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Reflections on Globe 4 Globe: Towards Eco-Optimal Shakespeare

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 04, 2021 at 07:49 PM in Cymbeline and the World

In April, Globe 4 Globe: Shakespeare and Climate Emergency became the first international symposium to address this increasingly pressing topic. Co-organized by Katie Brokaw, Paul Prescott, and the Research Department at Shakespeare’s Globe, the event brought together more than 30 theatre-makers, scholars, and sustainability experts, who presented culturally and theatrically diverse papers on eco-Shakespeare in performance, with a particular emphasis on its relationships with the deepening climate crisis. The breadth of artistic concepts and dramaturgical approaches makes it challenging to summarise the conference’s key takeaways. Nonetheless, three broad themes emerged: relations to place, sustainable practices, and environmental justice. 

Our thumbnail summaries of presentations are grouped here according to these themes—although it needs to be mentioned from the start that virtually every speaker also entangled and extended them. We’ll conclude this blog-essay by suggesting how the presentations pointed collectively to a new emergent concept: eco-optimal Shakespeare. To access all video recordings from Globe 4 Globe, click here to view them on the EarthShakes Alliance webpage. 


Many presenters focused on the active contributions of local or regional sites to performances from two interfacing perspectives: as places suffering directly from climate change or other negative environmental impacts represented through material or poetic analogies in Shakespeare’s works; and as sites of theatrical production operating under twenty-first-century conditions which inevitably reframe Shakespearean characters and stories as Anthropocene subjects. 

Madeline Sayet’s keynote talk, “Where Does The Story Meet the Earth,” captured these dual perspectives from the place-viewpoint of planetary nature, exemplified by immemorial relationships of Indigenous nations with their regional homelands, animals, and spiritualities, yet historically destroyed or demonized by American colonization. Sayet argued that incorporating local Indigenous references and cultural practices could fill in the “gaps” in Shakespeare’s early modern knowledge and narratives to create new, motivating performances of environmental and political decolonization.  

Nicolette Bethel and Philip Smith’s presentation about the Bahamian Shakespeare in Paradise Festival explored the Anthropocene-intensified destruction of hurricanes on the islands. The company’s recent productions of Macbeth and The Tempest offered theatrical mirrors for local actors’ and audiences’ experiences of hurricane devastation, as well as psychological partnerships for working through its personal traumas. Shakespeare’s characters became new hurricane subjects within painfully compounding legacies of colonial violence. 

Paul Moss and Tom Dixon discussed the environmental motivations and practice of their four-person all-male or all-female company, The Handlebards. Each group carries entire productions of Shakespeare on bicycle-tours of up to 1500 miles up and down Britain. Rather than being focused on one site, their ethos is place-itinerant. Building performances from local topographic features and improvised audience engagements, these “found” physical and human resources become the groundwork of each ecologically adaptive performance. Materially entwining place and practice, The Handlebards brilliantly demonstrate how the carbon footprint of Shakespeare in performance can be radically reduced while maximizing artistic creativity. 

For Shakespeare in Yosemite, founded by Katie Brokaw and Paul Prescott in 2017, the eponymous National Park becomes a “found” site on a grand scale, and a model of human-nature collaboration. The company’s shows recreate Shakespeare’s plays with pointed yet accessible environmental messaging for northern California audiences, in performances debuting annually on Earth Day (22 April). Shakespeare in Yosemite also makes a special virtue of musical adaptation to sing the personally transformative potential of the Yosemite wilderness. Their 2021 adaptation of Cymbeline, “Imogen in the Wild,” will celebrate the Yosemite ecosystem in a full-length feature film, already partially in view in several trailers and music-videos. 

