Features Q&A and Interviews Published 30 September 2013

Activating Change

The Planet and Stuff is an interactive lecture which harnesses elements of theatricality to speak to young people about climate change. Two of the show's co-creators, Joel Horwood and Lucy Kerbel, discuss their approach.
Catherine Love

What led you to use the format of a lecture for The Planet and Stuff?

Joel: A few years ago, Lucy was working in a school.  When a couple of ten year olds were talking about how recycling saved polar bears, Lucy thought “That isn’t strictly true, is it?” She realised that climate change is a complex web of problems and media representation; that the generation who can perhaps do most about it are often more confused than most adults and that most of us have a vague sense of failed duty and guilt around the subject.  Lucy had just set up a theatre company (Tonic) and decided that perhaps there might be a way to make a piece of work for young audiences about this that wasn’t allegorically or metaphorically about climate change.  Instead she wondered whether there was a way to use our skills in theatre to deliver a kind of “souped-up” Christmas Lecture or TED talk that aimed to fully equip a young audience with the tools that they might need to engage with the issue and to unpack the political complexities without patronizing or boring them.

The lecture form obviously carries connotations of didacticism and risks turning kids off with its similarity to school. How have you worked to make it engaging?

Joel: Knowing that engaging our audience with the information would be the primary obstacle, we decided to involve young people at every stage of the process.  They helped us decide which scientists, experts and policy makers we would interview, conducted the interviews, workshopped elements of the script and have come into rehearsals to offer feedback.  The show now has a fictitious framing device entirely inspired by working so closely with young people, the driving “narrative” force being one of their seemingly naïve questions: “How do we solve climate change?”  So hopefully keeping our audience involved throughout has helped us break this information into a much more accessible form.  Parts of it are game-show like competitions, parts are open debate, – we require our audiences to volunteer and discuss things.  There are lots of unknowns that will hopefully keep this very much a live and interactive experience.

How has your experience as theatremakers helped you to craft the piece?

Joel:  I have definitely pillaged my panto-writing experience for this to write with humour, interaction and an element of silliness.  But I think the most interesting thing has been trying to work out how you can deliver a narrative within an informative show.  On stage we are creating the illusion that we have two “volunteers” who are trying to answer the focal question, so their every choice in the presentation of information, the order of it and how they facilitate or hinder each other is completely narrative.  So trying to make that narrative sing with the themes of the information has been a great way to lace the show with metaphors that hopefully get to the real causes of climate change and its possible solutions.

Lucy: As a team we’ve been very conscious of structuring the show in such a way that it still feels dramatic; so our characters still have clearly defined trajectories and emotional arcs, they’re not simply puppets on stage spouting information.  This felt key to us in helping our audiences engage – both with the show, and the subject matter – on an emotional level. Audiences should leave the theatre feeling like they’ve had an enjoyable theatrical experience, not simply that they’ve learnt something.

The show also involves audience participation. Do you think that by offering audiences the opportunity to act within the space of the theatre they might feel more empowered to act outside the theatre, or is that an unrealistic ideal?

Joel: That is precisely the aim.  Who knows whether it’s unrealistic or not, but I think that if you feel like you’ve already started to engage with solutions then the problem begins to diminish; and I think that making positive progress is a great encourager.  Our aim isn’t to give a guilt-tripping sermon about consumer culture, it’s to simply ask some questions.  How come I have so many single-use items in my daily life?  Where did this object in my shopping bag really come from?  If I buy something, am I complicit in how that thing was made?  What if we could find a better way of making these things?

Answering these is far from impossible, we might just have forgotten to ask them.  We’re hoping to have lots of practical ways that people who come to the show can start doing things right away; petitions, letters to MPs, we’ve got a list of all of our resources that we’ll be uploading to the Polka website along with some lesson plans and activities for teachers (or really enthusiastic families!) to work with their pupils up to, beyond or even without having seen the show.

Asking questions.

Asking questions.

