3rd Ring Out: The Research Context

Contents

Introduction

3rd Ring Out was conceptualised and executed as a practice-led research project, by Dr. Zoë Svendsen, under the auspices of a Research Fellowship in Drama and Performance affiliated to the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge. The research was further supported by the National Theatre Studio, the research and development arm of the London’s National Theatre. The lead academic on the project was Zoë Svendsen, and the performances were produced by her performing arts company METIS. The primary artistic collaborator on the project was artist and set designer, Simon Daw, with sound designer Carolyn Downing, and a network of creative assistants and performers, who all contributed to the development and/or delivery of the performances. This essay outlines the research context for the project, elucidating the following: the research questions; methodological process; and conclusions drawn. The project was subject to peer-review appropriate to the practice-led process.

The project resulted in a performance that toured the UK in 2010 and 2011, and has been the subject of numerous academic conference papers, citations in academic journals, public talks, and policy consultations since. In addition, a bespoke website was created which documented the different stages of the project, gave access to the voting results of each performance and explored the actual climate change scenarios that had informed the creation of the form and content of the work. The following essay articulates and contextualises the project in its capacity as research; however, it should not be read as replacing or substituting for the embodied research-as-practice, which was the primary outcome of the project, as expressed in performances that took place in professional theatre contexts.

For a summary of the performance content and structure please see the bespoke 3rd Ring Out website. A more detailed description follows below, in the section entitled ‘performance’.

What is the requirement, then, for an essay such as this? Firstly, it acts as a document – it approaches something archival, something that can be returned to, while the performances are not of this order of reference. A video of extracts from the performance offers an indication of how the performances looked – but since at the heart of the performance was the possibility of changing certain outcomes,  how the performance ‘looked’ is an inadequate indicator of what the performance felt like. It is a cliché to valorize the live, but in this work, without claiming a faux spontaneity to what was a highly organised performance, it can nevertheless genuinely be said that no two performances were the same.[1]  The direct experience of the performance formed an important part of our research, in that we sought to create a individual, spatially-specific relationship to the staged simulation for every audience member – especially through the use of personal headphones, and a place at the table with a personal drawer and particular responsibilities shared only with some other members of the audience. This cannot be represented in video documentation, because we cannot replicate in totality the physical positioning of the audience and the multiple tasks they had to perform in the simulation. Secondly, the essay articulates the relationship between the genesis, rehearsal and performances of the project in a way that the performances themselves cannot. In this it supplements the primary research outcome. Thirdly, the essay offers the context of the project as being one of research, which was not an aspect that we made widely public in the course of presenting the performances. We decided that the performances should exist alongside other performances within the same context of the professional theatre and performing arts scene, and be experienced by audiences as such. This allowed us to understand audience responses clearly as responses to the artistic dimension, rather than as subjects of research – again, to avoid being drawn towards the ‘scientific’ model for research analysis: the performances being the expression of the research within an arts context, rather than the site of an experimental set-up for testing of a thesis.[2]

Practice-led research of this kind in the performing arts is an established field, with a wide variety of modes of expression within and without the academy.[3] Baz Kershaw traces its genealogy back to ‘at least’ the 1960s, linking it to a wider turn to practice in disciplines across the academy ‘from philosophy through science and technology to cultural studies’.[4]

As a research project, 3rd Ring Out plays out an unusually close fit between the concerns of the project and the form in which it is expressed – just as the methodology has practice at its heart, so the project itself investigates the notion of ‘practising’ as a mode of artistic response to the human challenge of recognising and responding to climate change. As a method for research, and a method for responding to climate change, practising (in both senses of doing, and rehearsing) offers a means of generating embodied knowledge – that is, knowledge ‘how’, rather than knowledge ‘that’. This knowledge can be equated with the practical discoveries made by following a route through a topic, rather than mapping from above, as Michel de Certeau so evocatively delineated in The Practice of Everyday Life.[5]

The Research Question

The performance research that comprised 3rd Ring Out emerged out of a previous practice-led research project, The Bunker Project which explored the relationship between theatricality and Cold War exercises. In the course of that project a new academic work was published which refocused our engagement with the topic –  through describing Cold War exercises as ‘rehearsals’  Tracy C Davis’ Stages of Emergency [6] gave a vivid and helpful conceptual paradigm.  It was then this concept of ‘rehearsal’ that formed the core research focus of 3rd Ring Out. The thesis of the research began to emerge: what does it mean to ‘rehearse’ for something? As theatre makers we were intrigued to discover the wide-spread contemporary use of fictional scenarios to train those who are charged with managing threats to human welfare – from Emergency Service category one responders, through the environment agency, to anti-terrorist special units. What would it mean to ‘rehearse’ in this way within a theatrical context? Does the embedded nature of rehearsal as a commonplace in theatre detract from or allow such a move? How would this matter for the creation and execution of plausible scenarios in a cultural activity that is conceived of – largely – as a leisure pursuit for those that come to witness it?

