Green theatre — Activism meets art

Whether it is behind the scenes, or in front of an audience, there are so many aspects in engaging audiences and communicating. Far from media attention on the issue, theatremakers today are employing innovative ways to get people concerned.
Courtesy Organization for World Peace (Licensed under Creative Commons)

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published last Monday, provided a stark reminder to everyone that we all play a role in this emergency. In the theatre industry, it is no different. An industry that can capture the eyes and imagination of so many, through methods that are entirely unique, climate change is now at the forefront of many productions.

Whether it is behind the scenes, or in front of an audience, there are so many aspects in engaging audiences and communicating. Far from media attention on the issue, theatremakers today are employing innovative ways to get people concerned. Instead of fear, there is compassion. Instead of information, there’s activism. Green theatre isn’t just sustainable either, it’s damn fun.

At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, sustainable practice is at the fore of the entire festival. With available resources to help grow this side of the industry, the urgency of climate change is also on the stage.

Afloat tackles climate anxiety while focusing on who’s really responsible

Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan’s Afloat is one show taking on the issue. It is also one that communicates, not only the personal responsibility in climate change but the role of capitalism in influencing emissions.

“20 corporations are responsible for

huge contributions to climate change”

Afloat is Centred around two women, Debs and Bláithnaid, stuck on the top floor of Liberty Hall in Dublin after the climate apocalypse. Through the uneasy relationship between the two, comes the internal conflict in activism and the, sometimes, overwhelming climate anxiety.

“Going into Afloat, we really wanted to look into the personal guilt that’s felt,” said Eva O’Connor, speaking with Theatremaker.ie. “We’re often bombarded with messages like buy keep-cups and separate our recycling, when really, like 20 corporations are responsible for huge contributions to climate change.”

Fossil fuel industries have been funding major disinformation campaigns on climate change since the scientific consensus was reached in the late 1980s. “BP invented the term ‘carbon footprint,’ so that the onus was put on people,” said O’Connor.

According to pivotal academic work ‘America Misled,’ ExxonMobil – the major natural gas company – knew the effects of climate change and began orchestrating campaigns to, firstly, cast doubt on the science. In the mid-1990s, this changed to greenwashing; an approach that  stressed a care for the environment and casting responsibility on the individual rather than on corporations.

In writing Afloat with Hildegard Ryan, the pair came at the idea of “missing the bigger picture” by focusing on individual responsibility. Instead, as O’Connor says, in theatre  “the most powerful weapon you have is creating art that affects people.” In all theatre, and especially so for theatre focused on environmentalism, this weapon is used expertly by so many.

Biodiversity

Luke Casserly has been involved in some of the more innovative projects in green theatre over the last couple of years. Particularly, 1000 Miniature meadows captured audiences over the pandemic.

In a production that is described as “part writing, part sound, and part nationwide planting project,” Casserly and fellow maker Shanna May Breen encouraged audiences to plant indigenous flowers in their garden after sending seeds and instructions out in a letter.

Combined with the sounds of nature, talks with experts on biodiversity and, even a conversation with a bumblebee, this was an ambitious undertaking for the pair but a completely different way to engage with the climate crisis through performance.

“We invited the audience to step into nature close to their home, and plant their own wildflower meadows,” Casserly said. “It was about engaging with Irish biodiversity and the decline of our biodiversity, so we actively wanted to combat that by planting more wildflower meadows.”

Root By May Breen and Casserly is showing at Dublin Theatre Festival

May Breen and Casserly’s new project, Root, is available at Dublin Theatre Festival. Root looks to engage more with nature by looking at trees, and how they might communicate with people.

“[As part of Root] we planted a micro-forest of 1000 native trees in the centre of Ireland,” Casserly said on the incredibly ambitious project. “Through the project again, we’re offsetting the carbon emissions that are created through making the work by actively planting more trees.”

Changing conversations

Indeed, this is also a huge part of green theatre; sustainable practices behind the scenes. Combined with the overall message of theatre focused on environmentalism, this type of activism/ art has numerous people backstage working on methods to reduce waste and promote new practices.

Sinéad Wallace is a lighting designer and lecturer in the Lir Academy. Her work, including Mikel Murfi’s In Middletown, has adapted these sustainable practices but still believes there is some work to do.

“We’re still a little ways off from the mindset shift that’s required,” said Wallace. “We are really only beginning to have these conversations around the footprint of these shows, especially with the companies.”

In Middletown was held on a truck that toured Ireland. The work that went into cutting back the footprint of the show considering the energy requirements of the truck. For Wallace, this provided a good opportunity to begin opening conversations on energy use in the industry.

“I’m interested in changing the way we work so we can start embracing these new technologies and reduce the footprint or energy consumption,” Wallace said. “It was a practical solution, which helped, but we ran the show off one socket for a full production and it really was a low-energy show.”

These practices are, however, employed less than is to be expected in this emerging discipline. “A lot of times, thinking outside the box isn’t really a possibility as we have to use the cheapest materials from the cheapest of places,” Wallace said.

But simple solutions are coming into conversations more than before. For Luke Casserly, simply a repurposed set piece per production is something aimed for today. For Sinéad Wallace, “shared resources between smaller companies — shared space but also shared workshop and shared storage” are all innovative practices but ones simple to begin.

Again, the issue lies with money for many productions. Making greener solutions in theatre is a burgeoning practice, and theatres all across the world are focused on these issues. But conversations have just begun, let’s hope they continue in the right direction.

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