, Levitow celebrated the merits of having a wide variety of climate-themed performance works available—especially if we go so broad as to include SpongeBob SquarePants and The Broadway Musical—but offered the following caveat: “Yes, a strength is that the field is burgeoning, that the enthusiasm is growing, that things are becoming more ‘normal,’ that it can be present in the world and seen and received, but, to me, I’m worried that what we’re struggling with is wanting to have an impact that’s greater, broader, and at the tiers of power: political, economic, the media, and the public at large.” Others were similarly interested in the challenges and opportunities presented by broadening impact and scope. There may be an opportunity to employ humor even (and especially) as it shines a light on complicity and hypocrisy. Toscano suggested that a useful way to frame our mission is, in the broadest sense, that we are working towards an “increase in human wellbeing.”

“There’s this regenerative model that nature is giving us that we can apply to the arts,” Georgina Leanse Escobar posited, adding, “We’re [currently] not mimicking nature in how we’re creating the arts, we’re mimicking our social structures.” In their lives and work, many folks in the room are invested in identifying ways in which the relationship between the theatre and science communities could be stronger. I was tickled by the tendency of participants to invent clever science metaphors, and can’t resist sharing a few:

  • Davies likened the potential for change to the phenomenon of creating huge waves using small slaps on a pond.
  • David Dower invited a comparison of the currently disconnected state of climate change-themed theatre to chaos theory.
  • Robert Duffley drew inspiration from Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World while discussing the less commonly seen systems responsible for generating “fruiting bodies.”
  • Marda Kirn discussed how Eastern and Western approaches to medicine are differently necessary and an individual’s health is best supported by those willing to consider both, in the way that embracing multiple approaches to creative problem-solving offers a both/and approach.

4.  Impact

A quick digression: I’ve recently begun a friendship with a PhD candidate in glaciology at UMass Amherst who has been to Antarctica several times; I have a bizarre fascination with the “white continent,” and reached out after her name – Ruthie Halberstadt – caught my eye. During our conversations, I learned that she and I each have something that the other envies: she has a wealth of knowledge about climate change patterns, and I have access to an audience. Both are valuable, but in order for our work to have maximum impact, we each need the other.

As I came to understand, part of the urgency in reframing theatre with a climate lens comes from this longing for urgent and significant impact. The general undervaluing of theatre (in the theatre field in general, academic institutions, city planning, civic budget initiatives, and contexts where more immediate needs are unmet) may lead us to underestimate its potential impact. Lani Fu highlighted her company Superhero Clubhouse’s counterintuitive discovery that audiences are less willing to attend free performances (especially of student-written work) than they are to pay for tickets. This is further complicated, she continued, by a culture that invites theatre artists and students to undervalue the work they do in theatre. If we don’t value our own work, we can never achieve the impact we seek.

Lani Fu speaks to the convening group. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

5.  Ownership

Participants expressed a hope that theatre created in response to climate change do so within frameworks that are restorative and that combat patterns of colonial thought, which have traditionally suppressed certain voices and threaten the environment. As such, the models of theatremaking must challenge ideas and ideals that are popularly associated with “mainstream” theatre, including the prioritization and overrepresentation of white male–centered leadership and story subjects.

Challenging these norms invites ways of reimagining or subverting many phenomena of dramatic storytelling: production methods, distribution models, and even the intellectual property of dramatic texts.

In one breakout group, Escobar described a project in which she relinquished authorship in order for her play to be more easily produced in low-budget venues. This was useful to help sidestep the obstacles presented by attaining performance rights when communication with Escobar was difficult or impossible.

During the third inner circle, Jayeesha Dutta meditated on the ways in which layers of privilege inform an artist’s relationship and accountability to story and subject. “So, for me, radical transformation would look like the people who are the most impacted telling their own stories, visioning the future they want, being given access to the resources that they need to transform their realities.” Later, Dutta brought StoryShift up with the whole group, introducing the extensive work already done in creating the valuable document, which helps guide people in how to make sure that stories are told by the people living those stories.

The idea of “ownership” connects back to climate change, given the implicit presumptuousness of colonial expectation: I can claim this land, and once it belongs to me its resources may be exploited for my own purposes and gain. Grisha Coleman compared the colonization of the planet to the behavior of those who make attempts to claim or own others’ bodies. In that light, resource extraction can be seen as a form of rape, and claiming land as a form of slavery.