We began to seek a topic that we might ‘rehearse’ for; based on the idea that practising for something might be a legitimate way of preparing for, and dealing with, a significant threat. In August 2007, Simon Daw and I participated in an anti-terrorism exercise organised by the police in conjunction with the local city council in Cambridge. In the course of a morning, we, alongside around fifty shop-managers and other city centre workers, were invited to imagine how we would respond to the scenario of a terrorist bomb in the shopping centre in which we worked. The scenario was uncomfortably vague, and taught us much about the importance of situational specificity. It really seemed that the discipline of theatrical production might have something to offer this world of scenario-based training.[7]

If an origin to the final project can be identified, it was due to a highly personal experience in a field in Kent somewhere near Kingsnorth Power Station, in the summer of 2008, at the Camp for Climate Action. I had made my way past the security cordons, and then over the many hay bales placed by activists that were designed to slow any unexpected police intrusions. I was only able to be there for a day, and had come specifically to participate in some workshops, and hear some talks, about climate change. For climate change, it seemed from my superficial understanding, might be the plausible future threat we were seeking to anchor the project. In the midst of my frustration by the way that the noise of the police helicopters made it hard to hear the speakers I’d come for, I had a deeply troubling epiphany. Climate change was not the remote, incrementally developing, long-term future problem I’d imagined from my understanding of the mainstream news of 2008. It was much more immediate, the risks were much greater, and the potential outcomes far worse than I had realised.

The anecdote is worth recounting, for it is key to the position we took in relation to the research, with a significant impact on our methodology. Our practice-led research would create a project that was aimed at people like us: people who might take an interest, but weren’t already actively engaged with the problem of climate change. Despite our alarm at the discrepancy between what was believed by the majority and the far worse scenarios that the science indicated would be the result of ‘business as usual’, we decided that 3rd Ring Out should not blur activism and artistic endeavour. Equally, it would not seek to provide a message about what to do in response to climate change. There were already many established organisations better equipped for activism or education. Instead our research resulted in the idea that a threat might be addressed by practising for it. The challenge of offering an artistic response to climate change could thus be met through notions of practising. Our thesis was that by ‘practising’ for climate change, we might find a new – and artistically adequate – way of addressing the problem.

The Cultural Context

The unique nature of the performance research was recognised by two awards: an award for research and development as one of two finalist companies for the Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award 2010, which promotes projects with innovative artistic forms; and a commission award from TippingPoint, 2009, an organisation created to bring together artists and scientists to discuss, share responses to, and find efficacious ways of mediating, climate change. 3rd Ring Out won one of the four inaugural awards (from almost 200 applications), providing leverage to attract further funding, and also bringing us into contact with climate scientists and other academics studying the social and cultural impacts of climate change. Angela McSherry and Peter Gingold set up the TippingPoint commission award in 2009 in response to their perception that there was a paucity of works in the theatre and performing arts that were addressing the problem of climate change.[8]

The challenge to the performing arts was clear. At first sight, the theatre and the topic of climate change make uneasy bedfellows. Drama requires action, placing the human at the centre, and suggesting that people are capable of action to create change.[9] That is, there is a close, and traceable, relationship between cause and effect. The relationship between the causes and effects of climate change are so complex, that whilst the science that supports the claim that carbon emissions cause climate change is relatively simple, demonstrating the precise relationship between rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and any given climate event is extremely complex, and full of uncertainty. Nor does the scale feel particularly human. The link between an apparently ordinary act of eating meat or driving a car, and floods on the other side of the world, is not only difficult to trace scientifically, it is difficult to represent through theatre: a medium that invites close scrutiny of the observable effects of individual instances of human behaviour on other human beings.

Nevertheless, as Mike Hulme so clearly articulates in his preface to Why We Disagree About Climate Change, due to the implications for the future of humanity, discussion of climate change has become a nexus for conflict over fundamental value systems:

‘Although the controversy is allegedly about science, very often scientific disputes about climate change end up being a proxy for much deeper conflicts between alternative visions of the future and competing centres of authority in society.’[10]

Whilst then the scale of climate change, and the relationship to widely varying scientific scenarios makes approaching the topic daunting, its relationship to the essential question of ‘how do we want to live?’ ought to make it fertile material for scrutiny by artists and theatre makers.

