By Covi Loveridge Brannan
In February of 2020, American Theatre Magazine released a special issue entirely devoted to the topic of theatre and climate change. The articles discuss the ways in which theatre-making can help upset existing power structures, uplift marginalized voices, and envision paths for the future. As Lanxing Fu and Jeremy Piccard, co-Artistic Directors of Brooklyn based company Superhero Clubhouse, state in their article A Climate of Change, “Functioning as a microcosm of society, theatre is uniquely positioned to create the cultural conditions needed for alternative structures of power and economies to thrive. And because the climate crisis demands change at every level, every theatre-maker can participate by shifting our practices to center climate justice in our work, regardless of the content of what’s onstage”.
But how do we do this? While creatives usually leap at a challenge, the task of pivoting to a climate just practice can seem particularly difficult to take on. From my perspective, this difficulty stems not from disinterest but from not knowing where to start. To take on these new ways of thinking and working, one must let go of past experience and enter into a vulnerable state which is open and receptive to new forms of knowledge. It is hard to be a beginner (especially as a professional practitioner) and even more difficult to undo old habits. The first step, then, is to wrap our heads around what this idea of “eco-theatre” is. With my project, On The Hook: A Climate-Conscious Exploration of Anna Christie, I set out to do just what the title suggests: explore. I am not an expert at this, if anything, I am just a curious artist yearning to make the world a better place. With the current state of our world, taking on a climate-conscious practice seems imperative in working towards a just and sustainable future for all.
So, what is “eco-theatre”? When it comes to learning new things, Google is a very useful tool (though I admit that I generally use the decisively less-useful “Ecosia” as my primary search engine, since it plants trees every time I hit 45 searches). Sustainability is a hot topic in nearly every industry, and, in 2020, most adequately-funded cultural institutions are doing their part to “go green” and lower their environmental footprints. Companies like Julie’s Bicycle and Broadway Green Alliance have been doing great work with major theatre institutions to get them on track to “net-zero”, and some smaller theatre companies like Brooklyn-based Superhero Clubhouse and Earth Matters on Stage (EMoS) are taking up the mantle of “eco-theatre”, centering ecology and integrating sustainability in every aspect of what they do.
But what does it take to make a theatre production “sustainable”? What qualifies as “eco-theatre”? These words are still new to me, but I am beginning to develop my own understanding. Working "sustainably" in theatre means considering the ecological, carbon, and equity implications during every step of the design, rehearsal, and performance processes. Results of this type of thinking can range from "green theater" practices, such as using LED lighting to save power or thrifted costumes to reduce waste, to adapting rehearsal strategies to better ensure equity and quality of work for those involved.
So, is every production which integrates sustainable practices a piece of “eco-theatre”? Not quite. That would probably qualify as “green-washing”, a crime I believe should be penalized by public scorn and hefty fiscal taxation. To be a piece of “eco-theatre”, creators must commit to looking through a very specific dramaturgical lens: one that considers how the piece being performed converses with both environmental and socio-economic concerns. For example, while in his play King Lear, William Shakespeare frequently uses pathetic fallacy, mainly in the form of the great storm personifying the titular character’s mental state, this masterwork is not inherently a work of “eco-theatre”. Yes, in terms of text, the natural environment is directly responding to the human characters and vice versa, yet we have not quite met the eco-theatre benchmark.
However, if a particular production of King Lear chose to explore more deeply the characters’ relationships to the natural environment, emphasizing these moments directorially and through design, we are on our way. If the production went a step further, digging into the “man vs. nature” imagery in the text, alluding to the socio-economic implications of King Lear arbitrarily dividing his kingdom between his daughters with no consideration for the impact on his subjects’ livelihoods, and centering the imperialist attitudes and absolute power that monarchs exerted during the late sixteenth century, then we have a piece of “eco-theatre”.
“Wait!”, you say, “If that’s all it takes, then nearly every play could become a piece of eco-theatre! Pretty much every great storyteller and playwright has at least considered the relationship between the characters, society, and their environment in some way. You didn’t add anything new; it’s all right there in front of you!”
From where I stand, you are absolutely correct. Humanity and their social societies are indivisible from the natural world. Somewhere along the way, Western Civilization sought to separate itself from “nature” and claim their citizens as superior to those considered “closer to nature”. They began to regard natural phenomena as “resources” to be extracted and perceive those who dwelt harmoniously with the Earth as sources of “labor” to be exploited, all of this in the name of “progress”. But, what kind of human progress should we be seeking? Artists have been asking this question from the beginning of society itself. It is up to us as modern theatre practitioners to consider the socio-ecological implications of the work we are exploring, in the name of dramaturgical integrity, truthful storytelling, and out of loyalty to the well-being and advancement of humankind.
Covi Loveridge is an actress, playwright, creative producer based out of NYC and LA. As a practitioner, Covi is committed to producing and pursuing sustainable and eco-socially conscious work. She believes human stories and ecological stories are intertwined and values work that embraces this shared legacy of life on Earth.
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