I Stand For What I Stand On is a show co-created by Strike A Light and young activists from Gloucester Youth Community Action, a climate and social justice campaigning group. It tells the story of the four activists onstage, and how they got involved in climate activism, as well as stories from other young activists around the globe.
The set that greets us, as well as the design throughout (created by Grace Venning), combines simple, bold images with kitsch clutter. It feels a perfect representation of the multi-faceted existence of being a teenager, or an activist. Posters for Harry Styles and ABBA mix with those for marches and causes, the funky carpet looks like an oil slick spilling across the stage, and mundane objects have a habit of transforming – like comfy blankets into sequined cloaks.
One of the core repeating images is that of the activists as bedsheet-bedecked ghosts. Here we are haunted, not by the past, as in many horror stories, but by the future. Like spirits whose attempts to communicate either go unheard, or are seen as a threat or a nuisance, in their protests these young people are here to deliver a message to mend our ways before it is too late.
Throughout the show they talk about their experiences of activism with honesty and humour; from the struggles of being shouted at on the street and overcoming the fear of missing school, to the highs of a newfound community, and having Harry Styles’ sister comment on your Instagram. The performers share the space with the audience in a way that is open and unshowy – it is made clear that they are not actors, just people sharing their experiences. Their occasional nerves or uncertainty makes the clear confidence with which they talk about the issues that matter to them all the more compelling. They take unexpected moments in stride, making jokes about technical glitches, and laughing about knocking over props. The four performers on stage are joined by voices of other youth activists from around the world talking about their own campaigning and their feelings about it. This helps situate the small group in a vast and varied movement, and examines some of the different experiences that young people have with activism in different contexts.
Director Anna Himali Howard has the audience wear headphones throughout, through which they hear recorded audio and music, as well as the amplified voices of the performers. It is an effective choice that works on many levels. It means for once these activists don’t have to shout to be heard. It means that while, without the headphones, their voices seem isolated, with them the performers are joined by voices from around the world, buoyed by music and recordings of protests. This sense of solidarity is the key to any movement; a small local march may seem insignificant, but it is part of a vast network of action. Near the end of the show, the slight delay on the headphones means that when the audience sings along to a protest chant, our voices echo to give the impression of being part of a vast crowd.
Through the show the climate activism movement is described first as a ghost story, then as a fairy tale – before the activists reject both. Because, good or bad, these types of stories have an ending, whereas climate activism doesn’t. Even if the unthinkable happened, and tomorrow governments and corporations turned around and committed to major action, work would not be done for activists. There is no ‘once it is done’, and the show does a good job of exploring how the performers balance activism with the rest of their lives – talking about personal milestones outside of the movement, and fantasies of their futures.
The ending of the show strikes a delicate balance. As with many shows about climate change and/or activism, the question at the end is – so what do we do? What can members of audience take away from this show, and put into action in our real lives? There is the risk here of either being too vague (‘make your voice heard! Take action! Stand up for what you believe in!’), or giving a clear course of action that seems insignificant in the face of what the show has described (‘make sure to recycle and buy local!’). But I Stand For What I Stand On manages to give a clear and important course of action by tying their advice to what the whole play has been showing us – find a community, talk to people, and work together to do more than you ever could alone.
I Stand For What I Stand On tours until 7 November. More info here.