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Sinking feelings and hopeful horizons: Holding complexity in climate change theatre

Sarah Walker and Fleur Kilpatrick


The problem of how to communicate climate change in a way that provokes prompt, decisive and effective action is one of the key problems of our times. In 2015, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research noted that most discussions around climate change focus on rational transmission of information. This approach, the report suggests, is failing on every level, from politics to the public. Instead, its authors recommend, ‘more dialogical forms of communication’ are needed (Rayner & Minns 2015, p. 3). They note that ‘immersive, experiential activities’ that encourage empathetic and emotional care are much more effective in ‘shifting perceptions beyond climate change as a vague and theoretical issue to one which might have real and serious consequences for participants and their communities’ (pp. 14-15). These discoveries identify the theatre and its use of participation and affect as key locations for a revolutionary transmission of narratives of climate change in a way that creates real and authentic concern and behavioural change. This chapter considers the use of these methodologies in Fleur Kilpatrick’s theatre work Whale, which premiered at Northcole Town Hall in May 2019.

We have worked together for more than twelve years. Our work explores difficult and urgent concepts such as climate change, asking who or what is considered worth caring about, and how it is possible to elicit care for disenfranchised people, places and environments. We consider the ways that interactive theatre can use fiction as a tool to bring distant realities and power imbalances into the physical and psychic proximity of the audience. Whale provided a testing-ground for the coalescing of these interests, in addressing real audiences about real issues through the conceits of the theatre.

Whale's methodologies were centred around the idea of shifting the concept of climate change from distanced information to a physical event occurring to and around the audience. It used affect, play and participation as defamiliarising strategies to create a sense of investment in climate change as an event, and to encourage audience members to challenge existing social narratives around the issue. Whale was committed to movement towards Braidotti’s notion of affirmative ethics and the cultivation of hope (Braidotti, 2019). It approached climate change, the locus of terror and apocalyptic thinking, and demonstrated the flimsiness of our current lumbering reactions to it. Instead, it offered a method of engagement that prioritised complexity, care and possibility. Whale took an issue conventionally framed as hopeless and demanded a turning towards hope, change and multiplicity.

From check-in to sacrifice: Act One

On arrival, the audience of Whale were directed to a check-in desk. Here, they w'ere given a lanyard, coloured according to their comfort with audience participation. The ethics of interaction in the theatre revolve around the necessity of consent, and so audience members with red lanyards were assured that they would never be brought onstage or asked to respond directly to a question. The plastic pocket on each lanyard contained a small stone, along with a sheet of paper displaying a number, indicating how many people that particular audience member was there to represent, and a series of short facts about their island (‘You

Sonya Suares with the delegates w'ho saved their islands

FIGURE 5.1 Sonya Suares with the delegates w'ho saved their islands.

have three times more tourists than residents’, ‘You contain the entire population of a certain species of turtle’, for example). The audience was immediately positioned as delegates for individual islands. The provided facts created a sense of investment, and encouraged them to identify with a dematerialised, fictionalised home. Inside the theatre, the host, identifying herself as actor Sonya Suares, was also wearing a lanyard:

SONYA: My number

As you’ll see here is 24.5 million Approximately

I am here representing Mainland Australia Hello

I’m really proud to be here And—honestly-

Really proud that Australia is hosting this and stepping up Taking our place as a global leader So on behalf of Australia Welcome

As live photographs were taken and displayed on a large projection screen by Sarah Walker, Sonya welcomed the delegates and outlined the premise of the show: that in order to stop something as huge and terrible as climate change, a sacrifice was needed. One island would be chosen to sink beneath the waves, killing everyone on it instantly, and ending climate change. We would finally be free. Three delegates, islands 89, 8780 and 0, were pulled from the audience and given speeches to deliver defending their islands. They made their case. ‘We aren’t the problem’ argued tiny island 89. ‘You will feel bad if you kill this many people’, said island 8780. ‘Don’t sacrifice nature to save your own skins’, argued island 0, home to a whole species of penguin.

The audience was called to come forward one by one and cast their stone into the hand of the delegate they wanted to send down. 90 people stood up and voted, and the island with the most votes was brought forward and sacrificed.

SONYA: Are you ready?

Say ‘yes’

LOSING DELEGATE: Yes SONYA: You’re very brave

I’m going to lead our losing delegate to the centre of the stage

She does

Where a beam of light will find them

It does

And this sound will start to grow

It does

The delegate will look up

Trying to memorise life while they still have it

The sound will crescendo

Sound crescendos

Our delegate will take a deep breath And the water will take them

Lights snap to black Oceans roar

This was the end of Act One.

Given circumstances and the critical midpoint

‘Given circumstances’ is a rarefied concept closely associated with naturalism and the framework for actor training created by Konstantin Stanislavski. As its premise, it asks the actor to envision the character they are playing as a real human being who exists beyond the duration of the scene (Stanislavski, 1936/ 1989). It asks, what are the ‘facts’ of the character: what is this character walking onstage with? What has just happened to them? Where are they? When are they?

