jakub | March 25, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | What Is to Be Done 2.0: Some Notes on Theatre in a Time of Climate Crisis

The following is an excerpt from Brian Kulick’s new book from Methuen Drama, Staging the End of the World: Theatre in a Time of Climate Crisis.

I Dream of Obsolescence

Of the the handful of books I have written, there is a part of me that sincerely hopes my new book, Staging the End of the World; Theatre in a Time of Climate Crisis, will become completely obsolete. Should some wayward reader from the future stumble upon it in the bowels of a library, I hope they’ll simply laugh and say, “A book on plays about the end of the world? What a preposterous subject. The world is fine. We have righted our ecological wrongs. All is now well with Planet Earth. We’ve no need for such antiquated apocalyptic hand wringing.”

Methuen Drama, 2023, 272 pp.

You see, I desperately want this book to be totally incorrect, terribly misguided, and subsequently relegated to the dustbin of misbegotten futurologies. And yet such a future, according to most of our scientists and climatologists, might be just around the corner. There is, at this precarious moment in our history, the very real possibility that—if we do not reverse our carbon-insistent way of being—there will be no tomorrow. This would mean no such library, with no such book, and, most frightening of all, no such reader to not read it. An alternate future is inching, every day, closer and closer, moving us from the realm of science fiction to science fact. It is a potential reality that is terribly hard for us to wrap our minds around, and therein lies both the problem and the impetus of this book. Put simply: How do we, in the theatre, talk about tackling such an enormous challenge which faces humankind? How can our art form, perhaps the most ephemeral of its aesthetic siblings, impress upon audiences the necessity for action?

And, conversely: Why is this so very hard for our field to seem to do? Is this just a failure on theatre’s part? Or does this problem plague all our sister arts? Does the current climate crisis, as some are wont to say, render all our aesthetic responses somewhat impotent when attempting to rouse our audiences to fight for the future of our planet? Such a question, inadvertently, gives rise to another set of equally troubling questions, which begins with the age-old suspicion that art in general is simply incapable of effecting any real substantial change on the world stage. Such naysayers insist that the whole idea of art as a catalyst for any form of praxis is doomed from the outset. According to them, we might as well put down our pens and brushes, pick up a nearby banner, and storm the citadels of climate denial. While we’re doing so, an older and perhaps even more pernicious question re-insinuates itself: Is even taking to the streets, or any form of collective action, capable of changing the status quo that is now regulated by the diffuse and yet seemingly implacable forces of neoliberal globalism? Are we still capable of collective change against such an invisible foe? All these questions send me to a memory:

From the Dark and Backward Abysm of My Youth

This happened some 40 or so years ago. I must have been a freshman in college, and I had gone with a friend to see the movie Gandhi. This, as you may remember, was one of the last of the great Hollywood epics, a la David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Only Gandhi, contra Lawrence, brought about world-historical change with neither guns nor Arabian stallions; instead, Gandhi deployed a very simple concept: Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance). It was with this one improbable principle that he helped to liberate India from the tyrannous yoke of British colonial rule. One would be hard-pressed to find a story better built to change the hearts and minds of its audience, as well as garner a few little golden statues along the way; which, in point of fact, it did, winning numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for the remarkable Ben Kingsley, in a miraculous break-out performance as Gandhi.

We saw the film at our favorite cineplex in Century City, renowned for its enormous projection screen and labyrinthine underground parking structure. The latter was a grand subterranean affair, a kind of architectural cross between a buried Egyptian pyramid and a vast, multistoried fallout shelter. I remember leaving the theatre and riding down an endless escalator to the bowels of this parking complex. It seemed to have as many underground floors as letters in our English alphabet. On the way down, I couldn’t help but overhear various observations from other cinemagoers who, like me, had just seen Gandhi. They all seemed to be in a state of blissful transformation. They spoke in hushed and reverential tones about how “I’ve never been so moved by a film,” “I’ll never be the same, thanks to this picture,” “This movie has changed my life,” “From now on, I want to dedicate myself to the path of Satyagraha.” It was as if I was witnessing some extraordinary mass conversion.

This amazing experience lasted just long enough for everyone to get into their respective cars and attempt to leave the underground parking garage; discovering, in the process, that they were now unwittingly trapped within some sort of vehicular form of Dantesque gridlock, a circle of hell that the Italian poet had somehow forgotten to mention. Car horns began to blare, shouts of road rage could be heard echoing throughout the underground corridors, curses ensued, followed by threats, fender benders, even a fist fight between two enraged motorists. My friend turned to me and said, “Wow, I guess the message of this movie lasted a whole 10 minutes.”

