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Magazine — 14.04.21

How Theatre Can Be Used For Climate Justice

Throughout history, the theatre has been representative of the era the production was created in. In the Western World, we often grew up reading plays by the same people: Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, and Henrik Ibsen, to name a few. Before populations were literate, the theatre was one of the only forms of entertainment. And thus, the themes in these plays were quite influential. Throughout theatrical history across the world, we see troupes and nomads putting on performances to spread information and beliefs, pass on stories, and provide entertainment.

As much as we may deny the pivotal role of theatre in society during the contemporary era, we can look at some examples of plays that have entered the mainstream: Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Hadestown. All of these plays have addressed social issues in a particular way, whether it’s mental health, diversity in casting, or the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of wealth and alleviating poverty. So why can’t we utilize it to address a plethora of different problems, such as climate change?

Theatre is a genre that is meant to be consumed live. It doesn’t have the same impact as, say, watching a production in your living room. It’s not a film that can be enjoyed anywhere at any time. And, unlike a film, it delivers a specific emotional impact because there is an actual person standing right in front of you. You cannot deny their pain because you, too, are absorbed and living in that moment of pain. This is something a documentary or movie about the same issues cannot replicate. One cannot say that watching a woman fall to her knees and weep before your eyes has the same impact as watching her do it through a screen.

Before theatres themselves can address the issues and impacts brought upon us by climate change, it needs a new generation of playwrights to cultivate these ideas. The personal experiences with it need to, essentially, become political. Instead of making the outside world exotic in a set, make it an integral part of character interactions. Make decay of the world a key part of the plot point, in a way that is relatable to what we’re experiencing right now.

While the content itself is important to note, let’s talk about the act of producing a play. The lighting, the costumes, the building of a set that is intended to be destroyed later—this in itself is a harmful process. First, what needs to be avoided the most is the creation of new products. Reusing costumes and parts of the set plays a critical role in sustainable practices in the theatre world. Even outsourcing these products from other non-theatre-related organizations is an option.

If new sets or props need to be made for production, set designers can look to materials that are reusable, such as batteries or modular furniture, water-based paints, and avoiding PVC tape. By configuring the lighting setups in a specific manner, the desired lighting can potentially be done with less. And, a location that has become more prominent with the onset of the pandemic, an excellent idea is practicing outdoors with natural lighting. Outdoor theatre can be one of the most sustainable options when it comes to lighting decisions, especially when it can be done during the day.

Theatre has a unique power that cannot be replicated in art, other forms of literature, or film. We need to start talking about what it can do to help us combat the ongoing crisis to enact actual sustainable change. Throughout history we can see it rising to combat the most prominent social issues of the time, leading to grassroots movements and organized change–and now’s the perfect time to harness this power for environmental change.

Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a writer and artist based in Baltimore and New York City. Her work often deals with intergenerational trauma, utilizing cinema from a cultural, sociological, and socioeconomic lens, and the impacts of urbanism and loneliness. An undergraduate at the Fashion Institute of Technology studying International Trade, she hopes to advocate for sustainable and ethical practices in the global marketplace.

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