When creating theatre that operates beyond the realms of naturalism, Fleur re-appropriates this term. In theatre of climate crisis, the first priority is not that a character is believable or fully-formed, but that the audience has an experience that leads them to interrogate their affective responses and thus conceptualise climate change. Far more important than what a character is entering a scene with is what the audience walks into theatre of climate crisis carrying, where ‘theatre’ is a meeting point between a play and an audience. This question, more than plot, character or imagery, was Fleur’s starting point in the creation of Whale, how do people feel about this terrifying thing that is happening in their lifetime?

They are scared but also acclimatised. They have been living with this for so long. It is a bit like those surreal days gathered around a relative’s death bed: held in this state of suspended, anticipatory grief, but at some point also, you check your emails. You eat. You wonder how they are getting on without you at work. We exist in this unwieldy moment in the Anthropocene that has spawned a new family of psychological terminology: ‘climate anxiety’, ‘eco-paralysis’, ‘climate grief and ‘arrested mourning’ (Lewis, 2018). Massumi articulates the creeping feeling of fear, the ‘anticipatory reality in the present of a threatening future’ (Massumi, 2009, p. 54). Whale acknowledges the lingering threat that characterises the present, like a sub-audible hum underlying every moment. The fear of climate change is the ‘affective fact’ that exists within all of us, always (Massumi, 2009, p. 54). And yet, there is the shopping to be done. These are the given circumstances of a theatre of climate change: unresolved distress, the mundanity of catastrophe.

The everyday-ness of these default settings is why so much fiction of climate change (cli-fi) is set in the future, post-, after a turning point of epic proportions. In traditional naturalistic modes of storytelling, all stories must have a beginning, middle and an end. Right now, present-tense climate narratives are set in a perpetual middle, Whale included. The beginning is off-stage—the industrial revolution, perhaps, or colonisation—the end, a series of terrifying predictions. To sit in this middle place is to sit in a place that defies conventional narrative structures: the present tense is anticlimactic, problematic in its absence of drama. That we currently sit in the slow slump to global loser-dom, without access to an ending, necessitates modes of story-telling defined by the absence of what came before: non-naturalistic, post-dramatic and post-colonial.

Fiction has power in these complex spaces. Fiction can provoke radical empathy by creating a sense of proximity to real issues. Climate change is very real and very much happening today (IPCC, 2018) but perhaps the most brutal fact of it all is that the people who will suffer the most are already suffering and our community seems to, on the whole, have accepted this as part of our global truth: somewhere far away, people are suffering and we can do nothing about it. In 1917, theorist and critic, Viktor Shklovsky wrote ‘habitualisation devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war ... and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make the stone stony’ (Shklovsky, 1917, p. 12). Today, fiction has the power to make us re-realise the horrific facts we have become acclimatised to. It can remove the kilometres; make global neighbours your actual neighbours. Whale makes land loss and community destruction a problem that exists and potentially is solved in your suburb. What would this look like if it happened here and not there, it asks. How would we react if these choices we make implicitly—to carry on and keep this government—were being made explicitly? In a vote.

To set climate fiction in the present tense means not only telling stories of fear, but also of hope. As Whale's dramaturg, Roslyn Oades commented in development, cli-fi theatre gives us the opportunity to rehearse our ultimate failure or, possibly, our success. Each night, the lines, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve saved the world’ felt powerful. Fiction does have a certain magic when utilised in stories of epic, unwieldy proportions and no story is more epic or unwieldy than that of climate change. Philosopher Timothy Morton frames climate change as a 'hyperobject’, a thing ‘massively distributed in time and space relative to humans’, which is so large, mobile and dematerialised that it becomes impossible to grasp (Morton, 2013, p. 1). Fiction can provoke a sense of proximity to this Issue. Whale makes land loss and community destruction small enough to fit into our performance space. It makes a solution—albeit a problematic one—fit in there loo. We exist in a critical moment where change is both possible and urgent, and Whale responds to this crisis point, using present tense, personal responsibility and humour to suggest the possibility of an affirmative future.

Jonah (Max Paton) and the Whale (Ghanella Maori)

FIGURE 5.2 Jonah (Max Paton) and the Whale (Ghanella Maori).

Going deep: Act Two and the Whale

The structure of the production shifted dramatically at the beginning of Act Two, where actor Ghanella Macri, dressed in a water-patterned jumpsuit, look to the mic and announced herself as the Whale.


I’m the whale Titular role

You might have some questions About me

About my presence here

The sacrificed delegate reappeared as Jonah, caught in the Whale’s belly, as the town hall meeting dissolved into a world of strange, theatrical possibility. As the Whale, Ghanella felt tonally akin to the characters native to the films of New Zealand film director Taika Waititi: endearingly straightforward, unflappable and a little baffled by the humans in the audience. She answered audience questions with frustrating simplicity, cared for Jonah, and finally, seeing that none of the humans had done anything to help, sacrificed herself, describing in granular detail the process of her own beaching and decomposition as Jonah was left onstage.