I think about those 10 minutes a lot. Is that the actual shelf life of a work of political art? 600 meager seconds? That’s it? After that, we just revert to our former, fallen selves? But what did I expect? At the time, I had a feeling for what I wanted to have happen, but no name to put to this need. Much later, in my graduate school days, I stumbled upon the word I was looking for. It was from the ancient Greek and was made up of eight little letters that spelled out:

Metanoia, Which Rhymes With Paranoia, But the Comparison Ends There

Some readers may know this word from its rather consequential appearance in the New Testament; it’s one of the first words uttered by Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark. It is there that the prophet from Galilee announces the kingdom of God and asks all to join him in metanoia. For the early Christians, metanoia was thought of solely in religious terms, as a kind of spiritual conversion representing not only a change of heart but also a repudiation of one’s current path, a turn toward atonement. The King James Bible makes all this very simple and straightforward; the word from now on will mean: Repent. End of story.

But not exactly. Currently, metanoia has become the plaything of such contemporary philosophers as Armen Avanessian and Anke Hennig. They have reclaimed this word’s lexical roots, returning it to its pre-Christian meaning. This enables them to better discuss certain fundamental moments of individual and cultural transformations which forever alter the existential core of our thinking. In their hands, metanoia now speaks of the change that can happen to the relationship between our minds and the world. Such a formidable kind of cultural metanoia occurs, according to them, perhaps once in a lifetime, and is able to bring with it certain far-reaching relocations in the thinking of human relations, radical/epochal changes in culture, and the potential collapse of previously prevailing points of view. It is a thinking that changes our very way of thinking. Metanoia, for these philosophers, doesn’t just bring about change, it institutes a whole new reality. This is what I was hoping for as I rode down that escalator after the movie Gandhi; this is what I pray for in terms of our meeting the demands of our current climate crisis.

But can we do this in the theatre, where there is always the legitimate concern that our audiences are somewhat self-selected? Aren’t they of a certain age? A certain socioeconomic background? Aren’t they basically liberal-leaning by nature? Aren’t they already predisposed to the message we want to send? What about those of a different age? Background? Political orientation? Or put another way:

Aren’t We Just Preaching to the Choir?

Brian Kulick. (Photo by Joel Jares)

Yes. To a certain extent we are, but that’s not such a bad thing and—actually—it might be a very necessary thing. Why? Well, the converted can and often do lose faith. They give up or give in. To what? Usually to one of the following four isms: cynicism (“We’re all too selfish to do the work that needs to get done”), pessimism (“It’s just too big a problem and too late to solve”), fatalism (“What difference does it make? It’s all going to end anyway”), or finally—and perhaps most perniciously—indifferentism (“I can’t be bothered with this now, I have other shit I gotta deal with”). On top of this we have the two deadly Ds: denial (“It’s just too much to think about, so I won’t”) and distraction (“Hey, is that the brand-new Xbox One S model with 1 terabyte of internal memory and the ability to play Minecraft, Sea of Thieves, and Forza Horizon 3?”). So, as you can see, we have a lot of work to do just to make sure our folks keep the faith, don’t stray, and are reminded that they can still make a significant difference. We can do this, but it requires that we stay on message.

And so our job as artists is to continue to warn, inform, update, cajole, inspire, and even inflame our base to stay engaged; otherwise they can too easily succumb to the same fatalism of such writers as Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen. These two well-meaning authors shake their heads and tell us, “Game over.” The problem for them is simply too problematic. This—in and of itself—is a problem, especially if you are Catriona McKinnon, the environmental philosopher who warned us that what is repeatedly asserted as impossible becomes impossible. We artists must present the other side of the story, not only to the other side, but to ourselves.

And What About the Climate Deniers? Can They Ever be Won Over? 

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that we have two great allies in this ongoing campaign to galvanize the world into saving the planet. Our first and perhaps most significant ally is the planet itself. This is a great partner to have on our side. It certainly is not shy when it comes to expressing how it is feeling about our current situation and has a powerful arsenal of persuasive means to make its points. Things like wildfires, flash floods, endless droughts, and other freak weather events. The force of these messages is pretty hard to ignore, especially since they become louder with each passing year. Surely, at some point, this will breach the barricades of even the most resolute of climate deniers. But by the time this happens, will it be too late? Will we have missed our opportunity to make the changes necessary to right our climate wrongs?

This is why we can’t leave the bulk of argument to be made by the planet on its own. The climate clock is ticking and so we have to carry an equal share of the proselytizing load. The other ally in this campaign is the children of our opponents who can still be won over. The playwright Edward Bond believes that we are all born into a state of what he calls radical innocence and we maintain this semi-pristine state throughout our early childhood. This is the best time to appeal to our children’s innate sense of right and wrong. This is what Asja Lācis did in the 1920s with orphans of the First World War and what Bertolt Brecht did just before the advent of the Second World War with the children of the Karl Marx School.

