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Reflections on Cymbeline in the Anthropocene in 2021

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Dec 20, 2021 at 10:14 PM in Cymbeline and the World

On the eve of the winter solstice, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene project leader Randall Martin reflects on the theatrical brilliance and the ecological revelations that glinted through another dark year.  2021 brought many hard lessons to the world, to theatre artists, and to Cymbeline in the Anthropocene, but with these also came hope, innovation, and many an adaptation. 

 Reflections on Cymbeline in the Anthropocene in 2021

For the record 

The year began with the first cases of the Delta variant being detected. Its arrival caused most theatres to remain closed after they were shuttered in Spring 2020, and continued to delay our project’s performance schedule by more than a year. It was with bated breath that we watched case numbers drop and theatres tentatively reopen in Australia, where early lockdowns yielded a much-needed season of respite and celebration. 

Much to our delight, director Rob Conkie’s indoor production of Cymbeline, performed by La Trobe University drama students in Melbourne, took place in April. It was the first of four participating productions to open this year. 

Montana Shakespeare in the Park’s outdoor touring production, directed by Kevin Asselin, opened in Bozeman on 16 June and played in over 30 different locations before finishing in Missoula on September 8. 

The Willow Globe production, directed by Sue Best and Phil Bowen, debuted in Powys Wales on 25 June, and the final performance took place on September 12. 

Shakespeare in Yosemite normally stages their annual production in the eponymous Park on Earth Day (22 April). But owing to the pandemic, directors Katie Brokaw, Paul Prescott, and William Wolfgang made the ambitious decision to create a feature film of their show. Imogen in the Wild premiered on 20 November and remains permanently available on YouTube. 

During the autumn Mónica Maffía’s Buenos Aires-based company, Setebos, began workshopping their new Spanish-language adaptation of Cymbeline for an anticipated performance on Earth Day 2022.


Action not symbols 

But the year ends with a sense of déjà vu as the Omicron variant is now putting at risk the remaining contributions to our project prior to our culminating performance festival in July. 

Last month, COP26 in Glasgow exposed yet again the failure of politicians to enact substantial reductions in CO2 emissions, or of richer countries to alleviate the disproportionate impacts of climate change on less developed and/or historically colonised lands. Yet outside the privileged official proceedings, a multitude of public demos, media interventions, and NGO exhibits reinforced aspirations to replace the dominant Anthropocene paradigm of carbon-powered growth and consumption with sustainable and equitable alternatives. Imagining these new structural models is as much a cultural imperative as an economic and scientific challenge. 

Covid-19 lockdowns have motivated student and professional artists to invent brilliant new expressions of Shakespeare in performance (e.g. Ricardo II, which we recapped on this blog). Similarly, the harrowing devastation of this year’s floods, fires, and storms has inspired new forms of artistic collaboration to foster ecological consciousness, motivate good ancestry practices, and increase public pressure on world leaders to reach beyond selfish national interests. 

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene is excited to be contributing to this cultural transformation. This year it has been doing so by blazing new ecodramaturgical pathways of climate-change and environmental activism. These discoveries have diversified and supported more conventional protests, boycotts, tactical disruption, and electoral mobilization. 

Expanding activism through eco-Shakespearian performance 

Ecotheatre has tended to avoid direct environmental messaging for several reasons. In the form of agit-prop, it tends to make spectators feel they are being lectured, hectored, or excluded if they are not already committed to a political group. Direct address about environmental crises can also sound like daily news headlines which lack imaginative spark or emotional punch, no matter how worthy the cause (“Save the rainforests!”). 

But affective and gripping ecodramaturgy can also be the message. As Shakespeare in Yosemite’s music-rich Imogen in the Wild demonstrates, if direct calls to climate change action are packaged in playfully Shakespearian music videos with catchy tunes and visuals (e.g. Cat Flores’s “Earth’s Cry”), they can stimulate imaginative breakthroughs in both contemporary viewers and new-generation performers themselves.  

Such reinventions are part of a wider strategy in several of this year’s shows: to re-appropriate Shakespeare’s Cymbeline to tell new environmental stories that speak to spectators' personal experiences of local threats or disasters (e.g. dramaturge Gretchen Minton’s ecofeminist revisioning of Cymbeline for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks; or Imogen in the Wild’s rewriting of the play’s national sovereignty conflicts as an endemic confrontation between capitalist development and wilderness conservation).  

The ontology of these ecological re-appropriations, we might say, is lively environmental empathy, not the ethical detachment of traditional aesthetic adaptation. As Imogen in the Wild actor Chase Brantley (Cloten) remarks, theatre (and film) is a space to dream purposefully about how ecological hope, change, and action can and must happen. As his colleague Sofia Andom (Imogen) also observes, Shakespearean ecodramaturgy encourages us to rethink the essential cultural question: “who is nature for?” In other words, it invites audiences to imagine alternatives to the short-term economics of extraction and profit, epitomised by Cymbeline’s Queen and Cloten, and its attendant intersectional injustices. 