The show ended every night with Jonah—so recently an unsuspecting audience member—making an impassioned, improvised speech about what we needed to do to save the world, as music slowly rose underneath them and drowned them out.

WHALE: I need you to say these words Exactly Say

‘I know how to save the world’

JONAH: I know how to save the world WHALE: Thank you

Now tell them how

Sound covers Jonah’s response

While the content shifted nightly, the moment functioned to promote the realisation that the path to climate response is possible. We know what must be done. The next step is to do it. This moment was both a symbolic and actual passing of the mic to the audience; a transfer of power and control over who may speak from the playwright to the crowd.

Comedy, parties and play as defamiliarising tactics

The production was guided by the desire to create a sense of defamiliarisation (Brecht & Bentley, 1961), where the audience is alienated from and encouraged to re-approach habits of thinking and behaving around catastrophe and disaster. For a long time in art, this kind of moment of estrangement was most identified in the sublime—experiences that involve a confrontation with an inner abyss, allowing the transcendence of the human (Morley, 2010). But recent criticism suggests that comedy can also be used as a powerful disarming tactic, where a moment of cathartic laughter forces the audience to reconsider social cues and habits. This is the harnessing of affect, where bodily reaction meets social conditioning and encourages intellectual reflection. Simon Critchely refers to this tactic as ‘the unheimlich manoeuvre’, where the strangeness of reality Is exposed through comedy (in Diack, 2012, p. 84). Walter Benjamin writes that ‘there is no better start for thinking than laughter’, and that ‘convulsion of the diaphragm usually provides better opportunities for thought than convulsion of the soul’ (Benjamin, 1934/2013, p. 91). The art world as well as the pop culture industry has tended to be suspicious of the unruliness of laughter, situating it as lesser, un-serious. Comedy, then, must be a cunning methodology , and Whale was a cunning work.

It was constantly, uncomfortably funny. Sonya, as the host, was often absurdly flippant about the importance of what the audience was gathered to do. The first act existed in an awkward, embarrassing, half-baked town hall space where nobody was quite prepared and everyone was flying by the seat of their pants. The energy created was one of a light-hearted community effort, and the simulated disorganisation of the event helped to coalesce the audience as a sort of community. The fracturing of this community through the selection of delegates, the way that the audience was turned on itself, situated them in a game world where the rules were clearly fake, but they also had uncomfortable resonances with real-world decision-making. The comedy in Whale slowly gave way to moments of profound, heartbreaking sadness and anger, and when the audience member-turned-Jonah at the end was asked to describe how to save the world, but was drowned out by sound, it was a literalising of the fact that we know how to fix things; the problem is that we’re not doing it.

Whale's use of humour shifted throughout the production. In Act One, it was a disorienting gesture. It cut through the work, undermining the content, creating space. Laughter is an affective reaction, containing the shock of surprise. It forces space for itself. It is the gasp that draws attention back to what provoked it. Sonya’s callousness in the face of murdering an island and its delegate created laughter, and then reflection.

SONYA: 8780 how are you feeling?

Say ‘I didn’t expect to be up here’

  • 8780: I didn’t expect to be up here SONYA: Say ‘defending my right to breathe’
  • 8780: Defending my right to breathe SONYA: Yeah we’re all surprised mate

It feels like there should be enough air and clean water to go around right? Say ‘right’

8780: Right

In Act Two, laughter became reorienting. The Whale was funny in a way that was generous, encompassing. Her deadpan reactions to audience questions were imbued with thoughtfulness and a desire to connect. (‘How big are you?’, they would ask. She would pause for a few seconds, calculating, then beam. ‘Really, really big.’) She was kind to Jonah in a way that was a little awkward, but always attempting to understand. She spoke about the loss of her child and the joy of swimming deep in the same breath. She was the embodiment of Manning’s culture of affirmation, which contains the grief of a shifting climate, but still makes room for ‘love, and laughter’ (Manning, 2016, p. 211). Braidotti, too, argues that it is essential to address the conditions of the posthuman convergence ‘not only intellectually, but affectively and to do so in an affirmative manner’ (Braidotti, 2019, p. 9). This Is the space of complex reorienting, of acknowledging the multiplicity of tilings. In this space of complexity, there is possibility. There are new ways of considering the world and how we may relate to it. In Act Two, a human could stand onstage next to a character who was both beside them and all around them.

WHALE: To address a few FAQs

Questions appear on a screen

QUESTION: Who are you?

WHALE: I’m a whale

Already said that Next

QUESTION: Where are we?

WHALE: This is my stomach Next

QUESTION: Why are you in your own stomach?

