Theses Doctoral

Shifting Terrain: Landscape, Ecology and Environmental Theater

Shafer, Michelle Christine

"Shifting Terrain" is about the theater's potential to offer crucial resources to resist ecological crisis. Despite the efforts of a number of theorists over the past twenty years, ecocritical theater, which draws upon ecological language and concepts, has failed to thrive in part because it lacks a cohesive, discursive framework to organize its ideas. This dissertation seeks to define the goals of this nascent ecocritical theater along topical, discursive and formal lines by establishing two distinct ecocritical genres: landscape theater and ecology theater. Theater theorists have argued that, formally and ideologically, landscape and ecology are roughly synonymous. In the first half of "Shifting Terrain," however, I argue that landscape resists ecological concerns, contributing to anthropocentric attitudes by delineating the natural world from humans and the theater they make. Using Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blind (1890), Anton Chekhov's The Seagull (1895) and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1949) as examples, I argue that landscape theater performs nature as a framed, aesthetic creation in order to criticize the "ruptures" between humans and the ecosystem generated, at times, by the theater itself. Conversely, through readings of ecologically oriented plays including Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People (1882), Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1904) and Heiner Müller's Despoiled Shore / Medeamaterial / Landscape with Argonauts (1982/83), I argue that ecology theater seeks connections between ecosystems, their inhabitants and the theater, pointing beyond the theatrical frame, physical or conceptual, to the ecosphere. In the latter half of the dissertation, I investigate the genres of landscape theater and ecology theater in the context of environmental or, more specifically, immersive staging. I first challenge the notion that immersive staging inherently resists the aesthetic distance between theatrical worlds and the ecosphere, using productions of Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends (1977) and Punchdrunk Theatrical Experiences' Sleep No More (2011). Both performances surround their audiences with rich environments, but they are also insular, engaging only the synthetic spaces created by performers and designers. Then, I examine the ways in which the outdoor, immersive productions of Robert Wilson's KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDENIA TERRACE (1972) and Big House Theater's Across (2000) apply ecological ideals by emphasizing theater's capacity to make direct contact with the ecosystems the plays present. No production entirely eliminates the theater's mimetic division from the surrounding world, but performances such as KA MOUNTAIN and Across represent significant movement toward limiting the aesthetic distance between audiences, worlds of performance and the world itself.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Worthen, W.B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 23, 2015