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The Green Light Says Go: Green Theatre Nights in Bristol

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October 13, 2015 by David

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(Bordeaux Quay: Green Venue Awaits Green Theatre) 

The innovative writer-led company Inkling Productions in the South West is launching a new programme of work: Green Theatre nights. In the contributed blog below, Inkling member Bob Walton reflects on the roots of their initiative, and what they hope it might achieve… 

Working without a central building base, the National Theatre Wales has rightly earned a reputation for its inventive, innovative approach to theatre-making, such as ‘The Passion’ in the streets of Port Talbot, ‘The Persians’ in the Brecon Beacons and ‘Mametz’ in woodland near Usk, as well as numerous touring shows to halls, schools and community centres throughout Wales. Wales has been its theatre.

However, when I recently attended a performance of {150} – a show exploring the epic historical relationship between Wales and Patagonia – I felt something was amiss. {150} took place in the colossal industrial building that is the Royal Opera House Stores on the edge of Aberdare.

You will be as surprised as most of the audience were that the Royal Opera actually stores its sets, scenery and costumes for over 150 productions just outside Aberdare; and everyone would be stunned by the size and scale of the pre-fabricated building, large enough to house several cathedrals. As a promenade multi-media performance, {150} took the biscuit: the audience walked from one location to the next gazing up in awe at the huge film-screens, massive gantries, cranes lifting scaffolding towers into place, projections and son-et-lumiere. It was an extravaganza of engineering, electronica and digital technology … oh, and theatre.

There were some beautiful moments in the show but for me they were the times when one or two actors, in a corner of the technopolis, told and enacted a fragment of the story simply, through words, voice, facial expression, gesture, movement, maybe a prop or two.

What felt wrong was that the show as a whole was a case of style over substance. The story was swamped by the vast space, the hardware and the digital functionality. The construction of the piece depended on the teams of technicians wandering around with laptops and headphones controlling the mighty apparatus.

I wondered what Jerzy Grotowski would have said had he been asked to provide a ‘Poor Theatre’ response to {150}: perhaps he’d ask why the actors had been reduced to Lilliputians. Perhaps he’d ask, too, whether a story of struggle, privation and primitive living conditions can, or should, be told through such sophisticated machinery. And what, I wonder, was the size of the energy footprint required to put on such a show?

Indeed, is this a question we should be asking of all theatre? We ask it of our fridge, our food, our journey to work, our holiday travel. Shouldn’t we be asking the same question of our theatre?

In one of her always-thought-provoking blogs, Kate O’Reilly made a comment on September 26th last year that has stayed in my mind ever since.

“I feel writing can be the greenest profession there is, once we learn to recycle and develop ideas instead of sending them away to landfill”.

All a playwright needs is pen, paper and ideas. It’s what comes next that should perhaps be held to eco-account.

Inkling Productions is a small group of scriptwriters who graduated from Bristol University’s sadly-departed Diploma in Creative Writing for Performance back in 2010. At the conclusion of the course, some of us decided to continue meeting to critique each others’ work and before long we decided to start producing our own plays.

Having no finances, we were forced into Grotowski-esque Poor Theatre productions, working wherever we could get free or cheap space, using minimal props, and depending on the talents and goodwill of – yes, you’ve guessed it – unpaid actors. So multi-authored ‘Loose Tongues’ went to Barnstaple’s TheatreFest, Exeter’s Ignite Festival, The Cornerhouse in Frome and The Hen & Chicken in Bristol – cafes, bars, pubs; while the co-authored ‘Labyrinth’ – a recycling of the myth of Theseus and the minotaur – was performed at The Dean Neurological Centre in Gloucester and the Everyman Studio, Cheltenham (yes, an actual theatre). This is not an unusual story for small theatre companies, the scrimping and scraping, begging and borrowing, and all for the love of it.

But the practice affected the writing. Although ‘Labyrinth’ involved a considerable number of props, director June Trask and her cast improvised with whatever they could find. And we started thinking minimal, thinking green, writing green. For Bristol’s Big Green Week we collaborated with Victoria Park Action Group in Bristol and played ‘Green Shoots’ in the shade of a huge tree on a wonderful hot Saturday afternoon’s Big Green Family Picnic.

This family entertainment show – written by Gillian Sweet Bartley, June Trask and myself – was deliberately intended to raise awareness of the tenuous balance of the human and natural worlds. Director Matt Grinter and his small cast were wonderfully inventive in their use of simple recycled materials but the main impact was achieved through the actors’ energetic, comic and engaging performance, the music, clowning and movement.

The script didn’t have to hector or harangue. The stories took the audience – children and adults – into a world where the issues were realised through the quality of performance. And the energy footprint of the show? It could be counted in the numbers of feet that walked towards the show and settled on the cool grass as the ‘Green Shoots’ were sent out. The kind of footprints we like – in their hundreds.

Inkling Productions has now committed itself to developing what we are calling green theatre. What is it? Hopefully practice will inform understanding, writing and practice. Green will re-cycle green.

But to start with, we sent out a general call for short plays on green themes and next Monday evening, 19 October, we will be staging the first of what we are calling The Green Light nights, upstairs at Bordeaux Quay Restaurant.

We have six pieces by local writers – Gill Bicknell, Pippa Gladhill, Melanie Lavin, Elizabeth Mizon, Briony Pope and Gillian Sweet Bartley (the only member of Inklings) – which will be performed as script-in-hard works-in-progress. It has been an exercise in sustainability: writers have found their own directors and actors.

We will be inviting audience feedback on how the pieces can be developed along green lines, both as scripts and in performance. It will be an informal event in a non-theatre space but one which has its own green credentials as Bristol’s UK Three Star Sustainability Champion Restaurant.

The event is free (but we will accept contributions to the hat to facilitate further Green Light nights), with the house open at 7 for a 7.30 start. Why not come along and join the discussion? Recycle your responses to the plays. Grow your ideas about what makes green theatre.

And if you have a short green script that you might want to road-test at a Green Light Night, get in touch. We don’t have funding from Bristol Green Capital 2015 but that won’t stop us trying to put green theatre on the agenda in 2016 and beyond.

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