This article examines econarratives drawn from original Latvian ecodrama and chronicles the rapid rise of ecotheatre in various styles of performance. The role of the performing arts to promote environmental conservation and engage local Latvian theatre groups has been especially significant during the global pandemic. Local ecotheatre has foregrounded pressing environmental concerns and has questioned the current relationship between human intervention and the cycle of nature. The present article highlights the shift from an anthropocentric toward an ecocentric worldview that has shaped contemporary Latvian theatrical performance. A common theme conveyed in all such productions is a strong belief in the longevity of nature and the survival of the natural world despite human intervention.
Keywords: Ecotheatre, ecodramaturgy, Latvian theatre, verbatim, environmental activism, ecocriticism
And nature is gradually returning.Forest
But will there be enough time to return?
Will nature have a place to return at all?
Bound Between Human and Nature
In 2005, environmental activist Bill McKibben asked, “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” This question was addressed to artists as an invitation to reflect on environmental problems which are visible even from the stratosphere (McKibben). There is an abundance of scientific data which documents the precarious condition of the natural world and identifies global and local environmental issues which must be addressed. However, many groups still doubt the reality of climate change and are unwilling to adapt their beliefs and behaviour in order to protect the natural environment. As a response to collective apathy and irresponsibility, ecotheatre has emerged as an effective form of environmental activism.
Historically speaking, theatre has always been focused on human concerns. However, in recent decades theatre studies have embraced new concepts related to ecology and the environment, such as green theatre, ecodramaturgy, ecotheatre and ecodirecting. Theatre researcher Theresa J. May, in her work Greening Theater: Taking Ecocriticism from Page to Stage, identifies two strategies for making theatre greener. The first approach is to analyze classical works from the point of view of ecocriticism; the second is to create a new, original drama that corresponds to ecodrama. Both Theresa J. May and Una Chaudhuri, pioneers of the concept ecodramaturgy, note that standard anthropocentric theatre searches for answers to the question “Who are we?” (Chaudhuri 23–24), whereas ecotheatre, including ecodramaturgy, seeks to answer the question “Where are we?” (May, “Greening the Theater” 100).
In the present era, ecotheatre in Latvia has not been studied in depth within the context of performing arts processes, nor has the concept of ecotheatre been defined. There has been a growing interest among Latvian theatre practitioners in the relationship between human intervention and the natural world, and in environmental topics in general. With this interest in mind, the present article reviews various forms of original ecodramaturgy and identifies the features of ecotheatre productions created in Latvia during the global pandemic (2020–22).
What is Ecotheatre?
One of the first and most vivid examples of ecotheatre in Latvian theatre is the production Mārupīte (Mārupīte, Dirty Deal Teatro, 2012), created by director Valters Sīlis and playwright Jānis Balodis, which features a nature hike. The play is based on well documented facts about extensive pollution in the Mārupīte River caused in 2011 by a highly destructive fire in warehouses which were filled with chemical and pharmaceutical substances; this event is officially recognized as the second most serious ecological catastrophe in Latvia since 1991, when Latvia regained independence from the Soviet Union. During the performance spectators go on a hike along the Mārupīte River together with the team of performers in an attempt to find out what actually happened there and who was responsible. This production is considered to be the first instance of ecological theatre in Latvia (Adamaite 247).
In her scholarly study Theatre, Conflict and Nature, Wallace Heim argues that the role of the theatre in discussions of environmental issues is not to offer alternatives or raise awareness about nature but, rather, to reveal the inevitability of conflict; she sees the ecological functions of theatre as an ability to detect a crisis in the function of democracy (62). Ecocriticism can help to shape new modes of narrating environmental issues by recognizing that the most vivid stories of the natural world are created when performers and audience alike are physically present in a naturalistic setting (Stibbe 82). For instance, the performance-hike Mārupīte is set in an urban environment without additional scenography, thus reducing the consumption of resources that would be required if the performance had taken place in a classical theatre hall on stage.
Ecotheatre can be realized in a variety of forms. For example, ecotheatre may highlight the relationship between the human world and the natural world or between human and non-human entities (Chaudhuri 28; May, “Greening the Theater” 87), or it can adopt an ecocritical approach to dramaturgy and ecodirecting by emphasizing ecological themes in canonical plays (Cless 12). It could also include those productions in which environmental issues play an important and active role (Hudson 1). Ecotheatre can also refer to theatrical works which prioritize conservation and sustainability during the production process. According to Chaudhuri, scenes filled with lavish, man-made scenography further underscore the distance between human and non-human entities and require theatre practitioners to take responsibility for their ecological footprint or impact on the environment (28).
