Contingency Plan

‘The Great Immensity’ does a ‘Greenland’

pic: from left: Rebecca Hart, Dan Domingues, Meghan McGeary and Todd Cerveris in 'The Great Immensity'

This post comes to you from Ashden Directory

In the last couple of years a number of plays about climate change have been staged in London from Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan to the multi-authored Greenland at the National Theatre and Richard Bean’s The HereticThe Contingency Plan was funny, dramatic and accurate; Greenland was not very dramatic, not very funny and accurate; and The Hereticwas very funny, quite dramatic and fairly inaccurate.

Meanwhile, this blog has been waiting since 2010 for the results of the substantial grant of $750,000 (£470,000) from the US National Science Foundation for a new play about climate change by The Civilians theatre company. The reviews for The Great Immensity are now in. It sounds as if it has made some of the same mistakes as Greenland.

So what happens in The Great Immensity? The set-up is that a character called Phyllis arrives at Barro Colorado Island, a rainforest and research reserve in the middle of the Panama Canal, in search of her twin sister Polly, a filmmaker who has suddenly disappeared. The researchers on the island help Phyllis reconstruct her sister’s last days through flashbacks, video interviews from Polly’s hard drive, and vaudeville musical sketches. Phyllis learns that Polly was engaged in a project to do with the upcoming Auckland Climate Summit. The action then moves to Churchill, Manitoba, where Earth Ambassadors and others disclose what happened to Polly.

Robert Trussell in the Kansas City Star calls it a “risk-taking show”and an “unwieldy cargo container of theatrical virtues and deficiencies”.

“Integrated into the narrative is alarming information about the plight of the planet. I’m not questioning the scientific information that forms this play’s foundation. My concern is how the show works as theatrical entertainment.”

Victor Wishna, in the KCMetropolis, an online journal of the performing arts, takes the viewthat what theatre does best is provoke, rather than educate or entertain. Although well-performed, he finds it a single-issue, educational show, with no subplots or diversions from the message of the irreversible damage that humans have done to the planet.

“Theatre-goers may very well leave The Great Immensity more frustrated and agitated than inspired. Unlike a lecture or even a documentary film, theatre isn’t expected to offer answers but to raise—to provoke—questions, to challenge assumptions, to take us from ‘There’s nothing to be done’ to ‘Isn’t there something we can do?’”

“ashdenizen blog and twitter are consistently among the best sources for information and reflection on developments in the field of arts and climate change in the UK” (2020 Network)

ashdenizen is edited by Robert Butler, and is the blog associated with the Ashden Directory, a website focusing on environment and performance.
The Ashden Directory is edited by Robert Butler and Wallace Heim, with associate editor Kellie Gutman. The Directory includes features, interviews, news, a timeline and a database of ecologically – themed productions since 1893 in the United Kingdom. Our own projects include ‘New Metaphors for Sustainability’, ‘Flowers Onstage’ and ‘Six ways to look at climate change and theatre’.

The Directory has been live since 2000.

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Climate changes: Steve Waters interview

Many had considered climate change an impossible subject to dramatise. But two new plays that opened at the Bush in May proved them wrong.

Steve Waters talks to Robert Butler about ‘The Contingency Plan’, his double-bill of plays about climate change, and how they were inspired by James Lovelock, the 1953 floods, and the Transition Town Handbook.

http://www.ashdendirectory.org.uk/featuresView.asp?pageIdentifier=2009122_59406680&view=

To coincide with the UN Conference in Copenhagen, Radio 3 also broadcasts a version of ‘The Contingency Plan’ (this Sunday, 8pm) and two readings of the play, with the original cast, will be produced at the Bush on 15 and 18 December.

Steve Waters’ Contingency Plan and the Rubik’s Cube of climate change


Resilience, one of the two plays that form The Contingency Plan by Steve Waters

Given that theatre presents itself as a form that is profoundly engaged in the politics of the present, that we’re a country that produced David Hare, David Edgar, Howard Brenton and Harold Pinter, why has there been so little theatre about the most central political issue of the time?

Last night I was at one of the events put on by the Cultures of Climate Change group at the University of  Cambridge; Time To Act: The Theatre of Climate Change. The blogger/journalist Robert Butler was interviewing playwright Steve Waters about his play The Contingency Plan. The Contingency Plan at The Bush Theatre earlier this year was the first time someone has pulled off a really intelligent piece of theatre about climate change. Even thecritics agreed. Set in the very near future, it involves events – personal and political – leading up at a major storm surge that appears to be about to flood a significant section of the East Anglian coast. (Rob mentioned a great moment at the press night for the play when the Daily Telegraph’s reviewer turned to him at the interval and said, aghast, “Robert, tell me all this isn’t true?” Robert had to break the news to him).

Waters made the point that he was initially taken aback that no one else had written a play that dealt directly and successfully with the subject. He also became very conscious at the time of writing that the British theatre establishment wasn’t really looking a play on the topic.

