- Introduction to Special Section on “Performance and Ecology”
This issue's special cluster of essays on the theme of "Performance and Ecology" grew out of discussions among participants in the Performance and Ecology Working Group that Sarah Standing and I convened as part of the Performance Studies Preconference at ATHE in 2004 and 2005. We formed this group out of a conviction that humanity's relationship to the environment is an issue of urgent concern, and one that can and should be addressed by anyone engaged in critical and intellectual pursuits, including theatre artists and scholars. But despite the fact that ecological degradation will likely precipitate enormous social and political upheaval during the next century and, with it, unpredictable and unimaginable effects on human communities and cultures—the kinds of concerns that have traditionally been prime subjects for the performing arts—theatre scholars and practitioners have been slow to engage environmental issues.
A good deal of our discussion in the first working group in 2004 centered on the question of why so few theatre and performance studies scholars were joining in the ecoconversation. Was it due to the traditional conceptual separation between "culture" and "nature" that keeps theatre scholars trapped in binary ways of thinking about what performance is and does? Or to the urban environment in which most theatre scholars work, which keeps environmental concerns at a geographical and conceptual distance? Or to the gulf between the concrete solutions needed to avert environmental catastrophe or redress ecological harm and the kinds of ephemeral, difficult-to-measure effects of art and performance? Or, perhaps, to the presumption that the intersection of ecological concerns and theatre produces the kind of amateur, sincere, heartfelt, preaching-to-the-converted production that sophisticated members of ATHE and ASTR love to loathe (e.g., per Henry Bial's wonderful formulation, "The Peace and Love Community Player's Original Production of 'Save the Spotted Owl' [Postshow Discussion with Yoga Circle and Group Rendition of Kumbaya to Follow]")?
Whatever the reasons, as a scholarly and artistic community we have largely failed to rise to Una Chaudhuri's challenge, published twelve years ago in Theatre, to play our role in addressing the crisis of values that the current ecological crisis represents. It is my hope that the three essays clustered around the theme of "Performance and Ecology" in this issue may help to bring others into the conversation. The section opens with Theresa May's essay, "Beyond Bambi: Toward a Dangerous Ecocriticism in Theatre Studies." Both an overview of the critical and artistic work to date and a call to ecocritical arms, this piece delineates what responsible ecocriticism in theatre studies entails and argues, in particular, that we need to pay greater attention to the material-ecological meanings and impacts of performance. Importantly, May urges us to understand ecocriticism as crucial to challenging the "business as usual" mentality that threatens to catapult the earth into ecological crisis.
In the essay that follows ("Conserving, Consuming, and Improving on Nature at Disney's Animal Kingdom"), Shelly Scott produces a thoughtful reading of the "conservation message" that is served up as part of the day's entertainment at Disney's Animal Kingdom (DAK). She argues that the ideals of conservation and respect for nature that the park promotes are undermined by a steady and implicit reinforcement of the Judeo-Christian ethic that asserts human superiority and dominion over the animal world. Through a close reading of the animal performances staged at DAK, Scott [End Page 93] reveals how the Disney Corporation's performance strategies, which endorse an anthropomorphic view of animals and (paradoxically) encourage spectators to support animal conservation through consumption, are at odds with the environmental cause and, in fact, work primarily to preserve the habitat of just one animal: the Mouse (as in Mickey).
The final essay in this special section, "Theatre of Alliances? Role-play, Representation, and Ecosystem Health in Ecuador," offers a perspective on performance and ecology from the field of social sciences. Co-authors Jennifer Beth Spiegel and Annalee Yassi reflect critically on the use of a theatre role-play exercise as part of a project aimed at addressing environmental health concerns through...