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

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker