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Ashden Directory (London) talks with 'Earth Matters on Stage' (Oregon)

To participate in Earth Matters on Stage (EMOS), the festival and symposium organised by the University of Oregon - but without flying - the Ashden Directory hosted a video conference, between a panel in London and the conference in Oregon, taking place at 9am in Oregon, and 5pm in London on 29 May.

The satellite exchange started with both sides watching the DVD we had made introducing the London panel and their ideas on ecological performance and climate change. We then talked together between London and Oregon in a 40-minute satellite discussion, ranging over performance and the land, slowing down, listening and reciprocity, the tools of culture and of power, sustainability, and redefining the radical in theatre.
Theresa The question that was most compelling to me in your film is this question of how the arts can not just work towards sustainability, but work to re-nourish and re-enliven and re-invigorate and rehabilitate relationships with community and with land. I was very excited by the connection between agriculture and performance because having a meal together is one of our first performative acts. That’s one of our foundational performative acts.

When I was planning this conference, I kept having dreams of setting the table for large numbers of people. And each dream was a different group of people coming to dinner and I wasn’t prepared! Theatre needs to take responsibility for the way in which it nourishes, and what it nourishes.

Moe Beitiks blogs for

Earlier in the week, I moderated a panel about bio-remediative performance, looking at folks who were taking their craft and using it as a very literal tool to address issues of ecological deforestation, pollution and destruction. We presented the work of Xavier Cortada, Brandon Ballangée and John Sulliven.

One of the ways that’s really exciting, in terms of using theatre craft as a tool for addressing our relationship with agriculture, is that folks are going outside of what is traditionally regarded as the form, taking things that are part of agriculture, that are part of science, and just simply putting them within the cultural frame. And by doing that, they're creating a new dialogue and relationship with our environment and with our land. I think 'Feast' is a great example of that.

Robert Butler is co-editor of the Ashden Directory.
His blogs, twitters are here.

There was a moment that wasn’t in the film when Dan was talking about the connections between people living in one part of the world and people living in another.

Dan Gretton is a founder of PLATFORM.
See Dan's question and response in our online DVD here.

Yes, it relates strongly to Paul, your question, about who is talked about and who are those who are talking, and I think it comes back to the work of bell hooks, who starts almost every discussion with ‘Who is not in the room?’, ‘Who is not represented in a discussion?’ and ‘What are the reasons for that, the power reasons?’

So much of the work we’ve been doing over the last 15 years has been looking at the oil industry in London and trying to find artistic ways of interacting with that. But the question that comes up again and again is - when you’re talking about centres of incredible power like the oil industry - how do you get an equal conversation with affected communities, whether that’s in Nigeria or Azerbaijan or Georgia, and is there a role that art or theatre or performance can play in that.

It also relates to Wallace’s point in the film, I think very strongly, about what conditions are necessary for real listening to take place. So that’s a kind of starting point: is it possible to listen when there’s such a power imbalance? That’s really a big underlying question in probably all PLATFORM’s work.

Paul Heritage is a theatre writer, director and the director of People's Palace Projects.
See Paul's question and response in our online DVD here.

It was particularly evident in the Amazônia project, which lasted two years, in which we worked with about 1500 people in the Amazon region in these local dance-drama groups, these Quadrillha groups, who produced amazing work. But I also wrote and directed a play for the Young Vic, which is one of our main theatres in London, and did both this professional production with twelve actors and a community production with ninety actors from South London. So I had different examples of where art was being made, and the power of that.

Traditionally of course, most power should have lain with the play at the Young Vic - 1000s of people, reviews and all that generation of money. But of the three instances of making art, I have absolutely no doubt the weakest was the making of the show at the Young Vic. It had the least positive impact on the things we were discussing.

I would say the community play in Lambeth and Southwark was much more exciting and so much more productive. But the absolute generation of art at a level which was so exciting was in those Quadrillha dance-drama groups.

