Can puppets change the world? Politics and Theatre

Programming plays that tackle any kind of political issue can be challenging for venues catering for a broad church of audiences. Not only do you risk putting audiences off coming merely because of pre-disposition to take offence at the subject matter or point of view, but as Christopher Haydon, Artistic Director of the Gate Theatre, has written ‘You make bad work if the work you’re doing is led by a particular argument’[i], a trap that can be easy to fall into. Climate change is an especially divisive issue, with public opinion sitting within increasingly entrenched camps, heightened by a polarised press[ii].

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The extent to which venues have a responsibility to enter a political debate is contested, particularly when it comes to making work for children and families. This winter two pieces of theatre for young audiences focussed on the damaging effects of humans’ activity on the planet: The Journey Home at Little Angel Theatre and The Lorax at The Old Vic. By many conventional standards, these were safe bets. Both were based on pre-existing children’s books – The Journey Home is an award-winning children’s book by Frann Preston-Gannon; The Lorax of course belongs to the global brand that is Dr Seuss. And presenting work about climate change for children feels like an obvious step –environmentalism not only argues for safeguarding the planet for future generations, but also seeks to persuade younger generations to correct the errors of their predecessors. Both these pieces end by making an appeal to their young audiences, which also allows the dramatists to end on a note of optimism.

However, in the context of a polarised audience base pieces like these can be problematic. Some audiences might bring their own worldviews and political baggage into the space with them, preventing them from enjoying the piece on its own merits. And whilst it may be unlikely that children themselves would do this, whoever has brought them and paid for their tickets may do, and they might have the added pressure of feeling protective over their children’s innocent worldviews.

This context helps to explain why both shows’ marketing copy contain just a nod to the political context: in The Journey Home you can ‘join Polar Bear as he sets off in search of a new home when the ice starts melting…Meet all the animals on their adventure to find a new home; what else will they encounter on their journey of discovery and friendship… [watch as the story] ‘is brought to life through puppetry, lyrical music and transformative design’. And The Lorax ‘tells of a moustachioed and cantankerous critter who’s on a mission to protect the earth from the greedy, tree-shopping, Thneed-knitting businessman known only as the Once-ler… The Lorax blends theatrical invention, puppetry, songs and zany humour in a timely and vibrant Christmas show with a message for grandparents, parents and children alike.’

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Both shows take the same approach, cloaking their message in an irresistible cocktail of fun characters and high production values. But when you’re sitting in the space, there is something in both pieces that comes from the gut: whether it’s David Greig’s powerful juxtaposition of the glittering attraction of consumer capitalism and growth-based economics with its starkly devastating effects on the eco-system in The Lorax, or The Journey Home’s aching sadness and haunting music[iii] evoking a world weeping under the weight of mankind’s extractivist exploitation.

Both pieces also reveal a unique place for puppetry in stories about the environment. Puppets have the ability to give a voice to the voiceless. In The Journey Home a polar bear, an elephant, a monkey and a panda become refugees, thrown into an uncertain journey by the unscrupulous industry and expansion of humans. The Lorax himself becomes the ultimate symbol of this, as written by Dr Seuss ‘I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.’ There is something precise and unarguable, beautiful and tragic about putting these creatures (and nature itself) centre-stage, brought to life and yet simultaneously at the whim and mercy of their human operators.

It’s telling that the puppets are frequently the undisputed heroes of these shows, even when the rest of content doesn’t appeal. Quentin Letts, whose review of The Lorax is politicised from the start by referring to the ‘Corbynist’ Old Vic under Matthew Warchus, can’t help but celebrate the ‘orange hero’[iv]. A common positive note in often luke-warm reviews of Greenland at the National Theatre was the arrival of a large animatronic puppet polar bear, which was so beautifully built that Greenpeace raised money to buy it for their own campaigning. Again, ‘the only well-applauded star’ according to the Daily Express who also said of the production ‘there is something Soviet about a play written by committee’[v].

Puppets seem to provide a credible and spirited lynchpin around which theses shows are formed, and may help to make challenging issues more palatable to a broad range of audiences. Of course there’s no one-size-fits-all model. Contrast for example the ‘upfront’ visceral rage of pieces like #TORYCORE or Caroline Horton’s Islands, which make no attempt to sweeten the pill but rather embrace its poetic horror[vi]. Such different approaches for politically focussed work may take their lead from wide-ranging factors: the artists, the financial realities of box office targets, the pre-existing make-up of the audience base. Theatres will know the best way to deliver their message to their audience, disguised or undisguised, but so long as it has heart and meaning, I don’t think it matters.[vii]

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The Journey Home toured around the UK and then played at Little Angel Theatre from 12th September to 28th October 2015.
The Lorax played at the Old Vic from Fri 4th Dec 2015 – Sat 16 Jan 2016.
Leaper by Tucked In Productions, plays at Little Angel Theatre from 8-10th April 2016. This production follows one fish’s perilous quest against the ever-growing natural and man-made challenges in our waters.

Chris Wootton is General Manager of Little Angel Theatre.

Little Angel Theatre welcomes responses to this blog. Email chris@littleangeltheatre.com if you’d like us to read them, or comment by Twitter or Facebook.

Notes

[i]“I’ve read plays about how awful the Tories are and generally they’re bad, because the writer isn’t actually writing a play, they’re writing an argument and using dialogue as a way of expressing that. That makes for bad art. You make bad work if the work you’re doing is led by a particular argument…If you’re going to hold power, you have to win arguments, and you win arguments by boiling them down to their simplest points and often by appealing to people’s self-interest or appealing to people’s baser instincts, and if you’re good at that then you have power. What an artistic response to that has to be is to refuse to allow the wider argument, the wider dialogue in society, to be reduced to that kind of simplistic, basic, self-interested narrative.” Christopher Haydon in WhatsOnStage interview by Catherine Love, 14 September 2014, http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/christopher-haydon-we-want-to-create-work-that-loo_35635.html

[ii] In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein neatly outlines the dramatic shift in public opinion about climate change in recent years. In the process, people’s views have increasingly been determined by the camp they feel comfortable in regarding other issues – “among the segment of the US population that displays the strongest ‘hierarchical’ [and ‘individualistic’] views, only 11% rate climate change as a ‘high risk’, compared with 69% of the segment displaying the strongest ‘egalitarian’ views.”[ii] She quotes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, who provides further explanation: ‘People find it disconcerting to believe that behaviour that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behaviour that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.’ The views of both camps are of course amplified by a similarly polarised press. Climate change provides a neat example of the confirmation bias so brilliantly explored by Chris Thorpe in his 2014 show Confirmation.

[iii] For a short excerpt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSAqLSA7SAo

[iv] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/reviews/article-3365013/The-Lorax-eco-tale-kiddies-writes-Quentin-Letts.html

[v] http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/theatre/226975/Review-Greenland-National-Theatre-London

[vi] Stewart Pringle has written brilliantly on both: #TORYCORE: http://exeuntmagazine.com/reviews/torycore-2/; and Islands: https://cormonkeys.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/islands-review/. See also Andrew Haydon on Islands: http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/islands-bush-theatre.html

[vii] See also a discussion at Devoted & Disgruntled 2015, which throws up some interesting points on this topic: http://www.devotedanddisgruntled.com/events/dd-11/reports/can-we-make-theatre-about-politicssocial-issues-th/. Rosie Curtis has also written this terrific blog about The Lorax and capitalism: https://organisedenthusiasm.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/the-lorax/

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