Katie Mitchell’s new theatre production will arrive at the Barbican in London in April having already toured internationally without anyone involved getting on a plane or even crossing a border. The show, entitled A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, is an experiment in how theatre can be more sustainable. It is staged by a local creative team and features a different performer in each venue it plays.
The idea took shape at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in Switzerland, where the British theatre director was due to stage a show. The French choreographer Jérôme Bel had recently announced that he would no longer fly, a decision Mitchell had herself made after working with scientist Stephen Emmott on Ten Billion, staged at the Royal Court in 2012. Mitchell and Bel began discussions with producers at Vidy-Lausanne about sustainable theatre in which, says Mitchell, “the artistic conversations were intersecting with budgeting and systems and structures as well”. The zero-travel rule is just one part of the initiative which is not a set-in-stone model but rather a way to prompt new ways of working on individual productions and within organisations.
They still had to find a text. A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, by the American dramatist Miranda Rose Hall, came to Mitchell’s attention after it was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize. It’s a monologue about a stressed-out theatre worker called Naomi whose company, Zero Omissions, are touring a devised show called Climate Beasties.
While conversations about climate crisis are happening on an organisational level, this doesn’t always translate into the work we see on stage, says Mitchell. Hall adds that she and her company had been “thinking a lot about what it would mean to generate a fictional narrative work that could attempt to grapple with the climate crisis using the tools of theatre”. For a play that engages with environmental collapse and death, it is very funny. Hall was intent on bringing some buoyancy to the character of Naomi: “Finding the humour in it is my way of being myself within the story.”
Participating theatres in the play’s UK tour – including the Belgrade in Coventry, Theatre Royal Plymouth and York Theatre Royal – will be issued with a set of guidelines called a “touring score”. These state that the show should be off-grid and that the electricity must be generated during the performance. In Vidy, as in many of Mitchell’s previous productions, this was done using onstage bicycles pedalled by performers. The set and costumes should also be produced locally and the use of second-hand material is encouraged.
The guidelines state that Naomi, who will be portrayed by Lydia West (It’s a Sin) at the Barbican run, should be played by a woman of colour or someone from an under-represented community in each iteration of the production. Each stop on the tour should also feature a local choir.
After premiering in Lausanne in 2021, the production played various European dates including the Holland Festival and NTGent in Belgium. There was also a production in Taipei. In the UK, the theatre company Headlong will co-produce the tour.
“Theatre about climate collapse can often be confused with activism, but it felt like they were taking these issues seriously, which triggered me as an artist and a person,” says Martha Balthazar, the young Belgian director behind the NTGent production. While she thinks it is essential “to keep having this conversation,” she found the lack of creative freedom frustrating at times and feels the project has some blind spots, particularly in respect to privilege. This is something Mitchell also acknowledges. “Zero travel is a privileged position for a lot of countries. We have to think sensitively and thoughtfully about the global south and how they might want to join the conversation,” she says.
There have been some hard discussions along the way, says Mitchell. “It’s not been easy, but it’s been healthy.” And, given the experimental nature of the project, it is capable of evolving and absorbing feedback. “As a senior artist, I have a duty of care to put myself out there a bit,” says Mitchell. She and Bel are established enough to take these risks. After all, she says, “We’re part of the generation who created the problem.”