The Melbourne production, to cite another of this year’s examples, set Cymbeline’s three interwoven plots in now almost-annual 40 degrees Celsius summer heat. Spectators watched characters consciously and unconsciously reacting to on-the-body climate change. The production therefore mirrored a menacing atmospheric reality that now touches Australian spectators in their daily lives. Like Imogen in the Wild, this production also rewrote Cymbeline’s war between British and Roman armies as forces abetting or defending animals and people against the wildfires that have devastated Western Australia, especially in 2018-19, and which have made smoky summers the new normal for audiences in California, Montana, and elsewhere.  

Getting physical with the Anthropocene: environmental partnering

Ecodramaturgical activism is also not just something written into the appropriated content of Shakespeare’s script. In the case of outdoor performances in Wales or Montana, or during the Yosemite filming of Imogen in the Wild, it becomes a conscious disposition to include unpredictable Anthropocene “presences” as co-performers of the action. Outdoor shows are always subject to the vagaries of weather; but ecodramaturgy positively blurs the scripted boundaries between the performance stage, spectator platea, and shared animal-human terrains. There is no “off stage,” just as there is no Planet B. 

As Montana Shakespeare in the Parks’ actors recall in their post-performance interviews, the active embrace of tangible climate-change phenomena occurred regularly during this summer’s often extreme conditions of heat, wind, and wildfire smoke. On one occasion in Charlo Montana, Cadwal (Rachel Cendrick) introduced a new Anthropo-scene by dragging Cloten (Riley O’Toole) into a creek running next to the stage and dunking him several times in water contaminated by pesticide run-off. 

Ecodramaturgical activism isn’t just a matter of deft in-the-moment improvisation. As Covid 19 has taught us, it also now involves exposure to human-aggravated hazards and calculating their risks. 

Levelling up eco-Shakespeare in performance 

Another call to action developed in collaboration with Cymbeline in the Anthropocene has been eco-Shakespeare pedagogy. Los Angeles high-school teacher and Imogen in the Wild team member Isabella Camfield designed a student-researched and publicly accessible website of dramatic and scientific resources for the film. Their online interactions also double as a platform for civic outreach by inviting students’ and teachers’ accounts of their experiences of industrial pollution and urban climate change. The website’s multilateral emphasis on subjective knowledge, personal creativity, and social inclusion leverages eco-Shakespeare in performance as vehicle for social and environmental justice.    

Massachusetts teacher Elizabeth Peterson’s classroom worksheets for Titania’s iconic “climate change” speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream likewise expands the scope of ecodramaturgical activism. It asks students to undertake environmental science research in order to identify the ecological biomes Titania mentions in her speech. It then invites them visualize and draw these habitats as scenery and set designs. The interdisciplinary thrust of this project rewrites the traditional thematic framework of “Shakespeare and nature,” in which “settings” are a passive backdrop for human-centred concerns. Instead, Peterson’s assignment transforms “Shakespeare and nature” into scientific knowledge and theatrical interactivity.  

At the university level, the Cymbel(z)ine compiled by Evelyn O'Malley and her University of Exeter drama students in 2020 inspired further student contributions to Cymbeline scholarship and adaptation. First-year students in Hillary Eklund’s Loyola University course, “Shakespeare’s Worlds,” reimagined the environmental issues of Cymbeline in terms of sound- and art-scapes, and performance adaptations.

At UC Merced, undergraduate Amber Loper’s “A Caged Bird’s Song: An Avian Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline,” converted Shakespeare’s script into a post-human screenplay for children. It playfully reimagines Shakespeare’s characters as different species of West Coast birds. Their avian world-view invites young audiences to identify with their present-day struggles to survive in the wildfire-ravaged habitats of twenty-first-century California. 

Creative environmental messaging by Cornell University drama students took the form of an eco-feminist performance piece, “Once upon a Time in the Anthropocene.” Under the course leadership of Theo Black, this multi-genre and intertextual mash-up of the first three acts of Cymbeline tropes Innogen’s body as a site of contemporary environmental violation by masculinist economics and consumer culture in ways that are both funny and disturbing.  

Can eco-Shakespeare help to save the planet? When Evelyn O’Malley and I first posed this question in a special issue of Shakespeare Bulletin (2018), we thought the practical answer was no. Nonetheless, we and our wonderful contributors believed that ecocritical Shakespeare in performance could encourage theatre practitionners and audiences to rethink our professional and personal behaviours and their ecological consequences. After this year, however, I would answer more positively: yes it can, if we understand eco-Shakespeare activism as a broader cultural endeavour, constituted by dramaturgical, educational, and cinematic engagements, all aiming to transform essential attitudes towards living better with our Earthly co-inhabitants. Such premisses and promises are the ground of all future policy action.