Polar bear puppet in a production of Sila

Every historical moment has its theatre, but never has a time so desperately needed what theatre offers. Sociologists are studying the kinds of skills and sensibilities required if human beings are to avert the catastrophes of further environmental risks and climate change that scientists and sociologists predict. Skills like radical empathy, deep listening, collective embodied practice, and a sense of self-as-community — all central to theatre as a way of knowing — are essential to what sociologist Kari Norgaard calls the “revolution of our shared imagination.” “Imagination is power especially in a time of crisis,” she writes. We need to “imagine the reality of what is happening to the natural world…to imagine how those ecological changes are translating into social, political, and economic outcomes, and … to imagine how to change course. Theatre practices the crucial skills of understanding ourselves as permeable, inter-connected, mutable, and multiple. As we map alternative ways of being and relating, theatre can move us from the terrifying facts of current social and environmental risk through the necessary transformations of self — a newly imagined human expressed in the context of a just, living, breathing planet. Many artists have used theatre to amplify the voices of those most affected by environmental risk and climate change, telling untold stories as acts of intervention in what Rob Nixon calls the “slow violence” of environmental harm. By bringing the vast resources of live, embodied performance to the task of radically imagining what it means to be human during this perilous time on the planet, theatre exercises the muscles of empathy, democracy, and social change. This course is about some of those plays, and how theatre has been and can be a force for environmental justice. It’s also about you — what is your vision as a citizen artist?

As an art form that is embodied, immediate and communal, theatre has always been a powerful tool for social and environmental justice activists. Since the 1960s, and particularly as a result of the environmental justice movement of the 1990s, many North American playwrights have written plays that examine the complex ways that race, class, gender, and community identity put certain people at greater (and disproportional) environmental risk. In this class we will explore how theatre artists have expressed these environmental justice concerns, and how plays and productions resonate with the contemporary environmental justice movement. Some of our central questions will be: How have playwrights told stories that illuminate key environmental justice issues, and what theatrical and narrative methods have they used to amplify the voices of those disproportionately impacted by environmental destruction? How does theatre bear witness to the untold stories of environmental racism, including the legacies and persistent effects of settler colonialism? How has theatre represented the ways in which gender and class also put certain people at greater environmental risk? How has theatre functioned as an intervention, a collective act of resistance, and/or celebrated the victories and resilience of people and communities most at risk? How has theatre been a useful means to draw the connection between the lived experience of social injustice and environmental risk that is at the center of the environmental justice movement? How and why is theatre an effective forum for demonstrating the multi-vocal, muti-faceted complexities of environmental risk?

This course and the plays and productions we will study occur in the context of settler colonialism, and many of the environmental justice issues addressed in the plays we’ll read explore its persistent legacies. Many of the playwrights and theorists we will read are engaged in the project of decolonization, for themselves, their communities, for North American settler society. (See excerpt from Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, the foundational reading in Week One.) Many of the plays we’ll read aim to: expose and resist the legacies of colonialism and/or corporate capitalism; heal, reclaim and renew connections to culture, community, and nature; and intervene in institutional and intersecting systems of racism, sexism, and speciesism.