Theatre for a Climate Crisis in a Globalized World

By Thomas Peterson

A MODEL FOR LOCAL ACTION
I.

As of mid-April 2020 (when this piece was written), somewhere between two and three billion people will be staying in their homes for weeks to come. Non-essential travel has all but ceased as efforts are made to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the communal sharing of stories in live local gatherings has been shut down around the world; theatre is temporarily impossible. At the same time, digitized narrative forms continue to circulate globally at an extraordinary rate. We are experiencing an unprecedented pause in the progress of economic globalization – the process is driven primarily by fossil fuel-intensive manufacturing and shipping, and carbon emissions in China temporarily dipped by 25 percent in the month of February. Nevertheless, the globalization of storytelling continues apace.

In the total absence of live theatre, the vitality of our remarkable form is evident, and much missed. Theatre can tell stories of and in a specific place at a certain time to the people who inhabit that place and that time. As we use increasingly globalized media tools to describe an increasingly globalized world, this distinctive quality becomes all the more important, especially because the impacts and stories of the climate crisis will dramatically diverge from place to place. What lessons can the theatre draw from the isolation spurred by this pandemic, and how might we emerge prepared to tell the stories of the climate crisis on a local and global scale?

II.

We are experiencing a horrifying tragedy – the consequence of too little care for the most vulnerable, too little attention paid to science, too little action too late. These last few weeks have prompted an alarming outpouring of quasi-ecofascist rhetoric, which tends to repeat the toxic idea that “humans are the virus,” a phrase often meme-ified alongside images of empty highways, clear canals in Venice, or smog-free skies above Los Angeles. This rhetoric of blame implies that destruction is an inherent quality of the human species; that we collectively share responsibility for environmental degradation and the climate crisis. Worse, these accusations are sometimes paired with undercurrents of xenophobia and racism, suggesting that China is to blame for the climate crisis and the pandemic.

Humans are not the virus. Systems of extraction and exploitation are the source of the climate crisis, and while some of these have slowed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic has also made tangible some of the differential harm caused by environmental degradation. Carbon emissions may have temporarily fallen, but cumulative air pollution has already weakened the lungs of millions of people around the world, primarily poor people and people of color, increasing their vulnerability to COVID-19. Environmental racism and fossil-fuel capitalism are a deadly combination.

But while the pandemic itself is an unmitigated tragedy, there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from our collective response. It is heartening to know that we can extend empathy around the world, retaining a compassionate global outlook while caring for those in physical proximity to us. We can avoid carbon-intensive long distance transportation and limit the globalized exchange of commodities while reinvesting in our physical communities. In this time of crisis, Mutual Aid Groups have sprung up all over, a local model in which people care for those who are near them. But when this period of isolation ends, where are we to funnel this empathy? How will we maintain these local networks?

III.

In an essay entitled Où atterir? (literally “Where to land?” though translated into English as Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime), the philosopher Bruno Latour argues that, to be effective, any political response to the linked crises of climate and economic inequality requires reinvesting in local environmental stewardship and addressing local grievances, all while retaining open and globally minded ways of thinking and being.

As Naomi Klein has argued, the disastrous failure to respond to the climate crisis in the thirty years since it became widely understood is due in no small part to economic globalization. Trade agreements have consistently been prioritized over climate treaties, and though emissions growth slowed over the second half of the twentieth century, it intensified again after the creation of the World Trade Organization. While the globalized sharing of information, services, and stories should and will continue to expand, the production of commodities must localize in order to combat the climate crisis. These economic changes will necessitate political transformations that redistribute power to communities.

Cahier des doléances from the island of Corsica, established by a general assembly on May 18, 1789. Archives Nationales de France via Wikimédia France.

To achieve this redistribution, Latour calls for a re-description of the specific landscapes in which we live in the manner of the cahiers de doléances, the lists of grievances contributed by every community in France in 1789, which constituted a full accounting of the political and environmental conditions of the country. The cahiers offered communities an opportunity for critical evaluation of conditions of life under the government of Louis XVI. This opportunity for widespread, relatively democratic reflection catalyzed the revolution, which eventually led to many of the reforms called for in the cahiers.

When people were given the opportunity to consider the particular political and environmental grievances of the places they called home, they realized that changes could be made that would dramatically improve their lives. Latour argues that a similar political accounting by communities around the world would create the kind of local investment and stewardship that might render climate change a “backyard” issue for everyone, not just the frontline communities that are already fighting extraction operations, rising seas, deforestation, and other threats to their survival. The communal nature of theatre makes it the ideal form for telling the stories of these local accountings.

IV.

Over the past several centuries, colonial and imperial projects and technological developments have driven an unbelievable intensification of global homogeneity: places around the world are more similar than they have ever been. It is therefore unsurprising that in theatre we are continually called to tell stories with universal appeal – stories that bring us together or help us bridge our differences. Theatremakers are pressured to justify our sometimes culturally peripheral medium by insisting that the stories we tell speak to universal truths. The stories may have surfeits of specificity, but universal relatability is an all-too-common litmus test when an institution, be it a regional theatre or a multinational media company, is evaluating the quality of a narrative.

Leaving for another essay the unsettling question of what universality might mean, why should we restrict ourselves to stories that resonate with everyone when working in a medium that is strictly limited by time and space? Instead, we must create work for the people who share our local time and space, and who are therefore also sharing the same climate conditions.

