Acting up: Climate change cause needs performers' help

Preventing catastrophic climate change is the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced. Instead of being overwhelmed, the performing arts community has a leading part to play in imagining a sustainable future of rich and meaningful experiences.

Let’s not deny it, for many of us (myself included) climate change has slipped into the background over the last few years. It just seems too big for individuals to tackle. Media coverage of climate change news has fallen despite an increase in urgent stories and the extraordinary rise of social networking.

The performing arts is a tough sector to survive in, even at the best of times. Who has time for inconvenient truths when the wolf is at the door? But Bill McKibben’s recent visit to Australia, the stalling of international climate change talks in Bonn, the Australia 2050 Report and the Tipping Point Australia Forum might all be enough to rekindle our sector’s awareness of the big challenges.

The startling numbers

Climate change is a massive challenge for Australia, but outside of a few pockets of activity, our artists and companies show little sign of addressing climate change.

Yet, contrary to cliché, the statistics can’t speak for themselves. This month Bill McKibben, in a strange echo of Joseph Beuys’s 7000 Oaks project, said of the proposed new Queensland super mines: “If everyone in Australia set to work doing nothing but planting trees between now and the end of the century, I don’t think you would have enough trees to soak up the carbon that comes out of these new coal mines.”

The image of every Australian (including politicians) giving up their jobs to plant trees to undo the damage struck me cold. It is this the kind of image that inspires playwrights and song-smiths. What can we do in the face of such staggering statistics? Stop ignoring what’s going on and get creative. You just found the subject of your next project.

Climate on the stage

Lyndal Jones is one of Australia’s leading cross-disciplinary artists. Her current work, the 10-year Avoca Project, takes place in rural Victoria and brings together local, national and international experts with artists from around the globe to respond to climate change.

Jones has situated her practice in the local, a place where climate change effects are felt immediately. She was morally and artistically compelled to respond to the most pressing issue of our time and she brings her considerable catalysing energy to bear in the most unlikely centre for creative activity in Victoria. Yet the Avoca Project is changing things, not by providing the answer but by causing discussion.

The Malthouse Greenlight initiative is an excellent example of how a whole theatre can mobilise around sustainability. Responding to the challenge head-on, the company is transforming its culture, updating its physical infrastructure and is explicitly “supporting artists who address the realities of climate change in their artistic practice”. Malthouse has two climate change-themed shows in their Suitcase Series, Happiness (2010) and Tame (2012).

The highly successful 2012 dance piece Weather by Lucy Guerin Inc. was also the product of the company’s shift to sustainable practice, as well as Guerin’s own transformation in climate change awareness. She choreographed a mesmerising response to chaotic weather patterns on a set created entirely from plastic bags. The result was touchingly thought-provoking without being preachy.

Undoubtedly one of the leaders in this field is Angharad Wynne-Jones, creative producer at Arts House and director of Tipping Point Australia. Her imaginative programming firmly places the climate change debate front and centre. The Going Nowhere project created a space for artists and audiences to figure out new ways of collaborating that didn’t cost the earth.

While not all companies have responded as quickly or as thoroughly, many are causing debate through their programming. Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of the British play The Heretic raised the profile of the issue.

However, more can be done. Local responses to climate change need to be fostered, and all organisations must make the shift to sustainability if they wish to practise what they preach.

Experiences, not consumption, make you happy

Performing arts professionals are expert at creating experiences. Day in, day out we while away hours dreaming up new ways of bringing people together to share amazing experiences that vanish into thin air as soon as they are over. But it isn’t enough to make experiences for people to consume.

The performing arts can help shift our society’s greed for material accumulation towards a passion for experiencing things together meaningfully. We have a role as incubators of new ideas. These ideas will be found in the new plays, songs and dances emerging in response to our times. But critically the ideas will also come from hybrid events that engage people in new ways.

Let’s talk about how we can move away from mass consumption of cultural products to mass participation in their creation.

Far from being terrifying, responding to climate change can offer the performing arts new purpose. Wherever you are, it is time to join or start the conversation.

Robert Walton is a lecturer in Theatre at the University of Melbourne. This post originally appeared here.

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