Background: What is Eco-Theatre?
Una Chaudhuri, in her 1994 article, “‘There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theater” argues that, in order for theatre to become more ecologically responsible and promote sustainability, theatre as a whole needs a ‘transvaluation’ away from its ideological roots in Western liberal humanism. She offers alternatives to traditional theatre, pointing out that “the unattended garbage that accumulates on the margins of the realist stage is one of the sites for a possible ecological theatre,” (Chaudhuri 24). Realism and naturalism as aesthetic strategies have historically been complicit with capitalist industrialization’s bifurcation of the world into the realms of the natural and the social, so Chaudhuri points toward authors who subvert or alter naturalism in their works as examples of where dominant modes of theatre have failed to capture life experiences adequately. “The countertradition of modern drama,” she proposes, “(including Surrealism, Epic theatre, Absurdism) makes its case against 19th-century humanism by setting its explorations of the human condition […] within a recognition of the insistent claims of the natural world” (Chaudhuri 24). Some theorists like Marvin Carlson argue that these counter-traditional playwrights create space and landscapes with the language used itself, or “langs-scapes […] created for the imagination” (Carlson 147). Playwrights which adhered to the tenants of those styles understood that not everything can be articulated through dominant rhetorical strategies nor even language, and that at the end of the day not everything is intelligible. Ruptures of meaning within ‘counter-traditional’ drama styles (non-sequiturs, babbling, prolonged silence) all point toward or draw upon the same aporia between dualisms of nature/culture, human/non-human, subject/object, self/other, word/world. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, ’the open wound that is my life’ […] the existential trauma of life caught in the caesura between human and animal’ […] ‘the central emptiness,” of unspeakable trauma, too-muchness, the postmodern or scalar sublime, overwhelming, critical mass, debilitation, the rift between the represented and experienced self, cognitive dissonance… All things wound up in ecological thought!
Chaudhuri also calls for a reconceptualization of environment by deconstructing an artificialized set, instead preferring broader investigations of space, pointing toward playwrights like “Gertrude Stein […] Lee Breuer, Richard Foreman […] and Heiner Muller” as authors who successfully alter the way plays function in their environment by increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of the characters, the audience, and the stage. And while the theatre will likely long be attached to its status as a cultural institution producing cultural artifacts, we can still “avoid misrecognizing that status as something natural” (Chaudhuri 30). Doing so is important—she concludes why nuanced understandings of naturalized-but-artificial settings by expanding the category of ‘stage’ and ‘performance’ onto the broader world around us:
“The simulated worlds of contemporary mass entertainment—the theme parks, world showcases, safari parks, tropical shopping plazas, and so on—become ever more uncanny as they become more perfect. As the technologies of representation approximate ever more closely to techniques of reproduction, the world that is being recreated so precisely recedes ever more quickly from our grasp” (Chaudhuri 30).
It is clear that she is leaving readers with the message that a critical intervention is necessary within our world, one that philosophically and psychologically examines and reconceives notions about the boundaries between what is natural and unnatural, what is performed and what is genuine, what is real and what is not.
Twenty years later, Chaudhuri was interviewed about this critical intervention in order to check up on how far along theatre was on this much-needed transvaluation. And, big surprise: it has not occurred. Largely because
“the persistence […] of a fundamentally anthropocentric, non-ecological perspective on life is fueled by the organization and practices and assumptions of just about every human endeavor, from the sciences, to politics, to economics… and the arts have not managed to disrupt that […] enough to make a difference […] the usual timetable for significant ideological shifts—many decades, at least—is being overwhelmed by […] the speed with which environmental conditions are deteriorating or changing. This is just one of the many conceptual (even cognitive) challenges posed by the Anthropocene, and one that performance could certainly engage with” (Preece 105).