Susanna Best and Phil Bowen’s remarkable recreation of the first Globe theatre from local willow trees in rural Powys, Wales, materializes local site, habitat, and ecodramaturgy in a uniquely holistic way. As the founders of the open-air Willow Globe remarked in their presentation, contemporary place and weather dictate everything about their theatre space and its Shakespeare performances. Each one creates a subtly, or occasionally not so subtle, changing journey into contemporary nature through environmentally corporeal Shakespeare. The Atmospheric Theatre project being led by Chloe Preedy and Evelyn O’Malley of the University of Exeter likewise incorporates a “weathering” philosophy into the dramaturgic practices of eco-Shakespeare. Their project maps UK performance sites using company and spectator fieldwork to track the impact of local atmospheres on performances of Shakespeare, and to use the results to construct resources for environmental education. 

Theo Black’s presentation showed that the 2017 Montana-Shakespeare-in-the-Parks performances of Macbeth in the choking air of raging Western wildfires that year gave new, distinctly Anthropocene meanings to the play’s ideas of “visible air.” This involuntarily “shared” air became a metadramatic shadow player like the Weird Sisters within the dramatic fiction, temporally haunting present-day ambitions with prophetically tragic futures. Like the Willow Globe and Atmospheric Theatre projects, Black’s presentation demonstrated that there is no longer any off-stage in Shakespeare performed under conditions of anthropogenic climate change. 

That was also a central focus of Patrick Lonergan’s “Shakespeare and the Orbis Spike” and Sophie Chiari’s “Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens?". Lonergan’s starting-point was Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s research showing that the Anthropocene began in 1610 with a significant drop in CO2 levels caused by the collapse of Indigenous populations exposed to European pathogens -- a drop that has been measurably reversed by the greater spike in anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Our unavoidable awareness of this threat reshapes conventional notions about what environments have become and how they signify in contemporary criticism and performance. Chiari’s presentation made a similar point about rain and associated floods in Shakespeare. When staged in outdoor on-the-body performances which may include real precipitation, Shakespeare’s rain merges with our own “weather-worlds” (Tim Ingold) to create palpable Anthropocene events.   

Symposium participants marvelled at another site of environmentally heightened Shakespeare: Butterfly Theatre’s performances in the Pleistocene-era Kents Cavern, near Torquay, England. The company’s name refers not to creatures in the caves, but to the local “butterfly effect” of distant, seemingly trivial perturbations causing major phenomenal events (e.g. the flapping of butterfly wings indirectly influencing the emergence of tornados). Such nonlinear relationships have become the anti-method for the company’s actors. So too the “epic” immersion of the caves recursively adapts Shakespeare from prehistoric ecological perspectives that challenge modern anthropocentric ones. The “feminist pastoral” discussed by Sujata Iyengar in “Maiden[‘s] Blossoms: A Meditation on Climate Grief” is also grounded in epic forces such as the earthquakes referenced by the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Usually dismissed as a stereotypical female tangent, the Nurse’s references to earthquakes continue to reverberate mourning for the loss of her daughter in the powerful utterances of mother earth (now artificially dislocated by fracking, just as the authenticity of the Nurse’s felt comparison has been buried by dismissive critics). Elegizing co-dependent human and geophysical losses represents a significant emerging mode of Anthropocene ecodramaturgy. 

The most expansive illustration of place-immersive eco-Shakespeare was the feature film Paddayi, discussed by director Abhaya Simha, and analysed by activist-filmmaker Jayaraj (temporarily available on Youtube--click here!). The film is an Indian Tulu-language adaptation of Macbeth combining documentary and Bollywood aesthetics. It recreates Shakespeare’s tale of vaulting political ambition as a conflict between sustainable and exploitative fishing practices in a South Indian coastal community near Mangalore. The shrinking fish population is also being starved because of a river diversion that is depriving their feeding grounds, the Western Ghats, of nutrients. As Jayaraj remarked, the collapsing ecosystems and starved fish speak through the mentalities and actions of the story’s main characters, as well as their directly tragic environmental impacts.  

