28 January 2019

The World We’ll leave Our Grandchildren: Theatre as a means of stimulating the public discussion of climate change

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Chris Rapley

When communicating with an audience it is important to have clear answers to the questions (i) Who are they?, (ii) What do I want them to do?, and (iii) How can they do it? It was with this in mind that in 2014 I embarked on a project to write and perform a play on climate change. It was commissioned by the Royal Court theatre in London and the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. I worked with the playwright Duncan Macmillan and the director Katie Mitchell. I knew from focus group studies carried out during the design of the £4.5m climate science gallery ‘atmosphere’ at the London Science Museum (where I was Director and gallery Head of Content) that even members of the ‘Alarmed’ and ‘Concerned’ segments of society (see here) are generally hazy about the climate change narrative. As a result, they tend to be reluctant to discuss the topic. This is especially so if a ‘dismisser’ is present. The objective was to build audience members’ confidence to engage in the public discussion.

The play was titled ‘2071’ because in that year my eldest granddaughter will be the age I was when we wrote the script. What legacy will we leave her? The approach taken was a 1h15m ‘fireside chat’. I narrated key parts of my life as a climate researcher, and explained the reasoning and evidence th at have led me to conclude that climate change is real, driven by humans, seriously threatening, yet potentially tractable. I spoke as an ‘expert citizen’ rather than a formal academic. This allowed me to weave in anecdotes,  express emotions, and to frame climate change in terms of its social, ethical, economic and political implications, in addition to the science, and the technological advances that offer hope. The ending line is “What kind of a future do we want to create?”. The play was well-received (a key theatre critic gave it a 5-star review), and it sold out. I gave 20 performances in London and Hamburg, and a single show in Brussels, to an invited audience including members of the European Parliament and the European Commission during the lead up to COP21, which received a standing ovation. Feedback from audience members confirmed that the experience had increased their knowledge and understanding of the subject, and had strengthened their confidence to discuss it with family, friends, and in public. Unexpectedly, some members of the ‘Cautious’ and ‘Doubtful’ segments who attended were apparently persuaded to change their positions.

The key players.

Treading the ‘hallowed boards’ was a rather terrifying experience, but I learned a great deal, not least the value of working with top professionals to create a quality product.

-Chris Rapley is a climate scientist at the University College of London and actor/co-writer of 2017. You can find the book of the script here