Performance works have addressed this challenge through a variety of modes. At the time of starting the research in 2008/9, climate change was regularly discussed in terms of ‘belief’ – various polls examining whether or not people ‘believed’ in climate change. A focus on such controversies facilitated the representation of climate change at a more ‘human’ scale, as evinced in Richard Bean’s play, The Heretic. But focussing on the question of belief seemed to us to bypass the actual issue of what might happen, and how, altogether. There’s the possibility of taking the ‘verbatim’ route: which director Katie Mitchell has taken one step further by inviting the academic she was consulting for her project, Ten Billion, to perform it himself. There’s a docu-drama approach, which was the National Theatre’s framework for commissioning Greenland, a research-based medley of scenarios by different writers, held only loosely together in acknowledgement of the complexity of the topic. Most successful, we felt from our 2009 research, as we were conceiving the project, was Steve Water’s play, The Contingency Plan. It mimicked the form of a double bill, by delineating the events of a single evening twice over, filtering them through two different genres set in different locations – the first as tragedy, the second as farce (with argumentative shades of Bernard Shaw).

3rd Ring Out set out expressly, then, to meet the challenge of responding to climate change through performance. The cultural context for the work supported our perception that the key to creating an effective performance work, adequate to the enormous complexity of the subject-matter, was not only to address it as a topic, in terms of content – but that its form would be critical.

Methodology

The research followed established forms of research process within an arts and humanities context. It expressly avoided the fallacy of trying to emulate a scientific model, which would have required ‘testing’ audience responses and then seeking a forms of quantitative and qualitative analysis to understand them. Rather, the research focused on the form and process by which we created performance. The project drew on a vast and interdisciplinary myriad of engagements with climate change, from the academic – encompassing social science, biology, physics, media studies, psychology (social and experimental), theatre studies – to the practical, through discussion with environmental officers and emergency planners on City Councils across the UK (in particular in Cambridge, Norwich, the London Borough of Islington and Newcastle). Climate change offers a bewildering variety of topics for engagement, each complex and with an array of possible consequences. However, it was the interlinked nature of the wide variety of potential effects that captured our attention – that and the question: what would be human impact be? It was this that felt most appropriate to an investigation through performance research. Our findings were thus expressed in the form of performance, entitled 3rd Ring Out: Rehearsing the Future.

Throughout the project we continued to make changes to both the form and content of the performances, in response to conversations with audience members and other participants. These ranged from the responses of students at Flegg High School in Norfolk, with whom we tried a ‘paper’ version of our scenario before the start of full rehearsals, in early 2010; through to audiences in the first year of touring, with whom we had frequent contact, largely through informal conversation at the end of performances. The intensity of a desire for discussion that the project unleashed in its audiences led directly to our development of a ‘strategy’ cell in the second year of touring in 2011, to enable us to extend and deepen that engagement with the audience. Responding to the alacrity with which audiences participated in making suggestions for alternative futures for their city in Watford in 2011, for the Edinburgh stage of performances, we invited local artists to imagine how such alternative futures might look, and what the consequences might be. These were then archived on the 3rd Ring Out website. Although for the purposes of reporting to the Arts Council, one of our main funding bodies, we did invite written responses through feedback forms, we kept to an established template familiar to audiences, which invited aesthetic response, rather than focusing on climate change. There was some pressure from organisations engaged with climate change activism for us to demonstrate whether our project was efficacious in changing peoples’ minds about climate change through capturing their attitudes. However, methodologically, this would have been a fallacious and problematic direction for the project, disabling the artistic research by giving the audience the impression that we had intended to teach them or change them – placing us in the context of activism or education, rather than art.

Methodologically, we developed a symbiotic process that moved between climate research and exploring performance ideas through conversation, improvisation, rehearsal and workshops with external participants/audiences. This process continued throughout the tours of performances. In 2010, we researched the climate issues for each location we visited, and then rewrote, re-rehearsed, created new images and re-made the digital technology to adapt our performance template so that it would specifically address climate projections local to the area. In 2011 we created a single scenario, amalgamating the most effective elements of the five different 2010 scenarios. Our continuous reworking of the performances throughout the 2011 tour focused more on developing the ‘strategy’ cell. The method thus applied to a cultural problem was drawn from my academic training as a critical reader of text, with at its core the conception of paying close attention to every element. Drawing together the varying – but interlinked – scientific projections and translating them for efficacious use within the performance scenario involved a year of complex mapping of relationships between different kinds of events, consultation with climate experts and then the exploration of the potential cultural and social impacts.

