Academic journal article About Performance

Nature Moves Centre Stage: Eco-Centrism in Community Theatre

Academic journal article About Performance

Nature Moves Centre Stage: Eco-Centrism in Community Theatre

Article excerpt


This paper presents some ideas about how community theatre practice is relevant both as a tool for environmental activism andas a source of new knowledge about human/nature relationships. One good reason to pursue the enquiry is that through language making and knowledge construction, theatre can play a role in legitimating ecological concerns and finding solutions to environmental crisis. After briefly reviewing the Australian 'eco-theatre/' scene, we will be looking with hindsight at a particular community theatre project, Murray River Story, and will explore its implications for knowledge making relevant to environmental decision making.

Murray River Story, and other case studies that underpin this paper, are examples of'community theatre', defined broadly as participatory theatre of local relevance that develops local culture and helps achieve local aspirations (Mills and Brown 2004, 43). An equivalent term might be 'grassroots theatre', which has been used by Downing Cless (1996) whose analysis of'eco-theatre' in the USA was an impulse for our study.1

But first, the matter of knowledge needs opening up. To do this, we will consider the implications of western culture's reliance on scientific knowledge as the preeminent indicator of'what we must do' about environmental crisis.2 In sociological studies of science, and in science policy debates over the last two decades, we can find arguments for substantial public input to knowledge making processes.3 In sectors such as Environment and Public Health, case studies demonstrate the importance of'lay' and 'indigenous' knowledge, and the necessity to bring such contextualised forms of knowledge alongside universal scientific knowledge (Irwin 1995).

Why all this talk about scientific knowledge? What we offer in this paper is the prospect that the arts provide a space for integrated and democratised knowledge making. This does not mean science is sent off duty, but it may point the way to a democratised science integrated with broader knowledge making processes, including the arts. Yet as far as we can tell, an articulation of the role of art as a tool for interactive knowledge production is missing from discussion of democratised knowledge.4 Therefore another impulse for this paper is to expand on the way:

the arts explicitly announce themselves as a way of making meaning out of life, reflecting wants and needs, solving problems, and provoking critical debate about important social issues [...] the arts seem to be territory where a robust and shared understanding can grow, where ideas can syncretise in a 'safe' space, where the complexity of everyday thinking is explored, and where knowledge about life is announced and action is prescribed (Brown 2006b, 220-221).

This seeks to align the arts strongly with the aims of democratised science, as observed by sociologists of science (Irwin 1995). Or more accurately it reflects the objectives and purpose of some sectors of the arts, in which self consciousness about such emancipatory and empowering roles runs very high. In Australia, one such sector is Community Cultural Development (CCD). With its participatory process, political intent and focus on community empowerment and transformation of 'values', this has evolved over the last 20 years as a distinct and reformist movement within the arts. In method and politics it grew out of and syncretised onto streams such as Community Arts, Trade Union Arts, Experimental Theatre, Street Theatre and Cultural Planning. Our main case study, Murray Riper Story fits with CCD traditions, and we will elaborate on what these entail as we proceed. As a shorthand, we will use 'community theatre' to mean 'theatre made using CCD processes'.

Linking community theatre and radical environmentalism

As a first step in a line of argument, we will map out why theatre and community theatre in particular might be of importance to radical environmentalism. …

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