Theatre Strike for Climate: Lending a Voice to Nature in Tribunal Theatre

Steff Nellis*

Abstract

In this article, I analyse the ways in which Maria Lucia Cruz Correia, Rebekka de Wit and Anoek Nuyens rethink the relationship between performance and ecopolitics. With their tribunal theatre performances Voice of Nature: The Trial (2019) and The Shell Trial (2020), the artists strive to reconfigure the dramaturgy of the courtroom on stage and aim at urging the spectator to imagine new futures beyond eco-colonialism. In focusing on their performance practice and methods, I discuss the ways they combine common legal procedures with alternative forms of jurisprudence, such as pre-enactment, restorative justice and embodied knowledge.
Keywords: courtroom drama, ecodramaturgy, ecological theatre, climate justice, pre-enactment, tribunal theatre

“What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” is just one of the many popular slogans that occur at current school strikes for climate and protest marches all over the world. In 2018, at the age of fifteen, Greta Thunberg ceased spending her days in school to protest in front of the Swedish parliament. Holding up a sign reading “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (“School Strike for Climate”), she called for stronger action on climate change.

Soon after, other students engaged in protests alike all over the world. Together, youngsters organised a global school climate strike movement under the name Fridays for Future, for which pupils used to skip school in order to demand their governments to introduce measures that would combat climate change. For example, in Belgium, activists who call themselves Youth 4 Climate, led by Anuna de Wever, also took to the streets. Pupils, students and their lecturers, supportive politicians and even broader movements like Grandparents for Climate joined forces to raise awareness for the climate case. The question remains, however, how we can actually achieve climate justice in times marked by ecological and environmental challenges?

Climate Strike by Fridays For Future. Photo: Vincent M.A. Janssen

Maria Lucia Cruz Correia,[1] Rebekka de Wit[2] and Anoek Nuyens[3] are amongst several artists looking for answers to tackle this question through the performing arts. After all, these artists bring to light ecological issues by questioning environmental policies in staged people’s tribunals. For example, Dutch artists de Wit and Nuyens launched the theatre project Unless You Have a Better Plan (2017), as part of which they organized a large-scale public survey asking audience members to offer their opinion on the consequences of climate change, especially regarding the global and highly polluting activities of oil company Royal Dutch Shell. Building on the arguments of audience participants, this culminated in Unless You Have a Better Plan: The Lawsuit (2018), which explored the possibilities of taking legal action to protect the environment. In the end, both projects resulted in a so-called tribunal theatre production, The Shell Trial (2020), in which de Wit and Nuyens pre-enacted fictionalized scenarios of the forthcoming court case against Shell, based on their two preparatory performances and the verbatim[4] arguments of the public.

The Belgian-Portuguese performance artist Correia pushes this even further. In her performance, Voice of Nature: The Trial (2019), she asks the audience to intervene within the performance itself, debating together with the artists, experts, lawyers and activists on various pressing ecological issues. Accordingly, in both performances, the artists heavily rely on the public to tackle possible solutions to ecological and environmental challenges such as climate change and pollution. Instead of explicitly condemning failing climate policies or offering solutions themselves, Correia, de Wit and Nuyens leave such questions open to the audience.

In this article I analyse the ways in which two tribunal theatre performances, The Shell Trial by Nuyens and de Wit, and Voice of Nature: The Trial by Correia,rethink the relationship between performance and ecopolitics against the backdrop of the revived trend in theatre to stage trials. In doing so, I examine the reconfigured dramaturgy of the two performances as they both aim at convincing the spectator to imagine new futures beyond eco-colonialism.

From Ecocritical to Ecodramaturgical Theatre

As Christel Stalpaert has stated, ever since Una Chaudhuri published her thematic issue on ecological theatre in 1994, issues concerning ecology and activism have been widely debated in the areas of theatre and performance practice and their related academic disciplines (“The Performer” 226). Nevertheless, following Stalpaert, twenty-first-century artists have begun to indicate a paradigmatic shift within ecological theatre, changing “from an activist counter-culture or militant ecology to the cultivation of ecological thought as posthuman diplomacy in dissensus” (231). Stalpaert discusses how contemporary artists who engage in ecological performances aim to create “a pragmatic situation that invites people to think through that which concerns them, in close interconnection with the environmental community in which they dwell” (234). The adjective “posthuman”[5] points to a way of rebelling against the Anthropocene,[6] not by denouncing it, but by challenging its limited perspective in order to engage with a broader notion of ecology in which agency is attributed to both human and nature.