If the heart of the project was the idea of practising for climate change, the pragmatics of realising the project largely revolved around what our scenario should offer audiences to be ‘practised’. What kinds of event would allow us to consider the complex social, ethical and, indeed, economic questions that arise as a consequence of brutal – and sometimes brutally sudden – changes to our climate? The form of the mediation of these events – ‘practising’ – provided the parameters for our decisions about what kinds of climate crisis to include in our scenario. The key qualities that we identified in Cold War and other emergency exercises formed these parameters. These were:

  1. That commitment to the exercise need not imply commitment to a belief in the scenario it explored, de-coupling the subject-matter from arguments around belief or politics
  2. Plausibility – that those participating in the exercise should be able to regard the choices they were being asked to make as legitimate and possible
  3. That the basic tenets of an improvisation exercise for an actor also applied to those who participated in our project: in order to enable them to feel capable of making a choice that would change the course of the action, they would – just as an actor playing a ‘character’ in a traditional drama would – at the minimum need to know who they were, where they were, how long they had to respond, and what the immediate history to the situation was (known often in drama as ‘back story’)
  4. That the choices should carry equal weight, and not seem in any way skewed towards a positive or negative outcome
  5. That we were practising, not offering a game to be played – that is, one couldn’t return to the beginning and do it again – or ‘get it right’
  6. Action, not emotion, should be the driver of the event – the question at the centre being not: ‘how do you feel? But ‘what should you do?’

Dramatic quality was also an important consideration: the extremes of the spectrum of climate change projections, with incremental change at one end, and apocalyptic disaster at the other, did not provide the quality of experience that we were seeking to share, for neither allowed for perceivable reaction. Not only is action, as outlined above, at the heart of audiences’ experience a work as ‘dramatic’, but also formed the core of the eventual politics of the project: that if there was any risk at all of the kinds of scenarios that we were researching arising in real life, then we should genuinely start to consider what kinds of response are available to us – and what kind of world we might find ourselves living in as a result. ‘Practising’, therefore, in the safe environment of a theatrical fiction might genuinely be a way of starting on the journey of rehearsing our responses to this future threat – a threat that has only become clearer, nearer, and more menacing since the project began.

The Performance

The output of the research took the form of a multi-media scenario-building 
performance which lasted approximately one hour. It asked ethical questions through together
 splicing recognisable images of the city with
 projections of possibility. Using a digital system that utilized an adapted version of Isadora software, the audience voted to 
decide how to respond to a narrative-based scenario of future climate crisis in their locality. The fictional scenario, set in the future, explored probable consequences of climate change. It used scientific models currently available to imagine how the world might alter, and what impact this might have on the city in which the performance took place. Audience members were invited to take responsibility for a ‘sector’ of the UK, as de facto emergency planners. Nevertheless, they were never asked to believe that the scenario was actually taking place – the scenario of future climate crisis was described by the performers in their introduction as a ‘simulation’. The project was explicit in referencing the idea of practising or rehearsal: creating a deliberate meta-layer to the production, imbuing the delineation of crisis with the purposefulness of ‘practising’.

I first describe here the 2010 performances; followed by a discussion of the changes made to the performance for the 2011 iteration. Twelve audience members would enter a bright orange shipping container kitted out in the form of an emergency planning cell. The interior was surprisingly spacious. The space had a long table down the centre with a map of the area for which audience members were to take responsibility in the simulation. At the approximate centre of this map was the actual location of the containers in which the performance took place. The audience sat at the table and were invited to wear headphones; in front of each audience member was a voting console, with three buttons on it. Projections onto the table, and onto a screen at one end mediated a ‘simulation’ composed of video and textual elements, whilst an immersive soundscape mixed the live voices of the live performers with pre-recorded voices, played through a variety of types of speakers in the container itself, as well as through headphones, to allow for a spatial realism to the sonic structure of the simulation. The audio-visual dimension of the performance was controlled by Isadora software, which also automatically routed the simulation down different pathways, depending on the majority vote of the audience. In the confined space we made use of sound
effects, temperature and light to subtly alter
audience perceptions. At one point a live video
feed enabled interaction between the two
containers. On re-emerging from the container, 
the aim was that the confrontation with daylight, and everything just as it was an hour ago, would produce a sense of the fragility of our man-made environment, a realisation that what we take for granted could disappear. The idea was to use the scenario we developed to ask a series of questions about how the audience would respond in an emergency – ethically as well as practically. The voting was designed so as to be as private or as public as the audience wished; this was a rehearsal for democratic governance rather than a team-building exercise. The digital voting further enabled us to capture the vote of every audience member – enabling an online comparison of the choices made between performances and locations. In the second year, we developed this online interface, enabling comparison by age and gender, as well as location/date and time of performance.

