Gulp! Water Choices, Stories and Theatre

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre projectTheatre-maker and arts academic Adam Ledger shares the thinking behind Gulp!, The Bone Ensemble’s project on global water issues, and the challenges of creating an engaging and participatory family drama on environmental issues, inequalities and opportunities during Covid-19.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It seems strange to be putting down some thoughts about a theatre project that couldn’t quite finish its tour because of the COVID-19 crisis. But the ongoing situation makes me reflect on art-making, connection, on possibilities before, during and after the peculiar feeling of simultaneously being stuck but too busy. And all in the context of a world dealing with a pandemic, how to emerge from lockdown, and where — outside of the four walls we are obliged currently to occupy — another set of issues remain: of environmental challenges and inequalities, but also opportunities. So as lockdown gripped, the skies over major cities began to clear as pollution dispersed, yet at the same time the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading:

climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Gulp! flyer for The Bone Ensemble theatre project

Gulp! More than a drop

It is in these contexts that there are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders; or to do at least something. On offering feedback on The Bone Ensemble’s second environmentally-themed family theatre performance, Gulp!, all about water, one rather ill-judged, academically-cocky comment that came my way was ‘how is this more than a drop in the ocean?’. This is an odd way of thinking. Put it this way; if you throw some sort of recyclable plastic item straight in the bin, you’re harming the planet in an almost immeasurably small way. If you put it where you should, in a tiny way you’re triggering help. What choice should you be making?

Back in 2018, the impetus to make Gulp! came from a bit more than a drop, and actually before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate change (as a theatre company, we do tend to take on the big stuff..!). We began to realise just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone the environmental impact of bottled water. We began to think more widely about water. Like the previous production, we wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. We continued to hold fast to earlier principles; we would reject dystopian imaginaries, the dramatic tropes of the disaster movie, which we had seen in some work. In no way do we have all the answers, and there is ongoing reflection about the strengths and weakness of the work, but it seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! with audience participation
Gulp! participation
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. In the academic bit of my life, the two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists and, because our work is made to be accessible, with advisory d/Deaf artists and those that help us with ‘relaxed’ performances.

Working together in water scenarios

In terms of empathy, both shows have a central character, who undertakes a kind of journey. This has been crucial as a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and it’s important that they can somehow identify with them. The story of Gulp! centres on Maya (the name means ‘water’ in Hebrew) who — wait for it! — gets sucked up a tap! Early on, we had also decided that the feel of Gulp! should be contemporary, whereas the earlier Where’s My Igloo Gone? was quite ‘other’, perhaps a folk setting of some kind. In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (ours is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL (English as an Additional Language) and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’. Overall, too, the audience help make the show’s soundtrack, which we layer live with a loop-station.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp! in performance
Gulp! performance
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. Climate change — and this is, of course, a big generalisation — is a ‘thing’, a more or less tangible issue. It is a recognisable problem, but there appears to be some means of addressing it. For many people, water is just not a problem — we turn on the tap and water comes out of it — it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the few, and indeed fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah (University of Birmingham) thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. Part of the narrative answer was to have Maya ‘land’ in different scenarios which, if you look back at the list of locations above, are underpinned by this conception. In the heat of rehearsal (something actual, rather than virtual, in August 2019!), we wrestled still more with the dramaturgical organisation, eventually also conceiving of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.

Small choices matter

Over 2019-20, the production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of what we quite grandly called a ‘children’s graphic novel’, a comic-book version of Gulp! beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones. This was given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Emily found a way also not to use English in the book; where necessary, the characters speak or think pictures in speech bubbles. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!

And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. One of the more usual is to use post-show questionnaires. Analysis of their free-text responses (we tried to resist too-leading tick-box questions…) demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents most explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale. As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate and the way we understand it, use it and what we allow to be in it (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Again, small choices help.

Showing The Bone Ensemble's Gulp and small choices on water
Gulp! choices
Photograph: Graeme Braidwood © 2020

I’m not a social scientist, a scientist, or even much of an overtly political-environmental activist; I’m a theatre-maker and an arts academic and I have to start from that point. At times, I have to resist or at least find a way to work with some of the instrumentalisation that creating this kind of work attracts, appearing at worst as the academic capitalism that imbues some of the institutional aspects. On the other hand, there is a great pleasure in meeting the spectator’s gaze. This is the real meaning of the work.

Environmentally-based artworks cannot be only negative, nor comprise only information, like some kind of illustrated lecture. Participation is one means whereby spectators often end up modelling a different behaviour, showing how change and intervention are possible. A factually-informed but inherently well-made, emotive piece of artwork really stays with people. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.


Find out more

You can read Adam’s ClimateCultures post on The Bone Ensemble’s 2017 climate change production: Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and explore The Bone Ensemble website.