So, even though there have been many efforts within the arts to decenter anthropocentrism within cultural production, non-sustainable ecological practices continue in virtually every other human institution. The pace at which environmental deterioration is happening might outpace the ability of the human psyche to adapt itself to those changing conditions. This especially seems to be the case in a late capitalist culture obsessed with accelerating technological production that winds up shortening attention spans and divorcing consumers from material reality in favor of the simulated experiences Chaudhuri mentioned in her 1994 article— theme parks and artificially curated tourist environments are still relevant today, but more abstraction into simulation has been occurring: the Internet, virtual reality, and information-based consumer culture, climate science based largely upon weather models and simulations… But, we should not give up hope on decentering anthropocentrism in favor of a more sustainable, balanced approach toward caring for the environment. What are some updated ways theatre and performance studies have come up with that can expand the imagination and think of new creative ways to move us toward a more sustainable lifestyle? She notes that “anthropocentric bias is produced by the theatre’s physical format and location” and recommends that we “extend consideration to the mediations […] performed by non-human agents,” contending that we should make “art about and with non-human partners, be they animal, plant, machines, cells, physical forces, elements, meteorological phenomena…” (Preece 108). But, at the heart of the problem is that “human activities are producing effects that are beyond human reckoning, beyond the possibility of calculation or prediction. The non-human, geophysical agency of the human is not only unfamiliar, it is also to some extent unknowable” (Preece 109). It is quite impossible to understand one’s affect on the world. Even just sitting here reading you’re breathing, turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, sloughing off dead skin cells, spreading bacteria, your body is being permeated by all kinds of bacteria, toxins, radiation, chemicals, entering though your lungs or your water supply or your food or things you touch. It’s even difficult to understand your effect on the world doing absolutely nothing—should you be held accountable for your inactions, indecisions? I’m not really sure, but I can offer a story about my experience in an informal eco-theatre workshop led by Gwethalyn Williams, the director of the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop, which is a program for high schoolers that I was a part of in the past. I think the workshop offered up a compelling model of eco-theater and interesting alternative modes of engagement with the environment that exist outside of or beyond language—or at least can accompany the use of language to provide more philosophically and spiritually nuanced understandings of our relationship with the environment.
The Workshop & Warm-ups
The eco-theatre workshop took place in Warner Park, a public nature area in Manhattan, Kansas, on October 8th, 2016. Participants met in the parking lot of the park in the late morning, then walked together through the park—through prairie grasses, over rolling knolls, down to a pavilion on the edge of some woods that surrounded a stream. Even though Warner Park is situated within a residential area of Manhattan, it feels rather secluded—the only reminders of ‘human society’ being some telephone wires and a few packs of jogging moms passing by sporadically. It was the perfect environment for some serious inquiry about nature as a cultural construction!
We started the workshop with some physical warm-ups that engaged both the mind and body. What I like about the experimental theatre warm-up routine is that it involves the imagination: rather than the instruction line being “stretch up,” it was to look up at the sky, and elongate our bodies as much as possible. Toes rooted in the ground, fingers outstretched toward the sky. We were told to picture energy coming up from the Earth, through our feet and shooting out our fingers, the column of energy pulling us upward with itself, erecting our spines with its force.
The warm-up routine illustrates what Augusto Boal describes as “knowing the body […] its limitations and possibilities” (Boal 127). Actively tuning your mind to listen to the signals of your body not only allows you to feel where you’re sore and tender… It also helps you begin to understand how social systems shape the body through everyday performances—for example, one might note “muscular alienation” caused by one’s work. A typist might have bad posture from always leaning over a computer, and a farm laborer might have a bad back from always stooping down toward the Earth. Recognizing the way in which the body physically responds to and embodies its socialization is the first step toward undoing that socialization and taking off the “mask” or mold that society has imposed on our bodies. Just as we must intellectually unlearn naturalized ideologies by historicizing and contextualizing through discourse, we must activate our bodies to unlearn their embodied knowledge that has been naturalized through ritual everyday processes of socializing the body. In this way, theatre can be weaponized as a “rehearsal for the revolution” (Boal, 122). Or any kind of social change, really. In the context of the eco-theatre workshop, maybe a revolution against anthropocentric, liberal humanism? Maybe we won’t articulate what it functions as a revolution against to avoid the cooption of the revolution.
