Theatre helps tackle impact of climate extremes

Theatre can used to investigate human responses to natural disasters like flooding. Image: Full Circle Playback Theatre

Bringing together a group of people in a theatre studio, all of whom have all endured a trauma, such as surviving a flood, could initially be overwhelming.

Asking them to recall their experiences could leave each feeling more isolated and intimidated. But once specially trained actors move on stage, accompanied by loud music and repetitive sounds, emotions are released, and tongues loosen.

A first personal story is shared, then enacted by performers and musicians. The participant who shared their experience becomes engaged on an emotional level and may start to see their experience from a different perspective.

"The individual aspect fades, and as personal stories become universal, other people can recognise something of their own experience in them,"

Lou van Laake, Full Circle Playback Theatre

Others react, and the first story is followed by a second and a third. Sharing through storytelling means understanding gets progressively enriched and becomes a collective process.

"What happens is that the individual aspect fades, and as personal stories become universal, other people can recognise something of their own experience in them," explains Lou van Laake, co-leader of the Full Circle Playback Theatre in Dublin, Ireland.

Playback theatre is an art form that started in 1975 in New York as pure entertainment, which has since been used therapeutically and for other purposes, such as fostering knowledge-sharing and a sense of community. It is being deployed by The HuT, a European project aimed at developing innovative tools and strategies to better cope with risks associated with climate extremes, it is also employed to investigate the human factors affecting responses to natural disasters.

Anna Smetanova is strategic project manager for the Global Water Partnership, an international NGO working globally in 180 countries and partnering with the project.

She says, "We may have perfect early-warnings, but despite that, when disasters occur, people often end up not following the instructions. This is a typical situation where Playback Theatre can help investigate the emotional level and thus understand why people react that way, instead of following the procedures."

According to figures by the European Environment Agency, from 1980 to 2020 natural hazards affected almost 50 million EU citizens and have cost member states on average €12 billion per year. With global warming expected to trigger more extreme events in the coming years and global losses estimated at €100 billion in the first half of 2023 alone, experts agree that optimising disaster risk reduction is now imperative.

Image: Full Circle Playback Theatre

"When it comes to transferring innovation into praxis, the state-of-the-art shows that the nexus among technology, human behaviour, and policies must be strengthened. This is why we aim at deepening the connection between these aspects, especially relating to early-warning systems and multi-hazard disaster risk reduction," says Smetanova.

Within this framework, she explains, playback theatre is part of a broader and innovative approach combining science and art, "They are disciplines allowing the understanding of human behaviour from different perspectives: science through knowledge and technology, and art through leveraging inner creativity and metaphors, capable of bringing out personal stories that would otherwise be relegated to an unconscious level."

Considered by experts as pivotal to reducing both human losses and costs, the shift in focus from managing disasters to managing risk is among the priorities of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

"So, it must no longer be only the seismologist thinking about how the earthquake will happen," explains Guido Rianna, deputy coordinator of UNDRR, "but also the planning organisations, the health sector, and all the different players who could be impacted. One of the key aspects is going beyond sectoral innovation and fostering a coordinated approach, which takes into account a whole set of different skillsets: human behaviour, governance, science & technology."

Michele Calvello, associated professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of Salerno and The Hut's coordinator said, "Some existing practices to deal with specific disasters may already be effective, but unknown to other communities that face similar challenges. So, one of our main actions consists in fostering trans-disciplinarity, cross-fertilisation, and knowledge sharing, to promote the best set of practices among different sectors and communities."

Flooding in Yorkshire, UK - managing risk is a goal of the UN. Image Chris Gallaghner on Unsplash

Under severe threat from debris flows and flash floods, the picturesque Amalfi Coast in southern Italy is one of 10 European areas where this approach is being tested, ahead of a possible replication on a wider scale.

"They obviously already have emergency procedures in place, but we help the municipality improve its response by putting in place additional monitoring tools to complement their information, and organising educational meetings to better explain to their civil protection staff what to expect during emergency phases," explains Calvello.

If community engagement is paramount it is also because disaster risk reduction is in everything we do, says Jeanette Elsworth, chief of communication and IT at UNDRR: "We are all responsible for contributing and acting, and we need everybody, on every level and in every sector to be acting on that. If we say 'natural disaster' it's as if we were speaking of something that couldn't be avoided, whilst a lot depends on the human element.

"We always have decisions to make: how to develop our urban areas, whether to build or not in earthquake or flood-prone areas, et cetera."

Key for the effectiveness of any solution its integration at the policy and governance level, asserts Calvello.

"This is where interaction is often lacking today, and this is why we are also trying to foster this collaboration from the very beginning, instead of just presenting ready-to-use solutions."

In this respect, one of the biggest challenges is the contradiction between the timelines of natural hazards and political timelines, points out Elsworth, "It's very hard to convince someone who has a much shorter timeframe, very limited budget and lots of conflicting demands, to invest in preventing the risks related to a hazard which may happen in 10 years or may not happen at all."

Yet, increasing investments in disaster risk reduction would not only drastically reduce human losses, but also costs for recovery and damage mitigation, concludes Elsworth: "Our figures prove that if we moved that funding upstream, each dollar invested could pay off up to 60 times, depending on the context."