Climate change requires an urgent and radical reconsideration of the relationship between humans and the earth, how we live and how we shape, and are shaped by, the more-than-human world. This calls for a close examination of how climate change intensifies inequalities and injustices, falling along familiar patterns of vulnerability and marginalisation: race, gender, class, disability, social mobility, political capital and colonisation. My research on arts and ecology asks questions about how theatre and performance embody, reveal and intervene in these inequalities in a climate-changed world.

In my monograph, Ecodramaturgies: Theatre, Performance and Climate Change (Palgrave 2020), I argue that theatre and performance can offer new frames of thinking, feeling and viewing, or tell/show us something about our current ecological situation. Theatre and performance can speak to critical socio-political and ecological contexts and issues in imaginative ways, particularly in light of climate and environmental inequalities and injustices.

Common Salt by Sheila Ghelani and Sue Palmer, Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), Reading, 2020. Photo: Amie Cliffen, courtesy of Sheila Ghelani and Sue Palmer.

Dramaturgy is about the systems, structures, symbols and narratives that create meaning in theatre and performance. Ecodramaturgies are a way of understanding how theatre practices make ecological meaning and interact with the material more-than-human world, attendant to the different experiences, complexities and injustices that entails.

Ecodramaturgies addresses a gap by exposing a series of interconnected ecological problems and injustices that are often hidden, erased or simplified. Ecological issues are often presented in a homogenous way, based on a narrative of a singular problem in need of a ‘solution’. The issues are regularly whitewashed and patriarchal, shaped in relation to certain bodies and identities. Cultural works, such as theatre and performance, can reproduce these problems by creating an image of ecological work as ‘green and pleasant’, middle class, white, singular and reductive. In order to address this, I drew on an intersectional understanding of ecology to expose the complexity and interlinked issues of oppressions and injustices.

I argue that theatre and performance can reflect blind spots and exclusions, nuance ecological ideas and conversations, ask questions and problematise dominant modes of representation. This allows for exploration of timely ecological questions, including persistent issues such as environmental justice, urbanisation, reductive images associated with whitewashing climate change and the way in which race, class, gender, disability and colonialism produce ecological contexts and effects. My approach of intersectional ecologies asks who is affected and marginalised, and whose voice or perspective is being heard and whose is being erased in cultural works.

The 21 theatre and performance works detailed in the book are performance events, practices and plays that engage with ecology, thematically, experientially and/or performatively. In the broadest terms, these works prompt the audience to consider ecological relationships through the content, form and/or the experience of the performance. This encompasses theatrical performance, eco-activism, text-based performance, dance, live art, installation and film.

These works include a show-and-tell museum performance about the connections between salt and British colonialism in India (Common Salt, Ghelani and Palmer, 2019); a monologue about a personal journey retracing the transatlantic slave trade (Salt, Thompson, 2019); a play about women rising up against the exploitation by oil companies in the Niger Delta (Then She Said It, Onwueme, 2002); an art film that follows a man in a polar bear costume as he walks from the Arctic to East London (It’s the Skin You’re Living In, Fevered Sleep, 2013); a solo performance connecting GM corn in Mexico to the colonisation of Indigenous peoples’ bodies (NK603: Action for Performer & e-Maiz, Luna, 2014); a large-scale re-enactment of a world climate change conference in Germany where each audience member represents a different country (World Climate Change Conference, Rimini Protokoll, 2014); an outdoor performance installation of a living room made of edible plants (Trans-Plantable Living Room, Beer/Plantable, 2013); a play about the mudslides in Bangladesh infiltrating the New York apartment of an art curator making a piece of climate change refugees (Carla and Lewis, Enelow, 2014); Indigenous performance protests Idle No More (2012) and NoDAPL (2016); and an interactive performance in the basement of the Barbican to plan a future based on climate justice (WE KNOW NOT WHAT WE MAY BE, Metis Arts, 2018).

In my development of ecodramaturgies, I analysed these works based on questions of site, text, spectatorship, representation, cultural context, form, participation, scenography and space from an intersectional ecological point of view. Theatre and performance are a part of wider cultural responses to rapidly changing ecological realities and the fatal effects of climate change. Artistic and cultural practices and interventions are crucial to both understanding the complexities and injustices of our current context and imagining alternatives or what resistance might look like.

Lisa Woynarski is a Lecturer in the Department of Film, Theatre and Television and was awarded the Research Output Prize for Early Career Researchers 2021 for the Heritage and Creativity research theme.

The prize was awarded for for her monograph, Ecodramaturgies: Theatre, Performance and Climate Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).