Climate Change Theatre is LIT: A Study on the Performing Arts and Climate Change Engagement

Like many of us, I’ve spent a lot of time feeling disturbed, depressed, and defeated as the climate crisis grows. I’ve done a lot of soul searching to understand how I can transform my despair into something meaningful. Having long been fascinated and compelled by the power of art to command attention and inspire people to care about things, I wanted to study how this power could be wielded to encourage people to care about and act upon climate change. As a graduate student, I attempted to do just that. Ironically, the most significant thing I learned is that the true power of art isn’t something that one “wields” at all.

While enrolled in the Arts in Medicine master’s program at the University of Florida, I developed a keen interest in the arts in public health—an emerging field that promotes arts-based health communication strategies as a way to enhance health behavior engagement. Here’s an example of how that works: after watching a play in which a character’s life is destroyed by drug addiction, a person may be more convinced to make relevant healthy choices than if they’d attended a non-artistic lecture about substance abuse.

What about the arts leads to this kind of impact?

The answer may seem intuitively obvious, but I wanted to explore the concept through scientific inquiry. I chose to focus on the performing arts, with an emphasis on theatre. Specifically, my inquiry would address climate change—an issue that poses a public health crisis. I conducted my research in two ways: by reviewing academic literature and by interviewing professionals who work in theatre with climate change content. Gathering data from the field was incredibly valuable to my research, as the body of published work on climate change and the performing arts is small (but growing!).

Climate Change Theatre Action performance at the University of Colorado, fall 2017. Photo by Beth Osnes.

Findings from the Literature

A substantial amount of research has been done to understand why individuals and groups aren’t motivated to care about or act upon climate change. I looked at the most common barriers to climate change engagement alongside fundamental qualities of the performing arts that may be suited to address them.

1. Climate change is perceived as a distant, impersonal threat.

Many people don’t care about climate change because they don’t perceive it as a risk to themselves or the people they know. Considering the rise of floods, fires, and other climate-related disasters around the world, it likely won’t be long before this barrier is erased completely. In the meantime, how can the erroneous low-risk perception of climate change be addressed? Emotionplays a major role in the development of risk perception about climate change, and theatrical content about the issue can bring it to life in an emotionally evocative way. If theatregoers feel the risks and implications of climate change by becoming engrossed in a gripping narrative or experiencing empathy for a relatable character, they may develop a higher risk perception and become more engaged overall.

2. Climate change information is too abstract/complex to easily comprehend.

The causes, effects, and recommended responses to climate change can be confusing and difficult to grasp. People are unlikely to become engaged with issues they don’t understand. Due to their universal nature, the arts have a marvelous capacity to simplify complex information and overcome education and literacy barriers. In the theatre, audiences can relate to scenes of climate change and its implications via their own humanity, circumventing the need for the ability to grasp complex scientific concepts.

3. The issue of climate change is presented through a frame that is perceived as dissonant with an individual’s identity.

A person’s perception of climate change is influenced by their culture, attitudes, values, and beliefs. Information about the issue is unlikely to have an impact if it comes through a channel that misaligns with a person’s political, religious, or cultural identity. The most effective communication about climate change happens when the message is tailored to a target audience, and the arts offer a unique opportunity to do just that. With its rich use of cultural symbolism, theatre can channel climate change content through frames that resonate with specific audiences. The result can be a disarming of identity-based resistance to the issue and a greater potential for engagement.

4. Climate change engagement is not supported by social norms.

Social learning theory tells us that individuals come to adopt new beliefs and behaviors through observing and imitating others within their society. Throughout the world, behavioral engagement with climate change is not modeled as a social norm. In fact, most people don’t even talk about it! In the United States, the primary way people learn about climate change is through conversations with friends and family. However, over half of the Americans who consider climate change to be important rarely or never talk about itwith friends or family.

Theatre, on the other hand, sparks dialogue. Theatre with climate change content may therefore encourage conversations about climate change that would not otherwise happen. Additionally, by modeling examples of adaptive and mitigative responses to climate change, theatre can help to establish the social norms that are so sorely lacking in today’s society. Art has a rich history of reflecting and influencing the early stages of social change.

Julie Jesneck performs Whale Song by Chantal Bilodeau at the UArctic Congress in Helsinki, Finland, 2017. Photo by Veikko Somerpuro.

Findings from the Interviews

I interviewed pioneering professionals who create and/or produce theatre with climate change content, including: Chantal Bilodeau of the Arctic Cycle; Beth Osnes of Inside the Greenhouse and Shine; Jeremy Pickard of Superhero Clubhouse; and Peterson Toscano, a playwright, performer, and host of Citizens Climate Radio. The objective of the interviews was to gather information about the participants’ perspectives on why the performing arts may or may not be well suited to promoting climate change engagement, based on their unique experiences in the field. My analysis of the interview data suggests that there are three qualities of the performing arts that might lead to them promoting climate change engagement: that they are live, interpretive, and transformative. In other words, the performing arts are LIT. (I love saying that.)

Live

All participants spoke to the power of live performance to promote engagement with climate change, primarily due to the increased likelihood of emotional connection with content and empathy/identification with characters. One participant put it this way: “You’re literally watching physical bodies in play coming up against these challenges, solutions, ideas, disasters, whatever. So, you live the experience vicariously through the character.”

