Theatre-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! 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.
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.
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.
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.