Wednesday 7 July 2010

fingers on the button

The year is 2033. The UK is in crisis. You are in charge of your city.

That's the invitation from Metis Arts in their new production 3rd Ring Out. Rehearsing The Future by Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw.

Members of the audience sit in a container, next to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and two actors keep the audience updated with news about how the climate crisis is developing. Each audience member has to take a number of decisions (there are green, blue and red buttons to press) and these decisions affect the way the story unfolds. There's no conferring.

On the screens there's an impressive stream of updates on the situation outside, via news bulletins, videocam interviews, and tweets. In front of us, there's a map of the area for which we're responsible (see pic).  This is the area immediately outside the container. One of the remarkable things about 3rd Ring Out is that there have been separate scenarios designed for the production as it has toured locations in Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Newcastle and London.

In taking on this subject, Svendsen and Daw have set themselves three big challenges. One is to dramatise the subject of climate change. The second is to combine, in a realistic way, digital technology with live performance. The third is to use the audience as participants. There's a lot going on there.

The two performers, Pradeep Jey and Sarah Belcher, deftly steer the audience through the disaster scenario as it develops and the clever use of a range of media tools brings home the grim variety of climate impacts - literally home for the local members of the audience: flooding, food shortages, fires, civil unrest, refugees. But our response is double-edged. Since this is a piece of theatre we love it when the news gets really bad - it's more entertaining. The sparkiness of the cast's delivery also ensured that more nuanced responses to the questions raised had to wait till the show was over.

If Svendsen and Daw develop this approach, which I hope they do, because what they've achieved shows how rich the possibilities are, it would be fascinating to experience another scenario that had a very tight focus, followed a single issue perhaps, drew out the complications involved, empowered members of the audience with the ability to negotiate, and built to one key decision.

Easy enough to suggest, of course, and very hard to achieve. But one of the pleasures of 3rd Ring Out was imagining how much further they could take this kind of audience involvement.

3rd Ring Out is a Tipping Point commission.
Lyn Gardner's review in the Guardian (***), followed by 12 comments that range from 'an absolutely unique experience' and 'incredibly inventive' to 'I wanted the play to offer more solutions'.


  1. I agree, Robert; a really stimulating approach with the potential to develop in numerous ways. The notion of opening the 'audience' up to real discussion is very intriguing, though it has obvious challenges in terms of time and establishing an agreed starting point.

    I also thought the approach of taking the future for granted, as it were, neatly side-stepped skeptic/denier territory - though it didn't COMPLETELY work with one person who was part of my performance; at the end he had to be persuaded to stay on by his wife!

    I felt a bit overwhelmed with material about which to make decisions; I suspect less would be more. But that is a small point - congratulations all round, for originality and quality of delivery, not least to the excellent performers.

  2. I haven't seen the play, 3rd Ring Out, but I'm very intrigued. Does the play have to be set in a city on a river? What would transpire if it took place, say, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the heart of Silicon Valley? Are there any plans for it to tour to the States?

  3. Or Dallas, Texas - inland, not on a river, population of six million, and one of the busiest airports in the world. How would a climate change scenario unfold there?

  4. My tweet on leaving the pod: 'clever, interesting, sometimes funny', and feels that way still a couple of weeks after attending the Cambridge performance. Huge investment of effort in design and routes through the material. I'd been involved in early conversations with the directors about what we might anticipate as likely climate impacts a few decades out so was very curious to see how the 3rd Ring Out team would cope with this very slippery topic.
    Been wondering how some of the inventiveness here could be scaled up, particularly for use in schools. The performed drama elements and high investment in the designed setting are difficult to scale, but the scenario scripts, combined with principle of thinking through and debating actions as participant-audience could be? The production is very (human) resource intensive and I wonder what you could do with a script, some multi media and a classroom. One for geog and english/media teachers to collaborate on in those tricky last weeks of summer term? Indeed now wondering if we wouldn't have felt more 'in role' in terms of civil defence planning, if we'd been put in a dingy council office or tatty classroom. The design moves were very cute and well considered, but not as central as the provocations around scenarios in the script? PS: I attended with councillors and officers. Very funny. A performance in itself.