With the goal of clarifying the role of ecotheatre as a novel form of Latvian theatre, I suggest that ecotheatre is a type of performance which represents and questions the interplay between human and non-human entities in the context of environmental challenges; more specifically, ecotheatre practitioners seek alternative means of creating theatre which prioritize conservation and sustainability during the entire performance.
Pandemic as a Catalyst
The global pandemic (2020–21) in Latvia challenged theatre practitioners to find new ways to meet their audiences outside of theatre halls. The resulting use of venues outside of organized theatre spaces was the starting point for the emergence of new ecotheatrical forms and narratives. Most premieres were either site-specific or environmental and include the following productions: Forest (Mežs, the National Theatre of Latvia, 2020) by Valters Sīlis about forestry challenges; Trees Have Stopped Talking Since Then (No tā laika koki vairs nerunā, Festival Homo Novus, 2020) by Krista Burāne about the cutting of trees in an urban environment; From Ceikste Till Aiviekste (No Ceikstes līdz Aiviekstei, Community Theatre in Lubāna, 2020) by Jānis Balodis about melioration issues and climate change observations; End of the World and Other Non-Sense (Pasaules gals un citas blēņas, Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival, 2021) by Krista Burāne about scenarios of the potential end of the world together with plans made by spectators themselves for saving it; Bumba nerunā (Ball Does Not Speak, Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival, 2021) by Māra Uzuliņa about a child who finds friends among ants; Ēdenes dārzs (Garden of Eden, Dirty Deal Teatro, 2021) by Paula Pļavniece about changes of attitudes needed in order to save the world. These are performances in which the environment at large has become a kind of co-author as well as the source of the scenography.
There were also two headphone performances: Brown Knapweed Confession (Pļavas dzelzenes atzīšanās, Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival, 2020) by Linda Rudene, which underscored the loss of biological diversity by naming different kinds of plant species, and 2020 steps (2020 soļi, Dirty Deal Teatro, 2020) by Krista Burāne, which reflected on the human-history in relation to the loss of biological diversity by deepening ecological consciousness of the listener.
A digital theatre production for children, Mission Earth (Misija Zeme, Dirty Deal Teatro, 2020) by Inga Tropa-Fišere, depicted the Earth 100 years in the future with only two scientists left in the Universe who were looking for a new place to live. For very small children and their parents, the performance-play Me and My Mum (Es un mana mamma, Liepāja Puppet Theatre, 2020) by Karolina Jurkštaite invited preschool children to interact with natural objects by using the five senses.
When theatre halls were able to resume normal operations, additional productions were staged, for example Rut (Riests, the National Theatre of Latvia, 2021) by Valters Sīlis, a humorous allegory of human behaviour, and Mushroom Picking Championship 2021 (Sēņošanas čempionāts 2021, Dirty Deal Teatro, 2021) by Ilze Bloka, a hybrid show which combined drama and dance. The Ways of Wood (Malkas ceļi, Ģertrūdes Street Theatre, 2020) by Andrejs Jarovojs focused on the materiality of wood and interaction of the natural world with that of the humans while addressing the challenges of consumption; Bee Matter (Bišu lieta, Festival Homo Novus, 2021) by Iveta Pole was a highly imaginative production representing the world of bees; a dance performance, Resignation (Atkāpšanās, Festival Survival Kit, 2020) by Kristīne Brīniņa emphasized consumerist issues.
These productions, created during the pandemic, address a variety of environmental topics, such as tree cutting and forest management practices, water management issues and melioration, climate change, biodiversity loss, species issues, consumerism and its consequences, and they use a variety of forms, including performance-walk, headphone performance, physical performance, performance-play, digital performance, performance-installation and others.
Rooted in Verbatim
Documentation is one of the most basic components of original ecodramaturgy, an art form based on actual facts and life stories as well as real events and records of events, including archival stories, documentary photos and audio and video clippings. The verbatim approach, as a form and technique (Paget 317; Hammond and Steward 9), is essential to ecotheatre in order to clarify the relationship between the human and the natural world. According to Paget, documentary interviews could serve as a basis for production and could be also shown to inform the interviewees (317).
