The Green New Deal Could Revolutionize Theater

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report gives humanity twelve years to curb greenhouse gas emissions, in order to keep temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Over 1.5 degrees and widespread climate disruptions—heatwaves, floods, fires, droughts, of the sort we see happening now—will intensify, adversely affecting everyone on the planet (though, of course, the poor suffer first and most). Other reports give us as little as eighteen months to act. One million species are poised right now to go extinct. The climate crisis is “the biggest challenge ever to face” humankind, environmental lawyer Sharon Tisher says, along with many others. Homo sapiens need immediately to come to grips with a situation unparalleled in our existence: the very real possibility that organized life on earth might end.

Many theatre companies are already engaged in the vital work of the drama of changing consciousness. Just on the East Coast of the United States are long-established groups such as Spiderwoman Theatre, Bread & Puppet, and my Theatre Three Collaborative, as well as newer ones such as The Arctic Cycle and Superhero Clubhouse. Many artists have thought deeply about what is at stake. But these people and groups, working against the prevailing culture, lack the resources, funding, and institutional and critical support for the work to have the necessary impact.

Today’s regional theatres have been spectacularly inept at dealing with the climate crisis, perhaps because most are reliant on funding derived from fossil fuel investments—from members of their boards, other donors, foundations, and their subscription audience. The regional theatres’ top-down business model in which a well-paid executive staff extracts talent from an itinerant workforce represents the same corporate structure that supports the burning of fossil fuels. The institutional theatres’ need for greater budgets, larger audiences, and more recognition also means they have been, with very few exceptions, unwilling to stage any play presenting an alternative ecological vision.

Neither mode of production, that of the outlier artists nor of the institutional theatres, is sufficient to the task at hand.

A Green New Deal and a New Green Federal Theatre Project

A Green New Deal in the United States should come with provisions for a New Green Federal Arts Program, including a New Green Federal Theatre. As a model, we can look to the creation of the Federal Theatre Project in 1935, which came out of the dire reality of the Great Depression. Like the New Deal, the Green New Deal is an economic initiative, put forward not by a progressive President, but by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. It is a work-in-progress plan to rapidly decarbonize and has stirred widespread interest and support among those who understand that a climate crisis is at hand. The Green New Deal calls for a ten-year mobilization to make the US carbon neutral by 2030 by ending most greenhouse gas pollution from energy, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing. It proposes to do so by putting people to work in green jobs that provide “a family sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security.”

The New Deal put millions to work on public projects, building roads, bridges, parks, schools, many of which are still in use, and it put unemployed artists to work, too, on Federal Arts, Writing, and Theatre projects, each of which created significant works that impacted American culture.

In her definitive history of the Federal Theatre, Arena, written shortly after the project’s defunding in 1939, visionary Federal Theatre Director Hallie Flanagan recalls her first conversation with Harry Hopkins, head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA):

“People ride over roads and bridges built by relief workers, but will they ever come to a theatre to see shows put on by relief workers?” Harry Hopkins asked her.

“It seemed to me that they wouldn’t be relief workers after they started. They’d be theatre workers again. People would come if the plays were good and wouldn’t come if the plays were bad.”

Federal Theatre quickly developed an expansive program: classic, new, Black, and religious dramas, dance drama, children’s plays, and puppet shows. Federal Theatre companies went by horse cart into mining and farm towns; local Federal Theatre companies created and performed plays in communities across the country and in New York in Harlem and on Broadway.

If the original mandate was to pay workers, the intention was to pay them for creating—as Flanagan said—the kind of quality art that was necessary for the understanding of democracy. In Greece, her husband Philip Haldane Davis had translated an inscription carved into the rock of an ancient theatre: “We let out these works on the vote of the people.” Flanagan writes in Arena that she hung a sign with those words on the wall of her Washington office, commenting that the Federal Theatre was “a theatre the contracts for which, twenty-two centuries later, were also let out according to the dictates of democracy.”

