When cycling meets recycling in York Theatre Royal sustainable show A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction

Pedal power: Cyclists at York Theatre Royal with the mechanism that turns their kinetic energy into electricity for the lighting and sound in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction. Picture: James Drury

A PLAY For The Living In A Time Of Extinction is a darkly humorous, life-affirming one-woman show, written by American playwright Miranda Rose Hall and powered at each performance by cyclists.

Undertaking a “life-changing journey to confront the urgent ecological disaster unfolding around us”, this fiercely feminist off-grid production is part ritual, part battle cry in a moving exploration of what it means to be human in an era of man-made extinction.

Billed as a “bold experiment in eco theatre-making” on a groundbreaking zero-travel tour, Hall’s witty, ambitious 80-minute play has toured across the country under Headlong’s banner while the people and materials involved have not. 

After London, Coventry, Plymouth, Newcastle, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Prescot, the last stop is York Theatre Royal, where resident artist Mingyu Lin follows up co-directing the 100-strong company in the Theatre Royal’s summer community production of Sovereign by directing a cast of only one, Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson, in the role of Naomi from tonight to Saturday.

Stephanie will not be alone, however. Not only will she be accompanied by the York Theatre Royal Choir, last heard in Sovereign at King’s Manor, but also by eight cyclists, pedalling on specially adapted bikes that will power the lighting and sound.

“What’s been done is to find a way to be both sustainable and tour,” says Ming. “The concept of the play never changes but the talent working on it changes at each venue. Cyclists are recruited at each venue to power the show. The only thing that’s moved physically is the technology which transforms kinetic energy into electricity – and that all comes in one big box.”

In keeping with York’s status as a cycling city, more than 50 people have applied to be volunteer cyclists, including community cast members from Sovereign, members of York Theatre Royal’s Access All Areas Youth Theatre strand and participants celebrating International Day of Older People. Consequently, a different set of cyclists will saddle up at each of the five performances, with a maximum of eight putting in a shift each show, by comparison with a maximum of four elsewhere.

Coinciding with the start of rehearsals, York Theatre Royal has begun an environmental campaign encouraging staff and community members to pledge to do better for the environment in a manner that they choose.

“We are definitely at a turning point,” says Stephanie Hutchinson, who plays Naomi in A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction at York Theatre Royal. Picture: James Drury

This includes an opportunity for all to share their pledges with the chance to be featured in the digital programme for A Play For The Living. Pledges can be made on social media with the hashtag #IPledgeWithYTR or through a display in the York Theatre Royal foyer. 

Sharing learning from Europe and Katie Mitchell, director of a version of the play in Switzerland, Headlong’s innovative touring model is the first of its kind in Great Britain. The Barbican, in London, played host to the beginning of this journey, since when a blueprint of the show has been brought to life by a different team of theatre makers in each venue as part of an international experiment in reimagining theatre in a climate crisis.  

“There’s been a little bit of serendipity for me to be directing the York leg,” says former University of York Eng. Lit student Ming. “When I was working on programming for Headlong, when I was still living in London, during the pandemic we were looking at plays to put on after Covid, and I came across A Play For The Living because it was on the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize shortlist, an international playwriting prize with UK funding,” she recalls.

“On the short list were five plays and we really wanted a play by a female writer with a strong theme. All at Headlong decided they liked this one, and we had a meeting on Zoom with the writer, Miranda Rose Hall, who was very, very passionate about the risk of extinction and climate change, and you can really feel that in the play.

“We got an email from Katie Mitchell, who’d directed a smaller-scale production with two cyclists, and we decided we wanted the ethos of the production to reflect the ethos and energy of the play by having more cyclists.”

Ming knew she would be moving to York Theatre Royal as resident artist by the time the tour was put in place. “One of the reasons I wanted to leave London is that I really want plays to come out of London, and  I thought you could have local directors and actors for each tour venue, but also not spend loads of money on the set, with only the mechanism for converting pedal power into electricity and a LED neon flex lighting system going from venue to venue,” she says.

“Working from an original design and black-and-grey colour palette by Moi Tran, each theatre must provide the staging, the microphones, the bicycles and the cyclists, and the theatre is not allowed to use anything new. Everything has to be from the Theatre Royal’s existing stock or charity shops for costumes. The Recycle York shop is lending us the bikes.”

Reflecting on the tour’s zero-travel policy, Ming says: “It really makes you aware of the cost of touring theatre in terms of sustainability and the use of electricity in your artistic vision, but I think those challenges turn into opportunities. Too much freedom can make you lazy.”

Leeds actress Stephanie Hutchinson

Stephanie Hutchinson will be performing in a one-woman show for the first time. “The amount you have to learn is crazy,” she says. “I had to find a sense of what the play is about, and there’s a video by the writer, explaining the show and why she wanted to write it, that’s been really useful.

“I would say that rehearsals have been interesting and challenging but very positive and working with Ming has been nothing but positive. It’s a different experience because I’ve never done a monologue before, especially as it’s one this long and it’s just me speaking on stage.”

Stephanie’s character Naomi is “part of a theatre company that has made a play especially for you, those living through extinction, but the actors have not shown up yet. In the meantime, Naomi has a plan.”

“I keep thinking throughout, ‘I really want to get the audience thinking and talking about extinction’,” says Stephanie. “Naomi is asked if she’s read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a book by Elizabeth Kolbert [the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, university visiting fellow and environmental journalist for the New Yorker], because we’re going through the Sixth Extinction right now” …

…“We’re losing creatures at a quicker rate now than in the days of the dinosaurs,” points out Ming.

Hall’s play posits that “the difference between death and extinction is this: death is to cease to exist. Extinction is to extinguish. I think of death as individual. Extinction is collective”.

“We are definitely at a turning point,” says Stephanie. “Naomi is thinking, ‘we need to do something on this, a play, but she’s a dramaturg, not an actor, but when the actors who’d normally be doing it have an emergency, she has to go on stage. So it’s set up as a sort of improvised ‘gotta make a show’.”

Ming says: “It’s interesting for an actor to be playing someone who’s not an actor and wouldn’t normally be on stage, so that’s been fun.”

“It shouldn’t be preachy, and Naomi isn’t going to be preachy, but maybe provoke conversations,” says Stephanie. Picture: James Drury

Stephanie says: “I like how it’s educational, with Naomi learning as well as the audience, taking it in as if she’s learning it for the first time as she tells you all these facts.”

As Ming puts it, the playwright has created a story and character with emotional stakes at play, “not a TED talk”. “It stays engaging because there are parts that are so personal, so it to-and-fros  between Naomi’s story and the wider story,” says Stephanie.

“In a story like this, you need to care,” says Ming. “The stakes must be there from almost the top of a play, and that’s something that really works with this play, where you get to care about it and you invest in the conceit of the dramaturg telling it.”

Stephanie adds: “I find it easier to express that in the moments when Naomi is feeling vulnerable, and you can definitely play with the emotion there.”

Last question: why should we see A Play For The Living in this time of extinction? “I don’t think a  pedal-powered production on this scale has been done before, and a tour of this type has never been done,” says Ming.

“It’s definitely life affirming because, yes, ‘extinction’ is in the title, but so is ‘living’ and the sustenance of life is worth fighting for.”

For Stephanie, “it’s something new, something I’ve never come across before. It shouldn’t be preachy, and Naomi isn’t going to be preachy, but maybe provoke conversations,” she says. “She won’t have the answers, but we’re all going through this, and we must all go through it together.”

A Play For The Living In A Time Of Extinction  runs on pedal power at York Theatre Royal from tonight (27/9/2023) until Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. 

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