The theme offered an interlinked web of potential crises – a heat wave, water and food shortages, civil unrest and flooding – with far-reaching geopolitical consequences such as mass migration and competition for resources. In this way, we were able to make the local and global intersect, creating a dramatic situation for exploration in an immersive performance context. In 2010, the project was created on a dramaturgical template that was reimagined for each new performance location, in order that the scenario should be local to the place in which the performance took place. The scenario was adapted to accommodate local climate threats, as well as reference to geographic and cultural icons familiar to those living in the city. In this, it also explored a politics of place. In 2011, the project underwent an extensive reconfiguration, based our experience of touring it in 2010. In 2010, the recreation of the project for each place had important effects in terms of bringing climate change close to audiences’ own lived experience. Pragmatically however, the levels of funding required for such a bespoke performance for small audiences, were no longer available (between 2010 and 2011, a new UK government, and a new economic policy, had already begun to impact on the arts sector, particularly in terms of perceptions of risk and return on investment). In the interests of further development and dissemination of the project, in early 2011, with the support of the National Theatre Studio, we set out to create an ‘ideal’ version of the scenario that would not need local adaptation. For this we chose the Suffolk coastline, which offered fertile possibilities for future climate impacts that would have local, national, and even international effects. Research into previous climate events in the region, as well as discussion with local contacts introduced to us by Bill Parker, Coastal Management, 
Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils, shaped our scenario. This encompassed considerations of many aspects: heatwave-induced scrub fires; agricultural failure due to drought in a region that grows a majority of the UK’s potatoes; isolation of the vulnerable, in particular the elderly, in rural locations; the use of the port of Lowestoft for the disembarkation of climate refugees from elsewhere in the world; and a low-lying coastline where the encroaching water is exacerbated by sea-level rises and vulnerablility to tidal and storm surges. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in March 2011, due to an earthquake followed by a tsunami, sharpened focus on the position of the coastal Sizewell Nuclear Power Station in our selected segment of the UK. The politics of responsiveness to locality were not however abandoned: rather than running performances in both containers, we reconceptualised our bespoke spaces as the Emergency Cell and the Strategy Cell. Whilst the Emergency Cell rehearsed for climate crisis, using the most fully developed scenario we had yet imagined, the Strategy Cell plotted alternative futures for the locality, channeling audiences’ desire for post-performance discussion, and enabling the project to continue to explore a politics of place.

Reflection

The discoveries made in the course of the research were many, and often interdisciplinary in quality. The efficacy of our aim to address climate change through artistic means through the form of practising, can be judged in a number of ways, both public and private. These include: Award nominations, reviews in social, web-based and more traditional mainstream media, further funding and support from the National Theatre Studio for a second year of (reworked) performances in 2011, and the impact the project continues to have through its dissemination in academic and non-academic contexts. Moreover, together, they offer an account of the complex and enthusiastic public engagement with the project.

Outlined below are some practice-orientated observations made in the course of the creation and production of the performances that influenced the artistic development of the project – and which not only represent our new understanding of the challenges of responding artistically to climate change, but will influence the future artistic practice of the collaborators on the project.

CONVERSATION

The most significant, and largely unexpected, form of response to the project – and one which profoundly affected how we further developed the project once it was in performance – was the extent to which members of the audience wanted to remain after the performance and discuss their experience of it. We had not been prepared for the extent to which audiences would wish to share their experiences – an example is indicated by Wallace Heim’s response, recorded in a comment on the Ashdenizen blog, where she introduces the scenarios we explored to friends who hadn’t seen the performance. We responded to this engagement through creating the Strategy Cell in 2011. We also altered aspects of the simulation itself. We discovered that audiences were happier to discuss how to respond to the scenario during the simulation if the ‘team-leaders’ (ie the performers) were absent. In 2010, three-quarters of the way through the performance, we staged an implied technological breakdown due to a storm. The team-leaders encouraged discussion of how to respond to the storm threat, asking the audience to move the icons (police, fire engines, ambulances, and so on) in their drawers to positions on the map where they should be deployed. Sometimes this resulted in enthused discussion that significantly extended the running time of the performance. Other times, awkwardness due to reluctance to participate overwhelmed the moment.

AUTHORITY

In 2011, keen to ensure that the experience of the audience was always the latter rather than the former, we redeveloped the storm sequence, based on discussion and observation of situations where strangers struck up conversations with one another. We realised that key to these conversations was the absence of an authority figure: eg when an announcement on a train is made), or when a teacher or workshop leader sets a task, and then leaves the group to respond. Rather than exiting the containers at the end of the storm sequence, the teamleaders exited at the beginning, leaving the audience to talk among themselves – who, due to the performed ‘technical breakdown’, were no longer wearing headphones. Evoking Cold War exercises, some audience members were given envelopes with instructions for what to do next, which they were invited to read out. How they carried out the tasks was left to the audience to decide, although they were invited to feedback on their choices by phoning through to the other container.