Therefore, we should consider contemporary ecological theatre as “ecodramaturgical” instead of ecocritical. The former term was coined by Theresa J. May and can be interpreted as an approach that “will ask how theater and performance might shock us into recognition of the inescapable interdependencies and shared contingencies between our species and the millions of micro- and macro-organisms with which we share both a gene pool and a planetary ecosystem” (Arons and May 6). Whilst ecocriticism sees theatre as a representational medium that prescribes a meaning for audiences to act upon, ecodramaturgy focuses on affective relationships between the performance and its audience, embodiment and ephemerality as the defining aspects of ecological theatre. By investing in audience participation and alternative forms of knowledge transferral, such as embodied knowledge, theatre artists can create a place for dialogue and contemplation on ecological issues, rather than a performative locus for political statements. As stated by Carl Lavery: “As an art of weakness, theatre’s role is not to produce the real, it is to corrode it, to make the world problematic, multiple and complex” (232–33).

It is especially notable that various theatre makers have implemented tribunals in order to thematise ecological subjects on stage, as is the case with Correia, de Wit and Nuyens. By reviving the former trend of courtroom drama in which court cases were re-enacted on stage, these artists retrace a genre in the performing arts that was used by various documentary playwrights in the twentieth century (for example, Erwin Piscator, Heinar Kipphardt, Bertolt Brecht and Peter Weiss).

As several scholars have already stated, both within the fields of law and performance studies, court cases are highly theatrical.[7] The history of theatre offers ample examples of fictitious lawsuits and in the twentieth century multiple dramatists relied on documentary materials such as court proceedings, hearings and testimonials, and created fictional counterparts to preeminent existing lawsuits like the Nuremberg Trials and the O.J. Simpson Trial. In this context, Marett Leiboff, among others, characterizes theatre as an important training ground for law to experiment with alternative jurisprudence (6). As the court is regarded as the pre-eminent place for reasoning and deliberation, tribunal theatre may be seen as the pinnacle that counters the “militant ecology” Stalpaert discussed above. Should the revival of site-specific courtroom drama therefore be seen as a new and inventive contribution to contemporary ecological theatre?

Pre-enacting a Climate Case: The Shell Trial

In 2018, the Dutch NGO Friends of the Earth Netherlands (FEN) or Milieudefensie sued the oil company Royal Dutch Shell for pollution and impact on climate change. In order to prepare and support FEN’s actual lawsuit against Shell in 2020, de Wit and Nuyens initiated a series of pre-enactments in the form of mock trials in Dutch and Flemish theatres, in which they imagined the various possible pleas of the different parties involved in the real court case: Shell, the Government and the Consumer. These different pleadings eventually resulted in The Shell Trial, atribunal theatre production in which they confront the audience with dilemmas in order to rethink the relationship between nature and nurture.

Actor Jaap Spijkers portraying the CEO of Shell in The Shell Trial. Photo: Wikke van Houwelingen
Poster for The Shell Trial

In their pre-enactments, Nuyens and De Wit, however, did not only include witnesses of the analogous trial but also lent a voice to alternative spokespersons like the Citizen or the Future Generations. In The Shell Trial, only three actors, alongside Nuyens and De Wit, played these various parts. Further, specific dramaturgical choices, as, for example, the absence of backdrops and the consequent changes of costumes on stage, caused the performance to create a deliberate disturbing effect that seems to play with conventions of regular court proceedings. Although Nuyens and De Wit do not ask their audience to actively participate in The Shell Trial, their “rehearsals for reality,” as they like to call the pre-enactments, can be seen as another strategy to stimulate reasoning and deliberation. In introducing alternative voices, they make the audience reflect on what exactly can replace old, institutional and systemic ways of looking at nature within an Anthropocentric worldview.

Poster for The Shell Trial

Francesca Laura Cavallo argues that these pre-enactments “operate at the border between reality and fiction: creating fictionalized scenarios that toy with real fear, uncertainty and trust to invalidate strategies of governance and shift the wider population’s perception of risk” (193). Elaborating further on this definition, the playful scenarios might transcend the border of staged reality and actually having direct implications in the social and political arena by reorienting the public’s perception of risk or their confidence towards the future: “Even if conceptually intangible, then, risk becomes manifest through anticipatory actions where the foreseeable future appears as a performance in the present” (182).

