Theatre Critic and Journalist

LIFT Blog: The Climate for Theatre

LIFT Blog: The Climate for Theatre

Published on LIFT blog, July 2010

I’ll start with the unspeakable. My feelings on theatre about climate change are not dissimilar to Charles Spencer’s opinion of Mother Courage: “Here she comes again, Mother Courage and her bloody cart, condemning audiences to three-and-a-quarter hours of hectoring lectures, unrepentant Marxism, tiresome alienation devices and a bucketful of condensed misery. It is enough to make you pull the duvet over your head and turn your face to the wall.”

That, I suppose, makes me a major element of last Thursday’s LIFT Talk at the ICA, entitled The Climate for Theatre. For the most part, the conversation circled the relationship of practitioners to a subject, dubbed, I suspect, with a hint of bias: “the biggest issue of our time.” Why isn’t there more theatre tackling the issue? Is theatre an appropriate medium for this particular message? How does theatre make a difference? Does it?

What struck me, however, was the reluctance to turn the topic on its head and consider us: the audience. After all, when theatre plays to an empty space, it’s quite unlikely to have an effect or spread a message. Alongside that, in its most conventional form (i.e. playing in an auditorium to an audience of necessarily limited numbers), theatre can only speak directly to its audience. Any message, any cause, is contained by that limitation. Beyond that, the audience must freely choose to attend of their own accord. Theatre cannot frog-march us into an auditorium. The best it can do is to attract us, like moths to a light. The implication, therefore, is that it can theatre can only attract those pre-disposed to it, just as moths are drawn to light by nature. Theatre that wears its message publicly, as part of, say, its marketing campaign, will inevitably find itself preaching to the converted.

If theatre wants to tackle climate change, it must ask itself how it can attract people like me. If it is intent of sticking with the conventional format, that probably gives it three options. The first is purely a question of quality, that is, by becoming a ‘must see,’ a piece of theatre will attract an audience regardless of content. The second and third are less palatable, either to sugar the pill or to disguise it like a mother chopping vegetables into imperceptible slivers to ‘health up’ a sauce. My reservation, I suppose, is that this seems to involve tricking audiences into the auditorium.

The upshot of this is that if theatre wants to spread a message – whether climate change or otherwise – it needs to leave the auditorium. It can’t afford to wait for an audience to come it’s way; it must go to the audience. After all, weren’t we talking about this select sliver of 40,000 when discussing The Epic and the Intimate. Doesn’t that seem miniscule in the face of a disintegrating planet? For all that I baulked – like a good, little champagne socialist – at John Jordan’s description of the disruption of a power plant, I share his basic philosophy that, in order to really make a difference, theatre needs to happen in the real world. Or, to put it another way, it must stop acting and start acting. The question is at what point does it stop being theatre?

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