Space is an ever-evolving concept in theatre. It is currently being stretched and challenged with the rise of site-specific theatre and increasingly environmentally conscious theatre companies. I sat down with Bea Udale-Smith and Conky Kampfner to talk about their exciting new project How to Save a Rock with a Circle, a project which seeks to explore the intersection between unconventional theatre spaces and environmental themes. Although Bea is no stranger to unusual theatre spaces, having recently staged a physical theatre production about child birth in St Catherine’s boathouse by the river, but this production presents the team with even more challenges. They seek to stage a production that is entirely environmentally sustainable in Makespace Oxford, an organisation situated in a disused Wadham building on the canal.
What is the show about?
It’s loosely about climate change. The play is devised, but the idea that we’re thinking of is how normal people respond to climate change. What’s a good response and how does that relate to how we live our lives? Ultimately, it’s about the power of groups. We start with the individual and then see what these people can achieve when they work together. What we definitely do not want to do is create a piece about climate change that is all about doom and gloom.
Where did you get the idea from?
I got the idea from thinking about using a mile-long tunnel which has recently been converted into a cycle path in Bath. I started thinking about what sort of play would suit a space like this. I came to the conclusion that the only sort of show that would work in that venue would be a play about environmentalism and the issues that cycling brings up. It has developed into a zero-carbon-footprint production!
What do you plan to do with the venue?
We didn’t want to use a conventional theatre space because we wanted our location lighting to be environmentally friendly. Using a normal theatre venue, but then not using the lighting rig, would seem like a waste. We also want the stage to be in traverse with seats and sofas that are already in the venue. Hopefully, when people come in and sit down it will feel very different to entering a conventional theatre with rigged, raked traverse seating. We really want to encourage people who would not normally go to the theatre to come and see the show.
Can you tell us about the venue you will be using?
We are using the gallery of Makespace Oxford. It is basically an organisation that turns empty and unused buildings into affordable spaces to hire for environmental and social justice organisations. They are currently housing about 15–20 incredible organisations in this building right by the canal in Jericho. I first got in contact with them just because I walked past it and loved the building! The atmosphere and space really fits with what we want to do. One of their founding partners is the CAG project which is the hub for about 60 environmental groups across Oxfordshire. They also house SHARE Oxford, a library of things which you can borrow instead of buying new, which is something we are trying to do with the play. It is really nice to work in a space where you don’t even have to debate the ethos. It’s a collaborative space that really feeds into the sense of group unity we want to foster throughout the play.
Do you think site-specific theatre is more accessible than other traditional theatre spaces?
There’s a danger of site-specific theatre being less accessible because it can be less easy to grasp what it is. You have to be comfortable enough to know that it might not be what you expect. For example, I think shows like Punchdrunk’s Kaberiroi last year – which was just for two audience members who were led on a tour across London – can be quite alienating for people who aren’t really interested in theatre. Equally, that is the good thing about site-specific performance: it can blur the boundaries of what is real and what is not and challenges the conventions of what theatre should be. We hope that our play will do the latter – hopefully challenging some of the formality of the audience’s role which is usually associated with theatre.
It is also important to remember that in site-specific theatre, the venue becomes probably the most important visual part of the play. In some ways, the venue is just as important as what goes on in the play. The site can imbue the play with a lot of meaning that you’re not even sure about until you actually do it.
How do you want the audience to feel when they enter the space?
As relaxed as they possibly can. I want them to feel like it’s a space where, if they wanted to, they could turn to their neighbour and say something. I want the space to be as important as the play and be a place where people can feel empowered as part of a group to bring change – maybe people will even exchange Facebook details!
Would you call this political theatre?
Definitely not. The main premise we started with was that we wanted it to be optimistic, which makes it slightly less about politics, and more about people. What it is not is a lecture. A lecture can give you all the facts, but theatre can give you solutions by giving you a world that shows you a hope for the future.
If you want to find out more about MakespaceOxfordtake a look at their website http://makespaceoxford.org/. How to Save a Rock with a Circle will be playing 6th, 7th, 9thNovember 2018.