Theater is a laboratory of the social imagination. Playmakers create worlds, experimenting with human behavior as it is and as it could be. Applied theater uses performance to explore and provoke responses to a specific social problem, in our case climate change. Our plays were developed in a Theater and Social Change class, co-taught by Sara Warner and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., in conjunction with climate scientist Toby Ault and members of Ithaca’s Civic Ensemble theater. This work, funded by a series of grants from the Office of Engaged Cornell, brought together students and local residents. In the spirit of community-based theater, we invited everyone to join our ensemble, regardless of previous performance experience.
As our plays consider the viability of a Green New Deal, we thought it fitting to use the Living Newspaper format, a politically-charged mode of performance promoting social action.
Originating in Russia and Germany at the turn of the 20th century, Living Newspapers are fact-based dramatizations of current events that gained prominence in the United States in the 1930s with the federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA), a cornerstone of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA employed millions of job seekers during the Great Depression, including infrastructure projects such as Ithaca’s Southside Community Center and Cascadilla Creek, and on arts and cultural initiatives.
The Living Newspaper Unit of the Federal Theater Project (FTP) employed out-of-work artists and journalists to create and stage plays on controversial issues of the day, ranging from corporate monopolies and sex education to race relations and the urban housing crisis. In an effort to educate the public and counter disinformation campaigns, Living Newspapers eschewed conventions of commercial theater in favor of experimental agit-prop techniques designed to promote critical thinking and prompt political action. Enormously popular with audiences across the country, the FTP became a target of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) for its alleged anti-government stance and Communist sympathies. Despite Director Hallie Flanagan’s insistence that Living Newspapers presented “propaganda for democracy,” not against it, Congress disbanded the FTP in 1939.
We used the Living Newspaper format to explore important histories that contribute to climate change and shape our contemporary responses to environmental crises. For example, we explored the slash and burn tactics of Clinton-Sullivan Campaign (1779) that destroyed indigenous homelands alongside extant racially-discriminatory housing policies.
We created our scripts from interviews and story circles. The story circle is a technique popularized by Roadside Theater, a community-based arts organization in Appalachia, intended to foster a safe and intimate space for difficult dialogues.
Civic Ensemble has used story circles to create plays about a number of topics, including housing discrimination and community-police relations. They also use story circles in their work with formerly incarcerated people, in their Re-Entry Program.
To create our plays about local impacts of climate change, we conducted story circles with the following community partners, and we interviewed dozens more individuals to devise the plots of our scripts:
- Fossil Free Tompkins
- Tompkins County Council of Governments Energy Committee Cayuga Nature Center
- Tompkins County History Center
- Tompkins County Farmers
- Groton, NY
- Enfield, NY
- Lehman Alternative Community School / Akwesasne Freedom School Boynton Middle School
- Cornell Scientists at Bradfield Hall
- Southside Community Center
We devised our Living Newspaper scripts using interviews, story circles, and independent research. Devising is a method of collective creation in which the script originates from the collaborative efforts of a performing ensemble. Improvisation was key to our process.
Post-Show Community Conversations
We facilitated post-show conversations after each performance. Sometimes these involved the people whose stories provided the inspiration for our scripts, the most memorable of which involved residents divided over the failed installation of a windfarm. Sometimes these involved community members discussing a specific topic, such as Ithaca’s plan for a Green New Deal, youth activists discussing the generational divide in styles of climate protests, and an evening with members of the local cell of Extinction Rebellion.