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Outdoor Shakespeare & the California Wildfires

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Mar 18, 2021 at 08:26 PM in Articles of Interest

A recent article by Lily Janiak published in the San Francisco Chronicle captures the urgent entanglement of Shakespeare and ecological crisis that forms the focus of Cymbeline in the Anthropocene

Outdoor Shakespeare & the California Wildfires

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect theatres across the world, Janiak's article examines an additional threat faced by theatre companies in the western United States: the annual hazard of smoke pollution from wildfires. "If there are vaccines for a virus," writes Janiak, "the countermeasures for wildfires involve enormous societal changes: eliminating dependence on carbon and performing controlled forestry burns."

The article cites recent data from climate researcher Marshall Burke of Stanford University, who has tracked the number of days under hazardous smoke levels in California. A featured graph demonstrates the drastic increase in smoky days across the region between 2006 and 2020. While Burke explains that "year-to-year smokiness will vary, his data suggests there will be three more smoky days, on average, each year."

Outdoor Shakespeare & the California Wildfires

Several artistic and managing directors of outdoor theatre companies in California are also interviewed, providing perspective on how this aspect of climate change is directly affecting the theatre world. Companies have begun to investigate technologies such as retractable roofs for their outdoor ampitheatres to shield audience, cast, and crew on particularly smoky days, or possibly even the measure of shifting the theatre season into winter, when fire season is at its least active. But even these changes would not guarantee complete safety while the ecological destruction that feeds these wildfires continues. 

Part of the immediate concern is the way wildfire smoke affects the air quality across an entire region, both causing and aggravating respiratory and other health problems in humans and other species. This is a particular danger to casts and crews in outdoor theatre, whose exposure to smoke pollution increases as they exert themselves physically to perform in these conditions. As summarized by Mary Prunicki, an expert in air pollution and health working at Stanford: "the heavier that you breathe, the more pollution your lungs will take in."

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene collaborator Katie Brokaw, of the Shakespeare in Yosemite theatre company, is interviewed at the end of the article. While theatres cannot directly stop wildfires or change climate policies around them, they can tell stories in a way that helps to shift the environmental literacy of the public. Asks Brokaw: "how do we use these stories and the reality of Shakespeare in the park — the fact that Shakespeare is so often performed outdoors — to highlight local environmental issues?"

Janiak ends her article with Brokaw's invocation of the "mazed world" speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which fairy queen Titania seems to foreshadow today's climate crisis: 

"The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which."

As the planet's seasons become increasingly extreme, Shakespeare's words resonate with the upheaval these changes wreak on human society and culture. Theatre companies such as those featured by Janiak, and the companies participating in Cymbeline in the Anthropocene, are finding new ways to tell the stories that the anthropocene will require for humans to understand it. 

Lily Janiak's article is available to read for free on the SF Chronicle's Datebook website, which you can reach by clicking on this sentence, but may be paywalled in regions outside North America. To join this discussion, tag us at @ecocymbeline on Twitter and Instagram, or use the hashtag #cymbelineanthropocene.