Case Study: Theatre Gu Leòr responds to the climate emergency both logistically and artistically
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Theatre Gu Leòr is a Scottish theatre company producing innovative and contemporary theatre in Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic). This case study by Co-ordinator Rhona NicDhùghaill and Artistic Director Muireann Kelly looks at their most recent production, MAIM, and how they are meeting issues around the climate emergency through both artistic and logistical approaches.
As an arts organisation that receives public funding, we have an obligation to manage our carbon footprint and report on that annually; green issues have been on our agenda for some time anyway. However, since late 2018, in response to mounting concern around the world regarding the climate emergency and its likely effects, we have been increasingly determined to do what we can as an organisation to play our part in facing these challenges.
Against a background of global school strikes and other Climate Crisis protests early in 2019, the Gàidhlig electronic music duo WHYTE met with our Artistic Director, Muireann Kelly, and began discussions about collaborating on a unique project together. Ross and Alasdair Whyte had just finished making their second album, Tairm, and sent Muireann two tracks, hoping that her response might form the basis of that collaboration.
In directing the piece Muireann started the development without a script; instead the themes of landscape and environmental change, along with cultural shifts and language loss, which she felt were very present in these two WHYTE tracks, became the inspiration for what was to become Theatre Gu Leòr’s next production MAIM. In Gàidhlig MAIM means panic, terror.
A key part of the development of this project was to identify and bring together the right team artistically, creatively and in production. We needed to make sure that the intersection of folk working on the project would bring both their own unique perspective and contribution to the making of the piece, but would also be united in one conviction; to make a project that reflected the panic and crisis we all felt, in our artistic response and in how we would approach making and producing it. Everyone in the cast, creative and production teams were challenged from the get go but all were all committed to making artistic and production choices that were all informed by how sustainable and green we could develop, plan and make this project.
The project quickly developed as a call to action, using the music, lyrics and movement we also worked with the choreographer Jessica Kennedy to explore story telling through physical expression. We were determined to give voice to the frustrations of the next generation who cared deeply about the crisis facing our land and language.
With many of the islands off Scotland’s coasts facing the combined threat of rising seas due to global warming, and the impact of decades of poor land management choices, as well as the very real threat of extinction facing some of the indigenous communities of Gàidhlig speakers, MAIM developed as our unique and very personal response to the panic we all felt, in the face of very real extinction, we all felt the time to take action was running out.
“Dar a thig an t-uisge gu grad, dè chailleas sinn?
/When the water comes suddenly, what do we lose?”
MAIM also became a love song to the land and language of Mull, where Alasdair Whyte is from and which inspires much of his writing and music – MAIM was a raw howl of grief, an act of protest for what has already been lost and what could follow.
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Alasdair, the main writer on the project, used in-depth knowledge of place names and oral culture on Mull to tell the story of changes in land use and the movement of people, and the lasting effects this has had on both the island and Gàidhlig spoken there.
All of three of the other cast members also contributed to the script. Ross Whyte, Elspeth Turner and Evie Waddell, wrote some very personal stories, drawing on their own connections each had with place, the crisis facing Gàidhlig speaking communities and the climate crisis.
Ross Whyte, the other half of the duo WHYTE, responded with an exquisite soundscape and music composition that was both sensitive and urgent. The piece of text that Ross wrote in the script was a story, very much rooted in his own native Aberdeenshire, exploring the lack of power held by local people under current land ownership structures, to protect their local environment.
As a keen climate activist, a Gàidhlig singer and contemporary dancer, Evie articulated her response physically, both through movement and also as a half-deaf and half-hearing performer, working with her mentor and BSL translator Catherine King she used BSL, Gàidhlig and movement integrated throughout the piece. In an extract Evie wrote herself, she addressed the climate emergency head on, from her perspective as a young person frustrated by the lack of action.
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
The stories in the script which Elspeth wrote shone a light on what is passed down the generations, what is lost, and what can be recovered, both in terms of the language and land. During lockdown we filmed an extract from MAIM for the Scotsman’s series of short films ‘The Scotsman Sessions’, and we chose to use one of Elspeth’s very personal stories about what we have to lose if we don’t act now.
Each approached the issue of the environment in a different way, with some tackling the subject directly, while others touched on it indirectly through the lens of culture and language. We were determined to develop a piece of theatre that uniquely responded in Gàidhlig and BSL through movement, music and visuals to move, challenge and inspire the audience, with the strength of feeling and a sense of urgency.
As we were addressing the climate emergency in the piece itself, there was even more need to follow through on that and be as green as possible at every level of the development, rehearsal and production. As well as the obligations placed on us by funders, the Scottish Government has passed legislation committing to becoming zero-carbon by 2045, and to reduce emissions by 75% by 2030, a challenge for us all, but particularly for us as a touring company.