The First Exercise
After the warm up, we started to do some exercises. We went into the woods to a clearing. We were told to explore the space, to mill about it in a neutral position, allowing ourselves to look around and feel how the ground felt beneath our feet. After the initial period of exploration, we all were told to find a natural object or organism to hone our focus in on. We were then told to shape our bodies in relation to the object: an exercise which “makes the body expressive” (Boal 127). Anyone can use their body to illustrate their understanding of / relationship to an object—but, there are several ideas taught in the workshop to make that expression and experience more interesting. Keeping elements in mind such as: positive and negative space, tension, and speed of movement allow for experimentation and new ways of relating to the selected object. I remember I chose to shape in relation to a flower on a branch. I tried to mimic the flower with the shape of my body; I tried to complement the shape of the flower and branch with the shape of my body. I also tried more conceptual movements, like ballet motions, attempting to embody what my culture associates with flowers: fragility and beauty. There are infinite possibilities, and imaging opens up new ways of thinking and relating, expanding our open understanding of the object we chose.
The activity is a great example of a creative endeavor that Deleuze and Guattari might describe as becoming-animal: a process that seeks to “undo accepted and recognizable definitions of the human by replacing notions of exterior form and function with those of affects, intensities, and flows of movement as means to describe and value life” (Weil 11). By casting off notions of what it is to hold a human body, and instead mimicking or relating to a non-human organism or object, performers can undo their understanding of identity as stable and coherent. However, it is important to recognize that one might not truly be able to understand what it means to be the object or organism they are shaping in relation to, because “becoming produces nothing but itself. There is no identity or subject that precedes becoming, and no identity that a subject becomes. Hence, one cannot even be said to become an animal, one becomes ‘becoming’” (Weil 11). Regardless, performing the activity goes beyond what words can convey because the experience of becoming becoming-animal is “a tactile or visceral affair [that] exceeds the possibilities of language to contain or identify it” (Weil 11). While shaping with non-human agents might not allow us to truly become anything other than humans trying to become or understand something else, it still “brings us to the limits of our own self-certainty and certainty about the world” and “this effort to attend to the ineffable is itself an ethical act […] a non-mastery of knowledge that was understood to be expressly ethical” (Weil 11-13): a basic understanding that I get that I do not necessarily get it, but I will still keep trying to get it anyway. And we’ll get closer and closer and closer but who knows if we’ll ever make it… as Miley said, “Ain’t about how fast I get there… Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side… it’s the climb.” That is, the process is what matters, there is no ‘ends’ so there is no way a means could be justified outside of its own merit as an ethical means. Everything is means, mean or average. Accumulation is passé, we’ve become hoarders and it is time to recognize the problem and do some yoga about it.
For the next step of the activity, the workshop participants formed pairs. Each person in the pair picked a natural object to shape in relation to, but the participants also shaped in relation to the other person. A web of interrelation was formed: each participant reacting to their object, but also reacting to their partner reacting to their own object. After we performed in pairs, we all came together as a group to shape in relation to our chosen objects, one another, and the broader landscape. With each new exercise, the dynamic was complexified, and the participants’ embodied awareness of the interrelations were expanded. The performance explained what language could not: when using words, “we cannot point to any one part of the system and say here lies meaning, because it is a property emerging from the entire configuration, traceable to no single causal force, but only to the resonance of its transient pathways” (Grant 212). I can attempt to explain in my essay the meaning behind the performance, but linguistic meaning is always inaccurate to a degree because the act of representing something through language separates the thing represented from the wholeness of things, which is what I understand to be Nature. And because everything is interrelated, meaning can only be constructed relationally. So, to write about the performance might miss the point entirely. Until one experiences the dynamic as a performer, they will never have an embodied understanding of what I’m writing about, because through language “there is no unmediated access to the flow of the stimuli that constitutes existence only a transient pathway toward this understanding, a limit that can never be truly reached” (Grant 212). Like how you can try to describe the taste of salt all you want, but until someone tries it for themselves they’ll never know what salt tastes like.
