About the Cymbeline-Anthropocene Project

Research Question(s)

As the scale of the climate and other environmental crises becomes more urgent, what can theatre—and more specifically, Shakespeare in adaptation and performance—do to motivate personal action and create positive ecological change?

Why performance?

We are living in the Anthropocene, an era of massive, multifaceted, crisis. Western models of maximal resource extraction and endless free-market growth were first established by European colonialism in Shakespeare's period. They have since globalized to cause climate, extinction, sea-level, and pollution crises on such a scale that it can be difficult to make sense of the damage, let alone to imagine mitigating and sustainable ways forward.

Cultures all over the planet have long depended on various forms of storytelling to understand the world, to shape our relationships with nature, and to recognize its value. Stage drama, as a form of storytelling, has the added benefit of stirring spectators through shared sensory and cognitive embodiment among contemporary actors, their dramatic characters, audiences, and their fictional and actual environments. 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.” Theatrical story-telling has the power to change our hearts and minds, to reveal our interconnectedness with other species, 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 coined 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 is research-in-practice which radically acknowledges the impacts of of climate change and other envionmental crises on local communities. It is also committed to practising materially sustainable modes of performance and production. And it 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 now often contested, and his work has historically been used as a tool of European imperialism, his works have been translated and adapted into scores of languages and cultures. Today, Shakespeare remains the world’s most frequently staged playwright, including in culturally distinct Shakespeare traditions far different from those in early modern England. That is partly because they are a resource free from copyright restrictions. This combination of global familiarity, public access, and intercultural fluidity make Shakespeare’s works particularly useful if we are to think about theatre and ecology on international as well as local scales.

A growing number of Shakespeare scholars have begun in recent years to examine how Shakespeare’s plays represent many early signs of ecological damage in a scholarly practice known as ecocriticism. The author would have witnessed some of these changes as English people began to travel and trade globally in the early modern period and to industrialize at home. Shakespeare ecocritics rediscover those early signs and show how they have since developed and contributed to today’s planetary crisis, or how they analogize present-day enviomental degradaition and existential risks. 

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 seven theatres collaborating in the Cymbeline Anthropocene project take up this challenge in a ground-breaking—or, perhaps, ground-making—international experiment in ecodramaturgy. Our project seeks to encourage new, interdisciplinary connections among Shakespeare scholars, theatre practitioners, and environmentally concerned citizens. It proposes that collaborative local performances of Cymbeline’s diverse environmental encounters and ecosystems can provide a gateway for imagining resistance to damaging policies and practices, and for fostering understanding of contemporary environmental challenges across global borders.  

What can we create? What can we model? 

Cymbeline Anthropocene builds an open-­access research archive of seven international productions of Shakespeare’s late romance play. Performances in Australia, South America, North America, and Europe explore the historical and contemporary ecological values of this environmentally rich and suggestive play. All the productions adapt Cymbeline in the light of local and present-day environmental conditions. The project’s blogs and online research and performance document and publically disseminate their artistic creations and material artifacts from rehearsal to perfomance.   

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, performance studies, and public humanities resource for Shakespeare scholars and theatre practitioners. The archive’s research-in-performance documentation reveals the environmental thinking and practices and artistic design and labour behind the stage productions, as well as their goals of social inclusion and more-than-human justice. Our documentation also tracks community contributions and responses that have diversified and enriched the meanings and outcomes of performances. It likewise shows how the lives of local people working on the productions have been changed -- in some cases profoundly -- by contributing to them. The dynamism of the performances and the archive mobilizes equitable transfers of specialized and general knowledge among artists, academics, and citizens. The aesthetic, critical, and material insights collected by the research archive aspire to a compact international vision of present-day dwelling in the Anthropocene.

Above all, we hope that our project will encourage future interdisciplinary collaboration among Shakespeare scholars, theatre practitioners, and environmentally concerned citizens and communities. Although this project focuses on a single play, we believe it pioneers a model of ecological research-in-practice that can be fruitfully adapted and applied to other Shakespeare works, or other early modern or later plays.