Open Flame Theatre believes “the systems we live under are inherently self-destructive;” that for the sake of our survival, we must “reimagine the ways we inhabit ourselves and this planet.” The group performs surrealist, outdoor operas aimed at connecting audiences with humanity’s impact on nature.
The performances can get pretty dark. Open Flame Theatre’s latest play, The Wastelands, is about how humankind’s desire to dominate the natural world is destroying it. “Everywhere this civilization goes, it leaves skeletons in its wake: ruins of factories, overgrown landfills, clear-cut forests,” Walken Schweigert, the group’s artistic director, told Earther. The play was performed in crumbling churches, overgrown shipyards, abandoned factories, and derelict warehouses across the Great Lakes region over the summer.
The genre of “cli-fi” plays, books, and movies—works of fiction that tackle climate change—has grown increasingly popular. But this theater troupe is doing something stories told on paper or in cinemas can’t. It’s advocating for environmental stewardship by bringing the audience into nature, face-to-face with the effects of our industrialized, throwaway culture. And despite exploring some of the harsher realities of life in the 21st century, Open Flame Theatre believes its plays can effect positive change. The group is not alone in that view.
“Every historical moment has its theater, but never has a time so desperately needed what theater offers,” Theresa May, executive director of the Earth Matters On Stage festival and a University of Oregon theatre professor, told Earther.
The question is whether the messages environmentally-oriented theater groups are promoting will reach those who really need to hear them.
Open Flame Theater’s previous performance series succeeded in helping thwart Kinder Morgan’s Northeast Energy Direct natural gas pipeline plans. Beginning in August 2015, Pipeline Processions was performed along several sections of the proposed gas pipeline route in Massachusetts, so that people could see what was at stake. At the end of each performance, Open Flame Theatre invited the owner of that land to speak to the audience about how the pipeline would affect them. Most were concerned about how the pipeline would impact their crops, animals, and land value.
The performance encouraged others to embark on their own non-traditional resistance activities. For instance, one group built a large structure on a section of the pipeline route—big enough that it would’ve likely taken a court case to get it removed. In April 2016, Kinder Morgan withdrew their pipeline proposal, after “failing to sign up enough utility customers and facing stiff consumer and political opposition,” according to the Boston Globe. The theater troupe feels its performance, and the subsequent community push-back, was “a big part of” the decision to cancel the pipeline.
“Ideas are abstract,” Schweigert told Earther. “People think ‘maybe it’s not that bad.’ What shapes our beliefs is seeing, bringing it from the abstract to the real.”
Schweigert may be onto something with his approach.
Research supports the idea that the more time you spend in nature, the more connection and concern you feel for it, and the more likely you are to act to protect it. Studies point to avoiding politicized language, using framing that connects to people’s values, and focusing on local causes as important ingredients in effectively communicating climate concerns and spurring action. These are all things that outdoor, sometimes called “site-specific” theater, can do.
May points out that the the skills central to theater—radical empathy, deep listening, collective embodied practice, and a sense of self-as-community—are the same ones that sociologists say are necessary for the “revolution of our shared imagination” required to tackle climate change.
According to Chantal Bilodeau, artistic director of The Arctic Cycle, an organization created to support the development of eight plays examining social and environmental changes in the Arctic, another strength of theater as a vehicle for environmental communication is that it’s experienced in a group.
“This makes it local, immediate, and communal—three aspects that facilitate conversation, reinforce behavior through group interaction, and make the development of networks possible,” Bilodeau, who is currently working on the third play of the series, told Earther.
Eco-theater is not new. Dramaturg and anthropologist Dillon Slagle explains that as a codified artistic movement, it can be traced to around the 1970s.
“These first self-proclaimed eco-theater artists acted out of political disillusionment with large corporations, environmental dangers, and existing social structures. The concerns ranged from pesticide use to waste dumps in lower-class urban areas to deforestation,” Slagle wrote in an article on the history of eco-theater.
One early example of site-specific outdoor theater is the 1988 production “La Quinceanera” by Teatro Nuestro, which was performed on California farms. The work “displayed the effects of pesticide use in comedic melodrama, featuring ‘El Pesticido’ as a large masked deathlike apparition,” Slagle writes. “Taking an aggressive approach in performance ‘La Quinceanera [went] directly to the farm labor camps with audiences coming right out of the fields.’”
After the show, doctors took to the stage to explain the health effects of pesticides, and lawyers detailed workers’ rights. The California Rural Legal Assistance Fund declared the show “the best way” to get these messages out, and lists the performance as one of its “major victories” because it led to local organizing on the issue of pesticide safety.
Other groups currently engaging in outdoor eco-activist style performances include the New York-based collective of artists and scientists Superhero Clubhouse, and multidisciplinary artists Mondo Bizarro in New Orleans. Then there’s Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, a performance ensemble that’s been staging shows and protests around the globe for more than fifteen years. Their protest targets—Starbucks, coal mining, police brutality, Wall Street, and Monsanto, among others—may not all appear to be environmental in nature, but the group says it seeks to “inspire people to challenge the consumerism, racism, and militarism that are killing our planet.”
Schweigert says he is fighting similarly sinister forces: At the heart of his troupe’s work is anti-utilitarianism. “We believe that life has an inherent value, that it doesn’t need to be useful,” he said.
But are these messages reaching those who need to hear them most? Or are they preaching to the choir, so to speak?
“It depends how you define ‘the choir,’” Bilodeau said. She points to the Global Warming’s Six Americas study out of Yale University, which classifies Americans into six groups according to their responses to climate issues—Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive. According to this classification, “the choir” (a.k.a. the “Alarmed”) is only 18 percent of the population. “These are the people who are already very engaged in trying to make a difference. They’re probably a small percentage of the audience,” Bilodeau said.
Happily, only 9 percent of Americans are outright dismissive of global warming, according to the latest findings on these six groups published last year. “I would be naive to think they’re going to see a play and have a total change of heart,” Bilodeau said of these audiences. But it’s also not impossible.
“What’s more likely is that we’re going energize someone who is already paying attention but hasn’t figured out where to channel their energy to address [climate change],” Bilodeau said. “That’s who we need to go after.”
Open Flame Theatre was previously in residence at a Massachusetts theater under the name Children of the Wild, but the group recently reestablished itself in Wisconsin. Schweigert is currently in the beginning stages of developing The Garden, the second piece in the group’s Rewilding Cycle, a three-part performance series based on Dante’s works: The Wastelands was based on Purgatorio, The Garden is inspired by Inferno, and The Wild will be based on Paradiso. The theme of the series is how the wild attempts to reestablish itself in wastelands and in people.
Schweigert believes the first step of effecting real change is “to begin to imagine what is possible.” Expanding the human imagination, he says, “has far more ramifications than we give it credit for.”
Olivia Campbell is a science journalist whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Washington Post, VICE, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, and The Daily Beast.