Using theater 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.

Intersection of roads and railroad tracks in a small coal mining town.
Image: iStock/McIninch

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 the 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 10 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 Ohio State University 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 theater performance set in Coshocton County, Ohio, centered 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 an 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.”

This story is by Rebecca Macklin. Read more at Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.