The verbatim approach was adopted by director and playwright Krista Burāne and playwright Jānis Balodis in 2020, when they created ecodramaturgical productions which highlighted environmental issues through life-stories of real personalities who once lived in Latvia. The involvement of real personalities helps theatre practitioners bind the audience emotionally to environmental issues. Burāne focused on the practice of tree cutting in urban places such as Riga in Trees Have Stopped Talking Since Then, whereas Balodis pointed out climate change dynamics in the production From Ceikste Till Aiviekste, set in the Eastern part of Latvia, in the Latgale region.
The performance-walk drama, Trees Have Stopped Talking Since Then, is based on an actual figure, the first official gardener of the capital city of Latvia, Riga, Georgs Kufalts, who developed city green projects one hundred years ago. For Krista Burāne, this performance is part of what could be called social activist art, related to the protests against the cutting of trees in Riga in 2020. As Burāne notes,
I have had to make a decision: to create a performance or to take part in demonstrations [against tree cutting in Riga]. This performance was created as a response to the tree cutting in Riga, in the gardens of Skanste and in Mars Park. In particular, I decided to channel my creative energy into designing an ecotheatrical performance about these events. On the one hand, the topic is universal, but on the other hand it reflects very precisely on current issues which were on the agenda and will continue to be.qtd. in Verhoustinska
The director involved trained scientists, such as biologists and semioticians, in the performance; expressing the statement that “we are alive and trees are alive” (qtd. in Burāne), they provided relevant scientific data and emphasized a number of ecocentric principles during the performance.
Such approach goes hand in hand also with another feature of verbatim, in which performers do not often speak to one another but to the audience, a practice that keeps the spectators quite active (Hammond and Steward 9). In ecodramaturgy, breaking the fourth wall by using site-specific forms plays an important role as it allows practitioners to break down the division of the classical theatre space between actors and spectators, thereby encouraging a new level of participation. If the show is set in a natural environment, the spectators’ connection with the natural environment is strengthened and their ecological identity and awareness is enhanced.
For practitioners of ecodramaturgy, it is crucial to know the local environmental issues in order to speak about them via theatrical forms (May, “Greening the Theatre” 100). The performance-walk From Ceikste Till Aiviekste is based on two parallel story lines, one historical and one environmental, and was developed by playwright Jānis Balodis and the community theatre of Lubāna. On the historical side, the play narrates the life-story of lady Marija Diliavka, who conducted meteorological measurements in a nearby river everyday all her life; her life story is retold by her daughter. For the development of a nature-related story line, Balodis invited local residents to answer two questions; first, to recall situations when they felt a close connection to nature, and second, to think of something that existed in the past but is no longer present in nature. The development of dramaturgy for the performance From Ceikste Till Aiviekste reveals that ecodramaturgical materials are made as co-created dramaturgy.
Contemporary dramatists connect human and non-human stories to the long-term causes of climate change through multivocal, multitemporal, transnational and transspecies stories (May, Earth Matter on Stage 11); all these features are present in the performance From Ceikste Till Aiviekste. There are several storytellers as performers who share their own experience with nature; two parallel story lines are presented which include both past and present events and draw on factual data related to the issue of transnational climate change; in the staging, humans perform also non-humans: the horses and the spirits of the meadow.
Co-creation as Necessity
In addition to verbatim as a meaningful technique in ecotheatre, co-creation is also an essential feature in other productions. In a co-created work, dramaturgy is written not only through the single effort of an individual playwright but also in cooperation with other theatre practitioners, as they interview experts and local people and review archives and documentary materials to use in designing a local and original ecodrama.
The performance-walk entitled Forest was constructed as a dialog between people of opposing opinions on the significance of forest areas in human life: one actor espoused the idea that forest lands are to be perceived as an economic resource; a second actor expressed a view of the forest as an ecosystem where humankind is just one of the many inhabitants. The audience accompanied the two actors on a trail in local city park and listened to alternating anthropocentric and ecocentric worldviews. This co-creation involved not only the playwright, director, costume designer and actors but also experts from the field, including scientists, NGO representatives and forestry specialists.
