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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Short

Ecodramaturgy and Narrative: Radicalising what we structure

Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post for the Climate Museum UK, which you can read here, about ecodramaturgy, magical realism, and my original writing. I wanted to continue this line of thought and expand my discussion of ecodramaturgy by taking a look at what it can do to narrative and the units we structure in theatrical storytelling.

A significant part of dramaturgical work, in my experience, is the management of narrative: what a piece is saying and how it is saying it. In terms of ecodramaturgy, I had previously summarised it very simply as “curat[ing] theatre arts that are ecologically focused, driven by

narratives of connection beyond the anthropocene, and seek[ing] to deal with our world in crisis.” I think this still holds true in its distilled form, however, of course, does not fully describe or address the wider practices involved in dramaturgy and text.

I would like to linger a while with the idea of ecodramaturgy being an action that is supported by, and reaching for, stories of entanglement that go beyond the anthropocene. What I mean here is that an ecodramaturgical endeavour is at its core a disruption to the Western norm of human action/story happening externally from or in ignorant opposition to the entire ecological system we inhabit. It might take the shape of narrative equilibrium between human and nonhuman stories, a recontextualised action within a wider system of affect and effect in the natural world, or even just an acknowledgement to the way human-centred theatre can shape an apathy to the wider nonhuman world.

Much like feminist dramaturgy, queer dramaturgy, and indigenous dramaturgy, ecodramaturgy is, and should be, radical to our current way of being. It should affect, in very tangible terms, the narratives that we share and the units we utilise to form those narratives. An industry’s sustainable practice should feed into every part of the theatre making process; green logistics behind-the-scenes can only be strengthened by stirring the imagination of the audience with greener narratives.

By thinking of ecodramaturgy as a radical or disrupting practice, it becomes easier to think about the ways we can use it to alter our management (or curation) of narrative. I would argue that outside of the avant-garde, though even that often relies on its own set of conventions, theatre regularly falls back onto a familiar and comfortable range of narrative structures. These are often linear in design and use external cause-effect devices which depict the “rational” world we occupy. Looking to indigenous dramaturgy, particular within Sámi theatre, we can instead find spiral narratives that hybridise the mythical with the natural world and use internal effective devices that are perhaps more associative than oriented within the story.

To take this further, thought should be given to what we structure. The narratives that we work with can be broken down into various units. These units are different motifs that feed into the overall narrative, like the colours used to build up a completed painting. However, these units are also being made within a greater social context (our community, our nation, our shared global events) and often reflect external grand narratives from our lived experience.

A grand narrative is a major shared story that shapes ideology and how we might view a particular theme, a part of history, or a national agenda. These grand narratives then utilise dominant units - motifs that take on an agency of their own with which they propagate, collaborate with other units, and lead to the corroboration of a “truth”. Their agency lies in the fact that their overwhelming presence makes it more socially difficult to not relate to these units for fear of being ostracised from a collective, and thus affirming them as dominant. And so, they are repeated. These are the norms that we find ourselves working with today.

There are some aspects of the popular sustainability movement that utilise grand narratives and have harnessed dominant units to create new norms. I was once disappointed when attending a European session on sustainability within the arts sector and a leading British consultant said that those from marginalised backgrounds perceive barriers to the arts sector which do not reflect the reality of the sector, and as such everyone has equal access to sustainable practices within it. I whole-heartedly disagree with this. We should be wary of dominant units that state every individual has an equal access to sustainable practices, especially in the arts industry - an industry that is not currently equitable.

This highlights the importance of the kinds of units an ecodramaturgy should engage with in the curation of a green narrative. I propose we untangle grand narratives, we question new ones that are being produced, and we explore what dominant units are being shared around us. We should be checking-in to see if they are propagating in our texts, we should be asking what they are collaborating with in other narratives, and we should be wondering if we are comfortable with the “truths” that they are corroborating. Then we implement subversive units and see what life they take on, what effect they have on our narrative structure, and what they can do to ignite the imagination of our audiences. This is the radicalism of ecodramaturgy.

In my practice, one of the key subversive units I use is magic. Magic disrupts the linearity causal-effect of rationality. Magic creates new spaces for alternative ways of being to exist. And ultimately, magic provides agency to the nonhuman characters that scientific rationality might otherwise deny them. As a motif, magic requires my narrative to fit a multiplicity of truths within it, and how characters react to this (if they react at all) can set the linearity on a different path, a path of duality perhaps. I don’t believe this diminishes my agenda at all, but instead creates opportunity for critical thinking around the idea of perception, and how that perception is used to perpetuate our current course of action against the natural world.

The magical real can share links with other forms of spiritualism, animism, and pagan practices. However, rather than keeping these things as separate beliefs outside of the realm of the rational, it welcomes them into being a part of the world and offers alternative modes of narrativising the crises we currently face. That’s not to say this is the only unit we can use to structure our ecodramaturgies, but for my work now, it is the most exciting subversion I can make.

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