As well as Co-Artistic Director with The Bone Ensemble, Adam is also a Reader in Theatre and Performance at the University of Birmingham, and you can find out more about Gulp! at the university’s Performance and the Environment website — including the lyrics and music for the PPP Song. You can read the e-book of Gulp!, illustrated by Emily Jones, on Issuu, with further resources at the back of the book. Plenty of things to do at home and at school!

The UN Water Development Report 2020 – Water and Climate Change is available at the UNESCO website, along with a ‘Main Messages’ download.

For an explanation of the d/Deaf distinction, see this post from the Royal Association for Deaf People. 

Adam Ledger
Adam Ledger
An artistic director interested in how art practices can bring empowering messages about climate, and a senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts (University of Birmingham).
Read More

Action, Participation, Feeling: Where’s My Igloo Gone?

Artistic Director Adam Ledger discusses the process of devising The Bone Ensemble’s Where’s My Igloo Gone? and the challenges of making participatory theatre about home and community that presents climate change as something that we can collectively address.


2,650 words: estimated reading time 10.5 minutes 


Oolik is an ordinary girl who goes on an extraordinary journey to save her igloo home. On her way she meets some exciting friends to help her – including YOU!

So says the back of the flyer advertising The Bone Ensemble’s family performance Where’s My Igloo Gone?, which is soon to be re-rehearsed before a national tour. What this strapline tries carefully to invite is involvement in a participatory performance about home, community and climate change. It is for children 5+, but clearly wants to draw their parents/carers into, as the marketing blurb continues, an ‘Arctic world of soaring snow geese, pet husky dogs and starry nights… and the kind of cold that makes your skin tingle!’. And this has been the key.

Climate change art (if we accept there is such a category) is, of course, an emergent practice. Some work, especially visual art and installation, reflects the materiality of the environment, inviting us to encounter the natural world. There is some dance work, some music, some theatre (and, as the bit I know most about, bear with me while I dwell on that).

There has been a crop of interesting ‘climate change’ plays, and performances that are more like performance lectures. The latter includes director Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (2012), about the a/effects of population growth (now there’s a film of the subsequent book), and her later (2014) collaboration with writer Duncan Macmillan and scientist Chris Rapley, 2071. These performances are stuffed full of unequivocal scientific fact in an attempt to ‘prove’ climate change; Emmott’s Cambridge office was even minutely reconstructed on the Royal Court’s stage; and Rapley sat in front of wondrous video graphics.

Even more visually impressive is Motionhouse’s Broken (2013), in which astonishing feats of acrobatics-dance happen in front of a sophisticated videographic backdrop. Physically astonishing too is As the World Tipped (2011, Wired Aerial Theatre), incorporating, again, video with feats of aerialist performance and, as the name implies, a big, up-ending stage. At its conclusion, the crowd were visibly and audibly inspired by its projected call to arms, ‘Demand change now’, clearly a huge step forward from the dismaying conclusion of the earlier Ten Billion, which ends (I’m paraphrasing a bit, but the swearing isn’t mine) “we’re all fucked…”

…well, we might be, but let’s hope not; let’s ‘demand change’, and seek, as artists, to keep shifting work on from the apocalyptic; looking at even my short list of work above, there is quite a visual narrative of the negatively spectacular going on. Of course, work is still developing, and there is already a noticeable arc, but what are we meant to do – physically, actively, emotionally – with just a negative reflection of the increasingly obvious issues around us? Can we also find ways to go beyond ‘demand change’?

Where's My Igloo Gone? Photograph by Pamela Raith 
Where’s My Igloo Gone?
Photograph: Pamela Raith Photography © 2017
http://pamelaraith.com

Thinking (too) big

Where’s My Igloo Gone? didn’t start with the idea of making a participatory performance for a limited audience of only forty – which we are expanding now for its national tour to sixty. A few years ago, capitalising on The Bone Ensemble’s foray into the outdoor arts and festival scene, we decided to try to build an igloo in the middle of the summer countryside. It had to be big enough to hold a reasonable audience (as many will know, making work that is in any way ‘intimate’ brings immediate commercial problems), couldn’t get too hot, and had to be made of sustainable material. Oh, and it had to have a blackout so that we could have lights. Which meant that we had to find sustainable and, crucially, silent power. This was getting complicated…

We got a bit of funding to explore ideas and to incorporate homespun electronics into the mix. Even though we found ways to link our ongoing interest in voice and music to big LEDs, making them light up with our burgeoning, and often unreliable, artisan knowledge of raspberry pis and Makey Makeys, building what was effectively a portable theatre was becoming way too expensive, time consuming, and far too difficult. Trips to scientific labs to look at the latest eco materials and mega-batteries were interesting but taking us away from the very people we wanted to think about and, eventually, connect with: our audiences. What had emerged through all this experiment, play (and downright headache) were, though, the beginnings of two characters, who later became Oolik and Ooman in Where’s My Igloo Gone?, and an interest in Inuit culture; a demographic of indigenous peoples which, like so many around the world, is affected by the changing environment, of which they are so intuitively aware. Rather than a sort of outdoor installation, what seemed urgent was the need squarely to address climate change and find new ways that theatre, and in our case theatre for young people, could do this.

