Elizabeth Freestone on plays to save the world

Elizabeth Freestone is a theatre director, creative consultant and environmentalist. She has directed plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, the Young Vic and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory amongst many others. She is a former Artistic Director of Pentabus, a new work touring company. She also offers strategic advice and dramaturgical and environmental consultancy in both a paid and volunteer capacity for various organisations, as well as teaching and mentoring young artists. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Humanities from Bath Spa University.

Nick Hern Books | 100 Plays to Save the World, By Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare



I spent lockdown doing two things: making furniture and learning.

I blagged a job at a furniture-makers, confident that occasional experiences of wielding a paintbrush backstage would see me through. What I didn’t expect was the profound experience that working with materials would give me. The furniture company who took a risk on me are all about reclaimed wood. The furniture is beautiful and bespoke, each piece unique. It’s time-consuming to build and requires constant practical and aesthetic judgements. Is this knot beautiful or annoying? In 5 years-time, will that crack expand or contract? When does ‘textured ‘tip over into ‘rough’? While sawing and chopping, screwing and hammering, I found myself thinking about the journey all of the materials had been on to get to the workshop. Where did this piece of timber begin life? What damage was done to the earth in mining the metal for this nail? How did this furniture wax settle into this tin? I also wondered about what would happen to everything afterwards. How should I dispose of a broken drill-bit? What’s happening in the air when I spray that paint? The furniture itself should last for life (if I build it properly) but what happens to it when a customer’s house eventually gets cleared? Where does it go?

The circular economy is built on a simple idea, that there is enough STUFF in the world already; it just needs to be used properly, then reused/repaired/recycled. The (very Wombles) theory is that everything is useful to someone. But the production chain in manufacturing is long, stretching well beyond my workbench. Everything from the sourcing of the timber to the disposal of the sawdust needs planning, a series of tiny decisions that collectively add up to a negative or positive impact on the environment. Conversations with suppliers, anticipating waste in advance of construction, examining the legacy of disposal. . . all require deep attention and planning. Some things are obvious. Work with other businesses: bent nails and old screws to the blacksmith. Cardboard to the warehouse. Sawdust to the pet shop. Other things are not so obvious: planting that can outpace making. Machinery that is powered by biofuel. Where to put waste that cannot be further reduced or reused.

Theatre already excels at this mode of thinking; economic necessity and exceptional craftsmanship combine with creative thinking and a go-getting attitude. Of course, there is more we can do (there is always more), but with numerous sustainable production initiatives, environmental guides to theatre-making, and extensive recycling networks, the industry is already making and will continue to make a significant impact in reducing its carbon footprint and lessening environmental damage.

But what about the onstage work? The other thing I did during lockdown was learn. I did a Master’s degree in Environmental Humanities, studying science and sustainability and looking at how stories, philosophies and narratives shape people’s understanding of the natural world and therefore their ability to act and react to the climate crisis. What is the consequence of believing humans have ‘dominion’ over other living creatures? How does ‘quality of living’ drive people to resource-exhausting consumerism? What is the legacy of colonialism on the global south’s experience of climate change?

Sustainable practice means much more than just recycling the set. It means environmentalism on stage, in the stories that are told and in how we tell them. My (LED) light-bulb moment over this past 18 months is that the climate crisis is not one problem but multiple problems. My fellow student Ásta Magnúsdóttir (currently working to expose greenwashing in the fashion industry) asked in one lecture ‘what exactly is the problem we’re trying to solve?’ and that question has rung around my head ever since. The global thermostat being kept under 1.5 degrees is the dominant discourse at international policy level. And of course it is imperative that this target is met. But it’s not the only problem. Stop burning fossil fuels, sure. But what does that mean for endangered species? Move over to electric cars, fine. But what’s the impact of mining lithium for the batteries? Invest in desalination technology, ok. But what about the millions of people already escaping resource wars and scarcity? There are multiple narratives that need to be told to capture both the scale and specificity of the crisis. We need playwriting that zooms out to the macro as well as focusing in on the personal. We need plays to both critique existing situations and evolve new thinking. We need work that bears witness as well as establishing new narratives, acknowledging the lived experience of all the peoples of the world as well as pushing through to new paradigms and alternative visions of the future. Intergenerational and international stories are needed to highlight individual experiences whilst revealing the trajectory of the planet as a whole. This is an emergency built on a million domestic tragedies with an urgent political imperative. Theatre can capture both.

