Creative climate: towards an ecological theatre

| 16th May 2018
Lily Hunter Green's piano-beehive, pictured in a sunny field

Piano 1 from Lily Hunter Green, 'Bee Composed' (2014)

What does it mean to create art in the context of climate crisis? How do we create sustainable, engaging, and critical performance acts and spaces? Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Theatre hosted a one-day symposium to explore the connections between theatre and ecology, reports MARIANNE BROOKER

By making space on its stage for ongoing acknowledgements of the rupture it participates in – the rupture between nature and culture, forests and books, sincere acting and real fish – the theatre can become the site of a much-needed ecological consciousness.

Amitav Ghosh posed the question in 2016: ‘where is the fiction about climate change?’ He argued that there was a confounding paucity of literary writing ‘about’ environmental disaster.

This question warrants an urgent rearticulation, as last week’s ‘Creative Climate’ symposium argued rigorously.

Regardless of what our literature is ostensibly ‘about’ – it is, persistently if defiantly – happening in climate change: our art occurs in its heat, its airs, its force, and its dearth.

Performance times

7 o’clock, upon a stage, from a script. It’s tempting to think of theatre as the product of marks and measures: it has its time and its place, its arc, and we position ourselves accordingly.

There is, however, only so much that the fourth wall can keep at bay. Increasingly, directors and producers are reimagining what it means to create theatre in the context of climate crisis, attentive to the ways in which environmental threats change our sense of space and time, of intervention and interaction.

Climate change necessitates art that relates performance-space to the world-at-large, and allows it to reach out beyond momentary experience to inform everyday behaviours.

Zoë Svendsen, artistic director of METIS, began the day with her keynote: ‘Capital is Unnatural’. Her work explores how interdisciplinary performance projects can interrogate political subjects and economic systems.

Nature, she argued, has been excluded from the central structures of dramatic form. The task, then, is not simply to represent it, but to co-opt its symbiotic structures, to embrace simultaneity and interdependence.

Vulture capitalism

In September 2018, the Barbican will host her immersive installation piece We Know Not What We May Be, commissioned by the Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios Residency Programme, and part of the Barbican’s Art of Change season.

Taking its name from the words of Shakespeare’s maddened prophet Ophelia, and composed in collaboration with environmental, economic, and architectural experts, the piece will encourage its audience to collectively envision and ‘rehearse’ an ecologically sustainable future.    

Svendsen’s work brings the overarching reality of climate change to bear on socio-political speculation: carbon tax, universal basic income, automation.

Her work is restlessly prospective, and insists that audiences look outwards from the installation to the world around it. In this theatre, everyone cultivates their own capacity as an actor who can effect change.

Svendsen’s keynote at Creative Climate related her practice to the urgency and extremity of climate change and its ‘increasing levels of deep unpredictability’. For her, a destructive economic model of ‘vulture capitalism’ can be undone through meaningfully social theatre and its collaborative networks of making and thinking.

The remainder of the Creative Climate symposium showcased a range of exciting projects that confront the climate change by placing it at the centre of their practice:

Hive Minds

Artist Lily Hunter-Green (Birkbeck) and molecular biologist Luigi Aloia (University of Cambridge) are collaborating on a dynamic new project that explores ecological disruption and the decline of bees and animal pollinators.

This work is a continuation of Hunter-Green’s project Bee Composed, in which she converted a redundant piano into a working beehive.

She harvested live footage and sounds, from which she devised an original composition that was ‘played’ through a second piano. Audience members could view the piano-hive remotely through a Skype link fitted within this second instrument.

‘The intention’, Hunter-Green writes, ‘is to create a simulacrum “hive-mind”. That is, a unique microcosmic space that enables audience members to experience the inner dynamics and scientific happenings of the hive’.

This resonant superorganism represents ‘togetherness, the power of collective action, and the importance of community’. Here, theatre arises as part of an ongoing process in which process and product are mutually constitutive.

Shoot the Breeze

Artistic Director of Camden People’s Theatre discussed its 12 day festival Shoot the Breeze, which addressed climate change and pollution Its centrepiece was Fog Everywhere, produced in collaboration with teenage Londoners and the Lung Biology Group at King’s College London.

The play was staged in London, a city which breached its annual limit on air pollution by 5th January. In this play, local young people took to the stage to dramatise the ways in which air toxicity is producing an asphyxiating ‘ecoanxiety’ among the city’s young people.

Zazu Dreams

Cara Judea Alhadeff’s book Zazu Dreams between the  Scarab and the Dung Beetle: A Cautionary Fable for the Anthropocene Era, illustrated with 70 paintings by Micaela Amateau Amato, is a magical tale of environmental justice in which a Sephardic Arab Jewish boy and his imaginary husky traverse the globe on a humpback whale.

It utilises storytelling as an agent of social change and what Alhadeff calls ‘action-based empathy’. The story cultivates an ‘eco-literacy’ that helps readers to challenge agribusiness and petro-pharmaculture through indigenous philosophies and technologies.

Common Salt

Sheila Ghelani’s Common Salt is a participatory show-and-tell that explores England’s colonial history through objects related to the Indian Salt Hedge.

Told through the lives of objects as common as table salt, the discursive project comprises a meditation on the wall, the ‘hedge fund’, and on nature as it is put into service to human commerce.

Ecological Theatre

In her trenchant 1994 essay ‘There Must be a Lot of Fish in that Lake: Towards and Ecological Theatre’, Una Chaudhuri writes that: ‘By making space on its stage for ongoing acknowledgements of the rupture it participates in – the rupture between nature and culture, forests and books, sincere acting and real fish – the theatre can become the site of a much-needed ecological consciousness’.

She argues that artists must not, by any means, take nature on as a metaphor, but rather confront its vexed and mutable reality, and our place within it.

The Creative Climate symposium showcased a number of artists who were engaged in just this searing, immediate collision between nature and culture.

In so doing they were not creating ephemeral ‘pieces’ of art or performance, but rather participating in a variety of determinedly interconnected and tirelessly ongoing projects.

This Author 

Marianne Brooker is contributing editor for The Ecologist, focussing on change makers. She is also a PhD candidate at Birkbeck College. @curiousvolumes. 

Lily Hunter Green, Bee Composed (2016)