In a 2009 paper by the Tyndall Centre entitled Fear Won’t Do It, it was suggested that scare tactics on climate change leave individuals feeling helpless, whereas to change anything we need to enable people to imagine a better future and feel that the way they live their lives could play a part in that. In contrast with a show like Ten Billion, which painted a stark, nihilistic portrait of the future and our inability to change it, it sounds as though The Planet and Stuff retains hope in the possibility of change.  Do you think optimism is important as a galvanising force in this kind of work?

Joel:  Yes, I do.  And I believe there is plenty to be optimistic about.  Re-framing this issue from something “you should” be thinking about or acting on to something “we could” be working on is vital in creating a culture of possibility and change.

Lucy:  When we asked the experts what they felt optimistic about, the majority said something along the lines of “we do know how to fix this.”

Joel: We have the solutions: the carbon tax has been successfully implemented in Australia, we already get about 11% of our energy from renewables and could make more, we have innovations in electric modes of transport to name just a few.  Besides, we have only known the severity of this problem for a few decades; these are what we have come up with so far over a relatively short period of time, so I’m sure we’ll find more.

So the obstacles to solving climate change are geopolitical, social and cultural.  And this is where I believe art can really make a difference.  Because if we can present these obstacles for what they are – a combination of personal and political choices – then we are saying that they are within our control and we can change.  Really, this all boils down to our values.  Do we want to live in the kind of world that climate scientists are predicting or do we want to activate change?  I think if we weren’t optimistic about this, our show would be really short:  “Hi kids, welcome to capitalism, a system based on infinite growth on a finite planet. Good luck!”

Lucy: At the same time, it’s worth saying that Ten Billion and The Planet and Stuff have been made for entirely different audiences. For this reason alone it’s inevitable that the aim of the two productions will be far apart.

Do you think that artists have a responsibility for the worlds that they put on stage, whether those worlds are optimistic or pessimistic?

Joel:  I think art is made in dialogue with the world.  I’m sure that my worldview and beliefs are present in the work I make even when I make things from a different perspective, but I think that to feel a responsibility to an audience above your responsibility to yourself as an artist is to patronize them.  It removes their side of the dialogue and replaces it with your own assumptions.  I don’t think it’s irresponsible to be optimistic in the face of very real danger or vice versa because an audience, even a young one, is not a blank canvas and should interact with the work (and the world it presents) in their own way.

I feel that my only responsibility when making art is to myself, and that is why this project is so fascinating to make. The Planet and Stuff is an attempt to “curate” or “animate” information in a manner that keeps the facts accurate but that peels away the debate to reveal the human causes of climate change.  So, whilst I don’t feel responsible for how an audience interacts with the very personal version of the world I present on stage, I do feel responsible to the subject matter; particularly because the aim is to have a “real life impact” on the young people, teachers, families – whoever comes to see this.  We are not making An Inconvenient Truth 2, but we are trying to give our audience a sense of how things have gotten complex and a sense that they needn’t be.

Although the piece has been made specifically for children, what do you think it might offer for adults?

Joel: Climate change is something that most of us are aware of but confused by; this morning I spent several minutes trying to work out which recycling bins the various aspects of my breakfast were supposed to end up in.  Hopefully, if we succeed in being clearly informative to young people, we’ll manage to make something that will help adults navigate this too.  I’m not saying we’ll reduce the amount of confusion about each borough’s recycling bins systems, but hopefully you’ll have more of an idea about why everyone is trying to resolve this issue and why it’s such a difficult one.

How do you anticipate taking this lecture format forward into future work?

Joel: Making this show has really inspired us to visit other issues and try to make informative, structured debates for young people.  The “digital natives” are bombarded with such a wealth of targeted advertising that I think they are navigating an incredibly confusing world.  I would love to make something about gender equality; an antidote to Miley Cyrus and Chris Brown.  I think it would be really empowering to run through how democracy works in this country.  It would be amazing to do something for young audiences about sex.  Basically, I think theatre can fulfill a role that our education system is being robbed of in this climate of educational league tables and the emphasis on results.  I also think that bringing young audiences into a theatre and allowing them to be vocal is good for their perception of what theatre can be as they grow older; wouldn’t it be brilliant if our young audiences grew up believing that theatre was a place of ideas, debate and action?

The Planet and Stuff is on at the Polka Theatre until 26th October.

Photos: Robert Workman.


Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.



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