Theater’s opportunity to impact the climate crisis
By Philippa Kane
Above: Chantal Bilodeau’s Sila, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, at the Underground Railway Theatre. Sila deals with themes such as melting sea ice, climate activism, and teenage suicide. Photo by Michael Mufson.
The world has “only twelve years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”—these were the findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their 2018 report.
These reports can no longer be seen as mere possibilities, but as realities that many communities around the world are already facing. They are battling rising sea levels, extended droughts and heatwaves, increasingly stronger and more frequent hurricanes, as well as many other environmental challenges. These facts undeniably call for society, as a whole, to make urgent and fundamental changes to many facets of human life.
Like most players in the global economy, we in the theater industry must re-evaluate the way we create our product, and ensure that our management systems and processes of creation align with this new reality. However, the problem of climate change is one of long-term sustainability, which is extremely complex and not just a managerial, technological, or political issue, but one of behavioral habits and cultural values. Andrew Hoffman, Director of the Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, posits that “we cannot recognize the environmental problems created by our way of life, nor can we develop solutions to address them, without first facing and changing the beliefs and values that have led to them.”
It is in this capacity that theater could and should have a special role to play in progressing issues of sustainability within the social consciousness and culture as a whole. The arts, and theater especially, have always been instrumental in shaping social values, identities and beliefs. It is widely acknowledged that theater can have powerful impacts on society and these have been measured in the landmark theatre study, Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre. The study examines audiences’ reactions to different productions, examining how theater can entertain, inspire, build empathy, create social bonds, and spark critical thinking and reflection. Theater does not only reflect the world around us, but offers us a vision of what the world could be, for better or worse. As an industry we pride ourselves on bringing cultural and economic value to our local communities. As such, we should embrace the opportunity to support our communities and redefine social values to align with a sustainable society. Yet, even as the climate crisis escalates, the programming of not-for-profit theater institutions refuse to reflect or embrace this issue on a consistent scale.
Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author, who has been writing about climate change since the ‘80s, put out a rallying call in 2005 for artists of all creeds to take up the mantle of climate change. “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” he asked. Not only to help us understand what is happening to us at this point in time and to help redefine our cultural values that led us to this catastrophe, but to help society imagine a future that is more sustainable, a future to hope for.
Almost 15 years later there are only a handful of theater companies in the US that are bringing attention to these issues with the objective of being a catalyst for wide-spread cultural change. Some of these companies are The Arctic Cycle, Superhero Clubhouse and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival–which invented the concept of “greenturgy” to address environmental concerns in all their works. Greenturgy aims to “excavate environmental concerns” in new and old works, whether they are overtly about climate change or not, as well as seeking to reconnect society to its physical world by playing with environmental representation on stage. While companies such as these are doing interesting and necessary work addressing the climate crisis, many others—including the majority of the large theatrical organizations and institutions—are not.
The contribution that arts and culture could make in affecting public discourse and action on climate change and environmental sustainability is the subject of a growing body of work. Although these studies may differ in their approaches and scope, they typically agree that cultural output through theater can have a significant positive impact on how people think, feel, and deal with the complex issues of climate change and sustainability.
In 2018, ArtPlace published a field scan of how the arts can accelerate environmental progress. It identified five distinct areas where the arts could support and facilitate this progress. One of these areas focused on how the arts has the ability to spark public demand by humanizing environmental issues and helping people visualize sustainability. One of theater’s strengths is in examining human relationships and society, making theater a perfect medium to examine our relationship to the environment. Visualizing a sustainable future on stage can help people imagine what this future will look and feel like. The field scan suggests that this will encourage audiences to believe change is possible.
Theater also benefits from being a live, shared experience. This can deepen the audience’s experience of and connection with the show’s content, as well as their connection with fellow audience members. Such shared experiences can be vital in galvanizing communities and sparking social change around an issue that can only be solved through collective action and collaboration.
ArtPlace’s field scan also refers to the ability of the arts to bridge gaps and strengthen communities by helping people find common ground and addressing inequalities. Helping people discover their commonalities and encouraging everyone to strive for greater equality – these are going to be two corner stones in overcoming the climate emergency. Principles such as these were already adopted in 2015 by the United Nations in their Agenda for Sustainable Development, which condenses the global efforts towards general sustainability into seventeen distinct goals. Their primary focus is one of empowerment, inclusion and cooperation.