WHALE: This is where I do a lot of my best thinking

Tassos Stevens, artistic director of British theatre company Coney, describes play as a radical act, where the space between the real—this is a pen—and the imaginary—but let’s agree that it’s a sword—is profound and exciting (Stevens, 2013). When we agree to rules in a play situation, we become empowered to recognise the ways in which the rules of our real lives are also constructed and agreed to. His writing could be considered a kind of semiotics of play. In Whale, the ‘what if rules of engagement existed to ask deeper questions—what are the rules that we agree to in talking about climate change? And what if we stop agreeing to them?

As it progressed into Act Two, Whale also relied to a substantial extent on frustration as a means to encourage the drive towards meaningful action. The production purposefully endowed the sacrifice of a delegate and an island with planetary significance, and built the moment of sacrifice into a ritual of great meaning. In the immediate wake of this event, though, the production denied the space for grief and processing to the audience. The people who had just voted to abandon one of their own were washed in coloured lights, a bad PowerPoint animation congratulating them on saving the world, lukewarm punch and a party whose celebration felt deeply strained. The perfunctory minute’s silence offered by Sonya once she realised that she had forgotten to recognise the importance of the sacrifice felt cheap and distasteful. In this way, comedy shifted in the work from being a method for inviting the audience in, to one for eliciting irritation. This strategy, of diminishing the importance of human life, of prioritising boxticking over emotion, of favouring logic over the messiness of feeling, created a rift between Sonya and Sarah and the audience. As the production progressed and the Whale offered a new approach, they increasingly became a symbol of the ignorance and inflexibility of logical, rational processing and unquestioned authority.

Using lies to reveal the truth

In Act Two, the centre of dramatic tension shifted offstage, into the seating bank. It existed in the minds and bodies of the audience as they sorted fact from fiction, danger from safety and complex global issues from our overly simple solution. The more Sonya dismissed and diminished the tension on stage, the more it was felt in the audience. This disjunct between truth and fiction impacted much of the lighting and sound design throughout Act Two. While Sonya continued to placate the audience, loud sound and flashes of light sought to act on the bodies of the audience. The gulf between the official narrative and the embodied experience widened throughout the second half of the show, until finally they snapped apart, the roof began to fall in, and Sarah and Sonya evacuated the theatre, leaving the audience alone with the Whale.

The reality of climate change is both more subtle and more devastating than what Whale depicts. The agonising cultural complexities of moving communities to higher ground, the unwillingness of many island nations to be situated as canaries in the coalmine of the climate catastrophe, and the complicated political machinations surrounding the issue are all absent. The hollow simplicity of Whale's sacrifice-as-panacea and repeated mistruths formed a hole in the centre of the production that had to be confronted by the audience’s active complication of the narrative. The production used lies and purposeful misinformation to provide space for the audience to question its authority.

It is worth mentioning here that Whale is not alone in simplifying narratives of climate change, particularly in relation to the cultural impacts of inaction. This happens in the real world too. In her paper ‘Wishful Sinking’, Carol Farbotko speaks of the erasure of real, complicated Pacific Islands and the narratives that turn them into imagined ‘Western mythologies of island laboratories’ (Farbotko, 2010, p. 47). With islands being transformed into litmus tests for climate catastrophes, the theoretical versions of these islands ‘appropriate the space of an already marginalised population’ (p. 47). In the real world, this erasure happens insidiously, unnoticed and unquestioned. In Whale, the erasure and simplification is overt; a provocation to restore complexity to an issue that is as much a cultural catastrophe as an environmental one.

Sonya constantly reassured the audience, ‘This is a play. It’s not real.’ This metatheatrical conceit, the showing of the structure of theatrics, the breaking of the fourth wall, began to clash with another primary tension of the production— that between truth and fiction.

SONYA: In this play the oceans are rising

In this play the world is on the brink of a tragedy

In this play our politicians have given into industrial lobbies again and again

And because of that In this play

People are going to die Imagine that

But of course, we know that these are facts that Sonya is presenting as fiction. If the oceans really are rising, and our narrator is lying to us, then what else is real in this play?

Just as Whales obvious simplification of land loss draws attention to the complexity of the issue and its faux-resolution amplifies the fact that we do not have a solution, so too do Whale's fictions act as Trojan horses for facts. The fictional pleas for made-up islands carry with them a truth, re-realised and re-felt by the act of an audience member having to sort the fact from fiction. As ‘delegates’ tell you that they aren’t the problem and they deserve to live, Australian audiences may well hear the pleas of real delegates who have come to this country many times to plead for their own homes:

When it comes to high tide you can see the tide everywhere. It seeps through the whole island ... It is difficult to determine who is listening and who is not listening. I believe they have heard our message so many times but we keep on pushing and advocating for Tuvalu and Kiribati and low-lying atolls so that leaders of Australia and other industrialised countries will continue to hear our voice.

(Mama Talia from Tuvalu, 2014 to Julie Bishop and Greg Hunt, in McGrath, 2014)

Mocking the major and gesturing towards the minor

By coming to the theatre and testing responses to climate disaster, Whale allowed the audience to rehearse for the future. By practising our reactions to an imminent but as-yet unexpressed cataclysm, we invoked the possibility of alternative reactions into the space. We practiced doing what we are told, and then we practiced letting things fall apart.