The first thing we came up against was travel. We had already made a commitment in the company’s carbon management plan to work towards phasing out air travel, as it is one of the very worst offenders in terms of emissions. However, we had committed to working with a choreographer based in Dublin, so that presented a challenge. We were going to be working with Jessica three times over the course of the project, so that meant three return trips between Dublin and Glasgow.
We spoke to Jessica about our aim to reduce air travel, and she was completely on board. However, as an in-demand freelance choreographer, her diary often didn’t always allow for the extra day required to travel by bus, ferry and train. Where she was able to take the extra time, she was very keen to do so, and we built the extra travel days into her contract, compensating her for her time. We searched for guidance or industry standards on this, but didn’t find any. It seems that if we are to make a more widespread shift away from air travel, it would be useful to have a standardised approach across the sector.
We weren’t intending to tour MAIM internationally, so there was no other air travel to consider in that respect. However, as a touring company, planning a Scottish tour which included the Highlands and Islands was always going to present challenges. We decided that the cast would travel on public transport while we were on the mainland, rather than hiring cars or driving their own, which further reduced our emissions. It wouldn’t have been possible to do that on the islands, however, and we would have had to hire cars (electric or hybrid where possible)for the final leg of the tour.
In order to reduce our emissions further, we decided to tour with only one van, rather than two as we usually would, which meant designing a lightweight and compact set, and impacted on many creative and design choices from the very start. Our wonderful Production Manager, Elle Taylor, as well as tackling the issues of weight and reduced van size, also researched electric and hybrid vans., However, balancing the carbon footprint and what was available/practical at the time, we had to go with using as fuel-efficient a diesel van as we could source. It seems there aren’t many options for hiring electric vans at this point; hopefully that will change in the coming years. We opened the show and completed our first week’s run in March 2019 at the Tron Theatre Glasgow, but sadly due to the Covid 19 lockdown we had to postpone the scheduled national tour. We will use this time to try and look at the rescheduled tour and identify if there might be any better greener options for our touring van in 2021.
PRODUCTION / DESIGN
Our set designer, Jen McGinley, and assistant Alice Watson, were both dedicated and up for the challenge set by Muireann of making as green a set and costumes as possible. They committed to source low-impact materials that would be reusable or recyclable. For example, we made the screens by recycling gauzes that we had already, and used bare, untreated wood for the frames, so it could be re-used or recycled more easily at a later date.
We did, however, meet with one big design challenge. As the project developed it became obvious that because of the physical nature of the piece we would need to tour with a dance floor. We explored options of borrowing or renting, and Jen explored what floors were available in greener materials, but in the end because of the bespoke size and nature of the floor required for health and safety of the cast (all performers were in bare feet throughout), we decided to invest in a new vinyl dance floor for the production, which unfortunately wasn’t ideal for sustainability. However, we used water-based rather than solvent-based paint, and we bought a floor as an investment for the future which was black on one side, and the other side could be re-painted, so it could be more easily re-used by other theatre and dance companies and in future productions.
We had to source costumes for the four performers, which due to the demands of the physicality of the piece all had to be sourced new; however, Jen and Alice tried to find clothing that was made from sustainable and ethically sourced materials. We avoided “fast fashion” outlets such as Primark, which is often used in theatre productions with tight budgets and turnaround times. This meant spending more on fewer pieces. Jen researched which fabrics would be the most green and also durable for the movement elements of MAIM. These were Tencel, organic cottons and recycled polyester.
Photo credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
When it came to promotional material, we knew as we were touring we would need posters, flyers and programmes – and even after reducing the amount of information included on the programme as much as possible, that’s still a lot of paper and ink. So again, we researched and went with a recommended green printing company, PR Print in Glasgow. Working with them all our marketing material was made using vegetable inks and carbon balanced paper. Their carbon balancing is facilitated by the World Land Trust, an international conservation charity, through the preservation of high conservation value forests.
We can’t write about carbon emissions without mentioning diet. What we eat has a huge impact on the environment, and the UN has been advocating for a plant-based diet for 10 years now as the best way to reduce our carbon footprint. Four members of the company were already vegans, but we all need to move towards a more plant-based diet quickly. This can be tricky to approach, however: it’s really a personal choice, and we stopped short of making any request of the cast and crew to consider changing their diet. We wonder how other organisations are approaching this, and whether this is something that will start to shift in the future.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
We’ll be continuing with our efforts in the future, especially regarding air travel – though we know that won’t be easy. We look forward to trying to plan our rescheduled tour in 2021 with some of the learning we’ve taken onboard since the start of this project in 2019. We look forward to working with Creative Carbon Scotland and colleagues across the sector to find solutions and establish new best practices towards our green goals.