RESPONSIBILITY

This amendment to the performance strengthened the structural relation to responsibility for climate change that we had built into the dramaturgy of the 2010 performances. In 2010 and 2011, the performance started with ‘safety’ instructions from the voice of the computer, an authoritative, distanced RP male voice (see video, at 0:28 mins). The authority figure was implied to be the computer itself, since the performer – the ‘team-leader’ also had to obey its instructions. In the course of the simulation, the team-leader’s authority, in their delivery of the simulation, took over from the computer. With the exit of the team-leader, the responsibility of dealing with climate change was handed over to the audience itself (in one – but just one – performance, an audience member exited the container behind the team-leader, saying – ‘I’m not staying here on my own!’). By leaving the audience alone for longer, whilst inviting them to take charge of the situation for themselves, we implicitly emphasised their personal responsibility for action.

INFORMATION

‘There’s never enough time, and there’s never enough information’: the team-leader’s repetition of this phrase was designed to remind audiences that there is never a real-life situation in which you can make a completely rational, informed decision – and that not to make a decision is also a decision in a crisis. We honed the ratio between time allowed and information until it was remarkably effective, perhaps because we were conscious to take the pressure of people having to ‘know’ everything. Unlike the participants in the anti-terrorism scenario we participated in in 2007 (detailed in the section The Research Question), we provided the ingredients required to make a decision. As discrete pieces of information, relating to place, urgency, context, finances and so on, it was left to the audience to amalgamate them to form an image of the situation. This form of structuring narrative was designed with the idea of focussing on the action of making a decision-making. We discovered it also allowed a wide spectrum of responses to the simulation itself in terms of perceptions of realism, or the extent to which it appeared apocalyptic. Some audience members reported being terrified, others surprise at how safe the situation seemed. Some became completely immersed in the fictional scenario, whilst others retained throughout the sense of ‘practising’, with their experience and enjoyment shaped by their observations of other members of the audience. Within the limited space for manoeuvre (literal and figurative), audience members observed each other overtly pressing a voting button to demonstrate their view, or covering the buttons with one hand to hide their vote; partners were seen to tell each other how to vote, and disapproval, surprise or pleasure at the voting result was regularly expressed, either through body language or (generally) non-verbal but audible comment.

PARTICIPATION

The project wasn’t conceived of or executed as ‘participatory’ as an aesthetic objective. Nevertheless ‘interactive’ elements of the performance – individual voting, being invited to place icons on the map, and the potential offered at the end for conversation – would suggest 3rd Ring Out might considered within the emergent sphere of what is now widely defined as ‘interactive’ or ‘immersive’ theatre. The interaction offered by the voting system as a component of the audience experience was developed as an expression of the idea of practising – of ‘casting’ audiences as actors (actors, that is, in the sense of deciding on courses of action). Over the course of the performances, we adapted the project to enable greater levels of discussion (through the Strategy Cell, and the redevelopment of the final storm sequence), but resisted the suggestion that we should allow audiences to discuss voting strategy. There were a number of reasons for this:

  • We wished to retain dramaturgical control, as the central purpose of the project was to address climate change by offering an immersive scenario, and therefore
  • We did not want the performance to be hijacked by an audience member with strong opinions, who would dominate the experience for others
  • We wanted the piece to be accessible not only for veterans of interactive performances, but also to those who might prefer a more private aesthetic/emotional experience
  • We did not feel it was our role to make anyone feel under obligation to express their opinions on climate change in public, although we wanted to encourage audiences to reflect on their beliefs (taking our cue from Brechtian politics)
  • We wanted to avoid group think, or polite (unreal) consensus produced by the performance situation rather than peoples’ personal convictions
  • Most importantly – as it became a significant outcome to the research – we enjoyed the discovery that private voting had all sorts of implications for perceptions of community (see below)

Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that the context of performance in theatre festivals, in which over the two years there have been increasing numbers of game-based participatory works, presented 3rd Ring Out with a challenge in terms of managing audience expectations. It was one of many performances in Edinburgh 2011 that deployed social relations to achieve its effects – notable examples include Ontroerend Goed’s The Audience (Belgium), Hide and Seek’s Hinterland (UK), and bluemouth inc’s Dance Marathon (Canada). However, the key difference between these events/performances and 3rd Ring Out, was that in 3rd Ring Out, the immediate sphere of social relations within the performance itself, whilst playing a role in the achievement of the performance’s effects, was not the direct topic of the performance. In fact, the production worked from the premise of the apparently relational towards an immersion in a fictional scenario that was represented another world and was dramaturgically driven by the temporal rhythms of a pre-arranged structure, rather than by the responses of audience members themselves.

FRUSTRATION

The system of voting without previously achieving consensus through discussion accumulatively produced the desire for discussion or interaction – and the strong feelings provoked by the questions to be voted on were not given outlet until the end of the performance. Some audience members queried why they weren’t allowed to discuss the voting. Without being able to ‘measure’ the phenomenon directly, observation on the part of those involved in the project suggests that requiring the audience to discuss questions of climate change as part of the structure of the performance would not have yielded the satisfying social engagement with other audience members that was sought. Within a performance structure, the invitation for audiences to speak, or act, has an ethical dimension, as it always juxtaposes the trained performer who knows how the performance will play out, with the untrained audience member who does not. This is partly the pleasure (and embarrassment) of watching or being the ‘volunteer’ up on stage. This form felt inappropriate to a work exploring a topic that provokes such volatile, heated and extreme responses.

