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Theatre Meets Environmental Activism

Elspeth Tilley, professor of theatre and creative activism at New Zealand’s Massey University, as well as director, playwright, and actor, discusses where theatre meets climate change activism in light of the recently signed Paris Agreement. In her Theatre in the Age of Climate Change: An Educator’s View she addresses the question: How can we, theatre artists, use our own skills and creativity to contribute to the end of global warming?

This article came at a funny time for me, actually. Just yesterday, as I walked through the Environmental Science section of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), I silently panicked about what the multiple posters, screens, and quotes told me in boldface: 7,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed per day. I did some more research to make sure I hadn’t pulled that number out of a hat in recollection, and learned that the number may actually be very much north of 7,000: We are losing about 80,000 acres of rainforest every day. AHHHHHHHASDFGHJKLPOIUYTREW!

As I walked down CAS I thought, “But I’m a theatre artist. How can my art help the environment? Am I choosing art over the environment?” Turns out there’s quite a bit I can do for the environment as a theatre artist, and that art and the environment don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I have Elspeth Tilley to thank for elucidating this.

In Tilley’s article she introduces an exercise she did with students at a 2016 conference for young people called Create1World — a paper plane exercise consisting of three parts. First, she asks her students to make eye contact with another student then throw the plane into the air, next she says to throw the planes high into the air and “collect as many planes as you can! The person with most planes win!,” then, finally, she asks her students to throw their planes into the air and collectively keep them afloat, not letting them touch the ground. She asks her students to describe each phase. The first, they say, is “cooperative” and “connecting,” the second is “greedy,” the third is “collaborative” and “achieving something bigger together.” “Which was most fun?” she asks. Phase three wins, and phase two felt “‘divisive, isolating, just ‘wrong’ somehow.”

Tilley asks how we are currently running the planet and distributing its resources. The students unanimously choose phase two as the winner. But, it shouldn’t be this way, considering it “damages planes, hurts group relationships, and creates inequality.” Tilley’s students took what they gained from the exercise, as well as conversations had with professional activist artists at the conference, and brainstormed ideas about creativity and social change to be presented to political leaders.

Tilley discusses the idea of theatre as a tool to expose untruths. And a tool to imagine a different future and, thereby, incite action towards climate rehabilitation. She offers the quote:

“Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to.” — Willem Dafoe

At Massey University Tilley works in a social justice studies curriculum that asks students to “Perform the change you want to see.” As a theatre artist I have the special opportunity to not only be the change I wish to see in the world, but present that change to audiences. This sparks thinking, conversation, and, hopefully, community action towards mending the problem at hand.

In addition to this, theatre has the power to bring people together to address a common issue, as in the case of Climate Change Theatre Actionself-described as a series of worldwide readings and performances in support of the UN 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Artists from multiple countries and cultures across the globe came together in climate change activism.

Tilley also reminded me that social change requires creativity, it requires jumping outside the box and seeing just how beautiful that place is. Idealism isn’t hippie-dippie; it’s progress. Idealist ideas can be practically implemented. But first we must tap into our creativity to find solutions.

“Creativity and imagination will be essential to envisioning and developing alternatives to the systems, structures, and processes that are presently failing us.” Alfonso Montuori

For more on Elspeth Tilley: http://howlround.com/authors/elspeth-tilley


About gbfontenele

Director and dramaturg in training. Free spirit and questioner from the beginning.

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