Performance and the Environment

“Reflecting on Environmental Change Through Site-Based Performance” was one of thirteen research networks being supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council during the year 2010-11. The networks all responded to a call for proposals on “Researching Environmental Change,” and formed part of the AHRC’s wider Landscape and Environment agenda.

This particular network aimed to examine the potential of site-based performance as a means of investigating and representing the dynamics of environmental change. We defined site-based performances as events located in spaces whose physical features and/or known histories will in some way shape the meaning-making processes of performers, audiences and potentially the wider public. This is distinct from the conventional treatment of theatre stages as neutral vessels for self-sufficient performances.

A performance event sited in and reflecting on a given environment can be a highly appropriate way to focus attention on environmental questions. Its impact can be immediate, in engaging diverse members of the public and prompting them to
look at their surroundings afresh. However, most genuinely site-specific performance practice tends to be explicitly local in orientation–reflecting on local history or community identity, for example, or the perceptual properties of a given landscape. This network aimed to foreground the critical question of how such performance strategies can best be directed toward engaging spectators / participants with the global question of environmental and climatic change.

How might changes on the global/macro level be perceived and comprehended within the local/micro? Equally importantly, how might the local specifics of human habitation and environmental impact be used as a means by which to comprehend impacts on the global ecosystem? By addressing the immediate and intimate, can problems such as the greenhouse effect, that might too easily seem abstract and overwhelming, be “brought home” in a manner that is both comprehensible and relevant?

The network sought to “join the dots” of this debate by various means. On the one hand, we examined existing forms of site-based practice which are already seeking to connect the micro and macro. Often such practitioners work in relative isolation, with little wider recognition of their work, so one task was to identify and analyse examples of “best practice,” and to consider what general lessons might be extrapolated from these cases. On the other hand, the network also had an eye toward generating new, critically-informed practice.