Climate change on the global stage
Eco-theater offers an outlet for creative expression and scientific communication
Hannah Loss • March 8, 2022
Three actors perform in the Climate Change Theatre Action event in Beacon, N.Y. They wear cardboard cutouts shaped like oyster shells. [Credit: Hannah Loss]
Thinking about climate change can be overwhelming, even paralyzing. Attempting to solve this global crisis will take enormous efforts by politicians, companies and local leaders to reverse the negative effects on our planet.
On this global stage, where can artistic expression fit into our response and communication efforts? Enter climate change theater — an effort by playwrights, educators and scientists to spread information and awareness about the impacts of human behavior on the environment. While filled with serious themes of melting ice caps and polluted waterways, these plays also offer hope for a positive future.
Join Scienceline reporter Hannah Loss on a trip up the Hudson Valley as she experiences a global series of storytelling and live performances organized by Climate Change Theatre Action.
(Somber violin music from Hudson River Playback Theatre, played by Jo Salas)
Hannah Loss: It’s a chilly fall day in Beacon, New York. I’m standing in Long Dock Park, a green and peaceful peninsula that was once a brownfield, contaminated with industrial debris and heavy metals. Around 50 people, a mix of families with children, grandmas and dogs, are waiting for the action to start. We’re here to see a play about climate change.
Jody Satriani: Long before you were born, the Earth was a place of clay and dust. Water and stone. Sky and stars. Life sprang from the soil and soon…
Hannah Loss: The play is called Bedtime Story for My (future) Daughter, and it’s performed by Hudson River Playback Theatre. It’s just one of seven performances taking place here this weekend, part of a worldwide series of short plays coordinated by a group called Climate Change Theatre Action. This event in Beacon got me wondering how theater — on the stage or in the park — could have any impact in combating climate change: an enormous problem that the world’s brightest scientists and policy makers are trying to figure out how to stop. What can actors and playwrights do in the face of rising temperatures and sea levels?
Susanne Moser: You know, it’s really easy to get people very quickly to understand and despair about the issue, but like how to actually move them on to some positive engagement is a key concern.
Hannah Loss: Susanne Moser is a climate change communication specialist. She tells me that an important part of climate communication is creating an emotional connection.
Susanne Moser: But it is really about reaching head and heart and connecting the two in the audience so that they feel motivated and inspired and just committed to taking action.
Hannah Loss: Basically, the issue of climate change needs a “Hallmark card” treatment to tug at your heartstrings — something that theater can help with. Susanne says climate scientists can struggle with this, if they see climate change as only a scientific issue, an objective reality of the scientific data.
Susanne Moser: People need to feel it.
Hannah Loss: Playwright Kristin Idaszak agrees. Idaszak is a playwright and professor in Chicago who was inspired to start writing about climate change after a honeymoon in Antarctica.
Kristin Idaszak: That’s what we do so well. We take huge, complex, sometimes very abstract problems, and we humanize them.
Hannah Loss: Humanizing the heavy reality of facing a world of floods and heat waves can provide catharsis. Beth Osnes is an associate professor of theater and environmental studies at University of Colorado Boulder. She says a humorous performance can be an effective method for people to process these difficult subjects.
Beth Osnes: You know, I don’t think comedy can do the heavy lifting in terms of heavy content delivery, but I think it has a really good success rate in stickiness, you know, like, retention, opening up, changing — paradigm shifting.
Hannah Loss: I experienced a similar levity during the Climate Change Theatre Action event in New York. One of the performances was called “The Oysters.” Three actors stood hip-deep in the chilly Hudson River as waves lapped the shore. Each was dressed in a halo of cardboard, cut and painted to look like an enormous oyster shell. It was silly enough to see three adults dressed in costumes.
Oyster 2: What is an oyster’s work?
Oyster 3: To live together in giant communities!
Oyster 1: To filter water, breathing in, breathing out.
Oyster 2: To avoid being eaten by seabirds.
Hannah Loss: After the audience gets a laugh, the play then turns to the serious subject of facing the scary future of climate change together. A future that maybe won’t be quite so scary if we imagine a better way. Theater can help us talk about the fear of climate change living inside of us.
(Oyster voices underlay narration, then fade out)
Hannah Loss: Once we process our emotions with a good laugh or cry, then we can move on to thinking about solutions to this crisis. Kristin Idaszak tells me this is something they take very seriously.
Kristin Idaszak: We have a sort of responsibility to imagine what climate solutions might look like and write solutions into our plays, instead of just imagining how the world will look and feel as it continues to degrade.
Hannah Loss: This is a good strategy, according to Susanne Moser. People don’t want to just hear about the problem, they also want to have a sense of hope.
Susanne Moser: They need to have a way of translating their concern into a constructive action that will actually make a difference, or else they simply go numb. And so I would hope that any theater production you know, not only tells us a problem story, but it tells a solution story. And, if nothing else, on the way out the door, you learn here’s the first thing you can do. And then after you’ve done that, contact them again, and here are the next three things you can do. And here are five more people you can connect to. Don’t do it alone.
Hannah Loss: But it’s not just the audience who has to do the work. For theater to play an impactful role against the climate emergency, theater as an institution must hold itself accountable to sustainable practices, especially when presenting climate change content. Idaszak says this includes acknowledging the land of indigenous peoples on which theaters and companies work on.
Kristin Idaszak: Because simply putting a climate change story on stage can be a form of greenwashing. If the theaters’ larger producing practices aren’t supporting that work in a holistic way.
Hannah Loss: Even on Broadway and other national theaters, there are organizations like Broadway Green Alliance and Groundwater Arts helping productions make sustainable choices, like re-using sets and props, and using energy efficient lighting.
Hannah Loss: But what if all this compelling climate theater is just preaching to the choir? As someone who already cares about and understands climate change, I consider myself part of the choir — so maybe that’s why I felt the impact of the performances. I can’t help but wonder if theater producers, writers and actors should consider who is seeing the show? Susanne Moser:
Susanne Moser: If we preach to the choir and get them to sing louder, that actually might do us some good, because you know, who is not attracted to a loud choir singing out of a church or in the street somewhere? Right? So the louder the choir sings, the more likely it is that more people pay attention.
(fade in singing, chanting voices of Hudson River Playback Theatre)
Hannah Loss: For Scienceline, I’m Hannah Loss.
(singing fades out)
Bedtime Story for My (future) Daughter by Caity-Shea Violette, performed by Hudson River Playback Theatre
The Oysters, by Miranda Rose Hall, performed by Andrew Brehm, Eric Magnus and Liz Zito