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The Directory debate

Why are there no plays about climate change? We asked that question in June 2005, inviting seven experts to our London office to discuss it.

A lot has changed since then. The growing list of productions that address climate change issues can be seen on our Directory.

Although some of that 2005 discussion has been superceded by events, there were ideas expressed that continue to have importance: how to make these plays meaningful for young people and adults; the balance of science and emotion; and what makes a good story.

Here is an edited version of that conversation. You can read the whole article on our Archives page.

Around the table were:

    Dawn Bishop, Policy Officer, Council for Environmental Education (CEE no longer exists)
    Emma Dunton, Executive Producer, Actor’s Touring Company
    Kevin Graal, storyteller, Talking Tales
    Caspar Henderson, journalist
    Anthony Koncsol, Director, Konflux Theatre-in-Education
    Pete Rogers, new media artist
    Miranda Thain, Director, Konflux Theatre-in-Education
Miranda With climate change, it’s such a huge topic on a global scale, we’re confronted with the problem of how we can make it relevant and real to younger children. How can you explain climate change to a five-year-old in an hour? How could they make any difference?

Anthony

As a learning-through-theatre company, where do we come in on this? Do we go for the immediate impact? Or do we go for planting the seed for children in the hope that in 20 years time they will want to become actively involved in actually making a change? If that’s not too late.

Kevin You’ve got to grab their attention and make the thing concrete. I use traditional stories, creation myths, legends and folktales from around the world. There’s a traditional story for every situation, for every theme.

I’m sure that the place to start is with very young children. You have to start as early as possible to educate a generation of children who will have the vocabulary in their grasp. They are the five-year-olds at your shows now. When they’re older, when they’re in their sixties and seventies, the shit really will have hit the fan. And then they’ll be more likely to act, or pressure their politicians to act, when they become citizens. And I don’t think we need to wait until they are teenagers or they are intellectually capable.

Dawn I was looking at the resources that other larger environmental organizations, like Greenpeace, WWF, and Friends of the Earth, choose for teachers. They produce loads of good stuff. But the thing that shocked me is that it’s all science and geography. There is nothing for art teachers or drama teachers. There’s no encouragement for art or drama teachers to work with many of these issues. They can be very emotive issues and can certainly produce imaginative works of art.

Why are these organisations limiting themselves to making it so factual? Because ultimately climate change is an emotive thing. It’s looking at what we value and whether we want to preserve it. We’re all going to be affected by it, and we’re all contributing to it.

Kevin

Sometimes the way to go is through metaphor and allegory. If you want to get children to understand how sacred the land is, then you can tell them myths and stories about baddy characters who desecrated the landscape, and then had really heavy things happen to them. That fires them up. There’s no end of stories about what happened to people who desecrate trees.

I recently discovered this wonderful Greek myth. A king destroys the Earth Goddess’ tree. So the goddess sends the spirits out to the north to get famine to visit him. Famine breathes into his nostrils and he wakes up absolutely starving and nothing he eats will satisfy him. In the end, he eats himself, he consumes his own flesh.

It’s an unforgettable image of what we’re doing. We’re consuming ourselves. Something like that, which is not agitprop or didactic, grabs children. Maybe that’s something for a smaller child, but they’ll remember it. Later on, when someone’s talking about trees, they’ll have that imagery in their mind.

Erysichthon and the Sacred Tree
The king in classical Greek mythology who desecrated the sacred tree of Demeter, the Earth Goddess, and suffered those terrible consequences was Erysichthon.

Kevin Graal presents the story and its sources in a short feature here on:
Stories to tell: Erysichton and the Sacred Tree.

Professor Marina Warner also chooses Erysichthon, noted here on the Editor's blog, November 2007.

Emma It has to be made personal in a dramatic context. We’re talking about educating children about the environment through drama. I think, simultaneously, we should be educating adults - now.

Drama is the perfect medium for a story about a crisis. There are plays about AIDS, but in some ways AIDS is a more graspable subject. You can weave personal stories out of it because it is about individual people. With the environment, it’s this drip-drip effect. Nobody’s quite sure how bad it really is. To get those themes in the context of an adult play is quite hard.

Caspar The Hollywood film The Day After Tomorrow tried to make a big story out of climate change with big production values. But clearly, the scenario is absurd. A scientist, Myles Allen, at Oxford University, told me there were surveys done on people after they had seen the film. People were less concerned about climate change because they saw this extreme thing and thought, ‘Oh if that’s what it’s about, I just don’t believe it.’

Kevin I was looking at the story about Philip Cooney, the Chief of Staff to the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who removed scientific evidence from documents on climate change for the American government, making climate change sound less threatening. And I thought that would be a great story.

There is this wonderful phrase ‘weasel words’. It’s very hard on weasels! But the idea is that the weasel can suck the contents of an egg and just leave a very small hole. It looks like it’s a normal egg, but in fact it’s been drained of life. This is what these people do with words. They drain the meaning out of them or they use words that drain the life out of the words beside them.

