Since September of this year, I have been teaching a module on Theatre for a Changing Climate. Faced with cultivating just enough familiarity with scientific terminology to underpin our analyses of a range of contemporary climate plays, in one of our first sessions I showed the group a short video featuring a climate scientist explaining the concept of the Anthropocene. To my initial surprise, a few seconds into the video students were giggling. Then they glazed over. The laughter, they explained, was about the presenter’s animated body language juxtaposed with the “dry” nature of the content – a healthy reminder of the slippages between the stories we tell and the ways we tell them.
Science communication projects are not new within the environmental humanities. When the interdisciplinary journal Environmental Humanities was launched in 2014, its authors argued that this emerging field “must avoid becoming a handmaiden to environmental science, serving up dollops of value while the scientists take care of the real facts,” adding that “[n]or do the environmental sciences need us to do their public relations for them” (268). Communication, we know, is not about one-way traffic from an expert to subject who will absorb facts (rationally), change their ways, and change the world.
Theatre offers one way of synthesising the verbal and performative aspects of storytelling. As a discipline, we are attentive to how bodies and words communicate. There is already a growing body of theatre and performance work telling climate stories. Some theatre seeks to alert audiences to the unevenly distributed consequences of a changing climate, confronting the subject directly. Some offers new stories about how we might live on earth with multispecies companions. Some helps us to understand the world we are in and to imagine a world that we might weather better. Part of the joy of the playwright Chantal Bilodeau’s innovative Climate Change Theatre Action project, for example, is its ability to engage with multifarious complex topics from multiple perspectives in a short space of time, instigating productive conversations and posing complex questions in playful and imaginative ways.
For the initial Climate Stories workshops in theatre, then, my intention is to utilise climate scientists’ work as a springboard to devise short performances and draft “tiny plays” that demonstrate real-world impacts upon human or nonhuman “characters.” What would we not know about the world if we didn’t have this research? What stories would we not be able to tell? How does the form affect the storytelling? What different dramatic forms might be instigated by scientific research? And how does the presence of the storyteller affect the reception of the story? In the series of restarts and new starts, we will, I hope, make opportunities to try out various performative strategies for telling climate stories in ways that are meaningful to those who tell them and those who encounter them. As Donna Haraway reminds us, “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” (2016: 12). And how we tell the stories matters too.
University of Exeter Drama Department
Bergthaller, H, Emmett, R. Johns-Putra, A., Kneitz, A., Lidström, S., McCorristine, S., Pérez Ramos, I., Phillips, D., Rigby, K., Robin, L. (2014) “Mapping Common Ground: Ecocriticism, Environmental History, and the Environmental Humanities.” Environmental Humanities. Vol 5, pp. 261-276.
Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble. Durham and London: Duke University Press.