‘Environmental collapse is playing out with frightening speed’
In the architecture studio where I work, we spend a lot of our time imagining a theatre that doesn’t exist yet – sometimes unbuilt, but mostly transformed from its current state. Our process always begins with a search for the narrative core around which we can wrap a bigger conversation, and without which any further decisions on physical form would feel arbitrary and ungrounded.
Talking to friends in theatre – by which I mean the whole complex ecosystem of freelancers, makers, artists and small organisations as well as the higher-profile players – it feels like a similar search is going on. The trauma of the pandemic and the powerful urgency of the Black Lives Matter campaign are prompting a deeper debate about who and what theatre is for, and which stories get to be told.
Meanwhile, the case for continued government life-support has been well made and seems irrefutable. If that happens, theatre will not only survive the crisis but can grasp this moment of re-evaluation to emerge in better shape, with greater reach and an expanded capacity to engage with the narratives that are shaping the future before our eyes.
Inextricable from social injustice, global inequality and threats to public health, the meta-narrative of environmental collapse is playing out with frightening speed and will increasingly come to dominate our lives. Without an immediate shift in our collective behaviour to reverse the depletion of Earth’s resources, a critical number of planetary tipping points are likely to be triggered, with catastrophic consequences.
The opportunity to take action has almost passed, and by the close of this momentous decade – the most important 10 years in our species’ short history – we will have set our future course. Either we will have slowed the rate of environmental collapse to a tolerable level by decarbonising our economy and repairing nature, or we will have consigned our older selves and our successors to the prospect of increasingly uncivilised, unjust and diminished lives.
Any rational society would now be busy mobilising, and yet our response is either hostility, tokenism, denial or depression. We have all the necessary knowledge and technology to find solutions, but we consistently fail to motivate ourselves to take necessary action despite the brave efforts of Extinction Rebellion and the work that organisations such as Culture Declares and Julie’s Bicycle are doing within theatre to raise awareness and advocate for change. Initiatives like these are aiming to spark enough engagement to bring about rapid system change, in the knowledge that nothing meaningful can happen as long as the global economic paradigm remains founded on gross inequality, resource extraction and endless growth.
The events of the past months have shown the speed with which previously unthinkable change can happen. Things are still moving fast, so can theatre use this opportunity to help build a vision, in economist Kate Raworth’s phrase, of “a safe and just space for humanity to prosper, within a thriving web of life”?
Any rational society would now be busy mobilising, and yet our response is either hostility, tokenism, denial or depression
Our greatest systems thinker, Donella Meadows at MIT, addressed this question – how to intervene most effectively in complex systems – in her seminal essay Leverage Points. Tinkering with metrics, rules and structures within the current system is relatively ineffective, she wrote.
At the top of her list is to change the whole paradigm by which the old system operates, and her advice on how to go about that is disarmingly simple: “In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.”
In this framing, the climate emergency is no less a consequence of global inequality and a failure of policy, but more fundamentally it is a failure of collective imagination and will.
The idea of a narrative paradigm shift is at the heart of the so-called Green New Deal movement, now gaining traction among progressive thinkers throughout the world. It proposes that government investment to kick-start the economy should be spent not in propping up the fossil-fuelled status quo but in making a rapid transition to a more regenerative and distributive economic model in time to confront environmental collapse.
Every part of society would be energised by a shared story and mobilised towards a common goal: equitably meeting humanity’s needs, without breaching planetary boundaries. If Meadows is right, none of this can happen without a fundamental shift of perspective and a clearly communicated vision of why change is so urgent. And if the need is for brilliant communicators to tell vivid stories and make manifest possible other worlds, theatre would not only be the financial beneficiary of a Green New Deal but an active protagonist.
What might a cultural Green New Deal look like? What if theatre can expand public understanding of the emergency, spark debate and showcase solutions? What if every building, organisation, support service and production is net zero-carbon within five years? What if travelling and touring is part of a mandatory net zero-carbon equation?
What if our theatre spaces are also teaching spaces, information exchanges, neighbourhood hubs, health centres, nurseries, libraries, pubs, citizens advice bureaus, counselling drop-in centres and local shops?
What if the theatre economy runs its own local food-growing network and rewilding projects? Or grows and harvests its own construction timber? What if theatre generates zero waste to landfill?
What if theatre is also expressly about building societal cohesion, kindness, emotional resilience and mutual care in the face of fear and division? What if theatre contributes more to the natural world than it extracts?
What if helping to avert environmental collapse and promoting social and climate justice are theatre’s top priorities for the next decade? What if government investment depends on all these things happening? And what if theatre takes the initiative?
Steve Tompkins is a founding director of architects Haworth Tompkins and a co-founder of the environmental group Architects Declare (now Construction Declares), which currently has more than 5,000 signatory organisations in 23 countries
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.