Climate change in the spotlight: using performance to foster action

Climate change in the spotlight: using performance to foster action

By Richard Bater

How is it possible to spark a response to climate change that is proportionate to its importance? Perhaps it is the heart, and not the head, that holds the key. Gaia Global Circus is a theatrical experiment that simulates climate change on stage. Conceived by Bruno Latour, Pierre Daubigny, Chloé Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati, and funded by the French Ministry of Ecology, the production uses the flexibility and freedom of the stage to kindle an experience of a phenomenon that so often eludes perception.  The performance tries to overcome a common problem of climate change communication: that it is far easier to conceive of, and act on discrete, short-term events such as a flood; than to relate to multi-decadal trends.

A common reason for lack of action on climate change is its apparent distance from everyday, lived-experience. It is considered either as being too distant to warrant concern or too grand in scale to comprehend. The gaps in our ability to comprehend climate change, translate to meaningful gaps in our response to it. The gap between the knowledge that ‘we must adapt’ and the stakes of climate change, translates to similar gaps in the adaptation infrastructure that is required, and that supplied. All too often, our limited repertoire of concepts, language, and feelings with which we attempt to makes sense of it, constrain our understanding.

Gaia Global Circus, most recently performed at Mount Royal University (Canada), is part of a trend of scientific or technical spheres of knowledge recognising the interdependence of their practice and wider social values.  One recent publication examines the stakes of climate change for architects and architecture, and observes that “our environment is not just a resource to be managed or an externality to which we must adapt but one of the chief figurations of shared or contested cultural values.”

Similarly, the Luce Fund for Theological Education (of the Henry Luce Foundation) has recently awarded US$ 425,000 to the Methodist Theological School (based in Ohio, USA) to support the teaching of the ‘moral dimensions’ of climate change. Both interventions recognise that as integral as better infrastructure is to answering the pragmatics of climate change, there remains a hinterland of ethics and values that prefigure the character and scope of climate change action, by individuals and collectives. The science that underpins climate adaptation is inseparable from the engrained images and values that we work with in everyday habits and actions.

The main character in the play is climate itself, present in the form of a large, white silk canopy suspended from balloons, which respond to changes in the theatre’s atmosphere.  This symbolically places climate change as the central issue facing the planet. Four actors take turns – adopting the personalities of scientists, politicians, and others – giving voice to the inconsistencies, contradictions, and ironies of the speech and actions on the parts of the well-meaning and not.  The intent is not to condemn as such, but to invite collective reflection on climate change; on the stakes of inaction and the adequacy of the sum of our responses. Neither didactic nor catastrophist, the play doesn’t leave the audience numb with terror, but – through use of tragic-comedy and irony – with an appreciation of the issue that’s both accurate and actionable.

Above all, Gaia Global Circus reckons with a prevailing and under-addressed gap in responses to climate change, wherein even the most rigorous scientific data on the most portentous issue has yet to become a frame shaping everyday action. This perception gap in turn demands experience and mental tools for making-sense of the climate future and sparking action in the present; tools and experiences that the theatre is uniquely placed to fashion.  If climatologists have computerised scenario models for bridging past, present, and future; theatres have actors and scenery. The stage can enable these scenarios to come alive in ways that make oft-imperceptible characteristics of climate change, become comprehensible.  In communicating a forceful story of climate change – and inspiring citizens to ‘to be up to the task’ – the performance represents a powerful ally for advancing efforts to promote understanding and action.

Trailer (in French):

Cover photo by The Gaia Global Circus: press promotional poster

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