Some participants noted that live performance creates a shared experience for audience members, and that emotional engagement is amplified when it is experienced collectively.

Interpretive

According to the interview participants, in order for theatre to have the greatest possible impact in terms of promoting climate change engagement, it must remain interpretive and avoid being prescriptive. Audiences are resistant to content that urges them to think, feel, or behave in a specific way. There were several protests when I asked participants about the “message” they hoped that climate change theatre would impart to audiences.

One person said: “We do not try to convey messages, because that will not get you art. That gets you an advertising campaign.” Another said: “I don’t think anybody wants to go to a play where you’re going to be told how you need to feel. For one thing, it’s insulting because it assumes that you’re not thinking the right thing to start.”

Most participants didn’t want to define objectives for their work other than to inspire some form of critical thinking in audiences. It was mentioned that “using” theatre as a tool for behavior change is antithetical to the fundamental essence of art. Attempts to engineer the audience’s interpretation of artistic content can present an interference that diminishes pleasure, discourages critical thinking, and minimizes the very power that makes theatre engaging to begin with. When I asked about measuring and evaluating the impact that a piece of theatre has on an audience, one participant responded: “That would be like making out and being asked to take a survey afterwards.”

Yeah. I guess it kind of kills the magic. And, according to these pioneers in the field of climate change theatre, it’s that intangible, uncontrollable, and unpredictable magic that will bring about the miracles.

Transformative

About those miracles: although the participants were clear that they, as artists and producers, do not intend to prescribe ideas or behavior through their work, they heartily acknowledged the power of live theatre to have a transformative effect in the way that people perceive, think, and feel about climate change. One of the ways this can happen is when audiences experience a visceral encounter with previously abstract concepts. According to one participant: “Theatre can transport you to a different place—it can help you to imagine situations that you’ve never actually experienced yourself, or a future that doesn’t yet exist. Both dystopias and utopias.”

By making climate change and its implications real (or at least less abstract), theatre may provoke novel understandings and convictions, perhaps leading to increased engagement with the issue.

Participants spoke to how the performing arts can uniquely challenge and transform a person’s deeply seated values and beliefs by presenting ideas in a way that doesn’t trigger typical resistances. One person said:

The arts can communicate about climate in a way that’s more engaging—in a way that’s going to find unlikely inroads that hopefully won’t put people’s backs up against the wall in these kinds of normally identifying ways that put people in a binary of [either] pro or against.

Transformations in feelings, thoughts, and beliefs act as precursors to behavior change. So, while none of the participants work with the explicit goal of changing the behavior of their audiences, they acknowledge the unique power of the performing arts to promote the process of behavioral engagement with climate change.

JUPITER (a play about power). Created by Superhero Clubhouse. Produced by Superhero Clubhouse & Kaimera Productions.  Presented at La Mama, 2016.  Pictured (L-R): Jonathan Camuzeaux, Sarah Ellen Stephens, Jeremy Pickard. Photo by Theo Cote.

The Surprising Finding

Coming from an arts-in-public-health perspective, I figured my research would help define best practices for using the performing arts in climate change communication strategies. It’s true that the majority of my findings can be applied to the strategic or instrumental use of performing arts—except perhaps for one. The “interpretive” theme represents a resistance among artists and producers to use theatre as a medium for strategic communication. This distinguishes the work of those I interviewed from various forms of applied theatre that are specifically crafted in service of educational or behavioral objectives.

While I am still enthusiastic about the benefits of applying performing arts approaches to communication strategies, my findings suggest that it may be the absence of outcome objectives that gives theatre its greatest power to promote climate change engagement. There is a beautiful mystery to this power, and intentions to analyze it may be doomed from the start.

However, in the face of the climate crisis, we can’t afford to ignore powerful agents of change just because we can’t dissect their mechanisms. I hope my research makes a compelling argument that theatre has the potential to motivate people to care about and act upon climate change. Further research might explore how to maximize this valuable potential. Yes, climate change communication strategists should absolutely recognize that the performing arts can enhance their engagement strategies, and they should craft their efforts accordingly. And perhaps there is a need for innovative alliances between theatre artists and climate change engagement strategists. For example, strategists might support and promote the proliferation and accessibility of climate change theatre rather than dictate what it should convey and achieve. Maybe the key to maximizing the engaging power of the arts is to trust the artists and the art itself. It would seem that doing so gives us the best chance for the miracles we so desperately need.

(Top image: Flying Ace and the Storm of the Century! Created and Produced by Superhero Clubhouse, 2013. Pictured: Jeremy Pickard. Photo by Marina McClure.)

This article was originally published on HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community, on March 27, 2019.

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Carolyn Reeves holds an M.A. in Arts in Medicine, with a focus on Arts in Public Health. Her work includes: “Truth Comes Out”, a storytelling event for LGBTQ health equity; “Passionate Waters”, a performing and visual art show in celebration of World Water Day; and “Sunday Morning Soul”, a weekly dance event to promote individual and community health. Along with her academic and administrative affiliations with the arts, Carolyn is an actor and a singer/ songwriter. She lives in New Haven, CT.  

3 thoughts on “Climate Change Theatre is LIT: A Study on the Performing Arts and Climate Change Engagement

  1. The fact that theater do not treat the audience as passive recipients of information but rather as active recipients of information the whole process becomes engaging there by creating behaviour change.

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