Within the idea of “ownership” is the oft-unexamined assumption that humans belong at the center of the story of the planet. Many of the writers and storytellers in the group are interested in interspecies and non-human stories as ways to challenge and subvert this paradigm, and to invite audiences to recognize the singular role humans play among a larger cast of characters. Along those lines, the group invited questions about what the primary value of theatre with a climate lens should be: Is the priority humankind—or is it the planet?

Conclusions-In-Process/Expression of Hopes

Towards the end of the convening, the working groups reported back to the full group to share imagined projects. There was notable overlap in the ideas that were generated, and – at least from where I was sitting – the themes that we had painstakingly identified began to feel rather fluid again. To be clear, this is not a criticism – perhaps it’s just testament to the ways in which progress in one “area” inevitably supports progress in another, and the group’s ability to unintentionally address multiple needs at once.

One group expressed the need for a digital “gathering place” of ideas, individuals, organizations, projects, and strategies. In many ways, this is the natural progression of the convening itself, with an eye towards inviting new voices that were not present in the room. The hope with this would be to generate toolkits meant to support efforts in their early stages.

Another group presented concepts towards a Climate Commons for Theatre and Performance as, similarly, a “location” for ideas to gather and intersect. The major difference was that this group emphasized bringing people together in dialogue with one another, whether remotely or physically. Given the challenges of fostering a widespread community, this group imagined ways of leveraging already existing nodes where the intersection of arts and climate change are presently being examined. Very quickly, individuals in the room suggested ways for their networks to support these efforts, demonstrating the potential for this dialogue-making to expand quickly.

A third group expressed a desire to find ways to participate in divestment and direct action campaigns. Suggestions for doing this involved methods of performance as protest and finding opportunities to interrupt the efforts of organizations that threaten the planet.

Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

What Now?

The “second act” has already started, including the following developments:

  • Bilodeau’s annual Artists & Climate Change Incubator took place in early August.
  • HowlRound will begin publishing a Theatre in the Age of Climate Change interview series, which will continue to grow over the next six months.
  • Preparations for a thematically similar convening in Brazil (helmed by Adilson Siquiera) are underway.
  • Efforts have begun during Climate Commons group phone calls to support syllabus development.
  • A third biannual Climate Change Theatre Action is in its planning stages for 2019.
  • Plans are underway to coordinate a pre-conference at TCG’s Annual Conference in Miami.
  • An application has been submitted to convene a working group at Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro in Mexico City.
  • Alyssa Schmidt is planning to spearhead a syllabus exchange where folks who are teaching courses on eco-art—or are looking to incorporate eco-art into existing courses—will be able to exchange resources and otherwise assist each other.

I feel personally empowered as I watch these efforts snowball, and I also feel impatient. Dias articulated a similar feeling about halfway through the weekend when she shared, “I’m having a complicated response, because I’m feeling the collectivity in this room, but I’m also like: But what are we actually doing?” Many of us feel emboldened by that nagging anxiety that comes from the urgency of the problem. As concerned citizens of a damaged planet, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to feel ready to bring forth our individual actions; it’s time to get going now. As a writer and a teacher, I’m excited to try more creative, curious, and risky ways of addressing climate change, now that I know there is a network available to help improve, reinforce, and amplify individual efforts—and then allow me to share with anyone who may find my discoveries useful and thus make them a part of collective actionDuring the final intentions, Alison Carey told the group, “I’m going to talk about climate change constantly, even when people get mad at me.”

“As pioneers in a burgeoning field of theory and practice, we have much to offer and learn from one another,” wrote the convening’s core leadership in their initial proposal. “Face to face, lengthy and in-depth meetings are essential to substantive relationship building, and we believe our individual cultural efforts can coalesce in a way that is timely and mutually beneficial.” In the time since the convening, ideas are marinating, and the seeds have been sewn for meaningful long-term endeavors to flower.

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on September 16, 2018.

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MJ Halberstadt is a Boston-based playwright who has been honored with the Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding New Script, the Huntington Playwriting Fellowship, and the 2019 SpeakEasy Boston Project. He is an adjunct professor at Emerson College, Founding Playmaker Emeritus of Bridge Repertory Theater, and member of the Dramatists Guild.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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