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Does it work anyway?

How do you get the balance between hammering home the message yet still keeping the audience with you?
Jonathon Porritt talks to Wallace Heim.

 

Wallace You've tried many approaches to communicating environmental issues: education, activism, writing, and now your work with Forum for the Future. You posed the question many years ago, "Why is there no environmental drama?" Looking at theatre as means of communication, how would you answer that question now?

Jonathon I think a lot of people do veer away from the notion of theatre as a sort of educative experience of the - "This is about the environment so you're going to sit there and learn about the ozone layer or rain forest destruction" or whatever it might be.

That type of very preachy approach is extremely unattractive to people. And it doesn't work. Actually.

Wallace Why doesn't it work?

Jonathon
porritt
Jonathon Porritt © telegraph.co.uk
I once had an amazing discussion with John Boorman who directed a film called The Emerald Forest. I just happened to end up sitting next to him at something. He's passionate about the environment, absolutely passionate about it, and deeply imbued with an understanding of the relationship between human-kind and the natural world and lives it in his own life.

For him this film was very precious because it was the first time where he'd been able to go after an explicit environmental theme. He said it had actually been incredibly difficult for him, one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do because he found himself all the time using the camera in what would have been seen as a potentially didactic, if not indoctrinating way. He had to coax himself out of this notion of using the medium to communicate in that way.

He found that very hard because all his instincts were pushing him to do that, whereas he knew aesthetically if he did that the thing would die because it just wouldn't work. There was this tension between the very ‘in-your-face’ campaigning and the more oblique line that he sometimes took, that didn't quite force messages on people but left them to reflect more for themselves.

There is this line between what you need to put in there to enable people to understand the issues and the trust that you have to have in their ability to interpret and reflect in their own way without actually trying to form their judgements for them.

It's difficult because a lot of these things are - some people would say – “pretty black-and-white frankly. What's the point of leaving people to make up their own minds. It's obviously bloody wrong!"

This campaigning fervour doesn't work terribly well in great set piece films, or maybe not even in plays.

Wallace Could this also be part of the expectation that environmental ideas are communicated through documentaries or by activism, and not really appreciating that theatre is something else? You enter an imaginative world. It may be other qualities to our relations to the environment which can be brought out by theatre.

Jonathon Yes, exactly. I really do feel that very strongly and that's the power of it in a way - that it isn't by forcing things onto people, it is by this lateral approach, very often evocative rather than didactic, that you can make such powerful messages available to people.

Wallace And to touch people in a different way?

Jonathon We had a lot of this when I was at Friends of the Earth. I was Director for nearly seven years from 1984, and one of things I set up was an organisation called TATE, The Arts for The Earth. This was the first time that any environmental organisation had tried to mobilise the arts behind environmental causes and it was as crude as that at one level.

In those days, that was fine. It would be quite a difficult thing to do now funnily enough. It would jar a bit because there wouldn't be the same convening power around the concept of "You must do more for the environment" because everybody knows we must do more for the environment. There's nothing to prove in that respect.

Throughout the late '80s, it ran a series of events - poetry readings, art auctions, exhibitions. It did bring in wondrous examples of the more inspirational up-beat side of the environmental world-view which is often lacking. One of the reasons why we got The Arts for The Earth going was specifically to try and communicate not just the awful despair about collapsing ecosystems but also to remind people of the power of that joyful relationship which is such an important part.

I suppose we were trying in those days to make for a much more living connection between artistic expression and 'the environment' which sometimes comes with a pretty dead hand wrapped around it in all honesty.

Wallace What, ‘the environment?’

Jonathon Yes. It really does. Not a lot of life and not a lot of joy and all the rest of it and so, you've got to keep working away at that.

NOP did a wonderful survey. It was an extraordinary thing. They went out into the street - this was quite a long time ago - and they just said to people, "Okay, we're going to say a number of words to you. When you hear these words do your energy levels go up or do your energy levels go down. Just instant responses, okay. Don't think about it."

Then they gave them all these words like 'love' or 'television', or whatever else it might be and in the middle they stuck in the word 'environment' and the horrible, horrible conclusion of this survey of people in the street - it was seriously done, it was a thousand people - was that for the vast majority of people the mere mention of the word 'environment' turned their energy levels plummeting downwards.

You know, if you're working with that kind of psychological backdrop to promoting solutions to these problems, you're on a hiding to nothing. This is a big issue.

Wallace And a big issue for environmental drama.

Jonathon It really is. A lot of this can disempower as much as empower. You can go along to the most powerful presentation in the world about different environmental issues, and it is quite likely that a lot of people would leave feeling less empowered to do something about it than they were before they went in.

We have a real dilemma with this in the Forum for the Future because our whole way of working is around solutions, around positive energy, around getting people to trigger different bits of their psyche to this whole matrix of concerns. It sometimes means we have to hunt out what we call our 'Pollyanna-ish tendency' - which is when the world is actually falling to pieces around you, it just isn't any good sitting there saying "Oh, well, it's going to be okay."

It just won't work.

But if you rub people's noses too much in the imminent apocalypse model then it's not terribly surprising that many of them leave that kind of encounter by saying "Well, if it's really gone that far, there obviously isn't any point worrying about it and there's certainly nothing I can do and so I shall just carry on as usual."

They don't say it but that's how they rationalise no change in behaviour.

Wallace There's nothing to engage their emotions? Nothing to make that link between themselves and the world?

Jonathon Exactly.

Wallace For children, their link with the natural world may be different than for that of adults. Ted Hughes’ view was that watching children acting in a play which is about the environment can then have a very profound impact on the adults. What do you think about this idea?