Other than theatre, what means of sharing stories can exert a localizing influence in our increasingly globalized art and media landscape? Theatre could even be defined as the local reinterpretation of globally accessible texts. The form is perfectly suited to the telling of local stories: all of the participants in its creation and performance (save perhaps the playwright), along with its audience, must share a specific physical location. Theatres are the venues in which re-descriptions of the environment, local climate stories, cahiers de doléances of the climate crisis, might be assembled in communities all over.

Bringing Latour’s reasoning to the theatre, the climate crisis demands new, locally specific plays to respond to the unique challenges of the place in which they are created and performed. After all, climate change impacts different places in different ways and at different times, challenging the very possibility of universal climate stories.

Nevertheless, the American theatre ecosystem persistently devalues the local: regional theatres are judged successful when they transfer a production to New York, while commercially successful New York productions go on to tour the country. In theatre, we can afford to tell stories that are not “universal.” A Hollywood blockbuster may need to sell tickets in Beijing, New York, and Tulsa to make ends meet, but if you are making a play about the climate in a town of a thousand people, make the play for the residents of that climate, those who are reckoning with its impacts. Climatic forces do not reflect totalizing narratives, and acknowledging the agency and reactivity of non-human nature in many forms, from hurricanes to potent viruses, is of paramount importance in crafting the story of the Anthropocene. As COVID-19 has spread around the world, its impacts have wildly diverged in rich and poor communities, in suburban neighborhoods and refugee camps or prisons.

The climate crisis is no different; it is going to change everything, but it is also going to impact every place in unique and unpredictable ways. Disparate geographies will inevitably generate contrasting stories in the decades to come. Vladimir Putin has long championed the “positive” economic effects of the climate crisis, as Russia – or rather, some wealthy Russians – stands to benefit from increased arable land and newly accessible shipping lanes in the Arctic. From other parts of the globe, the view is very different: Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum famously described the avoidable inundation of island nations as “equivalent in our minds to genocide.” While these are extreme cases, the danger of universalist climate storytelling is clear.

V.

So how shall we tell specific, local climate stories in cities and towns across the country and around the world when climate-focused theatrical work is nearly absent from the stage, even in cultural capitals and at major regional theatres? As Marshall Botvinick has written in the pages of HowlRound, the model for this kind of community-based theatremaking can be found in the Federal Theatre Project and the work of Hallie Flanagan. The project, funded by the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal in the 1930s, supported the creation of plays that specifically detailed the concerns of their communities, often with a focus on radical change, through current events-based forms like the Living Newspaper. Karen Malpede’s compelling call for a Green New Federal Theatre Project describes the integration of such an initiative into the Green New Deal, an ideal governmental structure for the support of local climate storytelling.

Photograph of the New York production of One-Third of a Nation, a Living Newspaper play about housing inequity by the Federal Theatre Project, created in ten different cities in response to local conditions. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

In the meantime, this form of locally adapted climate theatre is already emerging through initiatives like Climate Change Theatre Action, a project I help to organize, which was founded on the principle of local action paired with a coordinated global outlook. In 2019, a number of Climate Change Theatre Action events paired their performances with analyses or discussions of local environmental conditions: an event on a coastal bayou in southern Mississippi examined impacts on local marine-based communities and economies; another took place in kayaks on Miami, Florida’s rising Biscayne Bay; and an event in Calgary, Alberta offered an opportunity for locals, used to being shamed for expressing concern about climate, to support each other in taking action. Climate Change Theatre Action 2021 will aim to support locally focused climate storytelling in the communities that need it the most. Using the Yale Center for Climate Communications’ 2019 study of American attitudes on climate, which breaks down responses by county, efforts and resources will be focused on counties in which understanding of the climate crisis is low, and also on counties in which awareness and concern are high but where respondents indicate that they rarely talk about the issue, let alone act.

Knowledge of local climate impacts is limited in much of the country: the collapse of local news in the United States has eliminated most local environmental reporting. By putting local climate stories on stage in a community space, information about environmental conditions can be shared with those who might never seek out climate journalism. As Latour has argued, local climate storytelling is essential in explaining the import of environmental degradation to climate skeptics. Even then-Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson sued to prevent fracking near his property.

Right now, isolated in our homes, many of us are intensely missing the experience of congregating in a communal space with our neighbors, telling and watching local stories. We are missing the theatre. Once it is safe to do so, we must begin to gather in our communities and share our climate stories. In asking our neighbors to join us to stage our climate cahiers de doléances, we not only learn of local grievances and environmental impacts, but also begin an exercise in imagining: What are the challenges ahead? How will our communities combat solastalgia – the feeling of distress caused by environmental change in a place we love? What is the future we envision for our hometown or city? On stage, we can begin to bring those futures to life, in every community, no matter how small.

Afua Busia and Marsha Cann in “Climate Change Theatre Action Uptown” at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) in New York. Photo by Yadin Goldman.

(Top image: The Booth Theatre, closed for at least a month to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Photo by Gary Hershorn-Corbis via Getty Images.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on April 27, 2020.

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Thomas Peterson is a theatre director and researcher whose work focuses on the climate crisis. He is an Artistic Associate with The Arctic Cycle, co-organizing Climate Change Theatre Action. He recently returned from a Harvard Williams-Lodge Scholarship in Paris, where he wrote a thesis on the aesthetic of the sublime in the theatrical representation of the Anthropocene. He created Roy Loves America, a multi-form performance piece about Roy Cohn, and is developing an original adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, set on a dying planetHis engagement in climate activism stretches back to high school, when he led a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign.

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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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