I’m posting this short essay in conjunction with the launch of a new Playback Theatre Climate Action Group on Facebook for practitioners who would like to address the climate crisis using Playback. The essay reflects on what we in Hudson River Playback Theatre have learned from 10 years of climate-focused performances, including our participation in Climate Change Theatre Action, an initiative to support the biennial UN climate talks. Climate chaos, of course, has become only more dire in the two years since I wrote these comments for a mini-conference on sustainability in Sweden. At the same time there has been a massive upswell in public awareness, protest, and even political action. There needs to be much more–and we can help!
Climate change and Playback Theatre
By Jo Salas
Adapted from a Skype talk presented at “Moving into a Sustainable Future,” April 22, 2017. Playback Theatre Mini-conference, Stockholm, Sweden
The theme of sustainability is compelling on many levels–our personal lives, the life of our Playback companies, and the life of our planet. I would like to focus my comments on Playback Theatre’s role in moving toward a sustainable future for the world in the face of climate change.
For a long time now Playback Theatre groups have been addressing issues of social concern, including immigration and refugee crises, economic inequality, human rights, natural disasters, traumas of war, and so on. All over the world, Playback teams have listened to these stories and acted them out with compassion and artistry, building connection and strength in the face of hardship.
In recent years a number of us have explored how to use Playback in relation to climate change, a danger that threatens every creature on our earth, and our unborn descendants. Human-made climate change is affecting life on earth in countless and compounded ways. In time, living conditions everywhere will be as drastically affected as they already are places like the Maldives, Greenland, Bangladesh and island nations in the South Pacific. Disrupted food production and extreme climate conditions are already causing the displacement of millions, leading to mass migration and political conflict. In Syria, extreme drought was a major factor in political destabilization and the ensuing human rights catastrophe, which led to the current refugee crisis in Europe.
If we have the courage to look at what’s happening now, we must fear what is coming next. We fear the loss of our more or less comfortable and secure way of life. We fear the loss of the natural beauty that sustains our soul. We fear the hardship that our children and theirs will have to endure.
But as well as the fear, many of us feel called to do something–to take action that can change our direction and help to bring about a livable future. Naturally, people who do Playback think of our art form. We know that art has the power to reveal and inspire. We know from our own experience how meaningful it can be to hear and enact stories on topics of shared concern.
So it is timely to ask this question: what exactly is it that Playback can do, in relation to climate change? Can we really help? And how?
Climate scientists tell us that we have a window of just a few years to steer away from the worst outcomes. Right now is the moment when the decisions that we make will mean the difference between change that is sustainable, that is compatible with human civilization, and change that is not. It is an absolutely crucial moment.
But for the most part, our governments are not doing what needs to be done. They won’t take the political risk. I’m sorry to say that the United States is one of the worst in this regard. They refuse to make laws that would restrict automobile and aviation use, keep fossil fuels in the ground, prioritize renewable energy, and say no to the oil industry’s bribes. They are simply not going to do it, whatever they might promise at UN summits.
So we ordinary citizens have to do something. Us. And our best chance is to share our vision and our determination, and stand up together wherever we can, to oppose fracking, and logging, and over-consumption, and coal plants, and corporate greed, and government corruption. So many people are already doing this, and they—we!—have had some astonishing victories.
We can also create such a sense of urgency among citizens in every country that no one can get elected without promising to take action that will slow down and minimize climate change.
How do we find that sense of determination and urgency? Three factors, particularly, can inspire us to stand up and demand change:
- Information: gaining factual knowledge about the severity and urgency of the situation;
- Emotional engagement: feeling within ourselves the vulnerability of our own lives, the lives of our children and grandchildren, and the life of our beautiful, fragile planet;
- Connection—becoming aware of the millions of other ordinary people who share our concerns and are doing what they can in their own communities.
It is within the second of these factors, emotional engagement, that Playback has a special contribution to make. Our form reaches deeply into feelings. It embodies those feelings and stories in artistic expression. The impact can be profound and lasting. As we all know, when stories are shared and transformed into theatre, strangers become connected. And by providing practical information at the same time, we can help them connect outside the Playback event to others in the community and beyond.
Not everyone in the audience is immediately going to sign up to be an activist, of course. But a successful show on climate change will move every person a step or two further along—from being curious to being informed, from being informed to being engaged, from being engaged to being active, from being active to being a leader.