Jonathon I have a slightly ambivalent view about this. There is something quite instrumental about using children to get after the mind-sets of their parents. I sometimes feel that people are planning this in a very utilitarian way. “Now how are we going to get after these bloody adults ...”

Wallace Might children may have a closer, or different relation to nature?

Jonathon Ted Roszak, who is I think one of the most wonderful visionaries in this area, wrote a wonderful book called The Voice of the Earth, in which he talks about the difference between children and adults in that respect. Children he describes as 'permeable membranes', meaning that the sense of separation between the human organism and the surrounding world is not hard and fast.

There often is much more of a sense of engagement, which isn’t always positive. It’s why sometimes nature can be very frightening for children because there isn’t a sense of safety inside a secure zone. Roszak describes this hardening that goes on as children become older and the connections between us and the natural world weaken as we go, and indeed we positively promote the weakening of them by encouraging children to see meaning and fun in practically everywhere else in life other than in nature. Children therefore lose the physical connectedness with the natural world and they lose that sense of their connectedness to it.

It’s a very powerful piece of writing because he explains that unless you’re thinking about this explicitly and structuring educational environments in such a way that you are keeping this 'permeable membrane' open to the totality of life, there will be a closing down process. For many adults, you have to go back, strip out all those layers, and separations and barriers between you and the natural world. You have to take them down, you have to dismantle them systematically and reconnect at that level.

He goes on from there to explain that this is what lies at the heart of the sickness of the modern world. Because humans deny their own connectedness with the natural world they are sick. The problem is that we aren’t living an honest life because we’re denying that very powerful atavistic connection with life on earth.

Wallace Maybe this is something that holds back environmental theatre. The expectation is that the self you see or experience won’t be that 'permeable membrane'.

Jonathon Yes, it’s very difficult. I don’t know whether there’s a way of overcoming that, in terms of conventional theatre.

We all take with us these expectations, don’t we, as we troop into the theatre. We have a sense of what it is that’s going to happen. For me, a lot of the workshops that go on are likely to be more engaging because they don’t play so much on - “We’re the actors and you’re the audience” - and tend to find ways of bringing people in to share the experiences which helps to break that separation down…

I’m questioning whether watching other people acting out situations and evoking feelings is actually the fastest way to getting another person to develop that direct relationship themselves. I’m just wondering whether it isn’t another barrier and it might become another excuse to stop you doing it yourself if you can do it vicariously through people up there in front of you doing it for you.

I do feel very strongly that we have got to find more and more ways of the very mundane business of getting people back into the natural world and permitting children throughout their educational experience to have that as a totally automatic part of every single child’s educational trajectory. Not as a special thing you do – not “We’re going to go on a nature trail today, children.” But just absolutely from day one it’s there and it’s part of their school experience. I know that needs massive investment to get, to create that sense of the totality of them and the natural world.

If you said to me here’s x-million pounds to allow the largest number of young people the most powerful and sustainable access to the natural world I guess I’d put my money there rather than into theatre. That’s quite an interesting sort of conclusion to come to really.

It doesn’t work like that anyway. These are not either-or’s.

Wallace No, but bringing nature into any sort of subject changes the subject so it could be that the notions of how theatre is made need to change. There’s no reason why nature has to fit theatre.

Jonathon That’s true. Yes, that would certainly change the conventional design of the average theatre wouldn’t it?

Things are much more open now to all sorts of creative ways of interpreting the environment, far more open than it’s ever been before. The same is true in terms of business responses to these agendas and to local government responses. There’s been a huge shift - and it’s a substantial shift. There’s a lot of real questioning going on. It wouldn't surprise me if by the end of my lifetime, hopefully, that the receptivity to the world-view that lies behind environmentalism was broadly universalised across society.

I have a dream in the back of my mind. When I’ve finished doing all this boring work about consultancy and research and so on, I think there is an opportunity to think about public meetings. I like doing public meetings. I’m beginning to get quite twitchy about being in a rut about all this.

In 30 years I’ve tried just about everything in terms of articulating the environment, ‘the mission’ as it were. I haven’t tried the arts and performance yet. There’s got to be a few more things I can do before it’s over.

I’ll get there one day.


published in 2001


2013: Jonathon Porritt's blog is here. Jonathon Porritt was Founder Director and is now Trustee for Forum for the Future.

From 2000 to 2009, he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission set up by the Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Commission was ended by the Coalition government.

 

"There is this line between what you need to put in to enable people to understand the issues and the trust that you have to have in their ability to interpret and reflect in their own way without actually trying to form their judgements for them.

It's difficult because a lot of these things are - some people would say - 'pretty black-and-white frankly.' "

 

::

 

"The horrible, horrible conclusion of this survey of people in the street - it was seriously done, it was a thousand people - was that for the vast majority of people the mere mention of the word "environment" turned their energy levels plummeting downwards."

 

::

 

"We all take with us expectations as we troop into the theatre.

I’m questioning whether watching other people acting out situations and evoking feelings is actually the fastest way to getting another person to develop that direct relationship with the natural world.

I’m just wondering whether it isn’t another barrier and it might become another excuse to stop you doing it yourself if you can do it vicariously through people up there in front of you doing it for you." 

 

::

 

"I do feel very strongly and that's the power of it in a way - that it isn't by forcing things onto people, it is by this lateral approach, very often evocative rather than didactic, that you can make such powerful messages available to people."

 

::

 

"If you said to me here’s x-million pounds to allow the largest number of young people the most powerful and sustainable access to the natural world I guess I’d put my money there rather than into theatre. That’s quite an interesting sort of conclusion to come to really.

It doesn’t work like that anyway. These are not either-or’s."

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