These performed futures that fictionalize reality allow for risk to be experienced and different responses to actual crises to be tested. In The Shell Trial, for example, Nuyens and De Wit play with the rules and conventions of law in order to explore possibilities that cannot be pursued by the regular court system. This is most clearly illustrated in the pleading of the Future Generations, representing the voices of the unborn, since they could never be heard in an actual courtroom.

Musia Mwankumi portraying the Future Generations in The Shell Trial. Photo: Wikke van Houwelingen

After the different pleadings are heard, a deafening silence fills the theatre. A neon banner reveals that Mother Earth is claiming its place on stage. Nature is represented by a very long blackout and thereby demands to be “heard” in court. At the end of the performance, Nuyens and De Wit address the spectators, calling them to account for their actions. They stress that everyone in the auditorium can easily play every part that is presented by the actors in their performance. This is being stressed by the different pleadings that are at the same time recognizable and ironic, provoking the spectator to critically consider eco-colonial practices of injustice. By this epilogue, the artists seem to suggest that we are all equally guilty, forcing us to change roles with the various parties, including the defendant, Shell. Moreover, they seem to argue that it is not about who is responsible for the ecological crisis, but who takes responsibility for ecology.

A Reconfiguration of the Courtroom: Voice of Nature: The Trial

In Voice of Nature: The Trial, Correia creates a futuristic court in which she attempts to restore the troubled relationship between planet Earth and its inhabitants. She dismantles the dramaturgy of the courtroom by navigating between different modes of representation. These vary from testimonies of internationally renowned lawyers and activists and documentary footage of interviews the artist conducted with the Surayaka indigenous people in Ecuador, to the representation of nature itself: for example, the impressive visuals and sound effects by means of the performer’s play with a shell in a large water tank, or the evocation of the voice of a tree.

Voice of Nature: The Trial. Photo: Mark Pozlep

Moreover, Correia urges the spectators to participate and even intervene in the performance by placing them in a large circle and by letting them experience the consequences of pollution first-hand through offering them oil, vegetables and even dead animals. By deliberately addressing the spectator-participants during the performance, Correia stresses the importance of a shared responsibility in which each audience member is held accountable for their own share in eco-colonialism. In this sense, the official architecture of the former Courthouse of Ghent stresses the gravity of the place of action: when entering, spectators are checked by means of a metal detector for security reasons and their identity cards are requested for an identity check. Furthermore, the performer, Caroline Daish, lists the names of each audience member.

Voice of Nature: The Trial. Photo: Mark Pozlep

In spite of the site-specific setting of the performance in an actual courthouse, Correia deploys a rather alternative jurisprudence as soon as the tribunal starts: a performer smears contaminated oil on the hands of the participants, after which she invites them to sprinkle a world map that shows Earth’s most polluted areas, with new soil.

Voice of Nature: The Trial. Photo: Mark Pozlep

Moreover, the setting itself seems to be in transition. Instead of witnessing the trial from a defined number of rows, facing the defendant’s table and the court, the spectator-participants are placed within the pleading pit, on seats that form a large circle in which they sit uncomfortably close to one another. Various interactions between audience members create a sense of a temporary collective, further supported by participatory exercises such as passing objects, talking to each other and acknowledging each other’s presence within the theatrical chronotope. Hence, Correia establishes a participatory environment in which individual spectators are addressed in view of their “response-ability”: the face-to-face interaction between the artist and the audience enhances the spectator’s urge to re-act, as does their “individual connection” to the performative ecological microhabitat (Stalpaert, “Cultivating Survival” 54). The use of soil, contaminated oil, vegetables and dead animals turns the courtroom drama into a highly bodily experience, as part of  which the spectators are required to think through the anthropogenic status quo.

Voice of Nature: The Trial. Photo: Mark Pozlep

Following the work of Lieze Roels, in Voice of Nature: The Trial, Correia manages to raise questions on environmental issues through an effective strategy that involves (1) audience participation, (2) the tangibility of the problem, (3) the deconstruction of the anthropogenic gaze and (4) the imagination of alternative constellations. The latter is expressed in the construction of a “restorative contract.” At the end of the performance, Daish explicitly asks each individual audience member to write down a couple of things they could change within their daily routines to restore their connection to nature. Here, Correia pursues a tradition of restorative justice that aims at recovery and progress instead of retribution. Furthermore, the spontaneous responses of the spectators that result from their experiences during the performance are immediately converted into effective resolutions.

