Shaping New Climate Narratives: Why a Journalist/Historian Turned to Theatre for Climate Stories

Earlier this year, taking a front row seat at a church in Gary, Indiana, I watched as a young rapper, local food leader and an arts educator beguiled a standing-room-only audience with a theatrical envisioning of their city in the year 2030.

To the side of the stage, jazz legend Billy Foster and his trio added a lively soundtrack to the performance; a multi-media show reflected the images of their stories in the background.

To be sure, this “Ecopolis” performance was no simple task. After a short period of training, developing the script and rehearsing, the actors had to transform the sanctuary into a pop-up theatre and a community of the future in the minds of the audience.

Requiems for Gary’s demise have been written for years, where entrenched poverty and unemployment have left the city in ruins; where the strong scent of hydrocarbons still sting the cold night air. “The maw of that beast, the steel industry,” actor and urban farmer Walter Jones recounted, “takes up nine miles of lakefront.”

“Love song to the scarred lungs, my people bare,” performance poet Krystal Wilson rapped, “because in my city glocks ain’t got nothing on poison and hostile air.”

Gary Ecopolis. Photo by Jeff Biggers.

Departing on a journey through the Gary woods, on the edge of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the most biologically diverse regions in the nation, the local actors walked the audience on a trip from the city’s past as a once proud Steel City to a futurist rendering of Gary as a “regenerative city” in an age of climate change, re-envisioning ways to regenerate their energy, food, transportation, green enterprise zones and a circular economy, neighborhood by neighborhood, front yard garden by front yard garden, bakery by bakery, character by character.

After the performance, the audience convened for lunch outside, catered by urban farmers, where discussions were led by the actors and community organizers on various renewable energy and local food initiatives. Rarely had I encountered such an energy of determination and excitement for change as I experienced in Gary.

The pop-up theatre took the page to the stage–and into the daily lives of the participants. It literally gave everyone a seat at the table. By providing a vision of a regenerative future, and a roadmap of stories to reach it, the performance galvanized action on climate change in a very real way.

Gary Ecopolis. Photo by Jeff Biggers.

At a performance at the Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, upstream designs for a zero waste neighborhood were explained in the voice of Magali, standing in front of his row of veggies in a hoop house that looked like a quilt from Somali; carrots, peas, beans, bell peppers, potatoes, cabbage and cloves—what he called the Chicago Sambusa.

On the stage at Appalachian State University, a character walked us through the future Boone EcoDistrict, where retrofitted homes with green roofs and solar energy moved beyond doing less bad, and actually doing something that enhances rather than harms our environment. To give a new framework and vocabulary to our times – to begin the process of regeneration.

Ecopolis Iowa City. Photo by Miriam Alarcon Avila.

After years of filing hundreds of stories, blogs, and radio stories, writing several books and organizing community events, I founded the Climate Narrative Project in 2014 to ask how can we better inform ourselves on the growing peril of climate change and promote regenerative solutions.

In truth, I created the Climate Narrative Project out of a sense of failure. I had spent years – decades, really – investigating and chronicling the devastation of the coal industry on communities, miners and the environment, as well as its impact on carbon emissions. From Appalachia to Illinois to Black Mesa on the Dinetah (Navajo Nation) in Arizona to Montana and the 20 coal-mined states, a health and humanitarian crisis from the lethal fallout of decades of mining had raged under the auspices of flawed regulatory measures, blatant disregard for civil rights, and media indifference. Coal companies and barons who openly flaunted workplace safety and environmental laws walked away free. The cumulative effect of CO2 emissions from coal had altered our future with climate change.

We had simply failed to galvanize the necessary action to learn from our mistakes, atone for our regulatory disasters, and hold coal mining outlaws accountable. The same can be said for the rest of our fossil fuel industries and the political apparatus and ways that have allowed it to flourish.

In effect, while the science of climate change is clear, and abundantly available on campuses and communities across the nation, the art of communication for more sustainable ways of living, planning and development has yet to take the stage in an effective manner.

Bringing together science, the arts and humanities, I have found myself turning more often to the stage with actors who are also deeply engaged in the local arts, food, biodiversity, environmental justice and community development, in order to find new ways to communicate and galvanize action on climate change. Using local history and stories, we have “rooted” our Ecopolis stories on the stage with actors in major cities like Chicago and San Francisco, working with urban planners and arts organizations, and in small towns and college campuses across the Midwest, the South, Appalachia and the Southwest.

Collaborating with fellow artists in leading workshops in creative writing, film, theatre, visual arts and dance, we have worked with schools and communities to design new frameworks and media arts strategies for presenting climate solutions.

The goal: to shape a new climate change narrative.

“How can you be a catalyst for this regenerative city,” the actors asked the audience? “What is your role—and the role of artists, innovators, engineers, teachers, preachers, and entrepreneurs? What is growing in your garden? And can I walk there?”

It all begins with a vision. And a stage.

(Top image: Gary, Indiana.)

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Journalist, historian and playwright, Jeff Biggers is the founder of the Climate Narrative Project, and author of numerous books and plays, more recently Damnatio Memoriae: Una Commedia, and Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition.

3 thoughts on “Shaping New Climate Narratives: Why a Journalist/Historian Turned to Theatre for Climate Stories

  1. Jeff – – This is really inspiring. Your focus on local narratives and collaborative theater is what we need. I am in the process of creating an Art and Climate Action ‘exhibit’ at our local art gallery. This will be the first of what I hope will become an annual event (it will be in April around Earth Day). Bringing theatre and the spoken word into the gallery is what we need. Thank you for the inspiration. With gratitude, Evelyn

  2. Thanks Evelyn! Appreciated your excellent compost and photography piece. Should there be interest, we can always bring the Climate Narrative Project and Ecopolis shows to your area. Onward JB

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