Climate Contexts: Some Principles for Theatre in an Era of Ecological Chaos

What are we paying attention to when we make theatre? What principles drive each of our practices? What do creatives take for granted? How can we notice the context of climate crisis in our work — and acknowledge the stakes involved?

The principles listed below are statements I’ve amassed from a myriad of conversations and creative processes in the past few years — and to which, in recent performance/installation works, I have been attempting to follow. Although I’ve shared the principles with other makers, this is their first publication. Over the next year, I’ll be interrogating them in practice, in a range of contexts — and intend to publish an updated version around this time next year. These principles for making theatre in the context of climate crisis aim to probe the perceived contradiction between artistic freedom and planetary limits. In that spirit, these principles offer a provocation, not a ‘solution’ — they are certainly not-one-size-fits all — I hope they offer a starting point for conversation (you can see one such conversation, here — with Belgian director Luk Perceval).

The pandemic (and the different national responses to it) is symptomatic of what I call ‘high carbon’ culture, in which transactive, extractive and colonial practices, globally, have enabled continuous economic growth and profit, keeping societies of the global north, in alliance with oil-producers, turning at ever-accelerating speed. High carbon culture’s unholy combination of fossil fuel dependency, past and present colonialism, profiteering and the extractive, transactive motor of industrial and neoliberal capitalism, has produced, as we know, a radical erasure of biodiversity amidst a wildly warming planet and the accompanying violence against people — particularly in the global south. The impacts are overwhelmingly felt in the very places that were least involved in causing the crisis. Nevertheless, as recent events demonstrate, nowhere is immune.

What the pandemic also shows that not only is ignoring climate crisis not ethical, it is not logical, either. Kate Fletcher calls the culture’s myopia ‘a resource fiction’ (because the planet cannot continue to provide the resources to maintain the current state of play) — this struck a chord with me: we are living in a fiction, and we are gaslit by our high carbon culture when we try to face reality. It is a bit like those cartoon characters who have run off the cliff without realising it and are peddling the air before the fall. The mindset is dependent on a story the culture continues to tell itself about unlimited growth, after we’ve run out of road. The narrative of the rationality of economic individualism has turned on us, and it is now time to find another story of who we are, and what constitutes reason. And this is where theatre comes in. Like many, I believe we need to evolve some collective arguments (although not consensus) about what is owed, globally, and what the role of art might be in that context.

This is not then about necessarily taking climate crisis as subject matter, but about how any story is told, by whom, and what the process of making that story involves. There is often concern that theatre, with its centring of the human, is a poor medium for the consideration of environmental questions — and indeed it is a place, and an artform, that embodies the Enlightenment severance between nature and culture. But theatre can no longer afford to participate in a now outdated ‘reality’ of mastery and individualism, on or off stage. If (some) humans brought us to where we are now, then theatre’s focus on human relations could be said to be precisely the space for investigating how we came to be who we are — and how our culture could, should and might be reconfigured. It probably won’t offer answers: but it might be a good place to ask the questions.

THEATRE IN CLIMATE CRISIS: SOME PRINCIPLES

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination […] What we need is to find a way out of the individualising imaginary in which we are trapped”. Amitav Ghosh

ART DOES NOT SERVE

Climate crisis is a context, not a topic: not one whole thing that needs to be addressed in its entirety every time

Do not allow anyone (scientists, politicians) to press art into the service of climate- crisis-communication in the name of urgency

Art is not instrumental: artistic encounters do not have to change behaviour to matter

The climate crisis demands that artists up our game, not that we serve interests other than the artistic

There are lots of other roles for art in the current crisis that are not about persuasion, EG

>satirising/acknowledging our hypocrisies & double binds
>excavating unspoken anxieties
>sharing and recognising loss of our habitats and what we know
>drawing connections, imagining new relations
>imagining that which we long for (ie dealing with love, grief, fury, pain, solidarity)
>working out who ‘we’ are (or could be)
>recognising culpability
>working things out where there’s no easy answer

Art exists for many reasons but art does not exist to get it right, or deliver solutions

Art does not exist to be agreed with

DESIGN TO DISTRIBUTE

Notice how moving beyond a single-use society challenges dearly-held beliefs in originality and artistic sovereignty in design

Recognise re-use not as repetition (plagiarism/ripping off/lazy/copying) but as generative appreciation (sampling/hacking/riffing/homage)

Reimagine authority looks like — allow the ideas and the situation to speak, take collective responsibility whilst recognising and valuing individual roles

Imagine leadership as catalysing, inspiring, facilitating: DJ-ing rather than controlling

Acknowledge colonial extraction and appropriation — in mentality and materials, in our present

Only by reconfiguring the power structures of high carbon culture can something be done — with active anti-racist, anti-misogynist practices, against the extractive, transactive colonial mindset

There can be no single utopia: imagining alternatives does not require consensus: each of us can be able/enabled to draw upon others’ visions to imagine ourselves within them, differently

Rewild — embrace the unknown & the open-ended

STAY WITH THE TROUBLE

If you live in a high carbon culture you form part of the problem, even though you didn’t intend it, don’t know how to change it, and don’t feel responsible

