The stage is loaded for “Gaïa Global Circus” and so, it could be supposed, is the argument of this theatrical experiment on global warming conceived by the French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour. A parachute-silk canopy suspended from black and white helium balloons seems poised to float up to the ceiling of The Kitchen, if it weren’t firmly tethered to the floor. Four actors enter in cleanroom suits and explain that the set is a replica of a climate model, and is therefore susceptible to changes in temperature and gas levels in the theater (heavy breathers abstain). It looks like we might be in for a scientific demonstration of some kind, but as they peel off their protective coveralls, they launch into the first in a series of skits that set the tone – playful, ironic, comical and only a little catastrophic – of this intelligent and engaging production.
Indeed, “Gaïa Global Circus” sets the bar high for future endeavors into the growing “climate theater” niche. The idea for the show came from Latour’s investigations into the relationship between democracy and science, particularly on the polarizing topic of global warming, that was the focus of his book Politics of Nature (1999). His research also led him to the conclusion that people don’t really care much about the most pressing issue facing humanity.
Latour is a former visiting professor at UCSD, LSE and Harvard, currently on faculty at Sciences Po Paris where he co-founded a masters program in Experimentation in Arts and Politics (“Gaïa” was co-produced by the Brown institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism). To test his research question – can people feel an emotional response to global warming? – he turned, neither to psychology nor science, but to theater. Although Latour supplied the idea for “Gaïa,” it was created by Pierre Daubigny, a humanities professor at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure who wrote the script, and a group of actors and directors trained in the improvisational methods and movement theater of Jacques Lecoq. They might not be the dream team of climate theater but a more qualified group for this kind of experiment would be hard to come by.
Their collaborative efforts drew on a variety of sources for inspiration. Some of these are familiar: televised debates between well-oiled politicians and out-classed scientists, commercials touting the eco/health benefits of junk food, the UN’s climate summits and the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Others reveal a pointed reading of classic and pop culture texts, from The Iliad to Hergé’s Tintin (the latter’s mini-series about outer space lends “Gaïa” two of its main characters: the doomsayer Philippulus the Prophet and the morally compromised rocket engineer Wolff).
The show’s focus – and its toughest criticism – are directed, however, at both the climate-skeptic political establishment and the international community. The most successful skit – in which a prime minister urges the world to consume natural resources and pollute the earth as quickly as possible so our children can get busy right away dealing with the staggering consequences of global warming – turned a typical climate summit speech on its ear. More amusing than the irony of the situation (since we are already doing just what the P.M. orders) are the gestures and expressions of the simultaneous interpreter using a pseudo-sign language. She captures better than any speechifying the politician’s perfect disdain for the climate question, while also underscoring the production’s low-tech arsenal to fight it, which relies on nothing more than physical play, an overhead projector, lights and hundreds of plastic bottles (also a smart, crisp French text, unfortunately lost to English-speakers by the schematic subtitling).
As an experiment to make us personalize the problems we face, other skits tease us for our perceived dominance of the planet. One of these imagines the relief the earth will feel once it is rid of its human “parasites.” Another sympathizes with a neo-Noah unsuccessfully seeking a bank loan to rebuild his ark. The other actors try to comfort him: what use would a boat be anyway to flee the impending environmental armageddon? And since the future is looking pretty grim for us earthlings, “Gaia” saves the last word for Cassandra, the prophetess who saw the Greek army hide in the Trojan horse, but whose dire predictions were never believed until too late. We can recognize our own ostrich stance in her complaint: “I’ve been traveling the world to tell people what was happening. They answered, ‘Yeah, yeah’ and went back to their lives.”
Latour and company don’t wag their fingers, bully, rant or propose the least solution. Long after the helium balloons have gone home with good eco-citizen audience members, Noah’s problem remains. The ark is not for escaping, he reminds those who would console him; the “boat” he wants to build is a clean Earth because in this whole vast galaxy (and assuming Tintin, for once, can’t save us), it’s the only vessel we’ve got.