Interview – Making Sustainable Theatre with Bea Udale-Smith
Bea Udale-Smith is the director of Pigfoot Theatre, a multi-award-winning environmental theatre company. Their show How To Save A Rock is a carbon-neutral comedy about rescuing the last polar bear in 2026. With lighting powered by cycling bikes, live music and recycled production materials the show is not only an interesting look at climate comedy, but a technical delight. Udale-Smith recently sat for an interview, after a well-received performance at Vault, with our culture editor Harry Holmes to talk about climate change and sustainable theatre.
Starting with yourself, why do you think you decided to direct theatre over other contemporary cultural mediums?
It’s a really good way to learn every skill you can as an artist. For example, if you’re directing a show you might be doing the visual design yourself, or in close consultation with a visual designer. Maybe, you’re helping devise a script or giving feedback to a writer. Furthermore, there are the skills you get from working with actors really closely. I specifically decided to start focusing on theatre around 18 because I realised nothing was going to teach me so much in so little time. My end goal was very much always directing film, just because in the 21st century it’s such an incredibly adaptable medium. But yes, I just wanted to learn and learn fast.
Would you still want to go into film given the opportunity?
Well, Pigfoot has become explicitly carbon neutral and will continue to be until either it’s impossible to make theatre any more or climate change gets to a point where we are not falling off a cliff. I can’t see at the moment a way to make carbon neutral film, so I think I’m sticking with theatre for the foreseeable future.
You’ve directed pieces before How To Save A Rock, when did you decide this next play was going to be around climate change?
The play I directed before How to Save a Rock was called Travesties at the Oxford Playhouse. It was the opening night; the actors were having the afternoon as rest and I just happened to be putting the final tweak to a prop. Then the playhouse tech head came in and said, ‘if it’s just you, do you mind if I switch off the auditorium lights?’ I said that was fine and he said ‘great, they just waste quite a bit of power.’ And I didn’t think anything of it as it was a very stressful time, but after the show was over, I had a moment where I started thinking about just how much power was wasted for a theatre auditorium of about 600 seats. I just launched myself into this research spiral of realising how potentially damaging to the environment theatre can be. That led me to thinking how hard it would be to do a carbon neutral show.
So, it was almost a challenge. Do you think starting as a student play, starting from a smaller audience, helped make tackling this easier?
Definitely. As a student you are privileged to be around people who are studying everything from science to engineering. You have this wealth of knowledge around you. So, we were able to find someone who would help build the generator. We found an incredible social justice organisation who owned a building which had a room small enough for us to light with this rudimentary style of lighting we had. The whole thing was really simple, much easier than it would be as a non-student. We’re thinking of scaling up for the next show, and potentially thinking how we light a venue which is larger. I think that in itself is very daunting, I think trying to think about lighting a venue bigger than a studio space with a bike is a lot.
Since its early development, How To Save A Rock has done well, including winning multiple awards and being published, did you expect such a warm reception?
Not at all, people have been so incredibly supportive of the show and the company. At the time it felt like climate theatre was restricted to very pessimistic shows that were being directed at artistically renowned London venues. Whereas now there is so much fringe theatre about climate change and that is incredible. I think it comes from theatre venues, professionals and industry around the country opening their arms to all the young people asking to make a play about this.
At times the show seems to be both inspiring and attempting to inform about where emissions come from. What would you say is the defining purpose of How to Save a Rock?
I think the central mission we always describe as encouraging people to have hope, but I think that’s very vague. I think if we want people to leave feeling anything, the ideal audience response, it would be a combination: That they have learnt something, that they feel inspired to take group action and they feel encouraged to reconnect with nature.
The central mission of the play is to rescue the last polar bear. Why did you pick that symbol, given traditional NGOs are often satirised for caring more for the polar bear than the person?
We thought it was the funniest image ever. It originally began as the concept of a girl who had fallen in love with a polar bear. We were playing around with these naturalistic scenes of her having these prolonged discussions with her boyfriend about the fact she had met someone online and they were getting on well. Right at the end of that scene you realised it’s this polar bear.
