‘Theatre’s always asking audiences to take a leap’, says Lewis Hetherington, ‘and we’re asking them to take a massive one’ – across planets. Hetherington is one half of the creative partnership behind Leaving Planet Earth, Grid Iron’s large-scale site-specific piece for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. The show was conceived by playwright Catrin Evans, who approached Hetherington with the project in an early form two years ago. Its premise is self-explanatory: humankind has been forced to abandon the motherland and settle on a new planet.
Audience members are recast as the final arrivals on New Earth undergoing an ‘initial transitioning process, to prepare themselves to disconnect from their old planet and connect with their new one.’ Participants, Evans explains, ‘will be guided through in a really direct, experiential way, with moments of interaction. But there is also a story emerging, and how that happens is the theatre of it.’
We’re familiar with the apocalypse narrative. Conspiracy junkies and religious fanatics have been heralding the end of days since, well, the beginning of days, and the idea of a get-out in such an event has played out in countless sci-fi novels and blockbuster movies. But while a mass Earth exodus tends to be pitched as the fallout of ‘an asteroid, or aliens invading, the “other” coming in and ruining it for us’, Evans reflects, Leaving Planet Earth asks ‘what if its just humans?’. The direction that the piece has taken stems from what she sees as an ‘illogical’ culture espoused by our leading economic thinkers, the belief that ‘the way to survive is to continually grow, to continually purchase and expand’. If taken to its extreme, she suggests, ‘and we’re consuming everything in order to get ourselves out of trouble’, it becomes plausible that ‘the planet itself will be the ultimate consumer good and disposable item.’ After reading this proposition in an article by the environmentalist and political activist George Monbiot, Evans began to wonder, ‘what would that world look like?’
So, would its creators consider Leaving Planet Earth to have an ecological or anti-capitalist slant? ‘As people who consider themselves political, absolutely’, Hetherington answers. ‘But we also consider ourselves theatre-makers; what we’re here to do is ask difficult questions that we don’t have the answer to’. Besides, as Evans puts it, ‘the shows not necessarily “about” that as such’; the pair are more driven by crafting a compelling drama than writing a manifesto. ‘What will the psychological and emotional disjuncts be if we ever have to leave this planet?’ Hetherington continues, ‘what cost does human progress have and is it worth it? We’ve very much tried to explore that through individual characters who are going through that dilemma.’ Since the actors have come in, Evans and Hetherington have also been keen to ‘ensure that the cast are playing the story in the moment, rather than trying to play the themes’ and hope ‘the audience will also be in the moment following a character, but during the bits between, the fragments, they’ll piece the story together and think about the bigger picture’.
In fact, Hetherington’s focus on ‘observing contemporary society through a good story’ is partly what Evans says led her to seek him out to co-develop the project. ‘Collaboration is a big part of our methodology,’ Hetherington adds, and they’ve both used ‘a lot of different devising processes and had different roles within them’ in the past. ‘Sometimes we’ve been the writer in the room, sometimes director and sometimes devisor, so what felt really exciting is that when Catrin introduced me to the project, she said “I’m not quite sure what our roles will be”’. It emerged fairly naturally that they would co-write and direct, especially since, as Hetherington says, ‘the way you move around with site-work, the audience have so much to do with the narrative that directing and writing become closely interlinked.’ In the later stages of development, of course, their circle of collaborators has expanded to include a whole host of artists, designers and technicians to help transform the site, the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, into New Earth. ‘We’ve been living this project for the last two years’, Hetherington says, ‘but we’re careful to make sure we don’t make all the decisions. Sometimes, the best way of collaborating is just to say “I trust you to go away and do this yourself”’.
The pair have also come into contact with some unexpected experts: ‘people whose lives are about preparing us to go into space, not into a fictional way like we are, but whose job is to explore the notion of terraforming a planet,’ Evans explains. These scientists’ ‘precision of thinking, which as an artist you try to avoid because you want to challenge yourself and your audience’, proved invaluable in filling in the details of a potential planetary move, like the possibility of mining asteroids for minerals. That this research is even being carried out, the pair believe, gives this show a very real edge. ‘While we’re presenting a fictional world’, Hetherington says, ‘we also hope to provide a lens to refract to make people ask, “how much of this is true? How far have they pushed this?” We want people to consider all of these issues, but also to feel supported, looked after and -‘
‘And be entertained!’ Evans cuts in.
‘Oh, god yeah.’
Leaving Planet Earth runs from the 10th- 24th August as part of the 2013 Edinburgh International Festival.