Healing Acts: Using Theatre and the Arts to Empower Communities in the Energy Transition

The arts can be a valuable tool for facilitating dialogue around the energy transition and ensuring community perspectives are represented in policy arenas.

Populations on the frontlines of the energy transition face a complex range of issues—from job instability and health concerns, to the loss of cultural heritage and dispossession. Yet, their perspectives remain inadequately represented in academic and policy arenas. Pathways for bringing local knowledge into academic and policy arenas are often inadequate in the context of communities impacted by energy injustice, who frequently live with intersecting legacies of social and economic dispossession. Community-driven change is vital if we are to bring about a just transition that is ethical, equitable, and responsive to local people’s needs. The alternative is an energy transition that will inadvertently exacerbate existing inequities.

Arts and story-driven methods offer novel and proven ways of bringing communities into research arenas and allowing them to inform policy. However, in energy research, arts-based methods are too often seen as an “add-on” instead of offering important methodological contributions.

Researchers based at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Aberdeen have formed a new research network to better understand the role that arts-based methodologies can play in advancing community-driven research around energy.

Comprising ten research teams from around the world, Intersecting Energy Cultures brings together projects that represent a diverse range of artistic and participatory research methods, as well spanning numerous energy regimes and geographical contexts. Each project demonstrates the potential value of using the arts as a tool to facilitate community engagement around the topic of energy transitions.

One such project is being led by researchers at the Ohio State University (OSU), as part of a large interdisciplinary study examining the transition away from coal in Ohio. Researchers partnering with the Pomerene Center for the Arts devised Calling Hours: a theatre performance set in Coshocton County, Ohio, centred on a community impacted by the closure of surface and subsurface coal mining and, more recently, the closure of one of the country’s largest coal-fired power plants. Created in collaboration with local artists and community members with personal experiences of the coal industry, Calling Hours is a theatrical memorial: an opportunity for public grieving, sharing, and reflection.

The closure and demolition of the Conesville coal-fired power plant in 2020 has had a monumental impact on the community of Coshocton. Energy justice in this context is, in part, economic—including ensuring there is a provision of sustainable jobs and new sources of tax revenue to replace the millions lost to local school districts.

But it is also about enabling the community to have their voices heard. Jeffrey Jacquet, the project’s research lead, observed: it’s about “allowing them a voice to express their concerns and challenges and even to give community members a space to grieve the losses that they’re experiencing.”

The production of a theatre piece, with a script drawn from interviews with local community members and former plant workers, allowed the community the chance to come together to reflect and to see their experiences represented on a larger platform. Notably, it also facilitated conversations with government representatives and local policy makers who were in attendance. Tom Dugdale, a member of the creative team involved in the project, noted that while the topic of the coal transition can be “controversial and fraught” the final piece found a way to “represent all of these different voices and honor them in a respectful way.”

The play took the shape of a memorial, with eulogies, live music, and video projections of coal-drawn animations. The script, written by Anne Cornell, captured oral testimonies delivered by characters representing those impacted by the plant’s legacy.

The success of this project, which has gained significant attention and will be touring internationally this year, demonstrates that there is an appetite for artworks that explore community experiences of energy transitions. And yet, for the team behind Calling Hours, the most important marker of success is that the production helped this community to heal.

As Dugdale commented: “when you make a new piece of theater, any kind of theatre, you wonder if an audience is going to turn out. […] And to just see close to 200 people come out each night—and not just come out, but be active, engage talking with each other, laughing, snacking, sitting there with their dogs and their kids. I think for me, as an artist and a theater maker, it’s just confirmation that art works. It is a way to gather people.”

Rebecca Macklin

Interdisciplinary Research Fellow in Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity, University of Aberdeen
Rebecca Macklin is Interdisciplinary Research Fellow in Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity at the University of Aberdeen. She was previously a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. With Bethany Wiggin, she is co-Director of Intersecting Energy Cultures.