The structure of Act One was a parody of what Manning refers to as the ‘major’—the accepted model for decision-making, importance and change (Manning, 2016). The town hall meeting place was a stand-in for institutions such as governments and corporations, the entities that enact force and power, and their sweeping pronouncements and misguided responses to catastrophe. According to Manning, ‘[tjhese grand gestures...are often seen as the site where true political change occurs, but in fact the grand gesture only upholds the status quo’ and ‘choreographs the field around a truth that seeks to justify the it is’ (pp. 221-222). Fleur wrote the epitome of the grand gesture: a brutal sacrifice to save the world. Act One is a world bounded by its own limits. Sonya embodied the status quo, the bodies seeking to solve problems through power and sublimation of responsibility. The audience was given the choice of three islands to sink. There was no space to ask what might happen outside of these options. This is what Braidotti calls ‘the closing down of the horizon of possible actions’ (Brai- dotti, 2019, p. 130); an essentially negative relationship to chaos. Manning states that ‘no grand gesture can settle the score’ (p. 223). So it is in Whale. The sacrifice fails. Nothing changes. Only the emergence of the Whale, the inherent other, shifts the world in a meaningful way.

Act Two allowed for the emergence of the ‘minor’—the gestures of care, of complex thinking, of empathic connection. The Whale was the central site of these gestures, enacting them, receiving them. She revelled in her own indeterminacy (wild, both human and animal, thinking at an oceanic scale) and pre- carity. In her, we find ‘new forms of existence’, new ways of thinking, new paths to hope (Manning 2016, p. 2).

Act Two was an offering of an alternative, a reordering of experience. The Whale was the embodiment of the affirmative cut that is the minor gesture—she represented an entirely different mode of being (Manning, 2016). The Whale represented hope. She asked, what else is possible?

Breaking down the rules of the well-made play

The role-playing in the work was complex: Sonya and Sarah were nominally playing themselves, though their roles were mostly scripted. Fleur’s voice as the absent playwright was a constant presence, a force against which Sonya increasingly balked. Manning notes that participation cannot coexist with the notion of the creative individual at its centre (Manning, 2016). Whale took on this notion directly, constantly referring back to Fleur, as the creative genius behind the project, the one with the answers, the one who could solve the issues. The all-seeing, all-knowing and omnipotent hand of the playwright was challenged throughout the work, with Sonya eventually having an audience member text Fleur, demanding answers. Fleur’s response was an admission that, yes, we haven’t solved this yet, and that her control is minimal and falsified.


Nice to hear from you

Yeah we haven’t saved the world yet


I understand how that can make for a bit of an unsatisfying night in the theatre

The playwright transformed from a being so powerful she might save the world to texting her failure from her couch at home, too cowardly to even come and see her own play. Her presence in the work tacitly asked the question many of us who are artists and writers are constantly battling: can I even change anything? Is my work of use? In this moment of global crisis, what is the point of me?

The structure of Whale itself demonstrated what happens when we change tactics. The shift between Act One and Act Two was a shift of paradigm from the rules-based, structured, patriarchal, logical power of Act One, where Sonya told the audience what to do and say and feel. Act Two was a space of multiplicity, of listening and of care. Chanella, as the Whale, represented a new form of power, a power that exists in uncertainty and responsiveness. Theatremakers Rachel Perks and Bridget Balodis talk about queering the space of theatre by undermining the traditional three-act structure and making room for the unknown, for the possibility of many things being true (Tong, 2018). Act Two of Whale was a queer form of care and of power, where not knowing became a form of radical listening and the status quo fell away. Its humour, too, was gracious and generous, a laughing-with rather than the laughing-at of Act One. Act Two was a utopian space, where the world as it is shifts into a world that could be. Its form undermined the very existence of Act One and the barbaric process that we put our delegates through.

WHALE: This is my home

Thanks for coming and stuff

It’s pretty much


So I hope you’ve enjoyed that

I guess that might seem pretty simple compared to your lives It’s really hard to say why the place you live is special It’s just my favourite place

It’s where every other whale before me has been born and swum and died for the last 50 million years So Г m pretty into it

In her simple description of her ocean, the Whale both echoed and made monstrous the speeches of the delegates in Act One, with their PowerPoint slides and digs at their neighbouring islands.

If Act One represented the height of rationalism, where problems must be solved through detached, scientific balancing processes, Act Two marked a shift to a heterogeneous stale where, as Estelle Barrett suggests, ‘distanced observation is replaced with aesthetic awareness’ (Barrett, 2013, p. 64). The second half of Whale prioritised subjective processes: ‘the interaction between the body as nonhuman (as matter), embodied experience, language and thought operating in social contexts’ (Barrett, 2013, p. 64). These are alternate forms of knowing; interpersonal and reactionary'.

