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’?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!