I started my research for this article already in a deep state of overwhelm. Truthfully, I sometimes avoid climate data and information because it leaves me with an intense despair followed by romanticising and imagining a past I could’ve shared with nature had I not been born so late in the anthropocene. I am an urban millennial woman, I live on the Internet, I bought cotton earbuds yesterday, despite having seen this viral image of a seahorse clutching onto it. Imagining a real solution to the End of the World seems so futile against the grander scales of human production and the whole, entire Earth. What can I possibly do about it? I’m a theatre-maker, I make plays, and the clock is ticking constantly… What can theatre possibly do about it?
When I underwent my training in drama school, for the first time in my life I had an extension to me. My ensemble was an extension of myself, we blended and fused into a small community that sensed each other, discovered empathy for one another, and created plays despite our differences. Intrinsically, theatre and drama have the ability to open people’s minds to ideas outside of them.
Tushar Mathew, a theatre educator, trained previously at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre amidst breathtakingly diverse ecosystems in California. At Dell’Arte, the forces of nature are integrated into the curriculum, and actors learn from the outdoors as much as they do from each other and within, while consistently making stories and theatre that are aware of the environment and community around them.
Back in India now, Tushar is developing and testing similar pedagogy for students at the Drama School Mumbai—developing nature-based learning exercises, an eco-political lens, and hopes to create a theatre pedagogy that is in tandem with Ecological studies. In the hybrid learning model at the DSM, students learn online for the first half of the year, where they have the time and space for tactile learning. Tushar encourages his students to just observe nature—the way flora and fauna move, breathe, feel, communicate, behave. It is important to discover a sense of play in a classroom, and learning from the natural world, the ways in which different species play, helps actors develop a second circle gaze. For Tushar, developing this external gaze that then goes inward is important because, “It pulls you out of habits where you focus solely on the self. Crafting through what is happening around you changes you, and changes your priorities.”
At the intersection of theatre and climate change
Playwright Abhishek Majumdar spoke about how the focus humans place on themselves has led to a world that is entirely production-focused. The urban world is utilitarian, in that we live and work to be more productive, whereas in rural life every moment is not about, “How productive can I be right now?” Abhishek asks the question, “Why does the fisherman not exploit the ocean?”
There is an inherent sense of power that humans exercise upon each other and the environment—even when we speak of solutions to climate change, we push the narrative that stops exploiting the environment only because it will be good for us. But which “us”? The effects of climate change are already making themselves known to us, rapidly in some places, slow in others, and for privileged folk in big cities, these effects are cushioned by the access that money can bring.
Nayantara Nayar, a creative writing PhD student at the University of East Anglia and a resident of Chennai, speaks about the 2019 water crisis in Chennai. While the running water supply in her neighbourhood was accessible only two times per day, she did not have to stand in line for five hours every day for just one bucket of water. Nayantara reflects on access by acknowledging that, “We have infrastructure benefit. With the kind of access that we have today, we don’t question why we have access, or how we have access. So then it’s very difficult to imagine people without that same access and why they don’t have it. And it’s very difficult to imagine how your access might be stopping others from having access.”
In Chennai, access to clean drinking water has been obstructed by construction for urban expansion, which is often seen as a marker of “development”. Nayantara questions what we consider to be development. Construction for the building of expensive housing which adds aesthetic to the cityspace is regarded as development, rather than developing innovative, sustainable, affordable access to natural resources.
In her doctoral work, Nayantara is studying the intersections of climate change and theatre by creating scripts and also conducting location-specific geographical research about water crises in Tamil Nadu. In her readings, she found a huge volume of existing, heavily researched data about water systems and crisis in the region. “But none of it had created interesting, creative work. So I thought it would be really interesting to take some of this research and see what I can do with it on a stage, with a script of some kind.” Nayantara very much wants to make theatre that is rooted in her geography and community.
Similarly, Meghana AT, a theatre practitioner based in Mumbai, also creates theatrical work that is rooted in her own city. Plan B/C/D/E is a piece of theatre that disseminates and contextualises the complexity, unpredictability, and confusion around scientific data about the climate crisis. The show pushes Mumbaikars to think about their futures selfishly, to question how rising sea levels in Mumbai could render huge parts of the city underwater, to confront how Meghana’s own theatre career may not exist if Prithvi Theatre drowns in the apocalypse. The audience then brainstorms together to find solutions for theatre to exist in Mumbai in 2050. In Plan B/C/D/E, Meghana transforms the image of climate change from being an asteroid hurtling through space directly at us that we can do nothing about, to a friendly neighbourhood monster that we can somehow make peace and live with. In previous versions of the show, Meghana felt that she was leaving audiences with a sense of doom and climate anxiety. She does not want to do that anymore: “I want to find the balance between giving insights about climate change without activating climate doom, especially when the current news cycle of hate, oppression, and genocide in the country and the world are also stressors on our collective mental health.”
Can theatre do something about climate change?
So what can theatre actually do about something so big and certain as the climate crisis? For Aruna Ganesh Ram, director of Under Pressure, it was making a play that questions how an individual’s choice affects our collective relationship with the Earth. “Making climate theatre is about presenting perspectives, triggering an eco-conscious, using imagination, surrealism, and abstract ideas to uncover something more universal.” Under Pressure questions the dynamics of the relationship between the Human, the Earth, and the Polymer, while also confronting the audience with their own waste.
Himali Kothari and Nikhil Katara, co-founders of Readings in the Shed, wrote commissioned short plays for Climate Change Theatre Action in 2021. Started by Elain Ávila, Chantal Bioldeau, Roberta Levitow, and Caridad Svich, CCTA has developed into a US-Canada collaboration by The Arctic Cycle and the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. An immediate and urgent response to the crisis, every alternate year the CCTA commissions the writing of fifty short plays by playwrights from all over the world. This creates a whole bank of varied climate-related theatre that is localised to diverse geographical regions. Nikhil says that writing for the CCTA expanded his understanding of climate change, “It is just a holistic term for geographically localised disruptions in the climate and their ramifications. Even with the macro crisis, there are micro issues that are located in niche geographies. And in those microsystems, there are success stories.” For Himali, theatre is fundamentally about engaging audiences by bringing to the stage that may be hidden, she says that, “Theatre is an honest agreement to write about things that bother us. It invariably leads to a dialogue and has the ability to get the message out there.” And while Meghana doesn’t believe that one art piece can change anybody’s mind, theatre and storytelling can add nuance, it can inform, push people over the fence, and deepen perspectives. And maybe that’s where real power comes from.
Maybe it’s the power of storytelling that can save us. As more playwrights and theatre-makers engage with the climate crisis, and create complex characters, create fictional regular people who aren’t fighting climate change through the metaphor of a Godzilla, but are being creative, smart, and interacting with differing moralities to find solutions to the climate problem, more people will make the reality of the climate crisis an actual, manageable narrative in their heads. By creating complexity, people, and situations we identify with, we create stories that help us confront the difficulty of the situation in front of us. Eventually, it may turn out that the age-old tradition of stories is what will help us in drastic uncertainty.