Hazel Darwin-Clements questions whether we’re doing enough in the cultural industries to respond to the climate emergency following a tour of her play Maya and the Whale which toured to schools across Scotland in February and March 2023 using only public transport and bicycle.
Are we really on the right trajectory to cutting carbon in the creative sector to acceptable levels of consumption? If we put aside the data collected during the pandemic? Yes, if we reduce the arts activity to the levels it was at during the pandemic and recovery then sure, we have an acceptable carbon cut. But there are also no performances. I look around and it looks to me like for the most part, it still hasn’t sunk in that we need a complete rethink. We need to go back to the basics of what it is that we do and why, then reimagine how we do it in a fairer, better way.
Things must change. So, should we accept a top-down approach led by people in secure jobs who fly all over the world to boast how ‘world leading’ we are, while behind the scenes artists slowly have their creativity strangled? Or do we mobilise from the grass roots and use the power we have, the power of our creativity, our ability to tackle problems, re-invent and reimagine?
Maya and the Whale is a drop in the ocean, but there’s a protest song I like which says ‘each drop will swell the tide’ and so, please, I’d like to tell you a bit about it, in the hope it can contribute to a turning tide. It’s a play about a young Climate Activist who finds a dying whale and has to come to terms with the fact she can’t save it singlehandedly. The audience play the part of the whale, and, on our recent school tour, the audience are made up of young people P6 – S2 and their teachers.
I wanted to explore how I can continue to make theatre without causing more harm than good. Every tonne of carbon burned contributes to the crisis we are in. The landslides in Malawi, flooding in Arizona, forest fires across Europe. Some children in Scotland see some high-quality theatre, great, but if that’s at the cost of children in another part of the world losing things like food, shelter, and education – basic human rights – is that OK? I don’t want to be over-dramatic but that’s the emergency we face right now. Personally, I can’t live with the guilt of it. That’s why I’m talking about a significant, practical change in how I want to work now, regardless of the theme of the show.
I mainly work with children and young people, and value their voice in my artistic practice. Young activists are very clearly telling us that things need to dramatically, urgently change. Let’s listen to them.
From its inception, I wrote this show to travel easily by bikes and train, with as light a footprint as possible. Performing in schools means no travel for the audience. The important elements of this show are story, performance, and music. Everything else is stripped back to be carried in 4 panniers by two performers. And I can honestly tell you, this is a total joy. We borrowed electric bikes from West Lothian Bike Library, and when we weren’t sailing along the cycle paths, we were happily gazing through the train window. It was £1174 cheaper* than using a van and we were never delayed or late. We clocked 155 miles of cycling (250 km) and 35 trains, 20 venues (with pupils from 31 different schools) and 30 shows. It wasn’t an endurance challenge; we don’t have aching leg muscles and we didn’t collapse over the finish line. It was just a better way of going about our work.
I would really love to see what creativity comes from these constraints. Can we adapt a trike to become a puppet stage? What is the lightest possible lighting set up? How much set would a larger cast be able to carry with them, one part each?
But the most exciting part of doing Maya and the Whale is the opportunity to hold meaningful conversations around climate in different communities. Each group has a different response in the post-show Q&A. Everything from “But aren’t vegans the problem flying over all their avocados?” to “But what are you personally doing about the Willow Project?” It’s such a special chance to speak openly about pressing issues with a genuine cross section of society. We are learning from each other. Some young people told me they “felt heard” and others told me it “gave them a lot to think about.” A typical adult response was a surprised “it’s actually quite radical, isn’t it?” But looking at this infographic from the latest IPCC report I can’t help feeling that maybe I’m still not being radical enough? What about you?
Some thoughts in how to clean up our
- No flying. Find another way to connect internationally.
- From the inception of a show, design tours to cycle and use public transport and make exceptions to ensure that no-one is excluded by this.
- Travel to the audience, rather than the other way around. Connect with communities, make sure everyone is included.
- Grasp the concept of climate emergency as fully as possible. Continuously refresh your knowledge.
- Let it affect every decision you make, from the very conception of an idea to the completion of a project. Every prop, every costume item, every folder and pen, every account, subscription, and streaming service.
- Don’t use Amazon or fast fashion shops. Borrow, buy second hand, share.
- Enjoy your reduced stress levels, your healthier, happier and more connected existence.
* B1 standard van for 43 days for a six-week tour with Road Fund Licence is £1,173.93. Petrol for a similar tour was around £500.
Total cost of trains for this tour was £399.54 plus £30.00 for the Two Together Railcard and we fixed 2 punctures for £10 each.
- Super-Low Carbon Live Music Road map as explained by Carly McLachan at the Creative Carbon Scotland Springboard event here https://vimeo.com/showcase/10238782 has the first point: Super-low carbon practices from the inception of a tour
- I read Jo Clifford’s blog while writing this and it chimed with what I was trying to say: https://thelightinside.substack.com/p/theatre-for-social-change
Hazel Darwin-Clements is a writer and performer from Edinburgh who also creates podcasts and puppets. She’s currently looking for ways to create a more sustainable practice and consider the Climate Crisis as a central theme to her work. See more on the Maya and the Whale page.
Images on this page were taken by Kat Gollock during the Theatre in Schools Scotland tour of Maya and the Whale by Hazel Darwin-Clements which was supported by Imaginate and National Theatre of Scotland in early 2023.