The ocean is filled with so much waste that it has begun to form land masses made purely of junk. There are currently five garbage patches growing like a cancer on our planet. The largest is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You read that right. These masses of trash are so enormous that they have names. It isn’t any shock to most people that our planet is being polluted at an alarming rate, but how many of us really understand the gravity of the situation, and what would it take to inspire change?
“Of the Deep: Meditations Upon the Death of a Blue Whale” is a reflection on the consequences and complexities of the climate crisis. It is a community created work, facilitated by Amanda Petefish-Schrag at Iowa State University, and presented virtually at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Through visually stunning shadow puppetry, the play presents several short scenes on topics such as ocean pollution, the whaling industry, and the environmental impact of human interference in the ocean. The play was extremely aesthetically well-done, and the collaborators showed great resourcefulness and creativity in producing a beautiful work of theatre that is safe to view during the pandemic. The play’s puppets and effects were even created completely with recycled materials. However, while the play sought to highlight one of the greatest crises of our time, its sense of urgency fell flat. Climate change theatre is emerging as a prominent new play genre, but can it really compare with the shock value of witnessing environmental wreckage in real life?
I will never forget when the nation got its first glimpse at the photos from the BP oil spill in 2010. For much of my generation, this was our first major experience viewing the devastating effects of human consumption and waste. Images of otters covered in the pitch-black goo and videos of seagulls struggling to escape the oil-infested water dominated the news cycle for weeks. The shocking first-hand evidence of environmental destruction sparked some of the largest protests for climate action that our country has ever seen. For many this event was a wake-up call. We are destroying our planet, and we have a responsibility to do something about it.
“Of the Deep” may paint a beautifully tragic picture of the state of our oceans, but what is the message? Where is the call to action? The play does not bring any new perspective to the conversation. We already know there’s trash in the ocean. Most Millennials and Gen Z-ers say that climate change is one of their top voting issues, so if the goal of the play was to raise awareness, the awareness has already been raised. Currently about 83 percent of American adults say they take individual actions to consume less waste, but only changing individual habits is not enough. People need to be angry enough to demand accountability from larger corporations like BP, who view the Earth as their personal dumping grounds. What most climate change theatre misses is that shocking image that will instill fury in the audience. The image that will come to mind every time they think of climate destruction. They are missing the sea turtle whose body has grown around a plastic bag, or the baby otter dying in a pool of oil.
While I applaud the creators of “Of the Deep” for their innovation in creative storytelling during a time when live theatre is non-existent, unfortunately the show comes off as too tranquil of a look at a crisis that demands discomfort. When people become too comfortable, they become complacent. The artistic approach does not hold the power to incite protest. Climate change theatre is lacking the shocking imagery that will press people to hold large corporations accountable. The only way to achieve swift justice for our dying planet is to show people something they can’t look away from.