The Second Exercise
After shaping, we headed back to the shelter to do the last exercise. We all found some space to spread the blankets we were told to bring, and then sat down in a neutral position—legs crisscross applesauce, spine comfortable but erect. We were told to close our eyes, then we all took deep, audible breaths together. The exercise was like a guided meditation: essentially, it was imagining a process of rebirth. We were told to sit still and pay attention to the sensations of our body as if we had never felt them before. To feel the sun on our skin, the slight chill in the autumn air. To smell the woods, the grass, the dirt. To listen to the birds and the bugs and the wind in the trees. Slowly, we were allowed to move our hands and explore through touch. To explore our bodies as if we had never felt them before, to touch textures of skin, blanket and grass. Then, like newly germinated seeds, we began to shift our bodies out of the neutral seated position. We explored motion, senses of balance and proprioception (body parts in relation to other body parts) while remaining within the boundaries of our blankets. We were told to slowly intensify our motions, add tension and speed—until we were all leaping, running in tight circles, dancing with frenzy. And then, we were allowed to open our eyes and see the world, as if it was brand new. We were then instructed to go off into the wilderness and experience it as if we never had before. It was as if I had accessed or perhaps reset “some other source of selfhood in [my] body, some physical locus where memory may be stored and known” (Weil 3). Perhaps this was the locus where memory of animality is stored, present in all humans… and perhaps this storehouse can be tapped into, the self that was prior to knowledge, the self that was whole.
I chose to walk into the forest, down a descending path that led to the streambed. I ran my hands across juniper leaves, plucked a piece and smelled it. Tasted it. I crawled down an embankment. I was not afraid to get dirty like usual, but rather I wanted to experience the sensation of touching the dirt, to feel its silty texture. I touched moss and it was soft. I flaked bluish lichens off bark. It was as if it were all new to me. I experienced a sense of open awareness. My inner monologue was quieted, as if there were less narration or mediation between my experience and my thoughts. My mind, body, and environment were connected, and I was open to encounter. I left behind a sense of premeditation, my preconceived notions of what was what and why. I felt closer to “another phenomenal world or Umwelt” and this feeling of closeness reminded me that my perception of the world in which I operated in my day to day life “(and [my] means of expressing [it]) [was] not commensurate” (Weil 8). I wandered through the streambed, which was covered in prickly sweetgum balls. I heard rustling in the leaves, encountered squirrels and rabbits and joggers. When my path crossed with another workshop participant, there was a silent acknowledgement that neither of us would break the performance, neither would express to the other or ourselves that what we were experiencing was just an experiment. After I had sensed enough time had passed, I returned to the shelter. We were told to grab our notebooks and find a spot to free-write for about fifteen minutes.
Writing and Staging
I chose a grassy knoll facing the woods. I tried to access the same sense of open awareness I had experienced before. I watched the birds, I felt the air, my hands combed through the grass. One line I remember writing was “petting nettle grass like lively hair on a lover’s head.” I find it interesting that I remember the experience of wandering through the woods more clearly than anything I wrote down. Perhaps it has to do with the open sense of awareness.
After writing, we disbanded for a while, then met back up at the Manhattan Arts Center, which is the space that the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop normally takes place. There, we broke into groups and shared our writing with one another. We chose lines from one another’s writings to use in a couple of exercises. First, we played a game called “Word Jazz” in which four people choose a line, repeat it, then remix the sounds of it until the literal meaning of the words dissolves into an ambient soundscape. My group had a line that went something like: “Water river water rushes over stones.” We repeated the sentence together then riffed on it, like jazz musicians might do with a line of music. It’s hard to capture in words, but it went something like, “Water… Rushhhhh, rushhh, river rushhh, water, shhhhhh, shhhh, rushhhh, water, river STTT STTT STONES stones over water river STONES rrrrr vvvvvv rushhh.” Through experimentation with dissolution of the semantic meaning of the words, new ways of communication were found, such as onomatopoeic sounds and rhythms that drew upon the embodied experience of being next to the stream in the park. The exercise adheres to a sustainable rhetoric that “aim(s) less at representation and more at experimentation, less at argumentation and more at problematization, less at ‘taking a position’ and more at ‘entering a conversation'” (Grant 213). As Gwethalyn frequently says at the workshop, experimental theatre is all about the suspicion that there is more than one way to tell a story. “Word Jazz,” then, is a great example of a form of “discourse [that] is no longer representative of anything, but recreative […] a process […] continuing some patterns and modes of the world’s emergence but also possibly altering it” (Grant 214).