Two presentations spoke from Eastern European places. Philip Parr, director of the community theatre project, Parrabola, presented extracts from their Covid-19 audio project for the 2020 Craiova Shakespeare Festival, This Distemperature. Romanian actors performed seasonally themed speeches from Shakespeare’s plays which addressed local deforestation, wildfires, manmade disasters, and storms. Ilana Gilovich brought an ecocritical eye to Serbian filmmaker Goran Paskaljevic’s San Nimske Noci / A Midwinter Night’s Dream, a dystopian adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. The film foregrounds the country’s ecological degradation as a result of its civil wars, which imposes displacement and migration on a former Serbian soldier, his girlfriend, and his adopted daughter. The latter’s autism, however, transforms her into an environmental diviner who partially salvages her fractured and traumatized family. 

Claire Hansen’s “Shakespeare in the Tropics” illustrated how place-based environmental education can serve to make Shakespeare relevant to the lives of students in Queensland, Australia. To make Shakespeare their eco-contemporary, Hansen had them choose familiar outdoor sites for staging scenes from Macbeth, allowing them to reconstruct environmentally invested characters and shared stories.

Place-based eco-adaptation was also at the heart of Gretchen Minton’s Timon of Anaconda. Videoed on-site, Minton’s presentation described her theatrical recreation of Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton’s Timon of Athens through the modern environmental tragedy of the Anaconda copper mine in Butte, Montana. The abandoned open-pit mine is now the location of largest pool of chemically toxic water in the United States. Rather than following the moralizing direction of the original Timon, however, Minton makes Timon’s Steward and a small community of survivors, including a local dog, the embodiment of Butte’s contemporary determination to regenerate its local ecosystem, partly though bridge-building projects such as Minton’s brilliant adaptation.


Sustainable Practices 

G4G also served as the occasion for the launch of a global collective of environmentally conscious theatre-makers: The EarthShakes Alliance, spearheaded by Paul Prescott and Katie Brokaw at The University of California, Merced. The Alliance has already recruited several larger metropolitan companies, such as Shakespeare’s Globe, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Prague Shakespeare Company, as well as numerous regional and community theatres. The diversity of their initiative represents a breakthrough for Shakespearian ecodramaturgy, since until this point it has been local amateur and semi-amateur companies that have pioneered the artistic and best-practices activism of eco-Shakespeare. Given that there are thousands of such companies around the world, the scope for growth of this environmentally self-conscious movement is enormous. The Alliance asks collaborating companies to make a non-binding and incremental pledge to a list of sustainability goals posted on their website-in-progress. 

In a second presentation on The Handlebards, Ronan Hatful specifically addressed the company’s commitments to “sustainable Shakespearean energy” through “radically reduced” consumption and production choices. These are obvious not only in the company’s use of bicycles rather motorized vans for their tours, but also in their self-imposed limitations through exclusively recycled props, costumes, and scenery. Hatful showed conclusively, however, that such material discipline does not cramp his colleagues’ artistic imaginations, but rather expands them while cycling the talk of environmentally accountable theatre-making.    

Claire Frampton related a notable success-story about the twinning of climate-change mitigation with performance activism in “Shakespeare in anti-oil sponsorship protests.” She described the unscheduled interventions of the “BP or not BP” movement during performances by the RSC in 2012 to protest the artistic sponsorship of fossil-fuel corporation British Petroleum. Their clever, amusing, and ultimately successful demos, repeated in later performances inside and outside RSC theatres, attracted media attention and gradually turned public opinion against carbon-compromised sponsorship. The RSC finally ended its dependence on BP funding in 2019, and London’s National Theatre followed suit in its relationship with Shell. In her keynote presentation, “Using Shakespeare to Change Hearts and Minds,” sustainability consultant Solitaire Townsend demonstrated using Shakespeare in a different mode of environmental activism. In order to persuade UK businesses to raise their environmental standards, Townsend routinely deploys familiar quotations from Shakespeare, and especially passages related to natural environments, to motivate corporate commitments to decarbonizing and sustainably enhancing policies. Her strategy has been a material success. 