We started again: there would be a human story, there would be characters and situations with which audiences could empathise and, above all, there would be a positive, empowering message. Funding was cobbled together from Arts Council England’s ‘Grants for the Arts’ scheme (GfA) and the University of Birmingham and, in September 2015, we undertook a short ‘RnD’ phase. This could also foreground how we might develop our earlier participatory work on Caravania!, a twenty-minute performance for only six people at a time in a 1980s caravan (yes, really) into a politics of participation, of a shift from mirroring the environmental problems around us to a positive experience. Rather than (as can happen) guilt, blame or feeling stuck as to what to do, we would try to offer a feeling of empowerment. And we would stage the show in the round so that everyone could see and take part.

At this first stage, an important decision was taken: the characters would not speak English, but a made up language we call ‘Iglooish’. On a practical level, this was about the show being accessible to everyone (and, of course, we were going to go on a world tour! That remains an ambition, but a 40+ date national tour is pretty satisfying in the meantime), but also obliges the effort of communication with characters a little bit ‘other’ and, importantly for the climate change issue, are not necessarily English-speaking, familiar figures, but ones who globalise the debate.

Where’s My Igloo Gone? was subsequently commissioned by mac birmingham and the Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton and, with the support of a second GfA award and funding from several Trusts and the University of Birmingham, was created in November 2016, when it was shown regionally, at Pontio, Wales, and in a special school. Concerns of accessibility have been expanded: our work has been made accessible to d/Deaf audiences too, with the help of the wonderful Caroline Parker MBE, sign-signing diva and all round good egg.

Story-making

Where’s My Igloo Gone? is at heart a pretty straight story, a quest triggered by a crisis, that of Oolik’s melting igloo (itself clearly an exaggeration of climate change effects). But our starting point is, then, quite consciously the state that some of the aforementioned work often ends with. Oolik’s subsequent adventure sees her meet a set of animals, including — something of a hit – the Walrus (who is a bit flatulent), get caught up in a storm, confront an oil company boss and deal with becoming displaced — she, too, is a climate refugee, a very real consequence of contemporary environmental change. So Oolik exemplifies someone who experiences peril, gains insight, experiences failure, yet takes action.

How to explain climate change became one of the greatest challenges in devising. The science is complicated; data has to be brought together from a number of sources to demonstrate cause, effect, possible scenarios (basically, what 2071 does). Young audiences are often eco-minded, but our early visits to our partner schools to test ideas confirmed that not many know the terminology ‘climate change’ and certainly not the causal processes.

Where's My Igloo Gone? Photograph by Pamela Raith
Where’s My Igloo Gone?
Photograph: Pamela Raith Photography © 2017
http://pamelaraith.com

Caught in a storm, Oolik meets a scientist, Ting Tang Zood, quirky, charming and a bit silly, who doesn’t speak Iglooish of course, nor English, but a fizz-pop sort of language of ‘science’. Stuck in linguistic incomprehensibility, Ting Tang Zood’s solution to explain environment change is to draw the basics of global warming (an apparently simple solution but one of those devising obstacles that seem to take forever to sort out…). This offers, too, a layering of the aural aesthetic as Oolik taps along on a tin cup and joins in a few rude noises to demonstrate how plane emissions are just like those of an altogether different sort…

This slightly silly, interactive scene puts Oolik, crucially, in the same place as her young audience friends; she learns about environmental cycles alongside everyone else in a situation where everyone becomes a kind of Oolik. Optimally, the sequence informs and empowers in playfully providing not only fundamental environmental knowledge but suggesting that, if the root cause is actually simple, if highly damaging, human activity, then a root solution might be to want do something different. Since she realises climate change has affected her personally, our empathetic relationship with Oolik extends also to an investment in Oolik’s next step, the decision to confront the oil boss to find out why drilling is taking place around her and make that stop. Oolik becomes a kind of vicarious climate change activist.

You can’t, I think, just throw people inside a show; immersive theatre work (and some other artworks) can do this much better in that this type of practice also typically comes with some sort of place/space that spectators are inside — immersed in. In our case, we move from simply clapping along to a song, or adding a sound effect with a simple musical instrument, to a few — then all — spectators involved in a sequence. Nevertheless, for us, the audience is always there and is often referred to, included, or made complicit in a scene. A key to inviting participation is just that — it is never a requirement, but always a respectful, if direct, invitation. We have had no real issues here, discovering with pleasure that our audiences want to get involved. But it needs to be taken step by step.

