About the Cymbeline-Anthropocene Project

Research Question(s)

As the scale of ongoing climate crisis becomes more urgent and evident, what can theatre—and more specifically, Shakespeare performance—do to create positive ecological change?

Why performance?

We are living in the Anthropocene, an era of massive, human-caused ecological crisis. Western, and now global, models of maximal resource extraction and endless free-market growth are the root cause of climate, extinction, and sea-level crises on such a scale that it can be difficult to make sense of the damage, let alone to imagine a way forward.

As foundational ecologist Aldo Leopold recognized, “no important change in [ecological] ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” Cultures all over the planet have long depended on various forms of storytelling to make sense of the world, to reimagine our relationships with the world, and to feel its worth. Stage drama, as a form of storytelling, has the added benefit of stirring spectators through shared sensory and cognitive embodiment among actors, characters, audiences, and their environments. Theatre has the power to change our minds, to help us understand the world, to teach us empathy—and, perhaps, to awaken a drive toward ecological action.

Recent scholarship in the field of performance studies has examined new possibilities for sustainable and environmentally engaged theatre. Ecodramaturgy, a term created by Theresa J. May in 2010, describes a theatre-making ethic that “create[s] dramatic counter-narratives and alternative [theatrical] forms that resist environmental and cultural imperialism by exposing its mechanisms, amplifying the voices of those places and peoples it has silenced or ignored, and advocating ecological reciprocity between the earth and its inhabitants.” Ecodramaturgy in practice means making theatre that not only radically acknowledges climate change, but that also engages audiences and creators alike to rethink and act upon our relationships with local and global ecosystems.

Why Shakespeare?

Although Shakespeare’s canonical status is often contested, and his work has historically been used as a tool of European imperialism, his works have been adopted and adapted into hundreds of languages and cultures. Today, Shakespeare remains the world’s most frequently staged playwright, including in several culturally specific Shakespeare traditions far beyond the author’s original English language and culture. This global familiarity and cultural fluidity make Shakespeare’s works particularly useful if we are to think about theatre and ecology on a global and international as well as a local scale.

A growing number of literary Shakespeare scholars have begun in recent years to examine how Shakespeare’s plays represent many early signs ecological damage. The author would have witnessed some of these changes as England began to industrialize in the Early Modern period; those early, localized signs have since developed and contributed to today’s planetary crisis.

While appreciation for Shakespeare’s nascent environmental consciousness has grown, modern stagings, especially by commercial and/or state-subsidized theatres, have tended to avoid ecodramaturgy and environmental activism owing to distaste for didacticism or fear of offending corporate donors. The eight theatres collaborating in the Cymbeline Anthropocene project take up this challenge in a ground-breaking—or, perhaps, ground-making—international experiment in ecodramaturgy that will encourage new, interdisciplinary connections among Shakespeare scholars, theatre practitioners, and environmentally concerned citizens. This project proposes that collaborative local performances of Cymbeline’s diverse ecosystems can provide a gateway for imagining resistance to ecological damage.

What can we create?

Cymbeline Anthropocene will create an open ­access research archive of eight international productions of Shakespeare’s tragi­comic romance, Cymbeline. Performances in Asia, Australia, North America, and Europe will explore the historical and contemporary ecological values of this environmentally rich and suggestive play. Productions will also creatively adapt Cymbeline in the light of local environmental conditions and challenges. As they do, the project’s online research archive will connect and broaden their collective scope by tracking experiences and artifacts from the individual rehearsal and staging processes.

Cymbeline Anthropocene is the first collective effort to present Shakespeare’s ecological insights to diverse audiences beyond academia or the Anglosphere. It will create a uniquely valuable ecocritical and performance studies archive for Shakespeare scholars and theatre practitioners. The archive’s performance research documentation will also reveal the environmental thinking and practices behind the stage productions and invite community audiences to diversify and enrich the meanings of those performances. The inclusivity and dynamism of the archive will create more equitable exchanges of specialized and general knowledge among artists, academics, and citizens. The project will also encourage future interdisciplinary collaboration among Shakespeare scholars, theatre practitioners, and environmentally concerned communities. The aesthetic, critical, and material insights collected by the research archive will result in a compact global vision of dwelling in the Anthropocene, and will facilitate personal and cultural understanding of the era’s impacts across global borders.