Participation and the anti-spectacle

Whale hinged around the way that affect impacts the body’s capacity to act (Shouse, 2005), both literally and in the sense of taking on a role. It forced the audience to lake part, to literally become actors in the fabricated town hall meeting to save the world. In doing so, it created a state where participants were made deeply aware of their own physical and intellectual responses to given stimuli.

Whale’s audience was constantly placed on-edge. It mobilised the impact of the actor breaking the fourth wall and looking directly at the audience, eye to eye. Just when the audience was settling into a state of pure observation, Sonya would point at an audience member, ask them a question, draw their attention to their individuality, their electric presence in the space. To have an actor bring the attention of a whole room to you is an alarming experience. The audience members would react physically—they would start, sit up, grimace. This occurred, loo, when Sarah photographed audience members whose faces were projected on-screen. As audience members recognised themselves being observed without realising, they would experience a moment of confusion, of slight panic. This moment of sudden pre-conscious horror, the body’s reaction before the brain kicks in, provided the essential affective intensity around which the production revolved. In the moment of being seen, of being singled out and asked to respond, the audience became primed in a state of readiness for action. This occurred on a small scale, through audience questioning, as well as in moments of crescendo in the production—the realisation that the audience would have to vote to sacrifice one of their own, and the sacrifice itself.

Whale sought to weaponise this moment as a profound political and social force, and doubly drew attention to it through frustration. Throughout most of the play, whenever Sonya asked an audience member a question, she answered it for them (‘I’m really excited, actually. Are you? Say “yes”.’). The production structured this interaction specifically—an affective jolt, followed by a frustrating silencing of the individual’s actual intellectual and emotional responses and thoughts. By harnessing this moment of affective crisis, and by refusing to allow the audience member to act in a way that felt authentic, the production built up a tension that erupted in the sacrifice of the losing delegate. Through hundreds of micro-interactions, the audience was taught that affect would be followed by frustration. This coding was designed to be irritating, to encourage the drive towards real, meaningful action. Initially, the ramifications of being silenced were minimal, as Sonya asked questions about her own performance and party snacks. Towards the peak of Act One, though, the audience was denied agency around the sacrifice of one of their own, and purposefully corralled into a performed politics that prioritised the terrible exercise of power. This autocracy vanished when the Whale entered the stage and almost immediately opened the floor for questions, responding directly and authentically to the audience members as individuals. As Act Two progressed, and the ridiculous logic of the sacrifice fell away, space was opened up to connect the urge for action with the need for real and authentic responses.

Throughout the production, we relied on the process of what Elizabeth Walden (2011) calls ‘reflexive mimesis’, whereby a work evokes a two-fold reaction—firstly, a sudden, pre-thought affective, empathetic reaction, followed by the arrival of questioning—of asking, why did I react like this? In И hale, we encouraged the audience to reflect on these moments of intensity, on the body’s readiness to act, and to consider the broader ramifications of this process. This was a methodology of provoking anxiety and then asking the person to use it. If affect is ‘the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience’ (Shouse, 2005, n.p.), then Whale sought at all times to add urgent intensity to the greater experience of living in climate crisis, to ask its audience to prepare, physically, and intellectually, for real and authentic action in the face of disaster. It asked them to cultivate bodies ready to receive affect, and ready to act on that intensity. It asked them to be as ready to act in the circumstances of grand global policy as they were when asked to offer chips to their neighbour. We attempted to harness an affective response to a particular condition—suddenly becoming public and visible to others—and extrapolated this urgency to climate issues. Whale constantly drew attention to the power of this affective jolt—notice what it feels like, this rush of shock and adrenalin. Now use it.

Tomkins suggests that affects are ‘aroused easily by factors over which the individual has little control’ (Demos, 1995, p. 54). The audiences in Whale were constantly at the brink of this loss of control. In a society where climate Issues in particular feel as though they put us in a situation where our agency is minimal, Whale's controlled placing of the audience in an out of control environment formed a ground for testing affect and our reaction to it.

These reactions changed across the course of each performance. Whale moulded the audience from a state of cynicism—where the shock of being called on provoked eye rolls and hammed-up nervousness—to one of serious harnessing of the jolt that comes with having to step up. By the end of the production, when the person playing Jonah was asked to give a grand speech about how to save the world, the audience member always took it seriously. Their impassioned speeches called on us to listen to women, to dissolve governments, to tear apart corporations. They were delivered with control and with fire. There was a sense of harnessing of power, of looking to the future with hope. This moment characterised the production’s urging towards an affirmative ethics, rooted in movement rather than despair (Braidotti, 2019).

Whale also worked deeply with the idea of empathy through embodiment, where to act a role forces you to identify with the role. The moment at which the votes were counted, and the sacrifice was chosen, always contained an exhale, a vocalisation. A sense of relief and guilt that the second act, in its breaking down of the rules of engagement, developed into political questioning: who is really going down, and who are the ones making that choice?