It is what the protest singer Pete Seeger did in the 1950s. Do you know this story? It is one of my favorite anecdotes. Seeger, as you may know, was blacklisted in the 1950s for his radical leanings. He was banned from participating in any television, radio, or live performances. But the FBI allowed Seeger to do sing-alongs in public elementary schools across the nation. “What harm could that do?” they thought. Well, the answer is a whole lot. Seeger gently radicalized an entire generation of children who came of age in the 1960s and sang his protest songs at future rallies, marches, sit-ins, and other moments of spontaneous uprising. So get to those kids, and they might eventually be the ones to teach their recalcitrant parents a thing or two about the fragility of our planet. Again, the climate clock keeps ticking, we don’t have time for them to grow up and do our work for them. But we can at least give them the ethical tools necessary to face a potentially compromised tomorrow. 

So What You’re Saying Is That It Is Up to Us and a Bunch of Schoolchildren to Combat the Climate Crisis?

No. I’m not so sure things are as binary as we are led to think. Certainly, there are those of us who are concerned about climate change and those of us who—for whatever reasons—remain unconvinced. But between these two opposing sides sits a third and very significant constituency. These are people who have yet to form an opinion or who feel impotent in doing anything about the current state of affairs. We may not be able to convince those on the opposite end to this spectrum of concern, but we still have a very good chance of reaching those in the center. This is rarely accomplished with one work, but rather with a body of work. History has shown us many examples where a sustained commitment, often manifested through the production of a body of cultural works and social acts can, over time, create a slow cultural metanoia necessary to help change the way we look at things and from there to changing the things themselves. Such moments are epochal shifts in our worldview, when the old ways of seeing crumble and a new vision of reality emerges. This is difficult for us to imagine in the age of Amazon, where we have grown accustomed to pushing a button and having whatever we desire arrive at our doorstep within two days! As a result, we sometimes forget that change, particularly world-historical change, does not happen on such an accelerated timetable. At least not on a collective/global level. Yes, St. Paul can have his own private conversion on the road to Damascus. Such a metanoia can be instantaneous for an individual, but remember that the worldwide acceptance of Christianity was the result of the long hard work of a group of deeply dedicated believers. It was a mass transformation that was several hundred years in the making. In our modern times, even Gandhi’s own Satyagraha was a lifetime’s work, the fruit of 60-plus years in which he and his followers endeavored to prove that something as immense as India’s independence could be achieved through simple acts of nonviolent protest.

The tricky thing is time is running out for us. We, as artists, have to continue to reach, alert, and galvanize this broad swath of the planet’s undecided. They can have a decisive impact in exerting more pressure on our governments and corporations to make good on their promises to truly combat global warming. And then? Well then, I’m with David Graeber (Direct Action and The Democracy Project), Cornelius Castoriadis (Society Adrift), and Srecko Horvat (Poetry From the Future): Think global but start local. Take our reduced carbon footprint into the streets. Start marching and stop buying. But how do we get these folks to march in step with us? My answer is somewhat simple and straightforward: 

Tell Stories

I mean, that’s our job, right? That’s one of the reasons you’re reading this book: to find stories that can help inform, inspire, or unnerve us into action. I believe that the story remains one of humankind’s greatest inventions, right up there with fire and the wheel. Storytelling is made all the more glorious and impactful when it happens among other humans. It is as though each body has the ability to not only absorb the story but somehow amplify its potential significance. This puts me in mind of what George Marshall said in his incisive Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. Toward the end of this book he gives a list of things we can do to make a difference. One of these is to “TELL STORIES. Stories remain the best way to engage and sway people.”

Why? I suppose we could go down the rabbit hole of neurobiology to try to understand what makes our brains respond to stories, but I’d rather tell you a story about why stories are so effective. This is a true story where I am a peripheral character. These days I’m the chair of a theatre program, and as the chair of a theatre program you end up listening to a lot of commencement speeches. One of the things I have discovered is that no matter how well intentioned these commencement speeches are, most are pretty deadly. They are usually filled with a rhetorical gumbo of advice, platitudes, bromides, factoids, statistics, warnings, half-baked jokes, and slightly off-putting “let me tell you”s. About mid-way through such speeches you find yourself inevitably zoning out. This is true no matter how applicable the platitude, funny the joke, or dire the warning. At a certain point the words of the speaker become white noise, and one’s private thoughts regain the upper hand in the battle for our ongoing attention. As a result I can’t tell you a damn thing about most of the speeches I’ve heard over the past few years.