Near the beginning of the piece, our characters ask spectators to draw a picture of where they live — in the Inuit languages, ‘igloo’ doesn’t just mean an ice house, but a home, a shelter. The point is we all need an igloo. This is an example of a relatively straightforward mode of participation, at once communal and individual, yet connects spectators to the characters in terms of the themes of the work yet to unfold. Later, everyone participates in the encounter with the politician. It is here that the drawings of spectators’ various ‘igloos’ return when everyone brandishes them when participating in a protest! Of course, this is meant to be fun, but it also models what could happen outside the theatre, where audiences might be encouraged to give voice. The work is not, then, about ourselves as individuals, but ourselves as a community wanting and doing something different.

“The climate is changing, but people are not.”

At the 2015 ‘2 Degrees’ festival at ArtsAdmin, the book There is Nothing that is Beyond Our Imagination was launched. In it, Henrietta Moore writes

“The climate is changing, but people are not. Politics is about story-making. A new politics would require new stories. Now, in contemporary political life, apocalyptic imaginaries infuse the whole climate change debate. What are the alternative stories?”

As well as, in our case, how climate can be made central to theatre for young audiences, ‘alternative’ stories might encourage feeling, thought, conversation and potential behaviour change. Moore is right: few media items about climate change seem to be more imaginative than offering a stock illustration of a polar bear stuck on a piece of ice. Yes, it happens but, again, what are we meant to do with such an image? It risks being a visual trope and the iconography of stasis.

Climate change can seem a distant, abstract and difficult to understand phenomenon. Although the world has dangerous clowns who claim that the whole thing is a conspiracy (do some people really believe that or is it a convenient (post)truth?), what can art and artists do? We can continue to make climate change real, around and about us now, not letting it seem an overwhelming, distant issue. We can work together towards awareness and change by first offering and sharing in particular, human ‘alternative stories’. As a citizen of the world, it is hard to know what to do, but, where we can, if we make artworks that place situations into dialogue through skill, artistic craft and objects and events of beauty, we can offer a different normalcy.

Where's My Igloo Gone? Photograph by Pontio, Wales
Where’s My Igloo Gone?
Photograph: Pontio, Wales © 2017
https://www.pontio.co.uk

As Anthony Gormley asks in ‘Art in the time of global warming’

“Is it possible to re-think art and take it from this finished-object status and make it into a verb, a participatory, open space, a place of transformation and the exchange of ideas and reflection on our state and status?”

Our work is not some sort of perfect example. Before re-rehearsal in a few weeks and the launch of the national tour (supported by a third GfA), I want to look closely at the participatory parts because, whilst we have to make frameworks, an audience’s agency can be compromised; and, although we have made ourselves very informed and especially careful, I want to think more about how we handle the diverse cultural aspects. Still, we are making a particular and new form in the context of a certain type of theatre audience. We also offer an example of how theatre can approach climate issues not by staging a negative, inevitable problem — as if we were inside some sort of disaster movie — but something that we can collectively address.

So a performance of Where’s My Igloo Gone? simply cannot end unless everyone works together. Audience members participate in changing the set and build a structure that becomes a new home for Oolik and Oomam. Everyone is welcomed inside this newly created igloo.


Find out more

You can find a trailer and the tour dates for Where’s My Igloo Gone? and more at The Bone Ensemble.  

Adam mentions some of the other plays that have addressed climate change issues over the past few years:

  • Katie Mitchell and Stephen Emmott’s Ten Billion (2012) was reviewed by Official London Theatre 
  • Katie Mitchell’s 2014 collaboration with writer Duncan Macmillan and scientist Chris Rapley, for  2071 was reviewed by the Guardian and Telegraph.
  • Motionhouse’s Broken (2013) was also reviewed by the Guardian.
  • Wired Aerial Theatre‘s information on As the World Tipped (2011) also includes a video about their R&D for the production.

The essays that Adam mentioned appear in the following books:

  • Henrietta L. Moore and Renata Salec’s essay (2015) ‘How to create climate for change’ was published in There is Nothing That is Beyond our Imagination, ed. Claudia Galhós. Torres Vedras: ArtinSite, p. 56.
  • Anthony Gormley’s essay ‘Art in the time of global warming’ (2010) was published in Long Horizons: an Exploration of Art and Climate Change  by Julie’s Bicycle and the British Council). The full guide can be downloaded as a free pdf from Julie’s Bicycle.

Adam Ledger
Adam Ledger
An artistic director interested in how art practices can bring empowering messages about climate, and a senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Arts (University of Birmingham).
Read More

Questioning an end? Space for creative thinking...  

"Adam says of Where’s My Igloo Gone? that the 'performance simply cannot end unless everyone works together." In our changing climate, where is the end of participation - and therefore of performance in your own creative work?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!