Does it seem far-fetched to imagine a future where the government subsidizes theatres and theatre artists at a living wage, and land-based art hubs rely heavily on new technologies while nurturing partnerships to grow and tend gardens?
Theatre as an art form asks audiences to “suspend their disbelief” and activate their imaginations. But challenge a number of theatre practitioners to imagine what the future of theatre might look like in 2040, and this is quite a different prospect.
This is what we undertook as Prairie-based artists and researchers with the Future Prairie Theatre research team. Together, we study issues specific to theatre in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
We worked with strategists Jessica Thornton and Heather Russek, whose work in their Creative Futures Studio is about anticipating potential futures and better preparing for inevitable change — a visioning and planning process known as “strategic foresight.” This project was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
A range of possible futures
While creative practitioners and performers across cultures have always been at the vanguard of imagining alternative futures and mobilizing for change, the contemporary planning process known as strategic foresight formalized in the 1940s, responding to changes brought on by the Second World War.
Strategic foresight, used widely by governments and corporations, is not about predicting the future. Rather, according to the OECD, strategic foresight is “about exploring different plausible futures that could arise, and the opportunities and challenges they could present.”
In the last five years, the Prairies’ theatre sector has been fundamentally challenged and reshaped by socio-political movements, the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to this shifting landscape, we undertook an eight-month series of community conversations entitled Re-imagine/Re-build.
We met with artists and arts leaders in the Prairies, and together shared issues critical to the health and sustainability of the Prairie theatre sector:
Retaining and mentoring theatre artists;
Ensuring and enhancing access and accessibility;
Community (with all its complexity).
Envisioning the future was the next step.
‘Signals of change’
In a process designed by Creative Futures Studio, we met biweekly to collect data, known in the strategic foresight process as signals of change.
We looked to local, national and global sources for “signals” from social media, news outlets, academic journals, advertisements, reports and conversations.
We then grouped these into trends and the team created four plausible scenarios for an imagined future in 2040 for the Prairie theatre sector.
‘The New Bread Basket’
The scenarios contained all the seeds of the signals and trends, the positive and the negative. They were neither wholly utopian nor dystopian, but designed to help imagine what plausibly might lie ahead — and specifically what outcomes to avoid and what to work toward.
One scenario we envisioned was called the New Bread Basket. We imagined:
In 2040, Canada is in its fifth year of a D4 drought resulting in devastating agricultural loss. The development of synthetic water and resurgence of GMO food production, however, has turned the crisis around.
The tech-savvy Generation Alpha (b. 2010 -2025) have led many of these solutions and this public trust has resulted in a new tier of elected officials under 35. This youthful political leadership is progressive and fast-paced.
Arts and culture have become crucial exports for global markets. Artists are guaranteed living wages and theatre-makers are lauded for their creative leadership. This support comes at cost, however, as government critique is curbed and censorship is common.
Four scenarios, 30 people
With Creative Futures Studio, we presented the Bread Basket and three other scenarios (In Artists We Trust, Things Fall Apart, Care Full) to a group of 30 Prairie theatre artists and leaders. We met in four, three-hour Zoom sessions.
As a research team, we wanted to blend our performance and strategic foresight skills to activate a deeper engagement with the process and content.
Before the sessions, each participant received a package in the mail with items specific to each scenario — tangible tokens from the future: things like seeds, barter tickets, a “Prairie-Identity Card,” herbal tea.
Through role-playing, we explored the scenarios. We performed monologues in role as a playwright, stage manager, artistic director and actor in the year 2040.
Participants asked questions of these characters, probing and interrogating the circumstances of this world in the future. The outcome was surprisingly effective. Participants felt themselves drawn in by these scenarios.
Identifying a vision
In the next two sessions, in smaller groups, participants identified aspects and characteristics of each scenario that aligned with a preferable future.
Collectively, we drafted a shared vision statement for Prairies-based theatre in 2040. Everyone responded to the 2040 vision statement, and identified near and long-term actions necessary to advance this vision. We also named key stakeholders needed for the vision to become a reality.
The workshop concluded with an invitation for participants to reflect on the process and their own responsibilities and commitments to enacting this vision.
Participants envision Prairie-based theatre in 2040 to be responsible to the past and future, decolonizing, climate-change positive, regenerative and place-based. They foresee artists, theatre-makers and audiences as well-supported. Theatre in 2040 provides tangible value to its community.
Based on this vision, participants identified actions including:
Creating a Prairie theatre caucus and to support inter-provincial collaborations;
Lobbying government for better public services such as child care, education, health care, universal basic income;
Expanding theatre education to early childhood, mid and high school and beyond;
Instituting intergenerational and interprovincial mentorship for emerging artists to create a thriving ecosystem of Prairie-based talent.
Finally, there were strong calls for change in practices that would support work-life balance.
Propositions for the future
The scenarios are not predicted or speculative, but propositions for the future based on present signals.
Strategic foresight empowered participants to activate tools that we already have at our disposal — imagination, innovation and the suspension of disbelief.
It helped us identify paths and actions we can follow now. And for a community that has, like many, withstood tremendous change and challenge in recent years, this process generated hope and possibility for the future of theatre on the Prairies.
Jessica Thornton and Heather Russek co-authored this story.
Christine Brubaker receives funding from Canada Council for the Arts and SSHRC.
Taiwo Afolabi receives funding from Canada Council for the Arts and SSHRC.
Yvette Nolan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.