Rather than presenting a production that occurred in front of the audience, Whale was an event that happens to, with and by the audience. The audience’s experience was a putting-on of stories that were not their own. In the performing, though, they experienced a hybrid form of embodied story. The stage space was a collapsing of identities, where knowing became physical rather than intellectual. Whale took real tensions and cast the audience in a dual role where they were both acting as representatives of islands whose existences are fragile, actively inhabiting the fears around rising sea levels; and as the privileged, mostly white, mostly educated, mostly rich and mostly polluting decision-makers who occupy the seats of power making the choices that determine whether island nations live or die.

The vote

FIGURE 5.3 The vote.

Raising the stakes: the vote and embodied decision-making

The vote was the central emotional hinge of the production. In the moments before the three delegates were called out, every person in the audience was a person who might be sacrificed. While the selection of delegates was rigged, so that 89, 8780 and 0 would always be the numbers chosen, the audience was unaware of this conceit, and so the sense of uncertainty in the room was real. As Sarah pulled the numbers out of a hat, an electric burst of nervous laughter rippled through the theatre, alongside groans from the delegate chosen. By- creating a moment where the continued existence of each island came into doubt, Whale took the ridiculousness of the production’s town meeting conceit, the thought that ‘this would never happen around here’, and encouraged a second thought: ‘but it is happening somewhere’. By locating an audience in the emotionality of an experience other than their own, they were forced into an engagement with the real issues occurring elsewhere.

As soon as those three numbers were called out, though, the rest of the audience was endowed with terrible power. They became the decision-makers, the holders of the power of life and death. As the vote occurred, the drama ceased to occur with and to the performers, and became entirely enacted by and to the audience. The audience wielded their power and sacrificed one of their own. The affective reactions in this moment were multiple and often contradictory. Some voters laughed as they cast their votes. Others averted their eyes and apologised. One delegate, realising that her pile was growing and that she would be sacrificed, quietly cried as people placed stones into her hands. The vote represented a moment in which an event was happening not only in the narrative of the play, but actually, physically, to the participants in the space. The open nature of the vote introduced a moment of real stakes and real decision-making into the room, bringing a rush of attendant feeling.

8780 nearly always lost the vote and was sacrificed. Island 0, the island containing only penguins, never went down. Chanella’s experience backstage with the person sacrificed each night demonstrated these complexities. At a post-show Q&A, Chanella, herself a Pacific Islander woman, spoke about the experience of sitting backstage and waiting to hear who was voted down, and being deeply saddened ever)' night when tiny islands were sacrificed over the island of penguins. She spoke about how hearing white Australian audiences justify voting down the delegates, she was horrified at how many people called 8780 a big island. ‘8000 people is nothing’, she said.

In the party sequence, several audience members were asked who they voted for and why, and the answers were all the same—‘I killed the one with a lot of people. They were more at fault. I couldn’t kill the penguins. They were so cute.’ In the foyer after the show, however, these conversations started to fracture. ‘I just realised that penguins can swim.’ ‘I just realised that 8000 people is actually tiny.’ The show created a space where the audience members were made to occupy the positions of power, and in doing so, enacted that power in cruel and flippant ways. In conversations with audience members after the production, it was repeatedly revealed that voters wanted to punish someone. They knew that humans were responsible for climate change, and they felt a compunction to punish the largest possible number of people. This response perhaps indicated a referral of the sense of political impotence experienced by individuals who believe climate science but feel powerless to act in order to effect real change.

Across the season, about ten people refused to vote. Everyone else did what they were told. As the structure of the show collapsed, they were given the space to notice that they had acted in keeping with the status quo, and to wonder why.

Walter Benjamin prioritises the artwork as a model for turning ‘consumers into producers’ and ‘spectators into collaborators’ (Benjamin, 1934/2013, p. 89). This shift, from a passive observation of a work, to an engaged interactivity, provides a sense of group meaning-making, and of having something to do which begins onstage and aims to trickle into social and community spaces.

The mayor of Darebin was one of the abstainers from the vole. She found Fleur after a show and asked, ‘What would you do if people rebelled? If they stormed the stage and demanded something different?’ Fleur said, ‘I guess then we’d stop the play. We’d open the doors onto the street and send them out into the world. Some things are more important than finishing the play.’ The mayor thought about this. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘it only lakes 10% of the population rising up in an act of civil unrest to bring a government to its knees. That seems pretty achievable. Maybe I should go and get arrested.’

Affect and the non-human

A whale is a significant and emotive being to place in the midst of this very human story. A whale is and has been many things. Once it was a monster—the 'here be dragons’ part of the map—then it became an industry, an oceanic oil mine to power kingdoms (Hoare, 2008). Perhaps whales are such magnets for human myth-making because the sheer size of them provokes a strong affective response. They are a full-bodied shock, every time. Even if you have seen whales many times before, their dinosaur-like scale and their ability to explore the deepest, darkest parts of our planet and the manner in which they appear and disappear in an opaque ocean, provokes a visceral and abstract sensation. In his book Leviathan, or, The Whale, Philip Hoare describes the moment when a whale disappeared beneath his boat as a combination of existential and physical displacement: ‘In that one motion, my entire presence is undermined. I feel, rather than see, this eighty-foot animal swimming below. Knowing it is there tugs at my gut’ (Hoare, 2008, p. 28).

