NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Navigating the borders. Theatre-science collaboration on matters of Australian ecologies

By Linda Hassall — We are living in a world where eco-anxiety is on the rise, yet Australians largely remain confused about scientific and political reactions to climate change and its effects on Australian ecologies (Clayton 2020, Hogg & Stanley et al 2021, Kelly, 2017, Mackey 2013, Wang et al 2018).

This confusion may stem from living in an arid country defined by its extreme weather, none-the-less a country that is still largely un-polluted and underpopulated. There is no doubt that as the effects of industrial and material interventions and corresponding climate change on the country increase, our unique non-human ecologies are experiencing significant change.

In response, some Australian theatre-makers are leaving behind long held national landscape myths, by exploring how intensifying climate and corresponding ecological deterioration is affecting non-human nature and other more than human species[1]. Whilst there are key pieces of scholarship drawing on data supporting sustainable technical and design theatre processes (Hassall and Rowan 2019, Beer 2021), what is particularly exciting about changing the conversation about Australian place and space is the slow but emerging trend in collaborations between theatre practitioners and scientists and/or scholars.

While traditionally, scientists and scholars have the unenviable role in predicting the escalation of climate and ecological issues, such collaborations suggest that it is prejudicial to assume it is science’s sole responsibility to provide communities with evidence about the abstract statistics.

The collaborations that cross the boundaries between theatre and science begin from phenomenological, environmental, and ethical experiences of our human relationship to the natural world. Importantly, the unification of scholarly voices and theatre-making methodologies is an exciting means of exploring climate science, eco-anxiety, and matters of the Anthropocene, in the socio-cultural realm. One example is a creative development project underway between Griffith University scholars and Vulcana Women’s Circus[2]. This project unites climate migration experts and practice-led creative researchers from humanities, design and education fields with professional circus artists. The research explores how circus performance can narrate the impact of human interventions on other than human species in the ecologically unique Moreton Bay wetlands, Queensland, Australia[3]. The region is on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which spans 18 countries and carries over 50 million migratory birds each year. Areas of the flyway are subject to large-scale, rapid and increasing economic development, and consequently, many waterbird populations in this flyway are threatened or in decline (Barry and Suliman 2022). This collaboration suggests that critical information about industrial and human mobility effects on native species can be selected, organised and disseminated through circus performance to not only enhance understanding of why species are disappearing in the Moreton Bay region, but to also remediate misunderstandings that confusing data about human mobility on migratory pathways might suggest.

Theatre-science collaborations are on the rise as organisations worldwide such as The Artic Cycle (USA), Julie’s Bicycle and The Eden Project (UK), Climate Change Theatre Action, (USA/Canada), acknowledge the benefits of such relationships in mobilising arts and broader culture to take action on the climate and the ecological crisis. While many international organisations are facilitating related collaborative processes, the dual resonance (Roberts 2015), between scientists and artists is, somewhat under-realised in Australia. Dual resonance requires theatre-makers and artists more broadly to consider emotional reaction and scholarly information as equally significant in ethically communicating the science. CLIMARTE Melbourne and Arts House Melbourne are effective Australian organisations regularly collaborating in this manner supporting socially engaged artists to navigate and respond to the accelerating crisis.

Potentially, there is huge scope for learning in both disciplines. Drawing on theatre methodologies as tools of enquiry theatre makers, researchers and scientist/scholars can traverse the borders between the quantitative and the qualitative, between the local, traditional and statistical to explore alternative settings for socio-cultural learning, adaptation and action in this rapidly changing world.

[1] See my recent book Theatre’s of Dust which analyses a number of contemporary Australian plays through what I describe as a Climate Gothic lens. This lens views the climate affected country through the purview of climate-scape rather than landscape.

[2] This project is in early stages of development and the exploratory process is funded by Creative Arts Research Institute Griffith University 2021/2.

[3] The Quandamooka People are the Traditional Owners of Land and Sea Country within the world-renowned pristine waters of Queensland’s, Moreton Bay.

References

Barry, Kaya & Suliman, Samid. Bordering Migratory Shorebirds through Contested Mobility Developments, Geopolitics, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2022.2027368

Beer, Tanja: Ecosceneography: An Introduction to Ecological Design for Performance, 2021. Singapore: Springer Nature.

Clayton, Susan. Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Volume 74, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263.

Hassall, Linda., Rowan, Stephen. Greening Theatre Landscapes: Developing Sustainable Practice Futures in Theatre Graduates. In: Leal Filho, W., Leal-Arcas, R. (eds) University Initiatives in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, 2019. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-89590-1_9

Hassall, Linda. Theatre of Dust: Climate Gothic Analysis in Contemporary Australian Performance Landscapes, 2021. Singapore: Palgrave McMillan.

Hogg, Teaghan, Stanley, Samantha, O’Brien, Lean, Wilson, Marc, Watsford, Clare. “The Hogg Eco-Anxiety Scale: Development and validation of a multidimensional scale”, Global Environmental Change, Volume 71, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102391.

Kelly, Anna. Eco-Anxiety at University: Student Experiences and Academic Perspectives on Cultivating Healthy Emotional Responses to the Climate Crisis, Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection, 2017. from https://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/2642

Mackey, B., Prentice, I., Steffen, W. et al. Untangling the confusion around land carbon science and climate change mitigation policy. Nature Clim Change 32013, 552–557 2013. From https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1804

Roberts, Lisa. “Living Data: How Arts Helps Us All Understand Climate Change”.Australian Antarctic Magazine, Issue 28, 2015. https://www.antarctica.gov.au/magazine/issue-28-june-2015/arts/living-data-how-art-helps-us-all-understand-climate-change/

Wang, Susie, Leviston, Zoe, Hurlstone Mark, Lawrence, Carmen, Walker, Iain. Emotions predict policy support: Why it matters how people feel about climate change,Global Environmental Change, Volume 50, 2018, pp 25-40, from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.03.002.


Linda Hassall is Field Study Coordinator Drama and Program Director for Creative Industries, School Humanities, Griffith University. Her research focuses on devising and producing contemporary performance and explores the relationship between theatre and climate change. She further explores developing sustainable production technologies in response to theatre’s carbon footprint. She is author of Theatres of Dust: Climate Gothic Analysis in contemporary Australian drama and performance landscapes (2021). She is an award-winning playwright Post Office Rose (2008) and director Salvation (2012).

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