So I think the answer is that yes, Playback can be an effective part of the movement to reduce climate change. But we have a special challenge, which we’re likely to encounter as soon as we offer a show on this topic. In contrast to other topics of social concern, most audience members in the northern countries do not yet have pressing personal stories about climate change. They may have very strong feelings, and of course we can enact those feelings, But personal stories about climate change can be hard to bring into focus.
That is because climate change takes place on a far-more-than-human scale. Dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere, temperatures rising by fractions of a degree, sea levels rising by centimeters–these changes show up dramatically on graphs. But, for most of us in the northern world, at least, they do not show up dramatically in our own lives. Not yet.
What does it mean, on an emotional level, that in a hundred or two hundred years all the coastal cities in the world will be under water, or that two thirds of today’s farmland will be arid? We won’t be here to see it. If we did a Playback show in Tuvalu in the South Pacific it would be very different. We might hear a story from a woman whose small vegetable plot has been poisoned by salt from the rising sea, so that now her family has to depend on donated food. In a hundred years, this might be our reality as well. But it’s not the reality now in Europe, or Russia, or the United States.
My company Hudson River Playback Theatre has done a number of climate change shows over the past eight years. We’ve learned that the stories are indeed there. But we need a much more careful process of warm-up than usual if we are going to find them. And we’ve also learned to be careful not to lead everyone into a pit of hopelessness, which will create paralysis rather than action.
In our most recent climate change show (which took place during the UN Paris talks and was part of a worldwide theatre initiative called Climate Change Theatre Action, in connection with the talks) we tried something new. We drew on the work of Joanna Macy,  a wise woman who has been working on environmental and social change issues for decades. As a response to the trap of despair, she developed the concept of a spiral that cycles through four stages:
- Gratitude—tuning into our deep love and appreciation for the natural world;
- Honoring our pain—allowing ourselves to feel our grief and anger at what is happening;
- Seeing with new eyes—finding perspectives that are inspiring or refreshing;
- Going forth—envisioning or celebrating actions and initiatives that contribute to positive change.
This spiral sequence allowed us to build a performance that took people deeper than they might otherwise have gone, leading to strong, focused stories that pointed toward active hope.
We also provided factual information both about climate change and about local action groups. This component is essential when we offer Playback shows on climate change and other pressing social justice topics. We want people to not only express their passion about nature, about their children, about the earth but also to put that passion into constructive action. Usually in Playback shows we don’t need to be so concerned about the connection between the stories and the follow-up. Telling the stories is in itself a form of action. But sometimes it is not enough by itself.
In this particular show we took several steps to help link personal stories to action:
- We included a fact sheet on climate change with our printed programs;
- We invited a local climate action group to bring an information table with sign-up sheets and petitions;
- We held a talkback immediately following the show where a climate expert responded to comments and questions from the audience.
It all added up to a fruitful, memorable event. Informally we’ve heard comments from several audience members about its impact. One person told us that he became a vegetarian as a result of learning about the connection between meat-eating and climate change. Another person has become an active member of a local climate action coalition.
But there is so much more to be done. We plan to keep offering shows on this topic in our community. We want to reach many more people. We also would like to explore a longer event, perhaps half a day where everyone gets involved in action rather than simply being tellers and audience. We hope to keep discovering and refining how we can use our form with as much impact as possible.
Other Playback groups are doing similar work. I hope that we will connect and strengthen each other, just as our audience members can connect and strengthen each other when they share their stories.
August 2019: A postscript
I want to add something at this point: in addition to the ways that I mention above, there is another very important way that Playback Theatre can contribute in a time of climate chaos, and that is by its inherent fostering of connection, communication, and kindness through the spontaneous, sincere exchange of personal stories—whether on the topic of the climate emergency or not. As our societies reel and splinter under the stresses of an unpredictable climate and its consequences, as fear and desperation threaten vital social bonds, our knowledge of how to bring people together and how to listen will become ever more needed.
 This discussion about using Playback Theatre to address climate change applies to using Playback as a way of addressing other issues of political and social concern as well. In such performances it is also helpful to use the spiral model that I describe below, and to provide factual information and opportunities for follow-up action. Hudson River Playback Theatre uses these principles in public Playback performances on the US’s current political crisis, for example.
 Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, New World Library, 2012
Jo Salas is the cofounder of Playback Theatre, the founder of Hudson River Playback Theatre, and the author of Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre, now published in 10 languages. She edits Playback Theatre Reflects and welcomes new submissions of thoughtful writing about Playback.