The only speech I can remember is the one where the speaker decided to tell a story. Suddenly I found myself totally engaged with every word the speaker uttered. I turned to the persons on my left and right and discovered that they too were equally engrossed in the speaker’s tale. It was a story about a life lesson he learned in his youth. Suddenly we were completely won over by the depiction of our speaker as a young child. Midway through the tale, two potential outcomes appeared on the narrative horizon: One positive, one negative. Which would be the story’s end? The answer remained up for grabs and the tension in the auditorium was palpable, we were all leaning forward, hoping for the best, dreading the worst. In short: We were completely spellbound.

This, to me, is the power of stories: They can engage you, change you, stay with you, and guide you for the rest of your life. When you stop to think about it, this propensity to make and receive stories is nothing short of miraculous; but due to the sheer ubiquity of our ever multiplying stories, we can easily forget their actual originality and necessity, even as they remain profound agents of change. Science and facts are persuasive, but when woven into the narrative fabric of a story, such as the opening chapter of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, they have the potential to transform the direction of an entire nation. So are we all making stories in the hopes of arriving at the climate change equivalent of Carson’s Silent Spring? Sure, if that were to happen that would be amazing, but every story on this issue counts, and it is ultimately the cumulative effect of all these stories that can do the trick and win over more of those folks from the center that we talked about.

This is what philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis means by impacting our social imaginary. It is changed story by story, and if we “stay on story” we have the possibility to achieve a moment of historical metanoia. This is where our collective storytelling should be leading us. We need to find and invent stories that deal with this current crisis of ours. We need to share these stories everywhere we can: on our stages, television sets, movie screens, in our books and journals, through the internet, and at the water cooler. We need to tell stories about the end of our world and these stories need to inspire, incite, and console us.

Vodya in “Slavs!”

This last need, for consolation, is especially necessary these days. There are so many folks who are at a loss, searching for answers, like little Vodya in Tony Kushner’s Slavs! For those who may not know this remarkable play, it deals with the final days of the Soviet Union, and one of the characters that we meet along the way is a mute 8-year-old girl whose silence is due to a chromosomal alteration from her parents’ exposure to the ionizing radiation from Chernobyl. Toward the end of the play, little Vodya arrives in the Soviet sector of heaven (this is, after all, a play written by Tony Kushner), where she meets a group of aged high-ranking Russian dignitaries who have died but continue their dialectical debates in the great beyond. Her appearance interrupts their daily polemics. Having found her voice, she speaks the following line: “I am inexpressibly sad, grandfathers. Tell me a story.” Surely one of these ancient shades has a tale to tell that might help little Vodya with her grief. She looks from one to the next until her eyes fall upon Upgobkin. He confesses, “I have only one story, but I can say only that it happened, and not what it means.”

Little Vodya does not yet understand that these are indeed the best kind of stories; hungry for any words of comfort, she climbs onto his lap to hear his tale. It is about young Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who will grow up one day to become the great Lenin; but, in this story, he is still a mere boy, only 17 years of age. We find him mourning the death of his beloved brother. In an attempt to cure his feelings of loss, he decides to read his elder sibling’s favorite book, a novel by the Russian author Chernyshevsky, whose book posed

Ugobkin The immortal question which Lenin asked and in asking stood the world on its head; the question which challenges us to both contemplation and, if we love the world, to action; the question which implies: Something is terribly wrong with the world, and avers: Human beings can change it; the question asked by the living and, apparently, by the fretful dead as well: What is to be done?

Vodya (After a little pause) What is to be done?

Prelapsarianov Yes. What is to be done?3

This returns us to Zygmunt Bauman’s observation: “When I was young, we argued over what needed to be done. Today, the main question is who would be able to do it.” The answer from such thinkers as Cornelius Castoriadis, David Graeber, and Srecko Horvat is an emphatic: us. We do this with the stories we tell, the actions we take, the leaders we become, the movements we organize, the cynicism we combat, the hopes we engender, and the visions we turn into reality. It is on all this that our future depends. It all begins with the right story. Find it. Share it. Spread it. And start changing the world.

Brian Kulick (he/him) is the chair of Columbia University’s School of the Arts Theatre Program, where he also teaches directing with Anne Bogart. In addition to staging the works of Shakespeare, Brecht, and Tony Kushner, he has been the artistic director of Classic Stage Company and an artistic associate for the Public Theater. He is the author of Staging Shakespeare, How Greek Tragedy Works, The Elements of Theatrical Expression, and The Secret Life of Theatre.

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