Picking up on food and questions about the relationship to land - I thought that when we were making work with some of the poorest people from that region in Brazil, which is a region we talk about all the time in the relationship to climate change. But I know we’re certainly not listening to the people who live there. I think they have no voice in the climate change debate, but they’re the ones whose land is being degraded. They’re the ones who haven’t got food that they used to have, whose cultural forms are being broken up as a result of deforestation. So it was an extraordinary opportunity to listen to them, to work with them in forms that were important to them and to see what they could create.

Clare Patey is curator for Feast on the Bridge.
See Clare's question and response in our online DVD here.

It’s also important that the work happens on a very local level as well. What you’re talking about is really important work but its also important that it happens on your street with your neighbours, on your piece of ground. Listening and those conversations are as important there, and there’s lots of learning to be done about that. Those same tools could be put in place to encourage the dialogue that’s happening here.
Paul That thing you’re saying about the tools being in place and using the tools is so important because what I think we actually discovered in the Amazônia project was that Brazil, with its participatory, celebratory culture, has tools of culture better placed than ours. When we made the play at the Young Vic, it was really difficult because we’ve lost those points of connection.

Clare Yes, even celebration that comes out of the growing cycle has been lost. It’s about maybe recreating something that’s got a contemporary meaning for those people who are then involved with it.

Dan That raises a wider question of whether there is value still in putting energy into these traditional cultural forms or whether they are just dying.

If you go to the National Theatre, as I did last week, the set was the star of that piece of theatre, and you think ‘That’s so conventional’. Some of the most exciting theatre work in Britain now is going on outside those traditional spaces or in smaller spaces like the Arcola Theatre in London which is doing amazing work and taking climate change seriously. They’re putting that at the heart of that theatre, and it raises the question: is there any role for the traditional big theatre kind of performance?

Robert Something that’s running through all of your comments is a re-imagining of the audience. It’s not just re-imagining the work, its re-imagining the audience and the role an audience plays in the work.

Paul Which is what Mojisola did when she was talking about the Renaissance period.

Mojisola Adebayo is a theatre-maker. Her latest production is Matt Henson: North Star.
See Mojisola's question and response in our online DVD here.

When I took ‘Moj of the Antarctic’ to southern Africa, which is in itself very controversial, I really wrestled with whether I should even tour with a play with an underlying subject of climate change. But people really got it, people really got it in a way that they didn’t get it in London. Every taxi driver, everyone I spoke to, knew exactly what was going on in terms of the seasons. Everybody in Botswana knows the Kalahari’s coming south. ‘We don’t know when to plant’. Everybody has family in a village that doesn’t know when it’s going to rain, or when it’s going to be hot. And in Malawi, everybody knew about flooding. Everybody got it.

So the workshops were really, really dynamic and I just thought: ‘Why am I bothering with wanting that very mainstream kind of audience?’ Maybe I shouldn’t worry too much about whether they come or whether they like it actually. It’s more about working more locally and listening to people who are really affected by it on a very, very day-to-day level, because people really are.

Theresa May is the founder and artistic director of Earth Matters on Stage and Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Oregon, USA.

I loved hook’s question about who is not in the room. A number of indigenous playwrights have come to the conference, some tribal members from Northern California, particularly, who have a community-based play about the salmon crisis on the Klamath River. I want to acknowledge that part of their being here was a result of hook’s question.

What came up for me when you asked that question was that you were talking about the oil companies, but even some of the higher-up members of the university who might participate in something like this, aren’t present. Some are, but some aren’t. How can we engage in a conversation in both directions, or in all directions?

Ian Garrett is a director of Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts.

One of the ideas I’m attracted to is this idea of listening and the reciprocity between two things. In the last half-hour, I’ve been thinking about this idea of agency, because Wallace, in the film, you were talking about giving agency to the things that can’t speak for themselves. I’ve been interested recently in the work of Amy Balkan who’s done a project involving the atmosphere and lobbying on behalf of the atmosphere to UNESCO.