It is clear that climate change, unchecked, will ultimately affect and even destroy the way of life of everybody on this planet. However, the effects of climate change are already compounding with issues of inequality, poverty, and race. The people who are the first to experience the effects of the climate crisis are also the most likely to face the most devastating repercussions. These are predominantly people of color, indigenous communities, and low-income communities. By making space for these voices and conversations on stage, theatrical organizations could help shape a more holistic view of sustainability within the cultural dialogue. This, of course, intersects with the urgent need to address wider fundamental issues of representation, diversity, and inclusion in the theatre industry itself. Fostering an understanding of how communities are disproportionately affected by climate change could help to build capacity for and empower a more inclusive dialogue around these issues.
Academic studies have also investigated the type of theatrical content that is the most successful at inspiring change. In July of this year, Laura Sommer and Christian Klockner from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology published a paper questioning the arts ability to raise awareness in relation to climate change, and its “stimulating psychological effect” on viewers and audiences. After analyzing responses to 37 works of art at the global festival ArtCOP21 in 2015, they concluded that artworks offering “solutions and emphasizing the beauty and interconnectedness of nature” led to the highest psychological activation. They highlighted that it is not enough to “simply show the problem in an aesthetic way…it is essential to create a personal connection to the causes and consequences and [to] offer solutions.” This finding should not be perceived to recommend that artists only dictate their work around audience reactions: rather, it speaks about the very real impact of art on the human brain and how such content can affect human behavior.
So, why are we not seeing these pressing issues on the stages of larger not-for-profit theatrical institutions around the US? Where is the programming that prioritizes work calling our values and culture into question and challenges the norms around how we perceive our relationship with the environment?
Marshall Botvinick recently published a study to capture trends in new play productions for members of the League of Resident Theatres (LORT) and the National New Play Network 2019-20 Season. He specifically looked at US World Premieres and found that 0% of plays had a climate change or environmental thematic focus. During the 2018-19 season in New York City, the only larger, not-for-profit institutions to address climate change in their programming were the Manhattan Theatre Club (in their smallest space, Stage II) and New York Theatre Workshop.
If the theater industry wants to play a part in averting the climate crisis, theatrical institutions have to begin to lean into their role as cultural leaders; to commission and program works that explore the human impact of these issues and offer society a new way of thinking. We need institutions to form partnerships with artists who have been nurtured in organizations like the Arctic Cycle and bring these works to wider audiences. Our theaters must diversify the voices we are prioritizing and create more inclusive content. To help support this specific programming, perhaps it is also time for theaters to engage with more interdisciplinary partners within the community to further this work, including climate change scientists, activists, funders, and policy makers. After all, the solutions around climate change are inherently interdisciplinary and engaging those with specialized knowledge will increase the institutions capacity for change.
Theatrical organizations should view the global call to action as an opportunity. In return for playing this vital role in redefining societies cultural values and beliefs they will remain relevant to their local communities and build loyalty with younger audiences. Climate change has become one of the most important issues for younger generations, who will likely not accept organizations that continue to ignore the climate emergency. Climate change also offers an opportunity to create new and fruitful partnerships with artists and with local communities, as well as to help shape a more just and equitable world. But, perhaps most importantly, work that inspires dialogue and action inspires hope when climate change begins to feel insurmountable and overwhelming. If we are the stories we tell ourselves, let’s start telling them before it’s too late.
Hoffman, Andrew J. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. Stanford University Press, 2015.
Ratzkin, Rebecca, et al. Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art: Featuring Measuring the Intrinsic Impact of Live Theatre: the Final Report on the Landmark Two-Year Intrinsic Impact Theatre Study from Research Firm Wolfbrown and Authors Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin. Theatre Bay Area, 2012.
Helicon Collaborative. “Farther, Faster, Together: How Arts and Culture Can Accelerate Environmental Progress”. Creative Placemaking Field Scan #4: Environment and Energy, February 2018.
Sommer, L. K., & Klöckner, C. A. “Does activist art have the capacity to raise awareness in audiences?—A study on climate change art at the ArtCOP21 event in Paris”. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, advanced online publication, 2019.