This is something I wrote for the symposium Narratives of Climate Change at Newcastle University, July 2018. It is part of a longer speech using my new play Whale as a way to talk about the role of theatre in climate change and the responsibility of the playwright. I thought this bit was nice and stand alone. Also I had to trim it a fair bit for Newcastle so wanted to share this full thought. Enjoy.
I want to talk about the role of fiction in narratives of climate change. It may be a bit of a dirty word here, I’m not sure but the word ‘narratives’ already suggests both a shaping of story and a multiplicity of ways in which we could shape it. Shaping does not mean fictionalising but it means controlling. It means choosing your weapons. And my weapon of choice is fiction. So this is a question I’ve had to ask myself: when the facts are so urgent, is there room for fiction?
I’ve gotta admit: I’m really not much of a researcher when it comes to my plays. I used to be. I once filled two journals with research on objectum sexuality before deciding that no one needed that play. These days my plays usually start from fluff like ‘memories’ and ‘feelings’ and ‘images’.
I wrote a play called Terrestrial for State Theatre Company of South Australia. The poor woman putting together the education pack to accompany the work asked me for any research I had used and I told her I mostly just googled how to spell words.
Which isn’t totally true. I also stalked mining towns on google satellite view. I’d start zoomed right in on them – Leigh Creek, Roxby Downs – then zoom out and out until the desert around them looked like mars and the mines were a deep blue gash on the surface of the planet. ‘It looks like a wound,’ I thought. And I’d write.
With Whale I was offered a scientific adviser and I said ‘sure I’d love to chat but you realise the islands are largely made up and… have you read the ending?’
And to clarify: when I say ‘fiction’ I am talking about a play that reveals just how fictional it is. The rules of this world leave no one in doubt. I am not trying to pass fiction off as fact. That stops the instant the Host explains the rules: ‘we’ll hold a vote and whichever island loses will be sucked into the ocean instantly, no time for evacuation’.
But the Host also tells you ‘none of this is real’ whilst denying one of the realest facts of this century: ‘The oceans aren’t really rising and no communities will vanish into the water’. And she tells us this again and again – Judas to Jesus in the pre-dawn light – these denials make fact of our fictions. Make that encroaching whale an amalgamation of blubber and fantasy.
I want to tell you about a play called Stoning Mary by English-Afro-Caribbean playwright, Debbie Tucker Green. In it, a couple – both desperately ill with AIDs – fight over the one prescription they have for AIDs medication before their argument is cut short by a child soldier who kills them with a machete. He is, in turn, killed by the couple’s daughter – Mary – who then is sentenced to death by stoning.
At the front of this play Debbie has slipped an instruction: this play is to be performed by an all white cast, in the accent of wherever it is performed.
Older sister: 12
12 people signed.
Put their pen to your petition. 12.
Younger sister: 12’s after 10, right?
Older sister: After 11
Younger sister: Which is after 10, right?
How many did I need?
Older sister: 6000.
S’after a lotta tens Mary.
In a parallel universe, there exists a non-fiction version of this play and a Debbie Tucker Green who threw herself into research and characters each modelled on a real person. This play is almost certainly performed by a cast of people from African nations. But this play says something different to the play she wrote. It says ‘this is happening in Rwanda and tonight we are going to sit in that fact.’
What Stoning Mary says is something quite different.
Debbie wants the visibility that comes with whiteness. And she wants to interrogate it. 90% of HIV positive people live in developing countries. Who these stories happen to changes the narrative. And it can be the difference between being heard and not being heard.
“I’m a black woman,” she says in the Guardian, March 2005. “I write black characters. That is part of my landscape. But with Stoning Mary I was interested in questioning what we don’t see and hear. The stories of people who would be in the headlines every day if what was happening to them was happening to white people.”
There is an alternate reality version of Whale too. One in which I have been to each real island, consulted, maybe asked a representative from each to come up on stage and have a bunch of – largely white – audience members vote whether or not they survive. That play is gripping, and potentially pretty traumatic for all concerned.
So what do I lose in this fact-based Whale?
I make the problem far away. Suddenly there are kilometres involved and maybe what fiction can do in this moment is remove those kilometres. Make these global neighbours your actual neighbours. I make it a problem that exists and potentially is solved in your suburb.
Here’s another thing: Islander leaders have already come here and pleaded for the right of their island to stay above the water. And the response was so quiet. I think it is our turn to plead on their behalf.