Today the whale is a symbol of nature’s scale and power and, simultaneously, a symbol of its vulnerability. Just as the polar bear’s identity has tipped from powerful killer to delicate, drowning victim in need of a saviour (Mooallem, 2013), so too is the whale on a journey from a symbol of awe to a symbol of guilt. In conversation with one of the production team’s scientific advisors, Rebecca Giggs reminded us that this giant, deeply intelligent creature only has a voice underwater. This makes this species a living embodiment of the need for humans to advocate for it on the comparatively small but disproportionately powerful parts of our planet where decisions are made: dry land.

In creating an embodiment of nature, and in striving for what Нага way (2016) terms a ‘response-able’ relationship with the non-human, Whale sought to expand the field of thinking about the impacts of climate change beyond the populations we normally think of. The Whale became an elegant symbol for the profound interrelation of the human with the planet, and the impacts of human behaviour on the broader ecology. By placing a whale onstage and giving her a voice, Whale flattened the hierarchy of importance in the climate debate, drawing on thinking around the ontology' of objects and new materialism (Morton, 2013). Chanella’s role fractured the space to allow the entry' of the narratives that we do not hear— the systems, individuals and species shattered by climate change. Where the delegates acted as stand-ins for those at the periphery of global policy, the Whale acted as a coalescing of what it is to have trauma and pain abstracted and disregarded. Just as factual whales carry in them our cast-aside plastics and toxic waste (Giggs, 2015), our fictional whale is burdened with our discarded Jonah, which she must carry for us: a physical manifestation of our inadequate response to the peril of our planet. Brennan writes that ‘ [t] he transmission of affect means that we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the “individual” and the “environment”’ (Brennan, 2004, p. 6). Whale took this theory literally, asking the audience member to be attuned to the transmission of affect not only between humans, but between the non-human and the human. Through the personification of the Whale, the production suggested that by attuning ourselves differently, we may find a new source of affect, a jolt of urgency and intensity in the natural world—in the sea, or weather, or animals. When we listen to the Whale, we open ourselves to the idea that we might develop a new relationship with the environment itself, and open ourselves up to transmission of messages from it.

This strategy is associated with our continued interest in anthropomorphism, and the ways in which humans require the non-human to take on charismatic, human-like qualities in order to elicit our understanding and care. In ecological activism, the polar bear is often given as an example of a ‘charismatic animal’ whose expressions and needs are legible to humans. The image of a polar bear stranded on a tiny ice floe evokes much greater sympathy than a call to care about a beetle or a species of grass. Jon Mooallem writes in Wild Ones, ‘In the twenty-first century, how species survive, or go to die, may have more to do with Barnum than Darwin. Emotion matters. Imagination matters’ (Mooallem, 2013, p. 22). We have created a world where, just as animals must compete for food and habitat, so too must they compete for ‘cultural carrying capacity’: human willingness to tolerate and help them survive in a world in which even wildness is now a curated state of being (p. 21). The whale has often been co-opted as an animal that is read in human terms; as having a culture, a soul, song and processes of love and care. The Whale is immediately recognisable and charming, and her appearance in Whale placed her in human spaces, above the ocean, speaking human language. As Sonya and Sarah’s influence faded across Act Two, her presence marked a less rational, less logical, less human mode of thinking.

Deep feelings

Whale created an activated space in order to mobilise its audience as citizens of a world in climate crisis. In walking the line between hope and despair, it sought to create a space for change, action and rage, and a reappraisal of the rules that we agree to socially and politically. It was a reminder that the unique gathering of humans, stories, rules and codes of the theatre is a space of electric potential, where activism and academics can come together to advocate for profound and lasting change. In a field where despair and grief hold power, Whale was devoted to the cultivation of affirmative ethics, of a hopeful relationship with its content. By drawing deep and sustained attention to the body’s reaction to input, it urged its audience to notice the ways in which the world outside the theatre made affective demands of them. By frustrating their ability to respond to these moments of intensity and urgency, it fermented the drive toward personal, individual and impactful action. In the explosion of form that occurred in Act Two, Whale enacted an affirmative mode of being, one that prioritised complication and care. It moved toward a state where audiences could speak freely and could turn deeply towards the non-human. In doing so, it held out the minor gesture as a real and meaningful subversion of the lumbering, thoughtless status quo. Whale allowed a room full of people to practice responses to climate catastrophe, and moved them towards the rehearsal of action and responsiveness. In doing so, it urged them towards radical hope—a hope that we will all need for the work ahead.


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