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Features Published 13 February 2015

The Theatre of the Globe

Two of the collaborators behind Gaia Global Circus discuss the difficulties of putting ecological crisis on stage.
Frédérique Aït-Touati and Bruno Latour

Like so many others, we are often dumbfounded by the almost total disparity between the emotions we should feel when faced with ecological problems (which are often presented to us apocalyptically), and the feeling of vaguely blasé nonchalance with which we greet each increasingly devastating item of news. With this in mind, we envisaged a play that would combine the varying tones of comic books, tragedy, comedy, and rituals, in order to explore some of the emotions and dramatic situations which are still absent from the theatrical repertoire, since they demand a new approach to science and nature. If theatre is to become, once again, the theatre of the globe, then it must re-learn, like Atlas, how to carry the world on its shoulders, both the world and all there is above it.

Four humans are on stage, pacing, measuring, reasoning. Will climate change overcome humankind? What must scientists do in order for people to believe them? Can we build an Ark in which to live peacefully until everything dies down? Gaia Global Circus is an epic. It is the story of a few voices, not yet dead, belonging to characters that we never see. These voices trace, watch, project, worry, make astonishing discoveries, and knit together the voice of Gaia. Their discussions touch upon subjects as diverse as climate, terrorism, advertising, and the island of Nauru. The four voices construct an impossible scenario in which humankind and the Earth are a single character, divided, contradictory, at war with itself, but nonetheless unique. The story that they tell begins with an event, a birth: that of the Anthropocene, the final phase in the history of planet Earth. The planet is no longer shaped primarily by geological activity, but by humans.

Gaia is not only the name of a goddess in Greek mythology, but also that of the famous “Gaia hypothesis”, formulated by British scientist James Lovelock. According to this hypothesis, the Earth is becoming a living organism capable of auto-regulation, as though it has been equipped, through evolution, with a series of thermostats ensuring it a sort of precarious equilibrium. The hypothesis is being taken ever more seriously, not only because of increasing evidence for such “feedback loops”, but also because auto-regulation lends a whole new dimension to the ancient ideas of natural balance that recent environmental crises have fundamentally threatened. It is in these feedback loops that human beings find themselves entangled. Gaia is a meeting of science, the arts, mythology, and politics: a character on the stage of the theatre of the world.

It was important for Frédérique Aït-Touati, as the director, that the set design would reflect the core of the play: how to live on a reacting soil, a moving backdrop? I therefore imagined a device that would move and react with the acting. The actors move in and around a silk canopy suspended in the air by helium balloons, which are captive, connected by wires to weights on the ground. When the actors wish to move the canopy, or to modify its structure, they lift the wires (and hence the weights). The overall shape of the canopy is a semi-cylindrical arch. This system allows the actors to transform the set at any given moment, since it can be moved above any part of the stage, or even of the auditorium. Depending on its position, it can act as a light-filtering backdrop, an overarching roof above the actors and audience, or a veil obscuring part of the stage.

Our creative process hinged on the collaboration between a philosopher (Bruno Latour), a playwright (Pierre Daubigny), theatre directors (Frédérique Aït-Touati and Chloé Latour), actors, and researchers. The Gaia Global Circus project has many facets and has developed throughout the years in different forms. It stems from a study of the emergence of Gaia, carried out by Bruno Latour and developed over the course of a series of articles and lectures (at the Festival d’Avignon in 2010, at the Théâtre de la Colline in Paris in 2013, then at the Gifford Lectures he gave in 2013, entitled “Facing Gaia”). The first result of this work was a piece for radio, Kosmokoloss (which was translated into German for the BayerischerRundfunk). Bruno has also provided the inspiration for two upcoming festivals organised around the theme of Gaia: the Festival de la Novela in Toulouse in 2013 and 2014, and the Festival Scènes d’Europe in Reims in 2013.

Numerous meetings took place between the play’s artistic team and several researchers in climate science – Marie Farge and the researchers from the CNRS laboratory in Saclay, in particular Valérie Masson-Delmotte – over the course of 2012 at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. This crucial groundwork, which involved research, fieldwork, and many discussions with the researchers, produced the primary material used for the creation of the play. The writing of the play itself by Pierre Daubigny was the culmination of a long process of writing during rehearsals with the actors. The creative process for the play was collective and very involved, demanding responsibility and inventiveness from every participant, and alternating between periods of rehearsals and periods of meetings and research. The objective was not to create didactic theatre, but rather a reactive theatre, the fruit of reflection and improvisation. Pierre has created a work of fiction which was developed over the course of the rehearsals and which is built on the interaction between the processes of acting and writing.

Gaia Global Circus is presented by UCL at Bloomsbury Theatre on 14th February 2015.