Now, more than ever it’s time to reflect and think objectively about the planet and the effect we have not only on each other, but other living beings. Artistic Director of Wild Geese Theatre, Andrew Baker writes here about the 8-week project they are undertaking to address the ways in which young people feel about climate change.

The world is becoming an increasingly scary place. I write this with one eye on the COVID-19 developments, hoping I still have a job come Monday morning. But, however frightening this day and age is for us, we have a responsibility to address the emotional needs of a far more important and vulnerable group: young people.

Young people digest more unfiltered information than ever before. They have access to more of this world than we ever did, and this raises some complex and immediate issues. No longer is it enough to deem a subject ‘inappropriate’ for a certain age group, or pretend it doesn’t exist yet, because we no longer have that same control over what young people engage with online. So, we have to change the game.

For the past 6 years, we have been making theatre for young audiences with this specific agenda in mind. We create work that cultivates young people’s emotional intelligence, their decision-making and reasoning skills, and provide a safe place to have their voices heard. Most of this work is done in primary schools, using works of fiction to approach complex issues. And it works.

We’ve got to a stage where, particularly within education, certain emotions are branded as unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to be angry at school. It’s unacceptable to be frightened. Or depressed. Or manic. Or resentful. These emotions are met with some version of the same command – “stop” – which is having a terrible effect on young people’s well-being.

That’s where we can make a difference. Theatre-makers prize the very thing that young people are being forced to control about themselves: strong emotional responses. By engaging young people in theatre that is immersive and interactive, we provide them a safe place to express those emotions without judgement.

This year, Wild Geese Theatre Company are working on an 8-week project in association with The London Climate Change Festival and developed by Caroline Hickman, Psychotherapist, member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, and Fellow at Bath University.The project allows us to bring our style of TYA into the conversation and, more importantly, it gives us a platform to address the anxiety, confusion, anger and fear that young people are associating with climate change.

These children are all aged between 5-11 years old. They are very young. Climate Change is a colossal subject. So, here’s how we approach it.

BBC Newsround, with Savanta-ComRes, conducted a surveyof 2,000 8-16 year olds this year:

4 in 5 young people said that the issue of climate change is important to them.

3 in 4 young people worry about the state of the planet right now.

3 in 5 young people worry about the effect climate change will have on their lives.

1 in 5 young people are having nightmares about climate change.

We realised that our work has to validate these concerns and give young people a chance to have their say.

Firstly, we create a degree of separation between the subject matter and the children. This is where our skills as storytellers comes into play. We’ve written a short story, Fiona & The Fox, which addresses some important issues surrounding urban environments and rewilding. The children are encouraged to put themselves in Fiona’s shoes, predicting her next move and imagining how she’s feeling. This provides a prism through which the children can express their own thoughts and opinions, without feeling exposed. Later in the workshop, the participants devise their own responses, this time from the point of view of different animals affected by global warming. Again, we have the prism. The protective barrier. “It’s the whale talking, not me.”

Secondly, we focus on age-appropriate behaviours. In Fiona & The Fox we show the participants some small changes they can make at home. We’ve curated a short list of behaviours that empower young people and make them feel less helpless.

Thirdly, we validate the full range of emotional responses. A big task. How do you go about telling kids that it’s ok to be angry, or sad, or scared? Well, the answer lies partially in the bigger picture. We start our devising session with a game where children play with abstract emotions, avoiding any serious context, easing them in and opening doors.

Finally, we’re honest about how it makes us feel too. This is crucial. We have to lead by example. We have to be brave and say, “It’s ok to be scared. I’m scared too. But, here’s the good news…” 

The most important thing to us is that we try. We try and use the skills we have to help. It’s hard for people in our profession to quantify the ‘help’ we give others. Yet, the skills we have can help unlock huge potential in young people, and go some way to help shout through the silence surrounding complex emotions and self-expression. 

Find out more by visiting the Wild Geese Theatre Company and London Climate Change Festival websites.