Then we began thinking about it as a mythic figure that is lurking at the back of all of our consciousnesses. Playing with the idea of how we find it so hard to visualise the horrors going on already because of climate change. No one seems to want to think about those in the Global South already suffering, who have been for many years. But we are so comfortable thinking about these polar bears. Just using the last polar bear as an image to consider what it could motivate someone to do, and what might they realise is more important along the way. Shifting from a more simplistic view of climate change, the characters go on a journey and realise that climate change is more complicated as a result.
Something else you start with in the play is ClimateGate, the hacking of scientist emails in 2009 which reinforced climate denial conspiracies, I think that is really interesting as well. Most environmentalists probably want to entirely forget it happened, but these real characters keep reappearing within the play. Why did you decide to include these figures and the event?
I think we’re trying to create this contrast between science and the emotional side of this. The friends attempting to rescue the polar bear are embodying the emotions we all feel about climate change. We use them as a vehicle to hopefully change how the audience feel about it. We really felt strongly about having that scientific underscoring to the show, so it’s not just this emotional journey but it has this grounding in reality of facts. The sort of ‘Greta message’ of listen to the science. Additionally, this idea of past generations and future generations and how our actions today are interacting with the generation that is growing up now. This idea of people in the past interacting with those in the future.
The central character of the play is somewhat burnt-out, why is that? And do you think environmentalists should talk more about burnout?
Between the first time we made the play and the second time; Greta Thunberg had become famous, the school strikes had started, Extinction Rebellion had done multiple protest. Suddenly I started thinking about the generation of people currently around 16-17, or even younger. I definitely went through a phase when I reached around 18 where I realised the world wasn’t as black and white as I had thought it was. I had all these beliefs in what I was capable of doing, and it was possible to create this change. Idealism, basically. We all get to an age where we lose that.
The scary thing that anyone over the age of 18 needs to be aware of is the fact that this generation, who are inspiring the whole world, are working so hard we can’t rely on them to keep going forever. If I was 13 at this moment, missing school nearly every Friday, when I get to 18 it’s 2026 and nothing could have changed, with everyone panicking. The play’s characters being burnt-out very much comes from us worrying about what might happen to people that age. It’s also about how nearly everyone in this sphere is getting at the moment, but in particular those younger.
How is it to actually write about climate change, did you find that was draining in itself?
I think anyone who is really involved in environmental issues, quickly actually does lose hope and then has to keep going with some determination and resolve. It’s been a process of losing my belief that we have a chance, and then forcing myself to keep going anyway. It seems like loads of people who do environmental work feel similarly, it’s like a pessimistic determination to keep going.
One of the biggest features of the show is its carbon neutrality, you have bikes to power the lights and a whole host of other technologies to achieve this goal. How do you balance the technicalities with the content of the show itself? Do you think you have achieved a balance?
I think at the moment we’re still fighting the technology. Before our tour we want to have several days with a technician, playing around with how to make it quieter and utterly reliable as well as teaching our actors bike skills. We want to rehearse with the bikes in every rehearsal as we got new tech for our latest show at Vault and we only started rehearsing with it near the end. I still feel it’s often to the detriment of the show almost at this point, hopefully for the tour we’ll get it to a point where it is really improving the show. I think as an audience member you often forget that the actors are powering the lights, very quickly you accept everything you see on stage and you forget how it relates to what is going on. Visually the bike powering the lighting is never too intrusive, because you become normalised to it. Then it breaks halfway through the show and you’re like ah!
Did you find the things you thought would be most difficult to make neutral were the most difficult? Or was it things you hadn’t really previously considered?
It’s definitely been things we didn’t think about at the start. Amplification has been the main one. Just making sure the actors are loud enough and the music and the bikes are not too loud. Without the ability to mic people that becomes a lot harder. Whereas the things that have just been a breeze are sets, props and costumes. For our Vault show, we posted on Twitter almost every time we needed something and borrowed almost everything we needed. People are so incredibly willing to lend you their stuff, and so kind. It was absolutely fantastic, this isn’t even something we’re buying second hand then having to throw away when the show is done, this is something that is genuinely carbon neutral.