Partly this is because theatre acknowleges something we all understand. The complex, slowly unfolding narrative of climate change is one that’s incredibly inconvenient for artists. It is not, we tend to assume, particularly dramatic in itself. Robert Butler discussed this in a review ofThe Contingency Plan in Intelligent Life magazine earlier this year:

Climate change is a difficult subject for dramatists. Three years ago Caryl Churchill, a playwright, introduced a talk by two leading environmental scientists by stressing that their work raises an essential dramatic problem: one of distance.To transport science to the stage, a playwright must not only clarify complicated ideas for laypeople, but also evoke the tension of cause and effect. The problem with climate change is that what happens in one place often ends up affecting people in an entirely different place, and at a remote time. The two worlds can seem unrelated. Where’s the catalyst for drama?

As Butler went on to say, Waters succeeds in closing that gap by a having two plays within the single work – and as Peter Gingold of Tippingpoint mentioned on the way out, by being very clever indeed. Having written it though, Waters is also aware that the UK theatre establishment was probably only looking for one play on climate change.

In response to that thought Butler mentioned a discussion he’d heard on Radio 4’s The World Tonight the night before, in which Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, said we have made life difficult for ourselves by the way we’ve approached the issue of climate change:

One of the arguments I make about Copenhagen, says Hulme, is that we’ve stitched together so many concerns – quite serious and real concerns – under one umbrella [namely, the reduction of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere]. It’s a bit like the Rubik’s Cube that came out some years ago. There are so many different combinations that I could never solve it. And this is what we’ve created with Climate Change. A Rubik’s Cube that we can’t solve. Whereas if we begin to tease out the various elements of the problem – the problems of development, the problems of adaptation, the problems of short-lived greenhouse gasses like methane or black soot, separate those out from the problems of long-lived CO2, we could find a much easier set of pathways.

It was a great discussion; Butler did a brilliant job of throwing new thoughts into the ring for Waters to bat back. I’m still trying to work out whether I agree with what Hume says as a political way to approach climate change, but artistically that makes a lot of sense. Even if , hypothetically speaking,  Steve Waters has written THE play about climate change, there is huge scope still to pull the Rubik’s Cube apart to allow us to make profounder sense of climate change.

Thanks to Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith for the event.

Steve mentioned that the The Contingency Plan will be aired by the BBC on Dec 13 to coincide with COP15. I’ll keep you posted with the details.

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“Global warming is as much a cultural problem as a scientific or political one…”

Robin McKie, science journalist for The Observer, has been to see Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan, and has noticed that that there is something significant happening across the arts:

Until now, scientists, journalists and politicians have dominated the debate about the threat of greenhouse warming. Many have fought well and brought a proper sense of urgency to the debate. However, it will be our writers, artists and playwrights who will finally delineate the crisis and explore in human terms what lies ahead. Only then can we hope to come to terms with our endangered world….Thus global warming is as much a cultural problem as a scientific or political one and deserves to be addressed through the activities of those who define our culture: our artists and writers.

These individuals will be the ones who reveal to us the kinds of lives we may lead in the near future – not just in physical, but in moral and social terms – as our planet heats up. In other words, we need an Orwell or a Huxley to help us define the terrible issues that confront us – and to judge from the recent efforts of Waters, McCarthy and McEwan we can have a fair amount of confidence that our artists and writers will deliver. Whether or not we choose to listen to them is a different matter.

“Writers and artists are getting warmer” by Robin McKie

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

“Global warming is as much a cultural problem as a scientific or political one…”

Robin McKie, science journalist for The Observer, has been to see Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan, and has noticed that that there is something significant happening across the arts:
Until now, scientists, journalists and politicians have dominated the debate about the threat of greenhouse warming. Many have fought well and brought …
Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

The Contingency Plan: Bush Theatre

Later today I’ll be putting up our own review of Steve Waters’ new double-bill of plays about climate change The Contingency Plan, but in the meantime take theatre critic and environmental blogger’s Robert Butler of the Ashden Directory’s word forf it. These plays, he says, are “terrific”.

If there’s one line I had to choose from The Contingency Plan, Steve Waters’s terrific new double-bill of plays about climate change, now on at the Bush Theatre in London, it’s the moment when Will Paxton (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a young glaciologist, explains the concept of displacement to the new Tory minister for climate change. Having spelled out that ice is ‘basically parked water’, Will warily predicts that the enormous West Antarctic Ice Sheet may well melt (much like the smaller Larsen B ice shelf).

‘But this is thousands of miles from us,’ chuckles the smooth Old Etonian minister (David Bark-Jones), whose schoolfriend, David Cameron, has become prime minister. Will replies with patience, ‘If you pour water in the bath, it doesn’t stay under the tap.’

Read Robert Butler’s review of The Contingency Plan at The Economist’s Intelligent Life.

Read the Ashden Directory blog on The Contingency Plan.

 

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology