In Liverpool a group of young people aged 16-22 are working on a play with a massive claim; The Environmentalists is the UK’s first carbon neutral play. How this is possible is one of the first questions I ask Matt Rutter, one of the directors, when I speak to him. When he adds the word “hopefully” to that claim I breathe a sigh of relief. Nowhere in his attitude is there a sense of worthiness, of ‘we’re doing this, why isn’t everyone else?’ Rutter and the young people he’s working with at Young Everyman Playhouse (YEP) are fully aware that if the show sounds “preachy” it will fail.
The show grew out of last year’s YEP play Until They Kick Us Out, a piece about our political system through the eyes of young people. The environment was touched on, and it was a topic that stood out as something the young people wanted to explore further. There was, he explains, “a feeling from a lot of them that when you talk about the environment you’re clobbered with the environment stick […] where you get told off. They were saying ‘that doesn’t really engage us, so how can we fix that?’” Work started in September with groups researching, devising and improvising material that Rutter and his co-director Chris Tomlinson would pull together to “shape into a piece”.
Does Rutter believe audiences will be more inclined to listen to the content of the show with it coming from young people? The answer is a very definite “Yes”. For him this is key to the show and an aspect they are “not naive to”, as a father himself he is aware of the power “seeing a son or daughter on stage talking about that [climate change]” will hold.
The show is, in Rutter’s words, “a big choral shindig” that contains a bit of everything from movement, to comedy, to more serious “heart-wrenching stuff”. He is particularly excited about a “lovely scene of an American motivational speaker who comes quite early on with a massive panic button and he basically says to the audience ‘we want you to panic. That’s why we’re here’”. This button remains at the front of the stage throughout the show, the idea being that “if at any point during the play the audience do feel something, or connect, or panic, they can press this button and it basically stops the play. Everyone has a little bit of a panic for 30 seconds and then re-set, go again.”
This idea was driven by the observation that when we do consider the environment we feel there’s no sense in us panicking about it, because what can we as individuals do? The show addresses this view, and a song called ‘Just Do it Anyway’ strikes at its core message that we need to act now. One of the main set-ups at the start of the show is to say, “if it is happening, if the environment is in trouble, we should do something about it. If it isn’t and we can do stuff anyway, why wouldn’t’t you do it anyway? Just as a little bit of a back up, just in case global warming is real! Because […] there’s no plan B.” As he says this he’s laughing and I wonder if it’s this balance between an awareness of the seriousness of the situation, and a sense of humour, that makes the show stand a chance of making a difference.
So how is this “hopefully” the UK’s first carbon neutral play? Throughout the making process the company have been working with Julie’s Bicycle to track the amount of carbon they’ve been using. During show week the plan is to offset this carbon through donations from the audience. They’re asking audience members to pledge carbon by changing their behaviour for this week, for example by cycling to work instead of driving. Help will be provided by a walking bus for audiences to walk to the show together, and a deal with the City Bike scheme where people can hire a bike for £1 a day. As a back up option they can also donate money to plant trees, which will offset quite a bit of carbon. Rutter and the team, however, “ hope we can do it without that, because it’s about making change happen rather than just throwing some money at it”. The production uses found and recycled items for the set and costume, and these will be recycled after the production ends. Rutter also proudly states the grand total of three printed posters the show has, the rest of the publicity is all online.
Rutter thinks it “would be lovely if it [the show] changed a few things inside the building, and a few things outside of it”. He hopes that by showing the money saved during show week some of the changes taken on by the Everyman Playhouse can be adopted full time, and cites the change inspired at the Young Vic in London after their sustainable production of After Miss Julie in 2012 as inspiration. As for the audience, each person will be given a little pot containing compost and a seed at the end of the show. “Hopefully this will keep the show in their head” as they grow it. Another “little hope” for Rutter is that this issue becomes “something one or two of the young people really passionately care about, and run with and do something about”. Considering last year’s production led to one of the members standing for national election, I’d say the chances are pretty high.
For Rutter the role of the arts in scientific issues like climate change is to make the science accessible, to help people realise things they hadn’t before. We can only hope that The Environmentalists does this because, in Rutter’s words, the issue of climate change “feels like it’s getting a bit urgent”.