Dan Could I just come straight back here? Just before we had the live link up, we were talking about whether it is possible to have conversations with ‘people’ who are not other human beings, and maybe the next question will be ‘How do you listen?’, as Wallace said in her piece, ‘How do you listen to a river?’ Is it possible to do that? So much of our discussion is so human-centred. Is it completely insane to try and imagine ways of listening to the animal world or ways of listening to plants. What would it mean to represent a forest or a tree or a river?

This sounds slightly crazy at this stage but I wonder whether we haven’t got to alter the basis of the conversations we’re having away from a very human-centred approach.

There’s two things. There’s listening to people who are not immediately there or not represented ‘in the room’ in the bell hooks' phrase, but also, what would it mean if we started making decisions, as the American native peoples used to do, based on seven generations, three generations of the dead and three generations into the future. That would completely radicalise our way of living and being. I mean that idea of the seven generation approach.

Theresa One of our key note speakers was Una Chaudhuri, who’s writing in the area of critical animal studies. She examines the way in which the animal body is made present both onstage and in all kinds of cultural performance. It was very profound and very provocative, and it goes straight to the question of ‘What would we keep in theatre?’.

The possibilities of the space of theatre, the liminal space of theatre, are the opportunities to listen across time and space, and to listen perhaps across identities, whether those identities have to do with DNA or standing upright or those identities have to do with community and place or economic status. I think theatre can be a space of listening to the possibilities of being and to play with, to entertain the possibility of other ways of being, other realms of knowledge, other capacities. And I think that magic of theatre, that liminal, trans-geographic, trans-temporal capacity of theatre is a ‘keeper’ for exactly the reasons that Wallace talked about.

Pat Friskoff participanted in Earth Matters on Stage.

I’m speaking as an audience person and I’d like to talk about trees and in Oregon our most dominant tree is the Douglas Fir. During this conference I’ve seen trees in two different ways. One is that they’re the backdrop to theatrical productions that are in a theatre and I as an audience member saw something that represented trees, and that’s the way most theatre that I’ve seen is done. We also had a labyrinth workshop where we went in to a stand of Douglas Fir and built a labyrinth and so the set was the actual trees and for me that was much more powerful than seeing the trees represented on stage. So I think you need to rethink ‘What is the stage?’ and allow the audience to participate. Most of the audience participation I’ve seen are murder mysteries that have three different endings. That’s not very creative.

Mojisola I love this idea that the real trees were so much more powerful than the painted backdrop. And of course then, after the show, after the show’s had its run and the critics have come and gone, then the trees don’t get thrown away. The backdrop probably gets thrown away.

This debate is really challenging me to think about what Dan’s talking about, about seven generations in terms of the raw materials of theatre. The costumes, the set, publicity, the programs, all of those things. It’s so easy to think we don’t have any power, we don’t have any control, it’s the oil companies, it’s this and that. ‘I do my bit of recycling but I can’t really do anything’.

But any one of us that is ever involved in putting on any kind of performance or any kind of public artwork, as many of us are, we do have control over some of those resources. The last show that I did, the set got trashed. The production manager took it away. I don’t know where it went, it was a lot of wood I know that much. I was flustered, I was in a rush, I’m producing and writing and directing and I can’t think about it and I trust the production manager will be eco-friendly. But when I look back, I think, ‘My god, Moj, what a waste, what a waste!’ because I will make another show and another show let alone three generations down. This debate is really about challenging myself and challenging ourselves to really think practically about those things and to think creatively, to be creative about it. Think ahead and take responsibility. It’s crazy, I shock myself at my stupidity and my short-sightedness, but now I’ve said all this out loud internationally I really, really have to!

Theresa One of the questions that came up yesterday in our series of panels that the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts put on is the idea of redefining creativity, that maybe creativity itself is something that needs to adjust to the limitations of the world and the opportunities of the material world. So I’ll let our Production Manager Damond Morris talk about the ways in which this conference has creatively tried to address that.

Damond Morris was production manager for Earth Matters on Stage.

I think that some of the things that you brought up in the video speak to this. One is slow down. Why do we rush and rush? Just even in the pace of the language now, you can feel the tension and the need to rush through and get it done. I think part of the process needs to be ‘slow down’.

