How do you write a play about climate change? Ocean acidification? The Anthropocene mass extinction? As a playwright working with both eco-theatre and narrative traditions, I’ve found that many of the strategies we use to create narratives around the climate crisis are still drawn from ancient and classical models—which often feel entirely inadequate when addressing the scale and nature (if you’ll forgive the pun) of the issue. How do you write about a radical new moment, the stakes of which are nothing less than the future of your species (and many others) when the form you practice seems to resist the story you want to tell? And why does climate change feel so particularly resistant to narrative techniques?
A theory I’ve found personally useful is that put forward by novelist Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement. While illustrating how climate change is inextricably tied to the legacies of colonialism, industrialism, and capitalism, Ghosh links the modes of thought that emerged alongside these movements (rationalism, gradualism, realism) to our climate “aporia”: Our particular inability to even recognize, let alone respond to, the challenges posed by both climate change and its narrative representation. Though Ghosh is focused on the modern novel, with its careful construction of reality through bourgeois detail, and abhorrence of the “event”—he might just as well be speaking of the realist play, where verisimilitudinous settings and a focus on mundane detail create a similar tendency to view the uncanniness of climate change as improbable and therefore narratively suspect.*
Many contemporary theatrical responses to this climate “aporia” have fallen into two narrative tendencies: The cautionary and the informational. The informational responds to the “unbelieveability” of climate change narratives with the adage that “Truth is Stranger than Fiction”. Informational pieces rely on a claim to truth to offset our narrative bias against the uncanny event of climate change. Many employ research and journalistic strategies to reinforce this claim. Seasick, for example, intersperses playwright (and journalist) Alana Mitchell’s deeply personal monologues with scientific research collected during her exploration of the effects of ocean acidification. Annabel Soutar’s work in Seeds and The Watershed also relies heavily on journalistic strategies, piecing together the stories of particular climate struggles from verbatim interviews with residents of the affected areas, corporate representatives, climate scientists, and many others. Soutar’s layering of verbatim voices offers nuanced, multi-perspective portraits of a single situation, much in the vein of journalistic or quasi-journalistic productions like This American Life, or Serial.
The cautionary tendency, on the other hand, often uses more familiar theatrical tools—tropes and structures drawn from tragedy, elegy, and dystopia—to draw the focus towards the hubris of human responses, or the human consequences of a failure to engage. Jason Patrick Rothery’s Inside the Seed, for example, takes Oedipus, and recasts the doomed protagonist as a bio-tech CEO, and the plague on Thebes as the unintended side effects of genetic modification. E.M. Lewis’ Song of Extinction relies heavily upon the elegiac mode, with the loss of a parent becoming a metaphor through which we can emotionally grapple with the losses threatened by the Anthropocene Extinction.
Both tragedy and elegy, though—as Ursula K. Heise notes in Imagining Extinction—are inherently human-centric storytelling modes: We use tragedy to foreground the rise and fall of the human protagonist.** We mourn the loss of charismatic megafauna because we are mourning a shift in our own cultural identity, and ignore the very different stories that are happening for less easily anthropomorphized species. Heise suggests instead that the epic, with its multi-voiced, multi-perspective and often collective arc, and comedy, with its focus on the loss and regaining of equilibrium after upheaval, may help us to start telling new stories about extinction and climate change.
In order to address the complicated, intersectional storytelling needs arising from ecological crisis as subject matter, eco-theatre is pushing forward into collaborative, site-specific, and/or interdisciplinary work. For narrative playwrights like myself, a similar exploration is occurring, as we experiment with both classical forms and new strategies. Chantal Bilodeau’s Forward, for example, uses shifting time frames to illustrate the scale of the shifts in our climate and human responses to it. Plays like Karen Malpede’s Extreme Whether, and Byrony Lavery’s Slime, have begun to address ideas of interspecies justice through the inclusion of animals onstage, echoing Una Chaudhuri’s call for a type of interspecies dramaturgy in her Climate Lens Playbook. Each of these strategies is another attempt to move narrative playwrighting beyond the realist tendencies that foster climate aporia—and to better answer the question “How do you write a play about climate change?”
*While often laudable in their attempt to create empathy for the plight of the working class, or expose the hypocrisy of Victorian mores, early modernist climate works like Ibsen’s Enemy of the People tend to focus on human drama at a scale quite different from that of climate change.
**This seems related to the complaints that Chantal Bilodeau levels against classical structure in her article for Howlround, “Why I’m breaking up with Aristotle”, where she notes that the hierarchical focus of many classical pieces, with their emphasis on the rise and fall of the human (more often than not privileged white male) protagonist, mirrors the prioritization of the colonial experience and perspective that got us into this mess to begin with.
(Top image: The animal translators from Slime (l-r) Sophia Wolfe, Mason Temple, Teo Saefkow, Anais West, Pedro Chamale, Lisa Baran, and Edwardine van Wyk. Photo:Donald Lee.)
Portions of this article were originally presented as a paper entitled “Eco-Theatre and Storytelling Strategies in Climate Fiction” at the 2018 Earth Matters on Stage Festival in Anchorage, Alaska.
Jordan Hall is a playwright and screenwriter based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is the author of Kayak and How to Survive an Apocalypse. She is currently Playwright-in-Residence at Up in the Air Theatre, where she is developing her next play, A Brief History of Human Extinction, in collaboration with Mind of a Snail Puppet Theatre, for Up in The Air’s 2018 season at the Cultch. As a screenwriter, Jordan co-created Carmilla: The Series (Winner: CSA, Digital Fiction) for SmokeBomb Entertainment, and was Carmilla‘s lead writer for three seasons and subsequent movie. She teaches screenwriting at Capilano University.
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