But as well as an ethical consideration for the position of the audience member who wished to experience the performance without directly participating, there was a politics to the production of frustration through the limitation of interaction. Democracy, produced through a voting system, is frustrating. You don’t always get what you vote for. The limitation therefore both provoked audiences to engage in extensive discussions once outside the performance (achieving an important ambition for the work) and offered a reflection on the relationship – and difference – between the production of consensus and democracy.

ACTION / EFFICACY

Although the computer calculates the voting outcome instantly, we discovered that in order for the audience to believe that their action of pressing a button was having an effect, we had to give the impression of the computer calculating in human time (see video, at 3:27 mins). At the crux of the idea of ‘practising’ is the idea of focusing on an action rather than emotion. Emerging from our readings of Cold War exercises, we sought to structure the performance through inviting audiences to consider how they would act, not how they would feel. This relates to our perception (and experience) of how increasing knowledge of the horrific impacts on human life that climate change will have induces a kind of traumatised paralysis, akin to what psychologists (borrowing a term from theatre) call ‘scriptlessness’. This indicates loss of a programme for action that they call an ‘event schema’.[11] Procedure provides a basic script – even if the contingencies of the moment require improvisation. The activities we are invited to rehearse in everyday life, in response to climate change, such as recycling, appear entirely insignificant in the face of the global, epic nature of what scientists suggest is happening to the planet. By staging a crisis, we were able to bring action and the impact of that action closer together. Nevertheless, not every single audience member felt that their actions were efficacious. This may have partially been due to observed effects of human-computer interactions,[12] but it also identifies and reinforces the conundrum at the heart of attempts to represent climate change. The voting in the scenario impacted on the human response to the climate crisis, but it couldn’t change the nature of the crisis itself. We produced as much effect from the decisions made by the audience in the scenario as was plausible whilst remaining accurate in relation to the topic. As theatre makers, desirous of placing action at the forefront of our project, we were forced to face over and over how actions in the face of climate change crisis, once it is happening, do have limited efficacy. This provided further motivation for the creation of the strategy cell for imagining an alternative future – a future in which longer term lifestyle changes meant we might not have to face the limited choices available once climate crises become ubiquitous.

The decision to limit the interactivity of the audience was partly aesthetic: when I experience time-based media, I like the artist to take charge of my time, to express their view of the world – and this is a view I share with my collaborators on 3rd Ring Out. But it was also partly moral: the nature of the topic brought with it a sense of responsibility; the investigation of climate change science, and cultural responses to it, instilled in us a sense of a duty of care to keep the scenario – and reactions to it – plausible.

THEATRICALITY AND EFFORT

Another discovery: that the more mediated the simulation, through automatically initiated video, stills and technical tricks such as phones ringing and printers automatically printing, the less the audience believed these events to be the result of their decisions. In the first weeks of performance, the performers had learnt most of the different versions and possible routes, relying only on a clipboard of keywords, as well as noting on the wall what the audience had voted for so far. Ironically this extraordinary feat of memory and dexterity of response was entirely lost on the audience: the performers’ confidence and capability in delivery reduced the audiences’ belief in their role as decision-makers. The slicker the simulation, the more pre-ordained it seemed. In Newcastle, our third location, we introduced trigger cards with the texts for every single route through and vote outcome of the simulation. On seeing the computerised voting result, the performer, in their role as team-leader, would visibly discard the trigger cards that were no long relevant as a result of the vote. By placing the multiply-routed script for the performance in full view of the audience, we increased awareness of how the performance was structured. From that time on, audiences were full of admiration for the achievement of the performers. This has led to reflection on the relationship between effort and the theatrical: that key to experiences of live performance is the impression of virtuosity – an impression that can only be offered where the difficulty of the task is visible to the audience.