The Federal Theatre necessitated the creation of new theatre forms. Chief among these were the Living Newspapers: large scale, multi-media productions designed to use as much labor as possible—research teams of journalists and writers, large casts, full orchestras. The Living Newspapers addressed pressing social problems of the day, and proposed progressive democratic socialist solutions. In Triple A Plowed Under, about the plight of dust bowl farmers, a character called Farmer from Indiana suggests: “a diversion to farm relief of a large part of the immense war appropriations, and increasing taxation on the wealth and income of the financial and industrial interests of this country,” solutions applicable today.

Many of those who joined the Federal Theatre project had been part of the left-wing Worker’s Theatre Movement of the 1920s, creating a people’s theatre, doing street theatre, and founding companies with the purpose of producing socially relevant plays. Federal Theatre took advantage of artists who were already working for social change. This was its great strength but also made Federal Theatre the target of the right-wing Congress that killed the project in 1939.

A New Green Federal Theatre would take advantage of the skills and knowledge of the many climate artists and activists who, working in communities across the nation, are creating rituals and climate actions, writing and producing original plays, and staging productions on shoestring budgets. As with Federal Theatre, an underutilized labor pool, skilled and educated, already exists, though locked out of institutional theatre employment precisely because of these artists’ commitment to a fossil fuel free, green future.

A New Green Federal Theatre would document the efforts of the Green New Deal to deliver economic justice and sustainable life-styles to the people while mitigating and adapting to the climate crises. It would have a democratic mandate to address how our lives are now and how they are going to increasingly become in the midst of the growing climate crisis. Human beings have, without forethought, willfully exited the Holocene, that period of a mild and stable climate conducive to civilization we enjoyed for 12,000 years until the start of the industrial revolution. The United States, the largest consumer for the longest amount of time, and, more recently, the world’s biggest producer of fossil fuels, bears a primary responsibility for the climate crisis of the Anthropocene, the current and future era of climate disruptions we have caused but which we cannot control.

The laudable goals of the newly formed Groundwater Arts consulting organization to move toward a Green New Theatre by launching an effort to “encourage (regional) theatres to adapt and evolve their practices in response to the climate crisis” are—I believe—unfortunately likely to falter without public pressure and public monies. It is difficult to see regional theatres paying a consulting organization to help them overturn their own corporate structures, which at present are dependent on an economy in which the fossil fuel industry yields high investment returns because it is so heavily subsidized by taxpayer money.

If the theatre were free from the corporate financial restrictions currently hampering such explorations, theatre artists, on salaries, mandated to create cultural works for the public good, would be free to join the most significant and necessary cultural and political movement of our time—working toward and for a Green New Deal.

What Does A New Green Theatre Look Like?

The plays of a New Green Federal Theatre would cover many subjects and embrace many aesthetic forms, but underneath them all would be a visionary commitment to a new sustainable, fossil fuel free way of life committed to environmental justice, just as the plays of Federal Theatre envisioned an equitable democratic society in which public funding was used for the public good.

A theatre suitable to life in the Anthropocene will decenter the individual story, and re-center people’s relationship to community, to animal and plant life, and to a new humility in which we come to understand ourselves as fragile parts of the natural world. Without such a new culture giving meaning to our lives, we are likely to become more cruel, violent, and hording as we experience mass migration, food shortages, drought, sea level rise, extinction events, and furious storms. Without a new cultural vision, we are going to make the very bad situation we have caused even worse.

A poetics of the Anthropocene draws on the ancient, but also, a newly developing, more humble awareness, as we struggle to come to conscious understanding of our fate. The isolated hero blindly destroying what he loves is the colonial, patriarchal story we have inherited and which we need outgrow. Our story takes place in the aftermath of the tragedy of Western Civilization, after the heroes and the emotionally tortured have wreaked their havoc. This does not mean that character and story become unimportant, but that compelling characters will recognize the disastrous reality and reverse that trajectory by cultivating a new standard that relies upon developing reciprocity, values the welfare of the many, is conversant with the aggressive and the nurturant sides of self, and comes to understand individual death as part of the round of life.

