25 years ago, the conversation around climate change and global warming was beginning to take off in earnest among scientists and policy-makers. Then, in the early 90s, a well-organised campaign driven by the fossil fuel industry began to target the science and scientists behind what had until then been a relatively undisputed scientific phenomenon. Suddenly, the existence and extent of humanity’s impact on the earth system became a topic of contention and dispute. A scientific debate became a political debate and the issue has become a divisive issue in popular culture.
While there are no shortage of examples of the environment as a subject in theatre, the current climate crisis has generated its own unique array of theatrical responses. Rather than attempt to survey the entirety of a huge and swiftly-growing field, I want to explore the topic of climate change in performance from the perspective of a theatre-maker, looking at some of the challenges and opportunities created by the form and highlighting some specific lessons from plays which I have a personal experience of.
Why do people choose to create theatre about climate change? From my own perspective, and through numerous conversations within Boho, I can see compelling arguments for and against choosing to address the topic through performance at all.
On the one hand, there are few topics less amenable to theatrical presentation. Theatre thrives on personal tales, narratives of family, domesticity and the like. Climate change is abstract, impersonal, incomprehensibly massive in scale and with hugely diffuse impacts that occur over a timescale of decades. Trying to condense a massive global phenomenon into a show of an hour or less is an intimidating challenge, and it’s hard to figure out where you can even find a starting point.
On the other hand, there are few topics more engrossing, vital and important for artists in the 21st century. In one weird way, climate change is the story of our generation – you can tell it badly, tell it well or refuse to tell it, but you can’t deny its resonance – people used to feel about nuclear war in similar terms. So for many artists, Boho included, it’s sometimes worth the risk of diving in and getting it wrong.
So how do you apply the narrow focus of theatre to the colossal specimen of climate change?
The Melbourne duo of Sam Burns-Warr and Jordan Prosser comprise The Landlords, and their 2011 show Bringing Some Gum To A Knife Fight responded to the challenge of the enormity of the topic by focusing on a very specific and concrete aspect. Their acerbic black comedy took place on the island of Tuvalu, the Pacific nation with the dubious honour of being the lowest country in the world, and consequently the first to be completely submerged in the event of sea-level rise.
Bringing Some Gum takes the form of a presentation by two Australian scientists to the Tuvaluans, informing them of their impending doom and assisting them to come to grips with their own extinction. By taking on the role of enlightened western scientists, Jordan and Sam provided a well-observed and devastating satire of Australia’s self-interested attitude towards its own welfare. The most brutal moment in the entire piece came with the awkward reminiscence that Australia had rejected Tuvalu’s appeal for sanctuary for its small population, as it was not commensurate with Australia’s stance of climate denial.
Bringing Some Gum offered neither solutions, nor hope. Instead, it was a measured and all-too-recognisable satire of Australia’s current political strategy of ignoring and minimising the issue at all costs. In this way, the theatre can provide the vital and ongoing task of highlighting and lampooning the failings of its society and times. At this stage of the debate, satires such as Bringing Some Gum are an equally if not more effective means of countering the activities of the carbon lobby than engaging with them in formal debate.
Writer/performer Tom Doig’s one-man show Selling Ice to the Remains of the Eskimos offered a vastly different take on the subject, both more ambitious and doomed to fail. More of a series of interconnected sketches and stories than a single play, Selling Ice’s battery of high-energy theatrical experiments examine the issue of climate change from a range of perspectives. From Tom’s apocalyptic entrance in a wetsuit on a bicycle fleeing from a biblical flood, to a wholly politically incorrect depiction of an Inuit humiliating himself for money, to a Cormac Mcarthy-esque Winnie-the-Pooh story, to a fight with a dolphin staged in a one-man tent; all try and all fail to convey the significance of the crisis.
These tricks and wildly varying setpieces are not merely captivating and entertaining to watch – they are a showcase of Tom’s extensive exploration into how to express the catastrophe of climate change on the stage. This restless search is made explicit in the show’s most moving moment, when Tom stops mid-scene and addresses the audience directly, confessing how afraid and concerned he is about his subject, and how helpless he feels as a performer to convey the full seriousness and impact of the issue.
Selling Ice is admittedly, defiantly imperfect, but for me it is a vital addition to the body of work on the topic of climate change. To any theatre-makers interested in the subject, Selling Ice is a laboratory showcase of what works and what doesn’t, as well as being an absurd and entertaining performance on its own terms.
Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw’s Third Ring Out is an interactive module looking at the consequences of climate change at the regional level, taking place in a shipping container with a playing audience of twelve. Developed in 2009 with the support of Tipping Point, Third Ring Out has toured extensively throughout Britain over the last two years. Over one hour, the audience are seated around a table and presented with a simulated series of climate-triggered crises. Starting with rising food prices and escalating to heatwaves and tidal surges, the audience are invited to vote on a series of measures responding to these disasters, managing growing problems with finite resources.
Originally growing from research into fallout shelters and training simulations preparing people for nuclear war, Third Ring Out is based on the concept of practice. The audience are presented with the scenario in the guise of a training simulation, and invited to consider what decisions might be necessary or desirable in that situation. In this way, Third Ring Out avoid a lot of the baggage and contention that comes with making predictions or assumptions about the likelihood or consequences of climate change and simply asks, ‘If this crisis occurs, what should we do?’
Like the creatives behind these three productions, Boho has been drawn to this topic. Both A Prisoner’s Dilemma and Food for the Great Hungers touched on issues relating to climate change, and True Logic of the Future specifically constructed a what-if scenario for Australia in a changed climate. In a future post, we will discuss and explore in more detail why we covered this territory with True Logic, and the lessons we learned from it. For the moment, I want to conclude by suggesting that the struggle of theatre artists to effectively grapple with the issue of climate change may be a measure of society’s capacity in general to understand and engage with the topic. Perhaps when we see sophisticated, coherent and nuanced theatre about climate change, it will be a sign that our culture is itself properly engaged with the topic.