As Correia invites the audience to participate in the performance by thinking along with the experts and testimonials, she brings nature into the courtroom in a very tangible way, using multisensorial effects that speak to the visual, auditory, olfactory, as well as tactile senses. In this way, she creates an experience that goes beyond the condition of the spectator as a rather passive, witnessing subject. Hereby, the tribunalacts as a ritualistic encounter with nature: the sense of soil, the smell of kerosene, and the perception of dead animals in one’s bare hands contribute to a feeling of unease amongst the participants. Being involved in the production of knowledge as a form of diplomatic experimentation with both humans and non-humans, the audience members “were affectively facilitated to movement and response-ability, in the sense of acknowledging their ability to respond” (Stalpaert, “Cultivating Survival” 54).

Maria Lucia Cruz Correia: Voice of Nature: The Trial. (05:15–06:15). Vimeo source: Kim Saarinen
Towards Theatrical Climate Justice      

By inviting the audience to think about reasonable solutions to counteract climate change, these artists endorse Stalpaert’s arguments on the paradigmatic shift towards a “posthuman diplomacy in dissensus” within ecological theatre. After all, both performances critically reflect upon traditional judicial systems in ways that point towards potential future change. It is particularly noticeable that neither The Shell Trial nor Voice of Nature: The Trial come to a concrete conclusion in the form of a verdict or punishment. Both performances withdraw from the regular regressive structure of the court system to accuse and sentence an identifiable defendant. The court refuses to rule or to come to a conclusion. Instead, judgement is taken outside the black box where the spectator-participants can decide on which parties are guilty or innocent.

One of the advantages of the reconfigured dramaturgy of the courtroom in a theatrical setting is that it provides the audience with the opportunity to rethink established ways of looking at nature through decentralizing humans from the ecosystem. In placing ecology at the centre, established dichotomies between human and nature are challenged in these performances.

In The Shell Trial, the pre-enactment of an actual court case that lacks a precedent allows for alternative voices to be heard, such as Mother Earth and the Future Generations. The role-playing of the actors taking up different parts during the tribunal theatre production can be seen as a representation of the shared responsibility of the audience vis-a-vis climate action. This notion of a shared responsibility is also present in Voice of Nature: The Trial through Correira’s choice to engage the audience through direct participation. Moreover, in representing nature in the courtroom itself as mentioned above, she emphasizes nature’s independence from human agents.  

Furthermore, the ways in which audiences are being addressed in these ecological tribunal theatre productions can be related to Rachel Fensham’s theory of affects, which gained ground within the field of theatre and performance studies over the past decades. Following Fensham, an affective relationship between the audience and the (embodied) knowledge production within temporally constrained performances can result in “small and unfamiliar corporeal responses that lead to memory, reflection, ideas and perhaps to action” (58). Thus, the affective, bodily responses that spectators show during unsettling and disruptive performances can have an effective outcome: “These primary affects, when content-specific and attached to certain sensations . . . , become generative of thought, and form part of an analysis, because they help the spectator to realise the specific and material circumstances of ideology in performance” (Fensham 55). Affects can become effects in the longer aftermath of the performance.

In Voice of Nature: The Trial and The Shell Trial, the artists call the audience to action by trying to restore the connection between human and nature. In doing so, they benefit from using affective strategies, like embodied knowledge and pre-enactment in a site-specific setting that make the ecological crisis even more tangible. After all, relying on various possibilities of knowledge transferal in these tribunal theatre productions, as for example documentary footage, verbatim techniques, expert’s testimonials and the visceral embodiment of nature and climate pollution, turns the abstract concept of ecocide into a very concrete problem. By relying on an ecodramaturgical strategy that asks questions rather than imposing solutions, as is the case with ecocriticism, the artists encourage their audiences to actively reconsider the rigid system of law and to imagine new ways beyond eco-colonialism.           

Please Consider the Environment Before Printing this Article

In the Netherlands, as well as in Belgium, climate cases have been taken to (real) courts, respectively in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021.[8] In the Netherlands, Royal Dutch Shell was convicted of climate pollution in May 2021. For the first time in history, a company was forced by its government to align its policies with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, with further citizens initiatives following their lead across the globe.

