Climate Change and the Fringe: 'There is so much that surrounds a theatrical production, why not use that to deliver a message?'

This article is from 2019

'Theatre, and other forms of art and entertainment, have the ability to create the stories needed to communicate the issue of climate change to the wider population'

Play Before Birth / credit: Molly Bernardin

What impact are Fringe productions about climate change having on cultural attitudes and could reducing the carbon footprint of the festival be a tool in combating the crisis?

From the littering of Edinburgh's streets with discarded flyers to the consumerist rhetoric of 'bigger and better' in the annual announcement of the programme, and from the numbers of visitors placing pressure on the city's infrastructure to the invitation in 2018 for critics to fly to Scandinavia for an early review of a show that made dire warnings about a global collapse, some might argue that the Fringe doesn't appear to have much of a conscience about environmental degradation.

Yet many shows over the past decade have made climate change their focus, encouraging audiences to think a little bit more about the wasteful culture that is driving the planet towards disaster. As the climate change catastrophe comes closer, theatre-makers are not only driven to speak of the threat but, in some cases, encourage performances that are actually less destructive.

Most obviously, many companies take an aspect of environmental danger as the subject of their performance. Last year, Tom Bailey pondered the migration of birds, but for 2019 he addresses an immediate threat. 'Vigil is about the sixth mass extinction of animal and plant life that we are currently experiencing. It's happening now and it's happening very fast,' he says. 'Our show explores all 26,000 names in the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Red List of extinct, disappearing and endangered species. It may seem a lot, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of actual species decline and extinction: there's so much out there that is unknown.'

By homing in on a specific issue within the broader framework of climate change, Bailey's Vigil follows a theatrical tradition of urgent content that engages with a public conversation. Rohan Gotobed, of Coast to Coast Theatre Company, expands on this practice. 'I like my theatre to question the personal within the political. Play Before Birth puts this climate change catastrophe into four young women's lives, so our perspective shifts with their beliefs and agenda.' Examining the consequences of human behaviour, Gotobed states that 'this is a call to action: horror on stage.'

'Theatre, and other forms of art and entertainment, have the ability to create the stories needed to communicate the issue of climate change to the wider population'

BoxedIn Theatre's sustainable venue, The Greenhouse
While Bailey and Coast to Coast have made efforts to limit their carbon footprints, other companies are working to move the message beyond the stage. BoxedIn Theatre are bringing The Greenhouse, a purpose-built, sustainable performance venue, to the Fringe with a mission of zero waste, alongside workshops and cheap entry, placing environmental cost at the heart of critical discussions. Artistic director Oli Savage explains 'theatre isn't just about the performance. At The Greenhouse, we believe good theatre has to be holistic. There is so much stuff that surrounds a theatrical production, why not use that to deliver a message as well?'

After visiting the Fringe in 2017 to research its environmental impact, Alice Boyd was moved to found Staging Change, 'a growing network of performers, makers and venues who work together to improve the environmental sustainability of the theatre. Our team is keen to ensure the future of theatre is green.' Through a series of workshops in August and via their website, Staging Change offers practical advice to alleviate the toll on the planet, while encouraging performers to recognise their responsibility and realise their creativity.

'As of July 2019, we have rallied over 150 individuals and theatre companies to join our network,' Boyd says. 'By joining, members are recognising the urgent need for collaborative action on climate change, while committing to improve their environmental practice where possible.' With venues also getting involved, Staging Change are challenging the wasteful practices that undermine theatre's credibility when it discusses climate change.

Individual companies have developed alternative strategies. For their show, In the Shadow of The Black Dog, theatre company All The Pigs have abandoned the flyer. 'Not only have we printed our show on jumpers,' says writer Daniel Hallissey, 'but we have also created a QR code you can scan and a link will appear sending you to our show's booking and information page. This saves paper, waste, trees, is environmentally friendly and sustainable.' Emergency Chorus have ensured that their production Landscape (1989) can be packed into just three suitcases and found an Edinburgh-based printer who uses recycled paper and soy ink.

'Theatre, and other forms of art and entertainment, have the ability to create the stories needed to communicate the issue of climate change to the wider population'

Landscape (1989)
Nevertheless, there are plenty of theatre companies who are keen to push environmental messages on the grounds of 'raising awareness', a possibly spurious belief that performance can have an impact on cultural attitudes. Theatre has rarely made direct social change, and the dangers of preaching to the converted, or investing resources in a production that plays to an empty auditorium, suggest that innovations in addressing the carbon footprint of an Edinburgh run are a more immediate way to combat climate change. Boyd, however, believes that productions which aim to raise awareness do have a role in the movement towards sustainability.

'Alison Tickell, founder of Julie's Bicycle [a not-for-profit working to make environmental sustainability a core component in the arts and creative industries], explained it beautifully at their Season for Change briefing: the arts is the difference between knowing knowledge and feeling knowledge. Theatre, and other forms of art and entertainment, have the ability to create the stories needed to communicate the issue of climate change to the wider population.'

Debbie Hicks, producer of When the Birds Come, believes that 'theatre can help us empathise with those already facing an insurmountable threat to their way of life,' while Daniel Hallissey observes that 'we connect with stories far better than we do facts.' Clara Potter-Sweet and Ben Kulvichit from Emergency Chorus are positive that 'theatre can add to the conversation – in ways which are intimate, emotional, nuanced, interdisciplinary. It is a space in which to pause, and think and feel deeply.'

There is a long way to go before the Edinburgh Festivals reconcile their environmental impact with an active commitment to becoming a solution, yet these artists are struggling against a set of conditions – financial stability, emotional wellbeing, the desire to find an audience for their message – to bring forward the conversation. Rather than preaching, theatre has a capacity to encourage a dialogue, and perhaps contains a more mysterious power. As Potter-Sweet and Kulvichit conclude: 'it has the power to heal and transform people.' And perhaps this energy can open up a more positive and effective approach that even reaches beyond the festival.

Vigil, Summerhall, 6–25 Aug (not 12, 19), 1pm, £10 (£9). Previews 2–4 Aug, £8 (£7).

Play Before Birth, Greenside @ Infirmary Street, 12–24 Aug (not 18), times vary, £8 (£6).

The Greenhouse by BoxedInTheatre presents various shows during Aug at Pleasance Pop-up: Dynamic Earth, times and prices vary.

In the Shadow of the Black Dog, Assembly Rooms, 3–23 Aug, 6.30pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £6.

Landscape (1989), ZOO Playground, 2–25 Aug (not 6, 13, 20), 12.45pm, £10 (£9).

When the Birds Come, Underbelly Cowgate, 3–25 Aug (not 12), 2.20pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £7.

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