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  • Writer's pictureLihong

Arts as a crisis response - Nervous Laughter

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

This post was originally posted on my LinkedIn account, in one of those spurts of motivation at making myself more visible in that space (who am I kidding, lol?


In the fourth quarter of last year, I produced a show (under Method Productions) called Nervous Laughter together with two wonderfully talented friends, Venezia Lim and Liyana Mahirah. Venezia is a very spoken word artist who tells compelling personal stories, and Liyana is a multi-talented visual artist who frequently says yes to too many projects that resonate with her values. The show featured short plays and spoken word performances about the climate crisis, a theme that is increasingly difficult to articulate without inducing further anxiety or fatigue. The show was part of the global Climate Change Theatre Action, held to coincide with the COP talks.

What I've learnt from this experience is that having little resources won't stop you from doing meaningful work. It can even be a catalyst for working creatively with the resources you have. We had no money, but had a space and community at the Haque Centre of Acting & Creativity (HCAC), snatches of time negotiated from our busy schedules, and a group of generous artists. I unexpectedly learnt how to use Qlab as co-stage manager with Roshan Singh, the playwright and director of Great News! We agreed that joy was an underrated resource, which formed the intention of our show, to inspire action and hope with joy and humour.

I cannot agree more with what Thomas Peterson writes, that theatre's very localised nature and its "ephemerality and live-ness" might be "useful tools to stimulate climate action and environmental stewardship at the community level" in our increasingly globalized art and media landscape. Theatre can be a wonderful way to bring global conversations to the local stage.

The full programme can be viewed here.


Because of the character limit on LinkedIn, I couldn't actually reflect more (people on LinkedIn don't have much time to read anyway). So here are some of my thoughts as the show was being put together.

The role of art in bridging science and emotion

People tend to reject ideas they are afraid of, ideas that threaten to upend their worldview. It's a difficult thing to have to change your mind, but it's also a muscle that we have to train, and the more we allow our worldviews to be challenged, the easier it gets. It's not to be a fickle person, but to be more willing to try and understand where people are coming from, and more willing to engage in a conversation to begin bridging differences. Art plays a bridging role in this context, by opening people up to the more emotional and personal aspects of climate change, but also connecting the science, so in a sense, making it more digestible for people.

Climate change and loneliness

If I start talking about loneliness, you'd need to tape my mouth to shut me up. The climate crisis has developed alongside the crisis of connection. Studies about global loneliness and the climate crisis have appeared in tandem, pointing to an intuitive link between the two. If we dig deeper, a lot of the constructs and systems that have perpetuated our very unhealthy relationships with nature (think mindless consumption, disconnection from the means of production of our food and goods) are also the same ones that perpetuate our disconnection from other people and ourselves. They enable a kind of alienation that allows us to consume what we know to be unethically produced products, without the visceral emotions that we would experience if we were to have to look the animals in the eye while they grow up in factory farms, fed on food pumped with chemicals and living a life of suffering before being slaughtered. Or if we had a real relationship with the people who produce the smartphones we use, but who only get a pittance out of the hundreds and thousands of dollars we paid for our phone.

The everyday struggle of wanting to live a more connected life and having to work with and within the system.

I think about this all the time, and some days, it drives me mad. That's why we have to cut ourselves some slack, while not ascribing meaning to that. E.g. buying processed food does not make us bad people who don't care about a sustainable food system. Any kind of transition inherently has gradualist and radical aspects. While we have to make that radical leap of consciousness (e.g. from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture, or from toxic relationship to breaking off and working on yourself), often the old paradigm and new paradigm coexist for a period of time. It's not possible to just suddenly switch from the old to the new without transition. Where would all the energy from the old system go?

With regards to the show, we held the show in an air-conditioned space, made mulled (imported) wine (probably not organic wine). All that took energy and were ways of overcoming the constraints placed on us by nature (weather and non-availability of wine in our region). But that allowed us to have a great show and generate joy without actually spending much (material) resources. I think in these cases we can't allow ourselves to beat ourselves up too much, because we're working within the system (it's especially hot now because of heat island effect).

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