Playwright Linda Rudene, who was involved in the development of the dramaturgy for the performance-walk Forest (2020), the headphone performance Brown Knapweed Confession (2020), the jockumentary performance Rut (2021) and the outdoor performance Garden of Eden (2021) further clarifies ecotheatre as follows:
Ecotheatre does not mean simply to make up a story; I cannot go beyond my own interpretation and experience. This [environmental issue] is clearly a serious enough topic to use for the basis of a play, but it also requires in depth specialized knowledge. It would be irresponsible to present such an issue from only my own point of view [as a playwright].qtd. in Balcare
Co-creation leads to the co-existence of several dramaturgical versions of the same play, as the written version differs slightly from spoken one. As the director of the digital performance Mission Earth Inga Tropa-Fišere pointed out, actors need the freedom to improvise according to the framework of the theme by mixing scientific facts and school content with ideas that resemble science-fiction (qtd. in Tropa-Fišere). Changing the character of the performance in such ways echoes actual changes in the natural world which do not always follow a fixed rhythm or cycle.
Looking for Lost Language
Ecodramaturgy is also characterized by the signs of anthropomorphism or the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities, such as a tree that can speak or the spirit of the meadow. The features of anthropomorphism appear in a number of ecoproductions. For instance, Forest and Trees Have Stopped Talking Since Then use elements of Latvian folklore tales in which trees speak with humans and the two live in close proximity. On a symbolic level, the narrative could be read as an implicit criticism of the inability of many contemporary human communities to understand the rhythms of the natural world. In the ecodrama From Ceikste Till Aiviekste, a horse who uses human language and a spirit of a meadow are featured in the performance. Other performances are based on stories in which humans lose their bearings in a natural setting and thus reveal their lack of knowledge and their inability to function successfully in a natural environment.
Another feature of ecodramaturgy is the depiction of various non-human beings as active agents in the performance. As May states, “theatre, too, can be a kind nourishment for our species and for the non-human communities that share this home planet with us” (Earth Matters on Stage 13). In multimedia performance Bee Matter by Iveta Pole, performers transform into bees, abandoning human habits, movements and language. Itis a post-dramatic artistic product which involves more physical than textual interpretation and prioritizes audiovisual effects.
Physicality is also important to the performance Ways of Woods by Andrejs Jarovojs. This production abandons altogether the use of a specific text, concentrating instead on the interaction between wooden objects and their connection with human beings: two actors on stage carry different kinds of wooden products, such as pallets or paper, and then destroy the wooden products with their axes and transform them into other forms, at some point becoming wrapped in paper themselves.
Combining dramatic theatre with dance performance, the new director Ilze Bloka presented the production Mushroom Picking Championship 2021, a monologue by a female actress who is accompanied by performers who embody a kind of mycelium-like organism and depict the human connection with the physical world.
On the basis of these examples, we can conclude, on the one hand, that these productions strive to regain a lost language in order to reconcile the natural and the human communities; on the other hand, these productions may abandon textuality completely and focus strictly on the physicality of ecotheatre. Pagan legacy functions as a reminder that Latvians were once close to nature and now have to regain this lost knowledge by facing the challenge of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and other environmental issues caused, not exclusively, but significantly, by human intervention.
Touch, Before Call It by Name
Despite the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, theatre practitioners also created several ecotheatre productions for young audiences using a variety of theatrical forms: performance-play, digital performance via Zoom, site-specific performance and participatory audio-performance. For example, director Karolina Jurkštaite at Liepāja Puppet Theatre created in Me and My Mum, a multi-sensual experience inviting his young audiences to experience nature through tactile, auditory and visual means. This performance sought to strengthen the relationship between children and the natural environment from a very early age.
Nature as means to ameliorate social marginalization is the focus of the production Ball Does Not Speak by the upcoming young director Māra Uzuliņa at the Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival. The story unfolds as a walk through the blockhouses and forecourts using scenography of playgrounds, staircases, windows in houses and arches to entrances, while helping young children to identify the location and perceive the character from the play as one of their mates. The character, a young boy, is struggling to make friends with other children. In the absence of human company, he decides to save a group of ants and their queen, thereby building his own self-confidence as he becomes a superhero of the ant world. The econarrative which young spectators experience has two main themes: first, one has to help those in danger, and second, nature is a welcoming and not a dangerous place for those who would like to care for it.