In this article, I discussed the ways in which theatre and performance practices can contribute to raising awareness of the climate crisis as well as how they contribute to a paradigmatic shift towards a more contemplative approach in ecological theatre that prevails today: activist counterculture turned into pragmatic experiences in which artists think through stubborn systemics. Moreover, the revival of courtroom drama seems to raise ecological theatre to a new level: in working with a fictitious courtroom an alternative jurisprudence can be thought out which presents an opportunity to critically think through the anthropogenic gaze, in this way seeking to provoke audiences to take action.

Correia, Nuyens and De Wit’s performances in reconfigured courtrooms do not neglect the regressive questions of guilt and responsibility. Rather, these artists strive to establish a progressive platform of diplomacy in which all animated beings, whether actors, spectators, artists and even nature itself, are encouraged to rethink their interrelationship. No militant actions or subversive practices, but conversation, restoration, embodied knowledge, participation and experience are at the heart of these ecological tribunal theatre productions. Their reconfigured dramaturgy turns the theatrical courtroom into a futuristic pre-enactment of future lawsuits. As an open-ended forum, theatrical courtrooms may provide their audiences with unprecedented lawsuits to experiment with, also critiquing historic and contemporary citizens’ tribunals.

In ecodramaturgical theatre and performance practices, audiences are faced with questions regarding their own share in eco-colonialism: Is it enough to provide an e-mail disclaimer saying: “Please consider the environment before printing this e-mail”? Considering that Correia, Nuyens and De Wit explicitly address their public with such issues, Thunberg and the other youngsters globally involved in Fridays for Future have found some allies for their climate action. By reconfiguring the dramaturgy of the courtroom, artists are rehearsing their very own “Theatre Strike for Climate.” 

Acknowledgments

This article would not have been made possible without Elife Duman and Sofie Moors, who provided feedback on various parts. Thank you to the editors and the anonymous reviewers as well.


Endnotes

[1] Maria Lucia Cruz Correia is a Belgian-Portuguese performance artist and environmental activist who operates mostly from Belgium. She calls herself a “guardian of nature,” which is reflected in her artistic interests. Central to her work are all kinds of participatory laboratories in which she brings together audiences, communities, scientists, activists and lawyers that are trying to deal with ecological crises and the climate emergency. For further information see here.

[2] Rebekka de Wit is a theatre maker, writer and lecturer. She graduated in 2011 from the Royal Academy of Antwerp, performing her work mainly in Belgium and The Netherlands. Together with Freek Vielen and Suzanne Grotenhuis, Rebekka de Wit is artistic director of the theatre company De Nwe Tijd since 2017. For more information see here.

[3] Anoek Nuyens is a theatre maker, writer and essayist. Since 2015 she is theatre artist in residence at Frascati Theatre in Amsterdam. Here, she developed the theatre project Unless you have a better plan (2017), together with Rebekka de Wit. The performance culminated in a fictitious lawsuit which explored the possibilities of taking legal action to protect the environment. It also formed the basis for a collaboration with Friends of the Earth Netherlands. For more information see here and here.

[4] “The term verbatim refers to the origins of the text spoken in the play. The words of real people are recorded or transcribed by a dramatist during an interview or research process, or are appropriated from existing records such as the transcripts of an official enquiry. They are then edited, arranged or recontextualized to form a dramatic representation, in which actors take on the characters of the real individuals whose words are being used” (Hammond and Steward 9).

[5] The adjective “posthuman” can be interpreted as a reference to our current age in which scientific and technological developments have deliberately blurred the line between life and death, humans and non-humans. For a discussion of the concept Posthumanism regarding the performing arts, see indicatively Christel Stalpaert, Kristof van Baarle and Laura Karreman.

[6] The concept of the Anthropocene is closely related to the concept of posthumanism. The Anthropocene can be defined as the age in which humankind has permanently changed the planet.

[7] For more information on the history of tribunal theatre and the influence of theatricality on law procedures, see indicatively Minou Arjomand (2018); Klaas Tindemans (2019); Marett Leiboff and Sophie Nield (2010); Anne Wagner and Richard K. Sherwin (2014); Cassandra Sharp and Marett Leiboff. (2015); Alan Read (2016); and Marett Leiboff (2019).

[8] For more information about the trial against Shell in the Netherlands, see here. For more information about the trial in Belgium, see here.


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*Steff Nellis is a PhD candidate and assistant at the Department of Art History, Musicology and Theatre Studies at Ghent University. His research interests center around theatricality and performativity in the early modern world. He has published in journals such as Forum Modernes Theater, Lateral, Documenta, Forum +, Etcetera, Photogénie, and Fons.

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