Between a Riot and a Rhyme: Positioning Theater in Climate Conversations

Superhero Clubhouse's Co-Director, Lanxing Fu, discusses how theatre might be uniquely positioned to spark action and expand conversations around climate change issues.

In November, I attended the Climate Change Theater Action kickoff event, an initiative that enlisted playwrights from the world over to explore the phenomenon of climate change—an unprecedented, global challenge that demands a collective shift in practice, in culture, in consciousness. I entered the evening anticipating a plethora of sweet and surprising fruits from the labor of these artists. What I found was writing that spoke with humor and with horror of the events unfolding in our world, lyrical, evocative imagery illustrating our relationship to the natural world around us, and attempts to personify the looming feelings of fear, doubt, and gratitude in the face of radical change. I felt buoyed by the gathering of many ages and backgrounds; honored to be a part of the swell of minds and voices that diving head first into these essential questions, to explore, and create space for answers and for beauty. Yet, I was left wanting more.

The answer to what I wanted more of lies in the question—why is theater an effective tool in confronting climate change?

We can only build what we can imagine—a stroke of common sense that carries strong implications for our role as artists. In the course of human history, we are among the earliest pioneers in the world of manifest thoughts, or rather, a mostly man-made environment. Jerry Mander wrote that we live primarily inside projections of our own minds. Our environment is the actualization of our own and other humans’ thought processes. The room I am writing from now sits about 20 feet above the ground, resting on beams of wood and walls of plaster. Beneath the ground, there are methodical whorling tunnels carrying water, thick cords of electricity, waste, steam, and people. When I leave these walls, there are rules outside for where I walk, when I am still, whom I speak to, and what I see.  We move in interlocking patterns of our own design, churning out ideas as objects, making the world as we move. In our own vernacular, we are ecosystem engineers. Even beyond the physical world; we are builders of systems of thought and patterns of behavior. This gives me great hope.

We wield such power. We realize abstract thoughts and values as concrete systems. We create worlds by telling stories.  To me, the act of making theater is the act of inventing the future. That is why we need it to confront climate change. That is why I want more. Without knowing the answer, I wonder if there is a way we can make theater on climate change that does not reduce it to a political issue to take a stance on; that does not rail about the plight of this or that megafauna that will go extinct; or trumpet a fiery call to arms, covering everyone alive with sin and shame.

Climate change is an absolutely universal phenomenon. Because of this, the crisis bores deep into our established modes being, and the map of how our world is affected is richly complex.  It is the first time that collectively, as a unified planet, we must attend to what we are doing and how we are living. The enormity of the ecological change we are experiencing demands an inquisition of what we have engineered—our politics, our grounding philosophies, our homes, our social networks, our economic structures, and most importantly the relationship between those and all things. I want plays that embody those questions; that manifest the sensation of asking. I want plays with characters that do not exist as a function of a topic, but as people recognizable to us who are working though those challenges. I want stories that do not state, or teach, or distract—but ones that investigate and propose and dream.

Stories have always been the way that humans make meaning of the world, and the form they take should serve current needs. What we need now is something of a cross between myth and mystery novel, somewhere on the scale between a riot and a rhyme. This calls for us as artists to be expansive. We must learn more, to know more, to tease out all the complexities of the climate crisis. We need to be the translators, the space-makers, the story spinners furiously sketching out maps as we hurtle forward in time. We must engage communities as diverse as the world is in our art and our art making. We must hold space for interactions that unlock the potential of all brilliant minds, building together a future out of the degradation and slow steady violence of this global crisis. We need to construct visions that transcend current possibility.

So I ask more of myself, and I ask more of my fellow artists. I am uplifted by the energy and force behind Climate Change Theater Action, part of a larger movement called ArtCOP21: a global festival of cultural activity on climate change in support of the Paris COP21 conference. The organizers and writers of this event began a necessary conversation about climate change with exemplary enthusiasm and vision. Well done—I am grateful to have been witness to your work. Now, how can we do better? What more can we do?

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