‘Hopepunk’ roadshow aims to open up new conversations around climate emergency

Performance blends science, comedy and improvisation to encourage discussion about positive change

When was the last time anyone asked what you think can be done about the climate emergency? Or about what sustainability issues matter to you in your area? And who has given you time to really explore it?

If you live in a rural or coastal region, there is a good chance you can see the impact of climate and environment change, and a new travelling roadshow aims to give voice to communities that are not always heard.

We Built This City on Rock and Coal is a blend of art, science and improvisation that gets on the road in Galway on May 30th and will tour the country.

Physicist and improviser Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, who co-leads the project, says the aim is to get people in communities thinking, talking and taking action to address climate and sustainability issues through the show, workshops and citizen science initiatives.

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Rural, coastal and island hopepunk

“Climate change can feel enormous and depressing, so we want to make space for what people feel about this, and to use comedy and improv to open up new conversations in communities about what can be done,” says Fairfield, who is a lecturer in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Galway.

“We want to use comedy and performance to encourage people to think about the science, about the things that might make a positive change, and how communities can work together on those changes. We see it as an example of ‘hopepunk’, which is about a spirit of optimism and collaboration for creating a better future.

“And despite having ‘city’ in its name, the cast will visit mostly rural, coastal and island locations,” Fairfield says.

“Much of the discussion and decision-making around climate and sustainability in Ireland can feel centred in the big cities, and mainly Dublin, so we have mapped out our route mostly to rural and coastal communities who may feel more isolated from the discussions,” she says.

Fairfield grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and since moving to Ireland she has set up and run Bright Club, a variety show that features academics doing stand-up comedy.

“I know from experience that it is often easier to run events in cities, but I also remember my own childhood growing up in a small town, and that feeling that the events happen in the larger places,” she says.

“And for climate change and climate action, that kind of isolation is troubling, because it is often the more isolated communities that will be deeply affected by climate change and mitigation, so we want to encourage agency and action in those communities.”

Hot topics

To develop the We Built this City project, Fairfield and colleagues visited several non-urban communities around Ireland and asked them directly for their thoughts and concerns around climate and sustainability.

“Biodiversity came out as a huge theme from those discussions,” she recalls. “Also we heard that people felt isolated, that they wanted to make a change and they wanted to connect with other people to make that change. I was surprised by the strength of that feeling, but I was glad we asked, and we designed the show very much with those connections in mind.”

For Dr Claire Murray, who helped to design and evaluate meetings with communities around Ireland, that engagement from the start was key.

“When you begin a project from the ground up, it tends to be much closer connected to the community and people feel more attached to it, they see the project is driven by their own interests rather than a scientist somewhere else saying that you will be interested in this and that you will enjoy it,” Murray adds.

“What we learned from the communities around Ireland straight away is that they are completely switched on to the issues they see locally, that many of them are taking action and that they want to work together to do even more. So I see this project being about sharing power in communities, responding to their questions with evidence and enabling people to make connections.”

Showtime

In that vein, each performance will reflect the location where it is playing, says project co-leader and improvisation expert Katy Schutte.

“When people come to the show they will have the opportunity to write their concerns and questions and put them into a box,” she says.

“Then we will have a series of performances by scientists and musicians and improv artists that engage with the audience around the questions and concerns they have raised.”

Schutte and Fairfield will improvise comedic and dramatic scenes during the event, to tease out elements of the scientist’s talk and the issues raised by the audience.

“Improv is about really listening and then responding in a way that keeps the other person engaged, and that is the essence of the entire project,” says Schutte.

And comedy more generally offers people new ways into conversations that might otherwise be hard to start, says Fairfield. “We talk about putting the ‘fun’ in fundamental change,” she says.

“The comedy unlocks the tension and maybe even shyness to talk about these issues of climate and sustainability that can otherwise feel so overwhelming.”

Pack away the parachute

The project, which is supported by Creative Ireland, iCRAG, BiOrbic and the University of Galway, piloted the live performance in Dingle, Co Kerry, last year, as part of Féile na Bealtaine, with ecologist Dr Gesche Kindermann from the University of Galway as the expert scientist.

Kindermann will reprise the role in the upcoming tour, which will also feature other scientists, performers including storyteller Órla Mc Govern, guided walks, sustainability workshops by the Sustainable Life School and even sea swims in the communities around the dates of the theatre events.

“We have booked time and spaces around each performance in each location, so hopefully even more people get the chance to engage,” says Fairfield, who stresses the importance of local organisations being involved.

“We have no interest in the ‘parachute’ approach, where you land into a place with your preconceived ideas and information and then leave,” she says.

“Instead we are all about finding ways to build a community for change in every place that we go, and the dream would be to offer new tools to pre-existing groups that can help them to progress their activities, or that we are helping to seed new groups of people to get together because of a shared interest in climate and action. That people find others in their locality who share their concerns, that they are not in it alone.”

For details of venues and times of We Built This City on Rock and Coal, and to book tickets, see webuiltthiscity.ie

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation