I think about time a lot these days. What it looks like (houseplants bending towards a sunny window), what it smells like (sourdough bread in the oven), how it moves (simultaneously so fast and so, so slow). I think about geological time. I think about our cultural chronophobia, fear of time. Time is like a riddle; it is infinite, but we are running out of it. At least, we are running out of time to save the world. At this writing, we have five years to cut carbon emissions in half. We have all but passed the threshold for two degrees of global warming. The science is unequivocal. It is imminent.
And yet, it’s not too late.
The climate crisis is only partly a scientific crisis. It is also a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a social crisis. Polls show that a majority of people believe in climate change. However, this belief has yet to translate into widespread, collective, systemic, transformational action. Why? Because climate change is also fundamentally a crisis of narrative. Atmospheric carbon dioxide doesn’t fit neatly into an Aristotelian plot structure. Glacial retreat doesn’t chart onto Freytag’s pyramid. The topic is too monolithic, too abstract, too ubiquitous to write about.
And yet, playwrights must find a way.
Life under quarantine has given us a potential preview of what theater might be like as climate change worsens and we are confined to our houses by natural disasters, unbreathable air, and relentless heat. But that future is not written in stone. There is still an opportunity to forfend a world of environmental devastation. And playwrights can play a key role in realizing that future. There is no one play or playwright that can take on the immensity of this story. Instead, we need a canon of climate plays, from playwrights of all subject positions and aesthetics. One story, one style, one subject cannot possibly capture the ubiquity of this crisis, but an entire generation of storytellers can. We can build an entire movement to reach audiences in every corner of the world, and at every point in their climate journey.
I’m not an idealist. I’m not even an optimist. I’m a pragmatist who really, really, really likes living on this planet. I also like traveling (huge carbon footprint), cheese (ditto), and making theater (so much waste). I think there’s a misconception that we have to live some impossible, waste-free life to make a difference. I do what I can. And one thing I can do is build worlds for the stage.
What makes a play ecological? Environmental theatre, or ecodrama, reckons with the impact of the climate crisis on every aspect of life as we know it. Here are a few guiding principles that I use in thinking about writing climate-conscious plays: asking the right questions, applying a climate justice lens, thinking about scope, and offering hope.
Humanist theater grapples with the question, “Who are we?” Ecological theater grapples with the question, “Where are we?” This idea comes from Una Chaudhuri and Theresa J. May, two performance theorists whose writings on eco-criticism have profoundly shaped my own thinking. I use ecodrama to explore the environment in my plays holistically, and to practice deanthropocentrism. (Deanthropocentrism simply means to challenge the belief that humans are at the center of the universe.) In my work, the environment is a character, sometimes literally. Lakes talk, and so do wildfires. Their voices are primal and their forces shape my work in playful, capricious, fundamental ways.
Environmental plays must be actively anti-racist, anti-sexist, inclusive, and accessible. Climate justice advocacy illuminates the climate crisis as inextricable with racism, economic injustice, gender-based oppression, and ableism. In 2019, Groundwater Arts, a climate justice theater organization, began working on a Green New Theatre framework. While its work is largely aimed towards producing practices, its tenets are useful for playwrights as well, particularly its call for artists to have a right relationship with land and history. Writing about climate change means interrogating the insidious structures of settler colonialism and “actively and deliberately dismantling white supremacy, including white savior and empty land narratives” (Tara Moses, Groundwater Arts).
Aesthetically, writing climate plays has given me the opportunity to explore the edges of time and space, form and content. This helps me avoid didacticism. Climate change lends itself to epic narratives about sweeping forces of history. But it also lends itself to quiet, real-time stories. I start with a contained narrative and an imposed structure in order to limit my scope. Yet within these self-imposed limitations, I’ve found tremendous freedom. I’ve written a play that spans the history of human beings in Antarctica and a one-person play about the connection between tidying and mass extinction. It also offers me the opportunity to dismantle binaries. As May observes, nature and culture are a false dichotomy. Both are constructs, and each one is the site of the other. Organically, as I undertook this work, I began to dismantle gender binaries in my writing as well. It’s all connected.
In “Greening the Theatre,” May writes: “[I]magination is an ecological force, and representation, in its many manifestations as stories, celebrations, and patterns of signification, is one of the ways people participate in their material/ecological condition… Stories are written in the land and in human and other bodies. Like air, water, food, and shelter, some stories sustain life; like toxic waste, some stories kill… The task of dismantling the stories that take us to war must be commensurate with the task of generating the possibilities of justice and sustainability.”
Ecodrama can’t only offer apocalyptic visions of future wastelands. Despair and hope are another binary that climate plays can dismantle. Hope is not absolute. It is not abstract. It is not a metaphor. It may have feathers and wings, if birds survive. Hope is material. It is a way of moving forward. It is what we must give our audiences, not so that they can experience catharsis or feel satisfied when the play is over. Hope lets our audiences know that when they leave the theater, their work begins.