Apocalypse Proofed Shows
A plausible scenario for the near future
The climate crisis has continued on its current course, with rising sea levels and regular extreme weather events rendering large parts of the earth near-uninhabitable, food supplies limited, and international trade disrupted.
Extraction of the rare earth metals essential to modern electronics has been greatly reduced as easily-reachable supplies are exhausted, meaning that antiquated systems are kept alive for as long as possible, while storage space and access to servers becomes increasingly difficult to maintain.
Unstable power supplies mean that there are regular brownouts, and while there is enough electricity for personal devices, only the truly rich can afford to recreate the thousand-watt splendours of the early 21st century.
Everyone else is forced to accept, at long last, a standard of living that, had it been adopted a century earlier, might have saved the planet.
One of the least important questions here is this: would our current theatre be possible in this future?
I work in opera; a form where a reasonable hope for ‘great success’ might include ‘being performed in a hundred years’.
Obviously, most operas do not make it this far, in much the same way that few early 20th century playwrights are regularly performed.
Opera’s basic format hasn’t changed for hundreds of years: bunch of singers, bunch of instrumentalists, some sort of plot, pre-written music, as many spectacular resources as the local king/aristocrat/industrial barons/financiers/state can pour in.
The scale of those resources has steadily grown (even if the number of people has reduced since the 19th century, since while industrial processes have made it more efficient to make a basic set, humans still require food, shelter, and enough wages for those things; they have not made similar advances in efficiency).
That is to say, the main shift has been resource-based.
I’ve seen a number of major commissions recently that do not just use numerous resources technology, but are reliant on it.
‘We re-used costumes, which we drove all the way here in my car, and wove LED lights through since they’re a cheap trick; the show’s electronic soundscape was rendered over 48 hours of high-energy work powered by a distant gas-powered generator’ is, for a three-person show, perhaps still too much resource for the future. They’re cheap, financially, but resource-intensive.
There is a gulf between ‘A god enters’ being interpreted as a thousand-moving-light spectacle accompanied by a new set looming onstage, and ‘a central plot twist or character can only be realised through complex electronics and grandiose resources.’
I’m very interested in the latter form of work. But, even leaving aside environmental concerns, I might ask its creators how apocalypse-proofed they think their work is.
Because at least some of them seem really keen to also join the canon.
If opera is old and overly in love with its canon, interactive immersive theatre is new and not (much though people speak in hushed whispers about certain shows).
I’m fascinated to see, long-term, if some pieces of interactive theatre end up becoming repertoire. We’ve already seen shows getting recast to allow longer runs, and consequently tweaking things in order to make those casting choices fit. This tweaking opens things up, to my mind - why not say a violin can be replaced by a guitar if that’s all you have to hand? And I can see some interactive shows reaching for eternity.
I’d be curious to find out what happens. But at least one obstacle I can see in, say, 100 years, is that right now a number of popular tools (telephone exchanges, scenarios requiring backstage databases to keep track of, fully-immersive naturalistic sets) require extensive resources, not all of which will necessarily be readily available in that time.
Similarly, as ‘streamageddon’ hits, with streaming services removing old content in order to avoid paying residuals to (some of) the artists involved, it may be that we need to adapt our ideas about whether everything will be available forever.
But above all: nothing any form of live performance I’m aware of is doing, not even the most elaborate three thousand-person LARP, is doing anything to compare to the environmentally-careless spectacles of some major entertainment industry multi-continent productions.
Perhaps this is an efficiency; that such work entertains so many millions of people that their cumulative ‘carbon credit’ make such resource-usage reasonable. But I’m not entirely sure.
This certainly isn’t the place to think about other industries; that’s not my expertise. But here’s a gentle nod.
Two looming maggots in my mind
Underlying this is a question: is any of this art necessary? Yes, to an extent. Humans need art and beauty; I do believe that.
But is it necessary enough that such resources are necessary? No, likely not. Art and beauty can be created in other ways.
My other maggot is this: the awareness of my own hypocrisy here. But you all knew that. So to conclude:
Does it matter if we only make work for our own times?
Does it matter if that work hastens the end of those times?
If we are striving for eternity and our present moment, what must we do differently?
What expectations might we have for the future, beyond the hope we might still have a couple of actors and a stick?
In short: what work are we making now?