COMMUNITY

3rd Ring Out plays on the porousness of social and aesthetic relations. It works from the premise of the apparently social towards an immersion in a fictive scenario that functions in line with the aesthetics of tradition that French curator and art critic Nicholas Bourriaud terms ‘private, symbolic’: eliding artistic and social practice in its production of an emergency-planning style rehearsal.  In the late 1990s, Bourriaud brought out a short book entitled Relational Aesthetics, which claimed to have identified and named a fundamental shift in artistic practice, counterpoising modernist aesthetics with an art that he calls ‘relational’: ‘An art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space’ [13] In Bourriaud’s formulation, the social slides into sociability, participation into community, as though the latter were the natural outcome of an exploration of the former. Claire Bishop has critiqued Bourriaud’s positioning of the presentation of social relations as though the very act of presenting were, in itself, emancipatory and productive of community.[14]Bishop points out that not only is it not self-evident that social relations are always positive, but also that antagonism and conflict are more relevant to conceptions of democracy (and emancipation) than consensus. The system of individual voting in 3rd Ring Out offers a demonstration. Projects with a political theme are often accused of ‘preaching to the converted’, and there exists the assumption that such audiences will think alike – that they are already a self-selected community.

Indeed, an apparent community within the performance is established through the performers’ continuous acknowledgement of the twelve audience-participants, intensified by their physical proximity in the small space of the shipping container, sitting around a shared table. However, 3rd Ring Out problematises the simple equation of participation with community that is explicit in Bourriaud’s concept of relational aesthetics. Whilst the codes of social dialogue among strangers might soften or disguise disagreement in the desire for a polite and ultimately impersonal consensus, the requirement to make a private decision for each vote, which then may or may not reflect the majority view, opened up the possibility of dissent. The voting outcomes repeatedly acknowledged that groups of people experiencing peformances together are not communities expressing a joint identity. This was particularly acutely felt by some audience members in response to the question within the scenario of whether or not to accept refugees (see video, at 2:55 mins). Participants would share anecdotes of their shock when the majority of others at the same performance voted against refugees, a difference of opinion that implied a rift in a socially liberal consensus about human rights, and therefore challenged preconceptions about the values held by their fellow theatre-goers. 3rd Ring Out not only did not promise an emancipatory community politics or indulge in fantasies of the audience as a collective social body, but it demonstrated the fallacy promulgated by Bourriaud of assuming that such vague goodwill, constructed from the etiquette governing behaviour in theatres (or indeed in art galleries), can ultimately be equated with genuine community.

COMMITMENT

Our ambition for the project to be delivered in a context that was neither activist or educational was realised through its acceptance into theatre and performing arts festivals across the UK. The audience for the project comprised people who had heard of and booked to see the performance through those festivals. Although it was not possible – and not in the spirit of the project, as a theatre performance – to trace the extent to which people engaged with the project because they were already concerned about climate change, regular conversations with audiences implied that many of them, as we had been, had some level of interest, but felt fairly distant from the topic in relation to their own lives. This context enabled a situation that proved critical for the efficacy of the project as an artistic response to climate change. Put simply, of the role of the activist or educationalist is to convince others of the information they are imparting, which they then expect to have an impact on behaviour. It requires commitment: commitment to a cause, to a belief system, to the value of a particular form of knowledge. Commitment, in the context of climate change, especially after the widely-perceived failure of the 2009 Conference of the Parties talks in Copenhagen, was a problematic concept, seeming to invite knee-jerk scepticism or alternative theories. But in the context of practising, all the commitment required is simply presence for the duration of the rehearsal. 3rd Ring Out required no commitment to any particular attitude to climate change, or what should be done about it – but only to participation in the performance. Because it was conceptualised – and represented – as a simulation to practise for a what-if scenario, set in the future, it avoided appearing to seek to convince, whilst remaining convincing as a scenario. As a result, we were able to explore the human consequences of climate change scenarios freely, without having to make a case for the science. Having set ourselves this parameter in response to feeling that discussions about ‘belief’ in climate change were neither interesting nor helpful, it proved hugely beneficial to the project; as despite the unusual extent of audience response, discussion of ‘belief’ rarely arose.

REHEARSAL

Performances rehearse arguments. 3rd Ring Out offered new insight into we how understand what is happening when audiences experience performances. The lack of commitment except to remaining to watch, enables audiences to identify or reject the perspectives suggested through dramatic scenarios; for a few hours in the dark you can inhabit, mentally, a perspective on the world you would never consider in life. Our research, far from suggesting that the experience of the audience was a special case in 3rd Ring Out through the construction of the performance as a ‘rehearsal’, opened a new avenue for further research: proposing the thesis that all performances – and our engagement with them – invite some kind of mental rehearsal.

SOCIAL IMMEDIACY

The future has already become the present. Many of the events delineated in our scenario, sourced with care to be ‘true’ to 2033, have already taken place in some shape or form: from extreme drought in the Eastern region, to flooding, even to riots and the consideration of sending military onto the streets (in 2010, this seemed an implausible extreme that might alienate audiences if included in the scenario – in the midst of the riots in August 2011 it was openly discussed in the media). If we were to present performances of 3rd Ring Out at the time of writing (early 2013), the fiction of it being about a far-away future would collapse. It might be an interesting tension to test.

 

Copyright © Metis Arts 2013