Fun and flexibility in the era of climate crisis

I recently heard that climate comedy is finally hitting prime-time entertainment.

It appears the penny is dropping: if we’re to sustain the Herculean level of social reinvention the climate crisis demands of us, we’re going to need a laugh along the way.

Plenty of laughs, in fact – and psychological resilience and flexibility.

I’ve long been a believer in the benefits of improvisation exercises and games. This article in Psychology Today cites evidence that they help us:

  • tolerate uncertainty
  • think creatively
  • feel better

And while not all improv is about generating comedy, it typically delivers a lot of laughter.

All of which reminds me of a project I was involved in a couple of years ago…

Zero carbon + improv = ?

I was taking part in the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain course (in 2017) when it first occurred to me that zero carbon thinking might go well with improv.

In the final section of the course, we explored ways participants could take Zero Carbon Britain insights out into our everyday world.

I chose to focus on the role of the arts. By day, I’m an editor and writer, but I’ve also been involved in community theatre, improv and Fun Palaces, and I know there are endless ways beyond the page for words to foster social and environmental solutions. I’m open to exploring any of them.

Zero Carbon Britain banner: ZCB logo with the words 'Rising to the climate emergency'

The shift to safe carbon practices is going to involve some deeply personal changes for all of us, and if we’re to remain (fairly!) stable and happy as we go, we’ll need to be able to do these things:

  • tolerate change and uncertainty
  • think in new ways
  • enjoy the moment as far as possible

So, how to make sure we have these capabilities? Learn to improvise, in pursuit of…

  • acceptance / realism

Yes, and.’ Accept where we are and work from there. Or rather, here.

  • imagination / inventiveness

‘Yes, and.’ Find new possibilities, grounded in the new reality.

  • present-moment quality of life

As a result, increase spontaneity, reciprocity, reward, fun.

Illustration by artist Bauke Shildt showing a stick figure avoiding stepping off a cliff - with the words 'Yes, but' struck out - and instead seeking solutions such as hang-gliding with others - 'Yes, and'
Image by Bauke Schildt

The project

The idea, then, was to take workshops into schools and community venues and do some tailored improv to boost the local supply of realism, inventiveness and quality of life.

To make this happen, I knew I would have to work with experienced improvisers capable of teaching improv to others. Happily, Angie Waller and Rosie Wilkinson of Impropriety were enthusiastic about the project goals and came on board. Plus, Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology and Jo of Zero Carbon Liverpool supported us in the planning stages.

In early 2019, having sorted our ideas out and finally gained some seed funding (thanks, Greggs Foundation!), we developed and ran a short series of pilot workshops at these Liverpool locations:

Alongside the improv exercises themselves, we used open discussion and mind-mapping of topics such as:

  • what it means to ‘decarbonise’ – for individuals, for systems
  • the big picture and the responsibilities of governments and businesses
  • the role of new approaches such as citizens’ assemblies
  • the opportunities (co-benefits) available to us when we make these changes
Circular graphic listing the multiple benefits of achieving energy efficiency, such as health improvements, energy security, etc.
Energy efficiency benefits. Source: International Energy Agency

As well as using time-honoured improvisation games and activities (New Choice, Big Box, I Am A…), we adapted a Zero Carbon Britain exercise, Postcards from the Future. In our version, we asked group members to improvise scenes from a future in which humans have done what it takes to secure a liveable world beyond the twenty-first century.

Flipchart paper showing participants' suggested zero carbon solutions, e.g. green energy, trading waste for food, more plant-based food, etc.
Participants’ solutions – Broadgreen International School

Reflections

We were glad to find that participants across all the workshops were engaged by the core topics of human survival and ingenuity, and all of them had something to contribute.

More time and resources would make it possible to develop a range of comparable Zero Carbon Improv workshops and courses for different age groups and settings. For example, sessions could be tailored to adults working in policy or industry.

A note on emotional safety: while improv and zero carbon thinking both emphasise the positive, sessions like these can still spotlight some very difficult realities. To protect participants’ mental health, it’s important for those planning and delivering sessions to build their understanding of climate psychology.

Overall, after testing the water with these great groups, we concluded that zero carbon thinking and improv definitely gel well together – the basic idea is a sound one.

Flipchart paper showing participants' feedback - 'Loved it! Absolutely brilliant'
Participants’ feedback – Broadgreen International School

Looking ahead

Creative approaches to climate communication are thankfully multiplying; see Max Boykoff’s Creative (Climate) Communications for one introduction.

After our Zero Carbon Improv pilot, I certainly believe there’s a place for projects that harness improv skills to help us decarbonise our lives.

Are you involved in work like this too? If you are, I’d love to hear from you.

Comments

  1. Hi Sally

    My name is Giovanna, I am the CEO of South East London Community Energy. You’re article chimed with me because whilst I spent years dabbling in the in improvised theatre and clowning. I studied comedy improv with the Spontaneity Shop, devised theatre at the City Lit, clowning at Circus Space and the city lit. I studied professional theatre but was too wise or too scared to go into the profession. It occurred to me a long time ago that Clowning would be an excellent medium to explore our fears and hypcracies in climate change. I would love to do something here in SE London. Do get in touch if you would like to chat

    • Sally Moss

      Giovanna, thank you so much for your response. ‘Too wise or scared’ – I love that. What you say about clowning is very interesting. Yes, we need to look at our absurdity and vulnerability as a species, as well as our resourcefulness, to identify a way forward step by step. I will be in touch, yes.

  2. Thanks for this article, Sally. I’m part of ThreadBear Theatre, a playback theatre company improvising audience provided stories. Several of us are involved in climate action in different ways. I’d like to explore this, learn from you and work out whether we could do something similar in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.

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