But it’s not just content. Form is where playwriting can really stretch its activist muscles. Playwrights have raw materials too: time, place and action. I’ve co-written a book about plays about the climate crisis. In researching it I have read hundreds of plays with environmental themes. My observation is that much of the boldest climate playwriting is coming from countries that are already on the frontline of the climate crisis. This is not a coincidence. The wildest plays are born from the imaginations of writers whose neighbourhoods are burning and whose homes are flooding. The further you are from the daily lived reality of the climate crisis the quieter and more formally conservative the plays. Australia, for example, battling with decades of forest fires and drought, has become a home of vivid, thrilling playwriting. A new genre of eco-farce, musicals about ethical sponsorship dilemmas, animals narrating stories of their own decline, are all vying for stage time. The further we are away from the crisis, the more straight-laced the plays seem to become – men in suits debating nuance, personal guilt, plaintive eulogies. Yet we are all in this same fight, whether we realise it or not, and we have to question if there is place – let alone enough time – for softly, softly, subtle, subtle.

The dramatic images and events we are witnessing daily on the news require a dynamic visual and verbal language. The intersectionality of many of the issues – such as extreme weather and the pernicious crime of environmental racism, colonialism and climate justice, industrial imperialism and eco-feminism – mean huge stories can be told. These might be from multiple perspectives, crossing continents and time-zones, joining characters together in a global perspective. Or they might be dealing with deep time, placing the human experience in the context of the longevity of the earth’s existence, as well as imaginatively looking back on this present moment from the next generation, or the one after that, creating a futurist legacy that pulls the theatrical rug from under our feet. Such deep time narratives unsettle audiences and shift us from now-centred comfort, our default position.

Theatre can also be used to bear witness, to honour lived experience with a new form of verbatim testimony as part of a global conversation, the voices of those directly affected given prominence and agency. The breakdown of lifeways, cultures and societies is being mirrored by an explosion of new language, technologies and ideas. How does playwriting give this theatrical form? Sparse language and fragmentation has its place as does kaleidoscopic imagery and linguistic invention. Artist-activists can inject the absurd and the visually disturbing into the received wisdom of well-made plays, a subversive energy built into traditional structures. Sustainable theatre-making built into the production text is an exciting option, whether that be through actions on stage powering the show’s technical requirements or audiences contributing their energy or experiences to share the storytelling responsibility. The physical world of a production, and its offstage imagined circumstances, can take on enormous vitality, whether it is a play set on an allotment, or on Mars.

Now is the time to cut-loose and dream across all the imaginative planes: alter chronology, back into deep time or far into the future; go vertical, into the geological record or the fragile envelope of our skybound atmosphere; go ephemeral, into sensory shifts and absurdist break-throughs. The climate crisis demands collaboration and cross-disciplinary work that will more honestly and dynamically reflect the multiple assaults on body, sense and imagination that this moment in human history is unleashing. This is our new reality, whether we like it or not. Our culture must not just be reactive to fast-changing circumstances but lead the way and shape the narrative.

The climate march in Glasgow involved multiple groups from across the world, Indigenous Peoples walking alongside trade unions, faith groups next to climate justice activists, political parties in solidarity with youth organisations, a powerful visible demonstration of individual narratives forming a greater might, that of a collective humanity. Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, has said the climate crisis is at its root a failure of imagination – a failure to imagine a new way of living, thinking and being in the world. The creative arts have never been more necessary.

We – artists, thinkers, makers – have a responsibility to communicate the climate emergency. We need writers to step up and explore the multi-faceted, inter-connected, complex collision of environmental challenges we are now facing. The world is re-shaping itself violently in the physical realm and that is impacting on the re-shaping of stories we need to tell, not just for now but for generations to come. Just as the climate emergency will be the dominant discourse in our political, economic and social spheres, so it will, in many ways, be the subject of all of our art for the foreseeable future.

Writers need to step into the power of a total theatre. Stretch the audience’s imaginations, dare to ask the big questions, and for God’s sake, make us laugh. The Bruntwood Prize places real value on playwrights’ intelligent, focused urgency and compassionate understanding. This is the moment for a generation of writers to embrace epic environmental stories told in thrilling theatrical ways. Step up. The world needs you.


Published on:
19 Nov 2021


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