Fighting climate change is an urgent, universal endeavour – and theatre-makers and playwrights have a vital role to play, capturing the reality of an experience we’ve never faced before, and envisaging our responses to it.
Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare’s new book, 100 Plays to Save the World, is a guide to a hundred brilliant plays that address the climate crisis, from recent plays that tackle it directly, to classic texts in which ecological themes now ring out clearly.
Designed to start conversations, provoke debate and launch many future productions, 100 Plays to Save the World is a call to arms, a challenge to us all to unleash theatre’s power to imagine a better future into being.
Here, the authors explain why the great climate-change play already exists, and what theatre-makers can do to save the planet.
People often ask: where is the great climate-change play? The answer is it’s here, it has already been written, and quite possibly it was staring you in the face. Writers have for years been wrestling with the challenges the world now faces, but clarion calls from the past by visionary playwrights are only now being listened to. Extinction, extreme weather, resource shortages, failing political leadership, truth, denial – these things already exist in the playwriting culture. We just need a sharp new ear to tune into their resonances. In addition, new plays are being written every day dealing head-on with these topics.
We – artists, thinkers, creators – have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this emergency. The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting. The world is shape-shifting and our culture must too.
The Anthropocene is the name given to the geological age we are in now. Named after the Greek ‘anthropos’, meaning ‘man’, it was chosen to emphasise the truth that humankind has now left a geological footprint on this planet: radioactive isotopes are found in glacial ice; the high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are detectable in tree rings and limestone; our plastic waste is forming a new sedimentary layer. But still large swathes of the population opt out of believing in these facts. Why? We have to consider that the stories we tell, the way in which we tell them, and on which stages they are told, might be part of the problem. We urge theatre-makers and programmers to become part of the Theatre of the Anthropocene, telling stories that anticipate our future, acknowledge our past and make our present liveable.
Climate-change plays don’t need to be either scientist plays, dystopias, or have a polar bear in them. Some of the works we can now view in this light were written long before such a thing as a climate crisis was known about. Plays by Aristophanes, Chekhov, Brecht and others now seem eerily prescient when read through environmental eyes, both predicting and speaking directly to this moment. Some were written more recently but without an explicitly stated intention that the play addresses environmental issues. Relationships to nature, geopolitical issues, social consequences of environmental impacts; all of these help tell the story of the most pressing issue facing us today. Their relevance is a useful reminder that staging environmental stories is not just the responsibility of playwrights. Theatre-makers of every discipline – casting, design, acting, directing, stage management – must reimagine and reinterpret these plays through the prism of the present. The climate crisis is not one problem. Turning down the global thermostat won’t solve habitat destruction or reconnect people to the natural world.
Fighting the climate crisis is a global endeavour. There are voices and places under-represented – and we urge translators and commissioners to enable more work from the Global South to be heard. We need to acknowledge that the nature of our international theatre reveals our collective thinking, and that maybe our collective thinking is sleepily behind the curve. The world is reshaping itself violently in the physical realm and that is impacting on the reshaping of stories we need to tell, not just for now but for generations to come. This climate emergency will, in many ways, be the subject of all of our art for the foreseeable future, just as it ought to be the dominant discourse in our political, economic and social spheres.
Writers won’t just write plays about these issues for a short while, after a fashion, believing the crisis will then be over. This is our new reality. The shifts we make societally in the next decade will be with us forever, otherwise the undeniable truth is that the concept of forever will itself no longer exist.
The impact of the climate emergency is also altering the way that plays are written and for whom they are written. The movement of peoples has an impact on our stories, and the rise in the pitch of the voices that need to be heard has an impact on our listening.
We can no longer navel-gaze and clink our gins. We need to capture a reality that we have never experienced before. We need to unleash the power of a total theatre, an era of playwriting that embraces epic stories, and values playwrights’ intelligent, focused urgency and understanding. We need to exercise and stretch our thinking, widen our eyes, strengthen our neck muscles for the sustained looking up we now need to do. Theatre must imagine the future, and help us reach towards the bold, humane, quick thinking we are going to need.
This is an edited extract from 100 Plays to Save the World by Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare, out now, published by Nick Hern Books.
To buy your copy for just £11.99 plus p&p (rrp £14.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.
Elizabeth Freestone is a theatre director, creative consultant and environmentalist. She has directed plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, the Young Vic and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, amongst others. She is a former Artistic Director of Pentabus, a new work touring company. She offers strategic advice and creative and environmental consultancy in both a paid and volunteer capacity for various organisations, as well as teaching and mentoring young artists. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Humanities from Bath Spa University.
Jeanie O’Hare is a short-story writer, playwright and project consultant for theatre and film. She originally trained as a sculptor. She has worked for the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Druid Theatre, and was Chair of Playwriting at Yale School of Drama. Most recently she was the Director of New Work Development at the Public Theater in New York.