Drama for eco activation

This weekend I was at two linked events in Norwich, one was ‘Song of the Reeds’, a symposium about Rewilding Drama at UEA, and the other was ‘Dodo, Phoenix, Butterfly’, a day of theatre and discussion about future climate scenarios, at Norwich Arts Centre. I’ve just moved to Norwich, my original home city, and am connecting with the very active local network of practitioners, researchers and activists in green, future-facing culture. This is partly feeding into plans to create a visitable or visible base for CMUK in Norwich, a creative space for eco-activation. (For now my collections can be seen by guests to my new house, where I’ve been hosting Kay Samuels, as she’s been directing the Dodo, Phoenix, Butterfly plays over the past week. She is also founder of Letters of the Earth.)

I live tweeted both events, although I was only present for the afternoon of the symposium, including outdoor performances in the evening. See the threads here and here. And you can see some photos of the events here.

The linked events arose from the work of UEA colleagues, playwright Steve Waters and eco-philosopher Rupert Read. Steve convened the events as part of his UKRI research project on Dramatising Conservation. He (with colleagues and students) has worked with conservation partners, and with Tangled Feet and East Norfolk VIth Form College to create site-responsive drama at Wicken Fen and Strumpshaw Fen. He has written the radio play Song of the Reeds about Strumpshaw, in part about saving habitat for the rare swallowtail, a butterfly that was numerous in the broadland of my childhood. He wrote Murmurations, a promenade piece with binaural sound, with Tangled Feet, for Wicken Fen. At the symposium, young actors performed pieces about ecologists and conservators of these sites from the past including Arthur Tansley, Charles Rothschild, and Marietta Pallis. See the photo above.

Steve also wrote the Dodo, Phoenix, Butterfly pieces that were performed as part of a reflective day on Sunday. One foundational framework for this day was Deep Adaptation, guided by these four questions.

The plays raised questions through emotional scenarios about ‘managed retreat’, low value land, new ways of farming, and sacrificing expectations about the future. What land do we relinquish to the rising seas and storms? How are people compensated and supported as places, life ways and expectations are lost? How will we behave to each other as we go through these losses? How do we value the contributions of younger people who are learning new ways to think and act, while also supporting transition from older, extractive ways of treating nature?

Rupert has written on possible futures, and in This Civilisation is Finished has proposed three types of scenario with the metaphors of the dodo, the phoenix and the butterfly. The dodo suggests extinction, at least of the consumer-capitalist way of life with rising populations. The phoenix suggests a new civilisation rising from the ashes of disaster. The butterfly suggests imminent transformation into a more beautiful and possible world, this being the preferable scenario.

These were short plays, minimally staged with only three actors, but they were layered with rich themes and questions. Sometimes, it felt as if the particular human scenarios (a couple and their farm, in different versions of the future) were loaded heavily with scientific information about soil, land use strategies, pollinators, chemicals and so on. Depending on the audience, the plays might need more interpretation before and afterwards, so that it’s easier to feel with the characters and not have to strain to take in the messages.

The symposium got me thinking about the spectrum of how we might relate to wild sites or species:

  • observing at binocular distance (birdwatching, RSPB reserves);
  • observing while saying hello (Jane Goodall);
  • interviewing and speak the response of rivers or trees (an artwork by young artist Emily Thomas);
  • honouring wild beings as mythic and sacred, not to anthropomorphise them (a proposition by Andrew Burton);
  • experimenting with living AS and with wild beings (e.g. Thomas Thwaites, who wasn’t at the event);
  • holistic, loving and artful labour to aid and regenerate life in particular sites.

I wondered about the different modes of engagement that might most effectively raise awareness of ecological issues and increase an appetite for stewardship. They might include:

  • access to sites, with plenty of open-ended time in them;
  • conversations in sites;
  • narrative that shifts perspectives in sites (e.g. like Murmurations at Wicken Fen);
  • bringing sites into narrative spaces such as theatres or radio (e.g. like Song of the Reeds);
  • integrating artfulness into goals and tasks for stewardship and restoration;
  • opening up sites to be arenas for activism and prefiguring future ways of adapting to climate impacts or living ecocentrically.

It also led me to ask these questions and more:

  • Is an outdoor setting essential to rewild drama?
  • Can we merge cultural engagement with rewilding and restoration action so that there is less division between experiences of art and healing of places?
  • Does an eco cultural experience inherently lead to some people becoming active rewilders and stewards, or are more steps needed to scaffold that?
  • Can nature sites teach people without any teaching happening? Can art about ecological issues teach people without very much informational content?
  • Does cultural engagement in sites increase or reduce visitor pressure that can be harmful to wild sites?
  • How do we design experiences to support the imagination of possitopian futures?

Overall, the weekend was very thought-provoking, and useful for anyone interested in how we design experiences for people to engage with climate and ecological in ways that encourage agency, collaboration and regenerative thinking.

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