A plea to protect nature is also expressed in the digital Sci-Fi performance Mission Earth directed by Inga Tropa-Fišere. The performance simulates a connection to a space station where two remaining scientists are looking for a habitable place in the galaxy. Set in the year 2118, the narrative laments the collapse of Planet Earth due to the overconsumption and ecologically irresponsible behaviour of human beings. The space station is a symbol of a lost home as Earth is no longer habitable, and two last human beings have to develop and implement the means to maintain a more sustainable way of living.
The scenario of a dead or dying Earth also guides the production End of the World and Other Non-Sense, a site-specific headphone performance directed by Krista Burāne. First performed at the Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival in 2021 as a participatory audio performance, the narrative explores the relationship between humankind and the natural world, providing 20 different fantasy scenarios of the end of the world which were written in a workshop by children ranging from 10 to 16 years of age. The performance takes place in an empty school building in the regional city of Valmiera and offers five different routes for spectators. The audience not only listen to audio stories narrated by the children but also develop an action plan to prevent the end of the world and develop the tools to implement their plan. Thus, spectators are required to review and question the existing system comprehensively, rather than impose ready-made solutions.
Light Approach to Hard Topics
According to ecocritic Andrew McMurry, four modes of engagement are available to analyze texts from an ecocritical perspective: first, the ecophobic mode, which expresses little interest in the natural world exclusive of the human community; second, the ecophatic mode, whereby nature is depicted metaphorically as a manifestation of human social experience and self-understanding; third, the ecoliterate mode, which represents an interplay between the natural world and the human community; and fourth, the ecophilic mode, which engages passionately with the world of nature (18).
In ecotheatre, the focus is on ecoliterate and ecophilic perspectives; however, some exceptions can be noted. For example, in the ecophatic production Rut, directed by Valters Sīlis, animal behaviour is attributed to human actors in representations of dating and courtship. In several scenes, an implicit comparison is developed between human subjects and their counterparts in the non-human animal world, with a focus on respective dating behaviours. Despite its metaphorical basis, this performance is clearly an instance of ecoperformance, given its originality and its theme of similarity between human and non-human animals, in spite of the long evolutionary processes which distinguish them.
The use of humor is another effective means to stimulate interaction between performers and audience and create a positive linkage to the topic or issue in focus. Such an approach is used in the comic and melancholic outdoor performance Garden of Eden directed by Paula Pļavniece. The play takes the form of an ecological farce set in a botanical garden which nurtures every type of known plant, much in the same way in which the biblical figure Noah nurtured every type of existing animal in his famed ark. As May has observed, “theatre could be a force for healing, justice and resilience” (Earth Matter on Stage xiii). This could explain why ecodramaturgy typically avoids a directly oppositional view of the natural world and human culture, projecting instead an alternative ideology which prioritizes ecological justice. Using humour to approach contentious environmental issues is a first step toward attracting new spectators, including those who are not necessarily interested in ecology but who enjoy a good comedy.
In Latvia, the number of ecotheatrical performances is growing steadily as productions shift from an anthropocentric to an ecocentric worldview. Similarly, a significant increase in original ecodramaturgy has been witnessed in recent years, at a time when most traditional theatre halls have been closed. Most of these performances are instances of environmental or site-specific theatre; as dramatic works of co-creation, they explore new possibilities for presenting the close interrelationship among all living beings, human and non-human, and the environment which supports them all. Ecotheatre performances on various stages in Latvia also introduce new forms of storytelling, increase the level of audience participation in theatre and engender a critical analysis of sustainability in the process of production.
What new developments might follow this current trend? This is a pressing question raised by ecotheatre professionals throughout Latvia. The present generation of ecoperformers strongly believe in the longevity of nature and its ability to survive human intervention, and the community of Latvian theatre professionals have addressed both global and local ecological issues. By continuing to raise awareness of local ecological problems, ecotheatre could prompt a major and lasting shift in mindset and behavior of the human community toward the natural environment, leading to a number of concrete positive results.
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*Kitija Balcare (Mg.sc.hum.) is a theatre critic for major performing arts periodicals and online media in Latvia. Her main interests are eco-theatre, eco-narratives and sustainability in the performing arts; as a journalist, she specializes in sustainability and other environmental issues. She is a member of Latvian Theatre Union and is currently working on a PhD degree in environmental humanities at the University of Latvia. Contact information: E-mail: email@example.com. Webpage: https://www.lsm.lv/autors/kitija-balcare.
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