In our session yesterday, we talked about material quite a bit. I spoke on solid waste and exactly what you’re talking about with throwing out materials and options to work on that. We’re still living in the 19th Century when we build scenery. One thing that industry has done, especially in Europe, is working design for environment and life cycle assessment and things that focus on how product is made. I know as artists we don’t like to think about our art as product, but it is. As scenic designers, we need to filter at the desktop, so we can get through what materials we’re using and how we’re using it, and get to a place where we’re thinking in seven generations.

Ian We went to the ‘Theatre Materials/Material Theatres’ conference at Central School of Speech and Drama last year and a lot of our conversation was framed around the material impact of theatre worldwide compared to other industries. But we have the ability to connect where other people don’t, and to communicate.

I may be veering head-on into that same idea of agency, but this connection that we have, this slowing down, this giving voice, this listening - are the tools that we have. When we’re talking about sustainability, we’re talking about our sustainability as people, about our ability to remain on this planet. The universe is going to continue to exist whether or not we kill ourselves. There’s a lot of things that we’re responsible for because we have the ability to choose to give that agency.

Robert We’re talking about time and unfortunately we only have about five minutes left. I’m going to go around everyone here for a final comment.

Wallace Heim is a co-editor of the Ashden Directory. She devised and directed our DVD on theatre and climate change here.

We know so much. We know the problems and in a certain way we know that materially, we have to do things differently. So I suppose the thing I continually come back to is how to redefine, as Theresa said, to redefine creativity or redefine that very intangible thing that is theatre, rather than the building that is theatre.

Mojisola I’m just going to take my time! I really appreciate the comment in particular about slowing down and I suppose there’s slowing down with a sense of urgency and we have to get that balance.

Paul This conversation helped me to reflect back on the experiences we had, in particular hearing you, Wallace, in the film, talk about the trees and listening to the trees. When the groups in Brazil, in the Amazon region, were making their plays about climate change, it was interesting how they had no problems with the elements talking. The trees could talk, the rocks, the rivers, because within the stories they’d grown up with and they’d made, those things were still living. It's those connections we’ve broken.

When we asked them what workshops they wanted in order to move their work on to talk about climate change, we offered costume workshops, so that they could used recycled materials and things from the forest. But what they actually wanted was audio-visual workshops. Because what they really needed for themselves, in terms of the identity they have of who they are, was to document their work so their work would live on in different ways. So their notion of witnessing was very powerful.

For all the things we got wrong in the project, the things I’m most pleased about, I suppose, is just the dialogue that happened in some way between South London and this other river bank over in the Amazon region.

Clare I like the slowing down. Like Slow Food, a Slow Art movement maybe? I think next time we all ought to sit down and have dinner together.

Dan It’s funny we’re again fighting the clock even though we’ve been talking about slowing down. I suppose one thing I’d take from what Pat said about the actual trees being more amazing than the representation of trees and what Moj, what you were saying as well, is, possibly, we need to rethink what theatre means altogether. If instead of thinking about theatre in those spaces, we can think about theatre as conversations and listening.

I just will leave you with one moment in a theatre space that was so electrifying, a few years ago at the Tricycle Theatre in London. It was about stolen aboriginal children. It wasn’t a fantastic piece of work. But the moment I will remember until the day I die was when the five actors, at the end, came out to talk directly about their own experience of being taken away from their parents and brought up in white Australia. It was one of the most devastating moments I’ve ever experienced in a theatre and it made me think that maybe the reality of our lives and our conversations are actually far more extraordinary than any representation in a cultural space.

That’s where I’m left. A Russian revolutionary once said we have to be as radical as reality itself, and maybe in the face of climate change that’s where we find the radicalism.

Robert We’re going to wind it up from here because unfortunately we hired the room for a certain amount of time and we have to leave. We’d like to thank you very much for including us in the conference.

published in 2009

Our online DVD for EMOS,
What can be asked? What can be shown? British theatre and performance in the time of climate instability
is here.


Blogs, commentary and photographs from the 'Earth Matters on Stage' events and symposium are here.

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