Composed Theatre and Climate Change – An update on SEI’s Pop-Up Research Lab

Reflecting on visiting fellow Professor David Roesner’s visit to the institute and the Pop-Up project so far.

On the studio floor of ‘Lola Stayed too Long’. Image by Eloise Fetterplace

Recently, as part of our SSSHARC funded Pop-Up Research Lab project, the Institute welcomed Professor of Theatre Studies at LMU Munich, David Roesner, as a collaborator on the grant.

Roesner’s book Composed Theatre (co-edited with Matthias Rebstock) played an important role in laying the theoretical foundation for the Pop-Up Lab –  an exploration of heat and climate vulnerability through performance. It was also a major source of inspiration for artistic lead on the project Michelle St Anne, Artistic Director of The Living Room Theatre.

To date, the project has produced two original artistic works that have been framed around the research and broad concepts of compositional theatre, with the third and final work in the series, Lola stayed too long,  opening on March 1 2018.     

Roesner’s visit was instrumental in revealing the ‘art’ and theory of compositional theatre and the value of arts-based knowledge translation in communicating climate change, while also raising questions about the role of the artist in the ‘translation’ process.

What we learnt about Composed Theatre

Composed Theatre is a theoretical lens that combines musical composition and theatre, applying the compositional techniques traditionally associated with musical material, to theatrical elements, such as movement, speech, actions, and lighting (Rebstock and Roesner, 2012, 20).

Differing from musical theatre, Composed Theatre problematizes what we consider to be the most basic elements of theatre and music, from the idea of the ‘protagonist’ to the musical note itself. It is a sonic and visual interpretation of the world, where the ‘being’ is in the creating or the process, rather than the finished product.

Being experimental in its outlook, compositional theatre activates a different type of spectatorship or engagement to narrative-driven theatre, whereby the audience is asked to ‘connect the dots’. In fact, a key characteristic of compositional theatre is its openness to collaborative authorship.

Not concerned, or bound by a traditional narrative, Roesner explains that compositional theatre leaves space for the audience to be part of, and bring something into existence. In opening this space, this type of theatre has the ability to provide ‘entry points’ for audiences to engage with, allowing people to disengage with their prejudices as they become immersed in the work.

 Why is important?

By incorporating Roesner’s research and approaches to Composed Theatre, there is hope of broadening academic discourse on climate change to engage the audience through the multi-modal ‘touchpoints’ that the emerging field of Composed Theatre allows for.

Like climate change, Composed Theatre is complex, it disrupts the narrative and dismisses the concept of assumed knowledge, a new experience and new space for thought often ‘leaving the audience with more questions than answers’.

But if we are to truly move people to act, perhaps we need to take it a step further than just disrupting or destabilising pre-existing knowledge. While Roesner notes that the musical element of Composed Theatre lends itself well to stirring emotion or facilitating reflection on the audience’s part, the challenge is developing enough of an emotional investment or connection that will live in inside people even after the performance is done.

Some thoughts on art-based knowledge translation

Roesner’s visit provided insight into the strengths of theatre as a means of conveying the complexity of an issue such as climate crisis, but it also highlighted the limitation of art-based knowledge translation as it is currently understood.

As an art-maker and theorist, Rosener and other collaborators on the project noted the restrictions placed upon the ‘maker’ in the process of arts-based translation. The term ‘translation’ suggests that the artist or translator is merely a vessel used to re-communicate an academic message in an ‘artistic’ form, negating the agency of the creator and their own artistic interpretation. This understanding of the artist’s role threatens to impact the integrity of the work and in doing so undermine its ability to be genuinely stimulating.

To genuinely transfer knowledge, the pre-existing knowledge of the audience must be unsettled, rather than regurgitated through a new medium – the latter negates the value of the art itself.

Upcoming events in the SSSHARC POP-UP Research Lab project, ‘Anastasia: Communicating heat & climate vulnerability through performance’:

Thursday 1 March – Saturday 10 March, St Anne presents ‘Lola stayed too long’ at the University of Sydney’s Vet School. The performance is a culmination of several artistic outputs from a SSSHARC funded Pop-up Research Lab, including What Lola Heard: Sounds of Climate Change and A Requiem for Anastasia. The performance was developed using academic research on climate change and the physical experience of heat, including the work of Professor Kari Marie Norgaard and data from SEI’s research project in shock climate events. For more details and to register, click here.