I brought along two friends to the recent show and was really pleased that one of them was called on to cycle and power the lights. You have this underlying dimension of audience participation throughout the show. Was this participation always something that was important to the show and achieving some impression on the audience?
It’s more we found it really hard to make the show without asking the audience to do stuff. Because it’s carbon neutral, we need the audience to almost play parts. We had to trim the show down for Vault but there is a moment at the data centre where we talk to the audience and ask them what their most recent text is. We need them to sing to represent a group of protesters because we can’t play an audio recording of singing. We’re relying on them to finish off the show, which is obviously a really nice metaphor for relying on each other to do group action, look after each other, and come together as a community.
If they can only take one thing from all this, what is it you want the ideal audience to take away?
If there was just one thing, it is that we have to fight this together. That quite simply, the most powerful actions are those we take together. Anything you do as a group is so much more powerful and to rely on that to give you hope.
Outside of How to Save a Rock, how receptive of sustainability have you found the theatre industry to be?
Incredibly receptive, venues especially across the UK are taking ginormous steps. It feels like almost half of venues have something about sustainability on their websites or have someone who leads on it in their team. Lots are part of sustainability networks in their area and many theatres are switching to renewable energy. All these steps are incredible. Theatre performers, companies, and artists are almost universally very passionate about it. Because I think artists are often generalisable as sympathising with people; you’re always thinking about other peoples’ stories and are always caring about these stories. As people, theatre makers, are often very passionate about making this change.
I think the people who are finding it hardest to make this change, no matter how much they personally want it, are festivals. They are built around being very temporary, existing for a couple of days, weeks or months. Although some music festivals are incredible models of increasing sustainability, theatre festivals are several years behind in adapting to this.
You’ve already mentioned there is this massive expansion of shows around climate, what would your advice be, as someone early in this, to someone who wants to direct on climate change?
For white theatre makers, you have to make your team as inclusive of marginalised theatre makers as possible. That is something that Pigfoot has so far done badly, our production team has been entirely white, and I think that is incredibly problematic. You cannot talk about climate change without talking about environmental injustice against those marginalised by gender, race and ethnicity.
The second one would be, if you are making a show around climate change why not make it as sustainable as possible. You can take it as extreme as How to Save a Rock, it is completely possible. Don’t just leave it as a theme. The best thing to do is have a session of a few hours discussing everything you need to do for the show and asking how you can do each bit sustainably. We’ve needed to do those at every turn. Just blocking out that time to ask how you change what you can.
Do you feel like sessions about show sustainability bring you together as a theatre company?
Yes, it’s incredible to work with people who are really driven by the same goal of saying something about the climate in a way that doesn’t damage the climate. It means you have to really rely on each other. It’s a really collaborative process, trying to make something more sustainable, as one person never has all the answers.
You’ve mentioned wanting to take the show on tour, what is hopefully next for How to Save a Rock?
Hopefully, we will redevelop the show to be specifically aimed at families, our target age range will be 9-16. We want to do a community focused regional tour, which may have one or two London venues, but is mostly focused at taking it out to regional venues around the UK. We’d be touring two to three workshops alongside this, one aimed at KS2 students about the geography of climate change, another aimed at 15+ kids about how we create carbon neutral theatre. So, playing around with our bikes, upcycled objects, how we do live sound design with found objects. Hopefully we can lend our technology to schools or youth groups. Our generator costs money and we were very fortunate to get Arts Council England funding for that, however not everyone is that fortunate and now we have that technology we’d love to lend it to people where possible.
Beyond How to Save a Rock, what is next for Pigfoot Theatre?
In Autumn 2020, we are beginning to work on our next show. We’re not telling anyone about the production concept because we’re worried it might not be possible. It has never been done for a theatre show before, or I think any kind of live performance. So, we don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by saying it is going to happen, but the ambition is high. The actual premise is around the effect of the climate crisis on bodies, particularly looking at stories and narratives from the Global South from particularly women of colour and disabled women.