Embrace living in contradiction

Keep trying to work it all out with anyone else who wants to with you

Recognise how the history of colonial theft of resources and appropriation of land founded and continues to fuel high carbon culture

In this context to say ‘we’ is not to erase different positions and privileges in the power structure, but to recognise the overarching challenge of living in high carbon culture

Do not wait until you (are sure you) are right, to begin

IMPOSSIBLE IS NOT A FACT, IT’S AN ATTITUDE

Recognise that high carbon culture’s intensification of social, economic and colonial inequalities is strategic and designed to turn us against one another

When worrying about who might lose out through increased prices for fossil fuels, think about who is already losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their lives

The power to transform high carbon culture is concentrated in a very few hands (who all seem to be mates) but imagining otherwise is not

Addressing the climate crisis cannot simply be a call for any individual to be ‘aware’

Offering consciousness-raising as a solution implies, against all the evidence, that as long as someone ‘knows’ they will be able to act — regardless of their circumstances

Knowledge does not automatically lead to the desire to act: a visceral sense of necessity might

Do not promise, start

ARTISTIC ECONOMY

The unwillingness to take care in using resources may be a kind of internalised capitalism that refuses to accept that the resources of the planet are finite, hidden behind the idea that the artist must be ‘free’ to realise whatever is in their imagination, without limit

Move away from a model of DESIGN then EXECUTION, towards an iterative, situational, responsive process

Sift through already existing stuff, allow it to speak and produce ideas

Make the challenge of finite resources as a provocation to think harder, and better — a ray of light might be enough

Think first — how might we better do this? without simply replacing one consumer item with another ‘green’ one

Addressing the climate crisis does not have to mean a ‘poor’ theatre aesthetic — anyway we have plenty of stuff to work with: the detritus of a whole culture

Being precise and ingenious with resources thus involves focusing and expanding our imaginative capacities, not limiting them — the question ‘is it really worth it’ can sharpen the art — and make meaning of excess

WHO DO WE THINK WE ARE

If heroism has any place, it is in the everyday, in the moments when someone acts on behalf of the good of the whole rather than in their own self-interest

The idea of everyday heroes acknowledges we are inevitably the centre of our own stories, but that at the same time there are multiple constellations of stories emerging around us. Equating heroism with winning is a fatal error.

Work out our relation to time — care takes time, time for care needs to be actively built into working practices

Work out our relation to working hours: focus not on long hours (presentee-ism) but on commitment (focus on getting the job done in the best way possible)

Remember we are trained to dismantle, critique, be outraged — it takes more time to notice and accept complexity, refine and keep building

Offer actionable alternatives, before suggesting limits: promises of gain in an uncertain future are little motivation to change in the present

Think of a relationship to nature as something you breathe rather than merely look at

THINKING EPIC

To think epic is to bear witness to the realities of the present

No more egos playing the tragic hero, clinging to economic ‘self-interest’, going down in flames and taking the planet with them

Connect past and future — we are in the shit for the long haul

You or your friend or someone walking past you on the street is likely, right now, to be worried about a loved one currently experiencing climate stress, from unseasonal weather to full-scale disaster

Acknowledge that every artwork involves collaboration in some way, and that no one has ever made work in complete isolation

Relax about artistic ownership (we know nothing is really completely new anyway — originality always emerges out of re-combinations of old stories or ideas or images — look at Shakespeare)

Relax about artistic ownership but commit to credit (and insist on being credited) — crediting influences, relationships, interconnections, others’ work

Consider a longer timescale than reward in the here and now It is not either/or — it is and/both

Urgency is sexy, but rushing is not.

Credits

I would like to credit Kate Raworth (‘design to distribute’), Paule Constable (‘artistic economy’) and Donna Haraway (‘stay with the trouble’) for some of the wording of the titles — this is homage to their brilliant work but I take full responsibility for what is suggested under those titles, which has emerged from all the conversations with my many collaborators over the past 2–3 years, particularly in WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE, Factory of the Future, and now Love Letters to a Liveable Future. As a document this directly evolved through a wide range of conversations and arguments in 2019–20, with thanks to specific inspirations in conversations with Chantal Bilodeau, Nicole Brewer, Nicky Childs, Shôn Dale-Jones, Vicky Featherstone, Charlie Folorunsho, Matthieu Goeury, Mona Grenne, Jess Mabel Jones, Judith Knight, Andrea Ling, Lucy Morrison, Dan de la Motte, Stefanie Mueller, Anna-Maria Nabirye, Mariama Ndure, Heiki Riipinen, Tom Ross-Williams, Cecilie Sachs Olsen, Imanuel Schipper, Gretchen Siglar, Lena Šimić, Clare Slater, Chris Thorpe, Elisabet Topp, Arturo Tovar, Christian Tschirner, Vishni Velada Billson, Lucy Wray and lots of others.

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Zoe Svendsen

Zoë Svendsen is a European theatre director/dramaturg based in the UK, who makes participatory theatre and installations exploring the contemporary questions