The second game we played draws upon the techniques of image theatre, or “theatre as language” (Boal 127). We broke into groups of four. One person selected a word that came from their writing or that was related to the experience in the park. It could be a physical object like “stone” or “leaf” or it could be more conceptual, like “recreation” or “nature.” Then, without using words, that person sculpted the bodies of their group members to create an image or scene that they felt expressed the word chosen. Last, the sculptor adds themselves into the scene, blurring the lines between spectator and spectacle. The roles rotated until each member got a chance to be the sculptor. Then, all four members performed a short scene which showed each image and a sustained transition between them. The exercise has an “extraordinary capacity for making thought visible […] because the language idiom is avoided. […] The image synthesizes the individual connotation and the collective denotation” (Boal 138) which bridges gaps in linguistic communication. If the goal of sustainable eco-composition is “to determine a shared reality,” then image theatre is a great way to transform our understanding of reality so we recognize “that reality as dynamically interwoven from complex systems such as bodily logics, be they individual or social” (Grant 213).
When reading my old journal about my experience in the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop from 2015 (prior to doing all of this research, and prior to the eco-theatre workshop), it struck a chord within me. Poring over my old reflections made me realize that, to a degree, doing the workshop had given me experiential knowledge that my recent research has now given me the capacity to explain with words. My 2015 description of the Manhattan Arts Center as a space for community engagement and performance, for example, parallels Chaudhuri and Grant’s claims for situated-ness in sustainable environmental rhetorics:
“It’s difficult to describe in words, but the best way to understand the creative process at MXTW is to simply take a step into the space in which the work is done: it’s positive, relaxed, communal, and disciplined all at once, somehow. The one rule is respect, and that rule is followed. Everyone is treated as an equal, the only criticism is constructive and lighthearted, and no one feels out of place. My friend Haley said she likes it because, “the only way you can feel weird is if you’re not being weird,” which is pretty accurate in my opinion. The result of the process is a form of community building that is sadly lacking in other places of learning– everyone knows that they’re all sort of in this together, and this only lasts a few weeks so we’re all here ready to do our best work. The fact that my proudest writings are the result of working for a couple weeks with people who, three weeks prior, were relative strangers to me should stand on its own. The method of learning employed by the program is extraordinary in the way that, while students are participating it doesn’t really feel like learning? It’s just like…. you absorb it from the space.”
The experience also gave me insight into performativity as a tool to undo stable identity and fixed social roles, as mentioned in the Weil article and the Boal book:
“The workshop is eye opening. I entered as a freshman with certain limits on what theater was and what it could do, and now that I am exiting I realize that those limits have been so expanded that I am no longer sure what is and is not theater. Am I a real person, or just a series of ever-changing roles and false motivations? Thanks to experimental theatre, perhaps I may never know. The lessons learned stick with me, whether it’s just shaping the physicality of a character I made up by envisioning my head filled with hate and my body filled with joy, or painting my face as a mask of happiness as I work a hellish retail job. Theater is everywhere. I used to wonder if I wanted to keep doing theater into the future, but now I know it is inescapable.”
On that note, I would like to offer up my experience in the Manhattan Experimental Theatre Workshop as an example of environmentally engaged experiential learning. Through my experience with the workshop, I learned about performance as a mode of being that engages the body, and embraces an openness toward encounter with the non-human other. This alternative mode of engaging nature via performance might open up space within the imagination to formulate a new relationship with the environment and non-human world that decenters our anthropocentrism and allows us to move toward a healthier, sustainable conception of nature and relationship with the natural world around us.
Boal, Augusto, and Charles A. McBride. “Aristotle’s Coercive System of Tragedy.” Theatre of the
Oppressed. Theatre Communications Group, 2013.
Carlson, Marvin. “After Stein: Traveling the American Theatrical ‘Lang-scape.’” Land/Scape/Theater. Ed. Elinor Fuchs and Una Chaudhuri. University of Michigan Press, 2002.
Chaudhuri, Una. “‘There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake’: Toward an Ecological Theater.” Theater, vol. 25, no. 1, Jan. 1994.
Grant, David M. “Toward Sustainable Literacies.” Rhetorics, Literacies, and Narratives of Sustainability. Ed. Goggin, Peter N. Routledge, 2009.
Preece, Bronwyn, et al. “A ‘Turn to the Species’: Una Chaudhuri Reflects on Some of the Ethical Challenges and Possibilities That Are Emerging from a Decade of Ecological Performance Practice and Scholarship.” Performing Ethos: International Journal of Ethics in Theatre & Performance, vol. 4, no. 2, Jan. 2015.