Environmental Justice 

Sustainability is virtually synonymous with environmental justice because of what Rob Nixon calls the Anthropocene’s “slow extinction” of non-human species and human communities by exploitative capitalism and racially assymmetrical power-structures. Many papers touched on these intersections, beginning with Madeline Sayet’s keynote. Several presentations, however, made emancipatory justice a special focus, such as that by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They critiqued the construction of ecophobic narratives by American 19th-century frontier culture. These became weapons for mythologizing the “natural” dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands and identities, and the “destined” extinction of co-dependent animal populations. The OSF’s commitments to staging Shakespeare through environmental and racially inclusive practices represents a cry for public truth and land reparations for this entrenched historical legacy, in theatrical partnership with Indigenous nations and BIPOC actors. 

Alys Daroy’s presentation moved in a similar arc. It began by acknowledging that she was speaking from the original land of the Kaurna people in what is now called Australia. She then implicitly linked the idea of land as an ontological force to Shakespeare’s frequent topographic-human interrelations, and from there to E.O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia. It posits that humans have an evolved affinity to value other lifeforms and their habitats – an appreciation which can be increased through ecological knowledge. Eco-dramaturgy and -scenography can stimulate these instincts to combat and remediate ecophobic human impacts, which include colonial ecocidal policies towards Kaurna Aboriginals and their lands. 

Bill Kroeger’s “All the World’s a Stag: As You Like It’s ecologies of exile” presented a more dialectical version of this decolonizing arc. It noted that ecophobic attitudes at the heart of imperial and environmental injustice come to dominate the more-than-human empathy of figures as Corin and Jaques. But Rosalind’s performative substitutions with animal and male imaginaries crosses back into a re-engaged eco-subjectivity that moves to correct racialized and acculturated norms of oppressing nature. 

Hanh Bui’s “Youth, Age, and Pastoral Guardianship” exposed one of the latter norms in framing the challenge of modern ageing populations as an environmental justice issue. Bui noted how Covid-19 has heightened antipathy towards, and/or neglect of, ageing populations because of their alleged non-utility. Pandemic and neo-liberal environmental attitudes have favoured short-term profit and expediency over long-term stewardship of the elderly and vulnerable. Characters such as Shakespeare’s Old Adam in As You Like It illustrate this cultural scapegoating but also represent opportunities to tell positive intergenerational stories which highlight elder-care of humans that are intimately connected to their local environments.       

Eco-optimal Shakespeare

As our thumbnails hint at, one further leading trope of many of the G4G papers was the Anthropocene ethos of maximal extraction towards human and non-human resources in the pursuit of unlimited economic growth and privatized profit. It is arguably the root cause of the climate emergency. Its counterforce is a commitment to rebalancing human-dominated interests with more environmentally sustainable investments and more-than-human cultural paradigms.

We might call this emerging ethic eco-optimality. Its approach to dealing with human and animal others is relational and co-transformative, rather than unidirectional and exploitative. Because it is mutually respectful, eco-optimality reinscribes positive cultural and practical boundaries on human uses of animals and the environment. Through both creative representation and material practices, it stages more equitable redistribution of the Earth’s bounty in order to substantiate universal rights to food, housing, and health security.

Eco-optimal Shakespeare also takes inspiration from collective, multilateral solutions to climate change and other environmental upheavals. It resituates and enmeshes Shakespeare in local design and performance to motivate community resilience towards both the predicted and unforeseen calamities of Anthropocene. And it animates this realistically hopeful solidarity, affectively and imaginatively, through contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s original plays.
The path-blazing intelligence and creativity of Globe 4 Globe’s practitioners and scholars affirmed the generative futures of eco-optimal Shakespeare. Their work will nonetheless continue to remain burdened with necessary sorrow for the planet we have violated and populations we have destroyed. This melancholy is just as emotionally valuable as dramatic representations of environmental hope. Eco-optimal Shakespeare steers clear of either eco-utopian or eco-catastrophic Shakespeare, aiming for a phenomenally inclusive ethos of life-changing performance.