At worst, we will be confronting massive losses: home, seasonal regularity, and species whose sounds and actions pollinate, fertilize, and please us so. We need to share this grief, not deny it. At best, we will be coming into a new sense of the human as no longer a part from and dominating nature, but relishing, embracing, loving, and enhancing it. We might cease to be so lonely, violent, and grasping, in this new, far more fragile world, for we shall need our connectedness to one another, to creatures, and to other living things. As we become increasingly aware of the sentient lives of plants and animals, our own sentient awareness will become more alert and pleasurable. We will live with less certainty, less stuff, but we will understand, value, and use well what we make and share. An end to “othering” is essential to this vision. The racism and sexism that damage us so will be fully seen and in the seeing, undone, as new, equitable relationships are given shape.

In many essential ways, the values we need have been part of U.S. culture. Neighbors have often helped each other out. Our histories include the self-reliance of Thoreau, the mystic, nature-centered individualism of Dickinson, Whitman, Emerson, and the other transcendentalists, the courage of the abolitionists, and our tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience through which every significant democratic advance has been won.

There are numerous places to look for inspiration for the new ways of seeing/being, and for thinking with feeling about humanity’s new place in the fragile world. The Native American traditions and indigenous people’s cultures, world-over, have enormous wisdom; ancient goddess myths and rituals remember a time when the divine was embedded in the world; transgender and ecofeminist theories undermine the binary; individual and collective dream-life allows access to deep truths; visionary writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, James Baldwin, and the growing fields of ecological and scientific nonfiction and climate fiction (cli-fi) expand consciousness and explore the new reality.

Our role as artists working for and toward a Green New Federal Theatre must be to look at the moral and the ecological crises and to show the results of good choices or bad. This is what Aristotle truly taught that has value now: theatre is the seeing place where audiences come to watch the impact of the costs and rewards of moral choices characters make. The theatre was created to ask this precise question: what does it mean to be human? How do we recognize our separateness from the rest of the living world without destroying it? And, now, again, valuing indigenous knowledge, how do we recognize the particular awareness of other kinds of life—the fact that trees communicate with each other, or that the octopus possesses consciousness?

Theatre is the place in which actors’ sentient bodies carry the message; we cannot escape the human animal. Our self-awareness manifest in our language-making abilities is what sets us apart, makes us fear death and one another, but our awareness allows us to tell stories and to transform ourselves. Theatre carries the living voice, looking in, looking out; the best theatre opens each self to personal truths even as we breathe together.

What moral choices will we make as the climate continues to narrow the range of options? How can consciousness itself transform within the constrictions of using and having less, but sharing, experiencing, and contemplating more? As the natural world is hurt, as species and habitats die, it is important to recall in words the beauty we know and remember and the possibilities of rewilding someday. It is important not to alienate or shock so much as to touch and move. It is important to increase our capacities for empathy, an evolutionary trait that might be being lost. To open people up to our interrelatedness to ourselves and to all species. These are radical acts for which theatre is uniquely suited. But to have wide impact, plays and presentations that embody such visions need to be publicly funded.

The Lummi tribe is feeding starving Orca whales fresh salmon, transporting the fish in buckets because the salmon no longer thrive where the Orca live. Drumming and praying as they slip beautiful large wild salmon into the sea, a sacrifice, to save other creatures. The Lummi view the Orca as their relatives; their ritual act is intended to stir official conservation efforts. Such stories of the struggles of an enlarging consciousness are dramatizeable. Once told, they lead to other acts imagined and real of interspecies sentient connections.

A New Green Federal Theatre would be about intuiting, creating, and heralding a brand new, expansive, eco-centered consciousness, honoring the unique selves of all that lives. It would remember the past, reach to the future, and help us negotiate whatever it is the present brings.