Grid Iron perform Leaving Planet Earth at 2013 Edinburgh Festival
Scottish theatre company's new show 'merges Battlestar Galactica and George Monbiot'
This article is from 2013.
Moving from Fringe theatre to the EIF is one giant leap for Edinburgh’s Grid Iron. Yasmin Sulaiman meets the creative minds behind a journey into the unknown for both cast and audience
‘It was the merging of Battlestar Galactica and George Monbiot,’ laughs director Catrin Evans about the inspiration behind Leaving Planet Earth. In 2010, Evans’ mother sent her a clipping of an article about consumerism by The Guardian’s environmental writer, which sparked the idea for Grid Iron’s new intergalactic promenade piece.
‘The article was about the chaos of buying ourselves out of problems,’ she explains. ‘At some point, Monbiot used the image of the Earth as the ultimate disposal item and to me that was the hook. If you take consumer society, the way in which we exist now, to its extreme point, then the Earth is certainly going to be the ultimate disposal item.’
At the time, Evans – who set up the acclaimed A Moment’s Peace theatre company which produced Petrified Paradise and The Chronicles of Irania – was working as an assistant director with Grid Iron, Edinburgh’s doyens of site-specific theatre, and took the idea to its co-artistic director Judith Doherty. ‘Originally, I envisioned it as one man in an attic with an audience of 20,’ says Evans. ‘I thought that was a realistic thing to pitch.’
Fast-forward three years and Leaving Planet Earth, co-written and directed by Evans and Lewis Hetherington, and produced by Grid Iron, will enjoy a sold-out world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival, playing to 150 people every night for 13 days. Lucky ticket-holders will be transported from the city centre to the cavernous Edinburgh International Climbing Arena in Ratho: this is ‘New Earth’, and the audience members its most recent arrivals.
Hetherington – who has won Fringe awards with theatre group Analogue (Beachy Head, 2401 Objects) – was instantly attracted to the idea of New Earth when approached by Evans. ‘I naturally have quite green politics,’ he explains. ‘And the notion of buying our way out of trouble really fascinated me. But I love sci-fi as well. One of the reasons we don’t see much sci-fi on stage is because so much of it is epic and people are flying through space, but we wanted to focus on its human side. In the theatre, that’s really exciting because the audience watch the actors up close and you don’t get that in a film or on TV.’
This human dimension is the cornerstone of Leaving Planet Earth. The play orbits around Vela, the architect of the new society, and her team who have helped establish New Earth. Even the show’s exciting technological elements – secretive devices being developed by the University of Edinburgh Centre for Design Informatics and a website created by Napier University’s Design and Digital Arts department – will be strongly tied to the emotions of its characters and the audience.
For this foray into the EIF, Evans and Hetherington have drawn on diverse inspiration: Caryl Churchill’s plays A Number and Far Away; the novels of Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Arthur C Clarke and Philip K Dick. On screen, Battlestar Galactica, 2001: A Space Odyssey and District 9 all get nods. But the world of Leaving Planet Earth won’t be entirely alien to its audience: it’s set in 2013.
‘It’s still today,’ Hetherington explains. ‘We talk about events like World War III that are mentioned as a throwaway line, and it lets people realise that it’s a different world to the one we’re in. But there’s no armageddon or asteroid strike. People are choosing to leave.’
But will International Festival audiences, used to more traditional forms of theatre, choose to participate in the world of New Earth? ‘It isn’t necessarily the average thing you’d see at the EIF,’ admits Evans. ‘But I think that’s a really good thing. I hope that we’ve been clear enough so that audience members will come knowing that this is an invitation to play, to use your imagination and be provoked and challenged. We want the audience to enjoy themselves.’
Nor are they overly daunted by making their first leap from the Fringe to the EIF. ‘There’s no doubt, it’s something to really celebrate,’ Hetherington says. ‘But community and teaching work is also a big part of what we do. On one hand, it’s great to have your theatre peers be impressed by the EIF, but then you go to teach a group of teenagers and they don’t know who you are at all so you really have to prove yourself.’
Ultimately, Evans and Hetherington want their audience to consider the idea that living on another planet may actually be in our future. ‘When you start to probe a little deeper, people like Stephen Hawking think that this is a reality,’ Hetherington notes. But their own reluctance to participate in such a voyage suggests that their New Earth will be no utopia. ‘I feel quite rooted to this planet,’ Evans concedes. ‘I’m not sure that we deserve another one yet.’
Grid Iron: Leaving Planet Earth, EICC, Morrison Street, 0131 473 2000, 10–24 Aug (not 13, 20), 8pm, £25 (£12.50).
Other site-specific performances on the Grid Iron CV
Ever since they arrived in the mid 90s, Grid Iron have been determined to throw something new upon the Scottish theatre landscape through a series of wildly imaginative venue-orientated productions. In 1997, they started the ball rolling with The Bloody Chamber, scaring the bejesus out of Fringe audiences down in the Royal Mile’s spooky vaults. Three years later, they swung into action with Decky Does a Bronco in the Scotland Yard Playground. In 2003, they had to relocate Those Eyes, That Mouth at short notice to a New Town address while the passenger lounge at Edinburgh International Airport was the daring venue for 2006’s Roam, a co-production with the recently founded National Theatre of Scotland. 2008’s Yarn took place within a former jute mill in Dundee while the following year, the Bukowski-adapted Barflies was staged in the Barony Bar on Edinburgh’s Broughton Street.