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Climate change takes to the stage as art, science combine

by Kyle Plantz | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 9 April 2015 10:45 GMT

The Crossroads Project performs, with Robert Davies at left and the Fry Street Quartet. PHOTO: ANDREW MCALLISTER

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Theatre and dance performances help audiences “emotionally come to grips” with the science – and take action

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Robert Davies, a physicist at Utah State University, started giving lectures on climate change in 2007, he found people’s eyes glazing over.

“What I was finding was that I was able to put together a good presentation and audiences were able to understand the information on an intellectual level, but they just weren’t connecting to it,” he said. “It didn’t seem real to them.”

How could he make the messages stick? He remembered that chamber music helped “unblock” his mind and help him think more creatively. So he approached the university’s ensemble in residence, the Fry Street Quartet, with an idea to combine music and science in a performance piece.

The members agreed and eventually added visual artists to their team as well. In 2012, The Crossroads Project made its premiere and since then the ensemble has been performing around the world, including in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.

Their performances include quartet music that varies from almost cheerful to a haunting melody, a presentation by Davies that incorporates photographs and paintings as he discusses “the impact of society’s unsustainable systems”, and time for the audience to meditate on the “crossroads” society has reached.

“The whole point is to lay the information out there in a visceral way to the audience, the scale of the impact of the risks that we are putting on the environment, and hope that it moves them toward a meaningful response,” said Davies, co-founder of The Crossroads Project.

“We don’t want the audience to leave in despair and disengaged from the work,” he said. “We want them to leave disturbed and motivated at the same time.”

Increasingly, as scientist try to find ways to engage people to act on climate change, they are mixing science and art, looking for a combination that educates, entertains and brings about action.

The right balance can be difficult to achieve, Davies admits, but ultimately science and art work well together, he believes.

“It’s really science coopting art in service of effective communication,” he said. “That artistic sensibility of letting (an audience) interpret what you are doing is completely counter to scientific sensibility, yet in that sense these two disciplines are highly complimentary to each other and each one fills in what the other lacks to communicate literally and viscerally.”



Theatre groups also are breaking from convention to try to find ways to educate as well as entertain on climate change issues.

In the show “2071”, Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London, uses a monologue about humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels to make climate change more engaging.

During the highly personal performance, he sits in a chair on stage for 75 minutes, and talks about his career and the future of climate change, with video images appearing behind him to support his arguments.

The title of the show comes from the fact that his granddaughter will be his current age in 2071 and he wants her to inherit an inhabitable planet.

“It is a subject of huge importance, but which presents certain challenges to a conventional theatrical approach,” said Duncan Macmillan, the writer of “2071”, which finished its run at the Royal Court Theatre in London in January.

“It is an issue of enormous complexity and requires the communication of a lot of data, something compelling drama resists.”

While some could argue that Rapley’s monologue is essentially another climate change lecture, Macmillan said his “presence gives the performance credibility and authority, and his personal experiences help humanise the science.”

“We felt it was vital to present the text in an objective, emotionally neutral tone,” he said. “… We wanted to inform and to empower, not lecture or argue.”



Climate change is also being communicated via dance, often with poetry, pictures, video or songs as accompaniment. “Cut the Sky”, put on by the Australian dance company Marrugeku at the Perth International Arts Festival in February, combined all of those to talk about the effects of global warming on indigenous populations around the world.

Based on the stories of people in the Kimberley region in Australia and on aboriginal land rights history, “Cut the Sky” looks at the past, present, and future of climate change in five acts, using poems, songs, multimedia, and contemporary dance.

“As artists, we have to find access points to deal with the complexity and magnitude of climate change,” said Rachel Swain, co-artistic director of Marrugeku. “We don’t quite know what’s going to happen and instead of coming at it logically, the audience can emotionally and physically come to grips with the concept of climate change instead.”

“They (audience members) don’t know what to think about it sometimes, especially if it’s an overwhelming concept,” she said. “They get knocked over the head with statistics and debates about the actual facts of it (climate change). Art can provide a framework for people to start to get their heads around it and think about their own implications on the problem.”

No matter the medium, Davies thinks well-presented art, combined with science, can work on both levels.

The arts, she said can “force people to come face to face with these issues of climate change in a shared experience with other people in the audience and in a space that forces them to think about it, and ultimately decide what they want to do with this information,” he said. “It can really connect to people’s lives.”

(Reporting by Kyle Plantz; editing by Laurie Goering)

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