That’s something that everybody gets cross with. Politicians every week, every month, every year, will be giving us a host of new clichés that we’re supposed to learn. That’s a drama to be told for us, for grown-ups. There are traditional folk tales about how the manipulation of language allows people to commit crimes.

Caspar There’s a good play to be done about that meeting after George W. Bush’s first election, when Dick Cheney, the Vice-President held a meeting to discuss US national energy policy, behind closed doors, with Exxon and others. We still don’t know what the key decisions were.

Dawn If you wanted to get people writing plays about climate change, what sort of things could you do? Would you have a competition? Would you go to an established playwright?

Emma You could go to a theatre company or venue who did new writing, like the Royal Court or the Bush. You could commission a play, or have a competition and a prize for the best play. You could have one or two established playwrights spearheading it.

I’d be very careful about doing something very broad like ‘the environment.’ You need to put it in some sort of dramatic context, like the meeting with Dick Cheney.

Caspar The classic problem here is that cause and effect are a long time away from each other. The current climate is heavily influenced by historic emissions. You can’t go into the guilty guy’s office. Not in quite the same way. It makes it much more difficult to dramatise. We’re not going to see the consequences of what we’re doing now for probably most of our lifetimes. Once you get into some discussion about the complexity of the science I think you have completely lost the drama.

Kevin It seems a bit strange that we’re talking about how to commission or make this work happen. Artistic work happens because people feel the need to express something. And it seems a bit artificial to force it.

So the question must be, ‘why aren’t people feeling this desperate need to express this?’ It must be because the consequences seem to be so far ahead. You never miss the water until the well runs dry.

Emma That’s why there are so many history plays, because we’ve now seen the consequences of these things, and so now the playwrights can write about that. You need to tap into a particular story or event.

Caspar It doesn’t need to be a very didactic kind of Brechtian play. Although I’m sure if Bertolt Brecht was around, he’d be writing plays about climate change.


Around the table were:

Dawn Bishop
Policy and Programmes Officer, Youth and Community Education
Council for Environmental Education.
CEE was a membership body for organisations in England committed to good practice in environmental education and education for sustainable development. Following a withdrawl of CEE's core funding by the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, CEE has now closed.

Emma Dunton
Executive Producer
Actor’s Touring Company
www.atc-online.com
ATC is a London-based theatre company whose recent project ‘theatrelab.net’ was an innovative collaboration between a playwright and young persons from schools and youth clubs using the internet, workshops and live performance.

Kevin Graal
storyteller, writer, educator
www.talkingtales.org
and on the Ashden Directory
Kevin is an experienced storyteller and educator with an extensive repertoire of traditional stories, riddles, songs and games from around the world.

Caspar Henderson
journalist
grains of sand and coral bones
Caspar writes about climate change for many publications and online magazines.

Anthony Koncsol and Miranda Thain
Directors Konflux Theatre-in-Education
www.konfluxtheatre.com
and on the Ashden Directory
Konflux is a York-based company most of whose work engages with environmental themes. Their target age is Key Stage 1 and 2, four to 11-year-olds.

Pete Rogers
new media artist
Pete is a new media artist, who led the first phase the Climate Change Explorer project in partnership with Helix Arts, the Environmental Change Network and Dowdales School, Cumbria.

Also present were Robert Butler, Wallace Heim, Editors, the Ashden Directory, and Patricia Morison, Administrator, the Ashden Trust


published in 2005

"If Bertolt Brecht was around, he’d be writing plays about climate change."

Caspar Henderson,
journalist

 

 

"Drama is the perfect medium for a story about a crisis, but you have to make it a personal story."

Emma Dunton,
Actor’s Touring Company

 

 

"Climate change is an emotive thing. It’s looking at what we value and whether we want to preserve it."

Dawn Bishop,
Council for Environmental Education

 

 

"What we’re not trying to do is just develop more empathy. There’s got to be something else."

Miranda Thain,
Konflux Theatre-in-Education

 

 

"Do we go for planting the seed for children in the hope that in 20 years' time they will want to become actively involved? If that's not too late."

Anthony Koncsol,
Konflux Theatre-in-Education

 

 

"When we ask about how to get more issues in the media, people always come up with 'Eastenders'"

Dawn Bishop,
Council for Environmental Education

 

 

"If you want to get children to understand how sacred the land is, you can tell them myths and stories. They'll remember it. They'll have that imagery in their minds."

Kevin Graal,
storyteller

 

 

"The environment has this drip-drip effect. Nobody's quite sure how bad it really is. To get that into a play for adults is quite hard."

Emma Dunton,
Actor’s Touring Company

 

 

"Why aren’t people feeling this desperate need to express this? It must be because the consequences seem to be so far ahead. You never miss the water until the well runs dry."

Kevin Graal, storyteller

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