How to make a drama out of a disaster

Is it possible to simulate earthquakes and hurricanes on stage? With a slew of new plays taking the destructive power of nature as their theme, Holly Williams steps behind the scenes to find out

The enemy is on its way, but this time it doesn't have guns and gas – it has storms and earthquakes, fire and brimstone." So warns the press release for the National Theatre's forthcoming Earthquakes in London. A new play by Mike Bartlett, staged in a co-production with Headlong Theatre and directed by Rupert Goold, it is one of a flood of shows that aim to bring natural disasters on to our stages.

Next month will also see a revival, by the Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East, of John Adams's musical theatre show I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, a response to the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California. At Square 2, outside the National Theatre, Life Streaming is bringing its audience into direct contact with survivors of the Sri Lankan Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. The Old Vic staged Ditch, a dystopian vision of a flooded-out Britain, in a damp Waterloo tunnel this month.

While the disaster movie, whether based on apocalypse, climate change or just good old -fashioned extreme weather, is a well established genre, disaster theatre is less defined. We are familiar with storms in Shakespeare, and Ibsen was fond of a near-unstageable disaster direction or two – see "the avalanche buries him, filling the whole valley" from Brand. But how do writers and directors stage a response to contemporary natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina? Well, they use music, movement, video, soundscapes, site-specific locations and even pumped-out smells. It seems that to recreate a disaster, it helps to go multi-sensory.

Katrina, by Jonathan Holmes, was staged over several floors in the Bargehouse within Oxo Tower Wharf last year, letting the audience move from a pre-hurricane tourist office into a New Orleans bar that had been wrecked by flood water. They had to perch on debris while hearing the survivors' stories. Holmes felt that the audience should not be too comfortable themselves when watching "horrible things happen". Throughout, the action and dialogue – taken from verbatim accounts by survivors of the disaster which struck Louisiana in 2005 – was supplemented with sounds of the hurricane and of the city of New Orleans falling apart. Stage directions call for "electrical explosions, collapsing structures and rising water levels" to be delivered aurally.

"Sound is a great carrier of information," said Holmes. "It can give a sense of what it might have been like to be there."

Architecting, another response to Katrina, by the American company The TEAM in association with the National Theatre of Scotland, toured in the United Kingdom last year. It used the story of New Orleans but refracted it through the lens of the American Civil War and Gone with the Wind. Rachel Chavkin, the director, said: "I view the play as a whole as being about failed reconstruction. It's also about what happens to individuals when the world changes under their feet."

The climax of the show used dancing, singing and video footage to recreate Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in a way that was both chaotic and stylised. The effects blended – among other things –New Orleans funeral marches with the sound of helicopters flying over, and ignoring, the survivors of the storm. Chavkin said that in a massive movement sequence she had "essentially combined all of the images established in the Gone with the Wind scenes with some of the really iconic images from the news footage of Katrina, like people standing on the roofs. At a central point the most visceral things are going to be music and movement."

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, which takes its title from a quote from a survivor of the 1994 earthquake, delivers its story through song. When its current cast began rehearsals, Katrina was their "point of reference". But earthquakes have since struck in Chile and Haiti, giving the show an eerie relevance. The production is now working with the Red Cross to provide disaster relief funds.

Amusical, however, does not sound the most obvious vehicle for exploring a natural disaster – might jazz hands not be a little inappropriate? The show's joint-director, Matthew Xia (working with Kerry Michael), is also a hip-hop DJ. He explains: "It's about seven individuals and their response and their ways of dealing with [the earthquake]. It's a musical about stability and about how sometimes that needs to be shaken and removed – so you can see the sky. There is plenty of theatre and plenty of music that deal with disasters, so why not a musical?"

Xia says the earthquake in I Was Looking... will be presented in a symbolic way: "The stage directions are 'one-minute rumble, three-minute earthquake music', so we have to fill that! But there will be no polystyrene blocks coming down. It will be a highly conceptual earthquake."

The production has employed movement and video directors who will work with the cast – some of whom of are recording artists, some musical theatre performers – to create a multi-media staging of the earthquake. The aim, Xia says, is to "hit all the senses, to give someone a full-on experience. We're not Universal Studios; we can't have the ground shake or the walls collapse. So you have to find a more interesting way of doing it."

Earthquakes in London, which was born when the playwright Mike Bartlett noticed the walls of his house shaking during a real earthquake in London, in 2008, also makes a song and dance of it. The show will have a cabaret atmosphere, showing people trying to enjoy the "good times" before the world comes crashing down around them. "Everyone is singing and dancing and smoking and drinking coffee all the time," says Bartlett, "but underneath they are struggling to keep up."

Will the earth move? According to Bartlett, that is one of the reasons his epic climate-change play will work at the National. "Rupert [Goold] pays attention to details but he will also do his best to stage an earthquake in the Cottesloe." Bartlett doesn't quite know how it will work, but says there will be "a storm, an earthquake, a lot of rain. But hopefully when the earthquake hits it won't be a Hollywood, sensationalist moment. It has a metaphorical comment."

Like all of the directors I speak to, Bartlett stresses the importance of the personal story (Earthquakes focuses on three sisters) and how an individual's struggle illuminates a larger crisis. But he adds that, for him, "there's no contradiction in having singing and dancing and personal stories and an earthquake."

Life Streaming takes an innovative approach to transporting its audience to a disaster zone. The director, Dries Verhoeven, travelled to Sri Lanka to develop the show, which sees the audience communicate via computers with survivors of the 2004 tsunami who are on the other side of the world.

Mark Ball, the artistic director of the London International Festival of Theatre, who co-commissioned the work with the National Theatre, says: "What's very powerful is that over the course of an hour you start to feel you can get to know the people behind those one-dimensional images of the disaster. You get a much more nuanced understanding of the impact that the tsunami had on a person's life."

Sri Lanka is brought right into the computer café. "The intensity is built as the sounds and smells of Sri Lanka – and eventually a flood of water itself – invade the space," says Ball. "It's a very intimate encounter with someone 8,000 kilometres away."

From performing in damp tunnels or flood-damaged rooms to using technology to contact people on the other side of the world, from getting to the heart of personal stories to singing and dancing through disaster, theatre is finding plenty of ways to shake up our view of natural disasters and our human response.

'Life Streaming', Square 2, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) to 3 Jul; 'I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky', Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15 (020 8534 0310) 2 to 17 July; 'Earthquakes in London', NT: Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) 28 July to 21 August

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