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  7. When we got to deciding about climate change refugees staying in the O2, I wanted to talk to the person sitting next to me. I wanted a conversation about how each of us were making decisions, how we would negotiate as ourselves and as leaders of our sectors of responsibility. I wanted to talk to a stranger about climate change.

    Afterwards, I went to a friend's, and described 3rd Ring Out to the six people there, most of whom didn't know each other. The story didn't drop into the well of summer chat. Instead, it sparked the conversation I was looking for.

    We went straight for the dilemmas, the nuances, the contradictions, the consequences of decisions that would have to be made. We kept returning to when and how the military would be used, to whether the public should be given truthful or manipulated information and spent most time on whether the resources of 'our' sector should be shared with others.

    There wasn't agreement, but we did get to a recognition that how we consider decisions now, the way we justify them now, might not be the way that they are made and justified under conditions of climate change.

    Because no one else had been in the production, we weren't talking about the 'art' of it. But the device of it opened something up. We were doing it.

  8. Angela McSherry12 July 2010 at 18:59

    I['m getting my practical climate change info from a myriad of sources but I have few opportunities to apply that knowledge to a known reality and 3rd Ring Out did just that...I surprised myself at my own decision making - the 'in the momentness' of it made me behave differently - is this how politics works I wondered (and Im just now reading The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley so have a strong sense of how COBRA comes together and how personalities and THE MEDIA influence decisions). LIke others I would have welcomed a little interaction with my fellow decision makers - at least to look them in the eye and agree that our collective actions would democratically change things (although I totally recognise how more detailed interaction would shift the whole experience...
    This was a classy piece of work as authenticity was critical for us voters and we got plenty of authenticity due to the painstaking research of the team and the lightfooted adaptability of the performers. Lots of potential for further development as mooted in earlier comments - I can't wait...

  9. Thank you to everyone for all your comments – thought-provoking and helpful in thinking through how we might develop the project.

    One question that opens is the age-old one about the relationship between art and pedagogy.
    Does climate change make art acquire a new social importance?
    Or has the concept of art moved so far into the realm of significant ‘functionlessness’ that it is impossible to make art ‘about’ anything as such?
    That is, does the focus on climate change as a topic of urgent significance make 3rd Ring Out (or any other piece that considers climate change) less ‘art’ and more ‘education’? And how do both/either relate to politics?

    Further, by integrating discussion into the piece itself, might we fall into substituting the engagement of the individual imagination (the art) for an exploration of the social dynamics provoked by the subject matter (politics)? And is that a problem?

    To paraphrase a long conversation I had last night with a theatre academic friend – he said he began by thinking that theatre was merely a tool in the performance to talk about climate change, but that by the end his view was reversed. The focus on the future through the lens of an acute issue, he suggested, offered reflection on the constitution of the audience itself – by asking us to consider *who we are* in this particular historical moment – as spectators, and as actors in the world.

    Two days ago, I ran a workshop with some year 9 students who came to see the performance in Cambridge. It was the theatricality that impressed them and that they particularly remembered: they talked about how they hadn’t realised that theatre could be like that – how it changed their perception of what was possible with drama; how they felt constantly involved.

    When prompted to talk about the subject matter, the students said the performance made them rethink their relationship to climate change – one said that ordinarily they get told what to do (recycling etc) but she hadn’t really be asked to consider *why* because ‘no one really talks about what might happen’.

    Do these responses from the students suggest that the theatricality *is* simply a tool to win hearts and minds to the cause? Or was it in fact the way that the performance acknowledged the students as subjects – and potential actors – that enabled their imaginative engagement?

    It is these questions that we are grappling with as we move forward to think about what next with 3rd Ring Out.