Mechanimal: Theatre about our changing planet

Alice Boyd

In March 2021, I talked to Tom Bailey, artistic director of Mechanimal, an award-winning Bristol-based company, which creates devised theatre that explores life on a changing planet. Each of Mechanimal's projects involves collaboration with a range of different artists and researchers. Two of Mechanimal's shows, Zugunruhe and Vigil are available to watch via Pound Arts' website.

I want to look at the beauty of the evolved planet and explore how we can make people feel that, without needing to know the information. It's about feeling.

Can you tell us about Mechanimal, what the company does and how it started?

Mechanimal is a theatre company that I run. I work with different artists and researchers on each project, according to the project's focus. I've been making theatre for about 8 years now. I was a late starter at 26 years old, after initially starting out in environmental journalism and activism. I retrained in my mid-20s and started making theatre under the name Mechanimal, which always carried a focus on environmentalism. This has led to the company focussing exclusively on environmentalism over the last few years.

In the company's work, I always look to work with researchers. I really enjoy having a research element. The last two shows have been focussed on species, and now I'm in a position where I'm looking towards landscape and non-living matter. One of my new shows is called Megalith, and that's being made with support from the Natural History Museum in London. Megalith is looking at mining and extraction, with a specific focus on copper mining. The other show I'm working on is called Ghost Sonata, and is about the sad but inevitable disappearance of the Arctic sea ice. Both of those shows, partly due to COVID, are slow burners. But hopefully will be ready towards the end of this year or early next year.

You have a background in environmental journalism. What made you want to focus your art on climate change and environmental issues, and why did you move towards theatre and creating art about these issues?

My revelation moment about climate change goes all the way back to James Lovelock's 'The Revenge of Gaia' when I was in my second year, studying English at university. It was one of those incredible books and awakening moments in terms of the severity of climate change. The issue feels so important and weighty, and it became the sole focus for what I felt I should be doing with life. When I was still at university and didn't know quite what I wanted to do, I knew I wanted to go into theatre, but equally felt a huge moral urge to do something related to climate change.

With an English degree, I was getting pushed towards media and sustainability in media roles. It was important, but I didn't feel like I'd make a big difference in environmental media. I ended up looking at my skills and what I was passionate about. I felt I was more suited to creative work, and I knew I wasn't going to be an environmental engineer. I couldn't create an incredible tech fix for climate change. I made the decision to go into creatively responding to the climate change, with the knowledge that theatre is to some extent a limited medium, and you are only going to reach a limited number of people. I'm trying to change that as I go forward, and reach more people.

What can audiences expect to experience in your shows Zugunruhe and Vigil, which are available via the website of the Pound Arts Centre, Corsham?

I'd hope that audiences have fun with the encounter with species and enjoy this strange theatrical exploration with non-humans. Both shows were initially made in response to the genre of natural history documentaries. The initial questions I asked were 'what if we put the camera lens back on the human' and 'what would a live version of the natural history documentary be?'. Both shows start in a lighter more comic place, and end up in a slightly more poignant place about bird migration (Zugunruhe) or species extinction (Vigil).

In essence, both are physical and playful encounters between human and other species. Both are essentially trying to expand the lens and frame of reference through which we think about species and the climate crisis. Zugunruhe, the migration show, is trying to explore how we're so focussed on human migration through an economic lens - who's in, who's out, who's costing what - yet, we're forgetting that migration is a natural and evolved phenomenon in most species. An exploration of animal migration and how it is in danger under climate change is a way of expanding the frame of reference by which we talk about migration.

Vigil is a meditation on extinction. I often think about how the terms 'climate change' and 'extinction' have become such a part of everyday speech. In a way, we have become numbed to what those terms mean. I've found myself stopping and thinking, 'hang on, isn't that mad? We're in the sixth mass extinction, and yet we're able to talk about it like it's going to the shop'. 'Vigil' is about sitting with the thought of extinction and acknowledging the species that are at risk of becoming extinct. What are their names, and what if we look at the names and go through a journey with them? You and I may not have a relationship with these names and species, because we've never seen them, we've never encountered them. What is that encounter between the human and the unknown species/other, that are apparently going extinct and apparently are meant to mean something to us, but we don't know exactly what. Across an hour, that show takes in the whole 26,000 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

We're in the sixth mass extinction, and yet we're able to talk about it like it's going to the shop.

It's interesting that you are looking at non-human life, and these forms of life that we don't have a relationship with or an immediate charismatic connection to. How do you think people can start to form a relationship with non-human life, and do you believe it's important that we build a level of empathy?

The more empathy that we have, the more that we, as a society, can help those species live. The term 'Anthropocene' is being used a lot now, and it's something I consider in my work. Within the theatre context, I think about what is the positionality of the human. Is there a way of decentring the human and challenging how we relate to non-human others? A simple way of looking at it is to consider that everything from rocks, to plants, to animals, are shut out of democratic system. They have no say in what is going on and have no representation. That is part of the issue.

How can we extend a sense of presence and a sense of awareness so that non-humans are taken into consideration in our democratic decision making? The perfect thing about theatre for me is that its an art form where people can extend empathy to others in a way that they haven't necessarily done before.

Everything from rocks, to plants, to animals, are shut out of democratic system. They have no say in what is going on and have no representation. That is part of the issue.

Are there any ways you try to make your practice more sustainable? Do you have any tips for other theatre makers?

I try to source materials sustainably, and I try to minimise the carbon footprint of the project. At the same time, I wish that I could do that better. There are companies who are absolutely leading the way in terms of sustainable theatre practice and I think there is going to be an increasing emphasis on staying local, minimising travel, and having a clear through line of resource use and how material is recycled at the end of a project. That is something that is becoming increasingly important to me. I've started creating maps of resources across projects, where materials come from and where they will ultimately end up. It's important to think about your work as part of the wider picture.

That's a particular focus for the show I'm making about mining. All the tech that we have and every bit of metal comes from rock through mining. It's a show about the nature of the global development we're experiencing, and the narrative of needing more tech and more amenities to help us develop as a civilisation. It's all dependent on mining and the rock coming from the earth. How sustainable is that narrative? When does it need to change?

I think there is going to be an increasing emphasis on staying local, minimising travel, and having a clear through line of resource use

Many of the sustainability issues that we need to tackle are part of much wider global systems. It can feel impossible to see how an individual can make change. Particularly now in the theatre industry, everyone is strapped for cash and time.

I agree. Some sustainable solutions are incredibly expensive, such as travelling entirely using electric vehicles, and are not currently within the scope of the budgets of many theatre shows. It's about doing the best that you can on a particular budget.

Do you feel that environmental work still is a hard sell? I find there is still an underlying sense of, 'oh no, not another show about climate change'. I certainly question as an artist how I can shift those goal posts and shift expectations about climate-based work, and that it doesn't have to all be about misery and grief.

It felt that there was an explosion of a lot of new climate change shows in response to climate change moving up the agenda, in response to Greta Thunberg's Friday for Future, David Attenborough's 'Blue Planet II' and the work of Extinction Rebellion. It felt like there were some really interesting takes on climate change. However, that was short period of time before we were plunged into the pandemic. Your work feels different to what someone might expect a climate change show to be. It's refreshing to see work about environmental issue that departs from more conventional theatre forms. Creating work that engages different types of audiences through a variety of formats feels like an effective way to reach wider audiences.

With climate change, for a long time it's been a scientific and cognitive subject. It's laden with information that is based on scenarios in order to get its public and international provability. It's been led by rationalism, proof, scenarios and information. I found that interesting and inspiring, and that's what my work is based on. But, at the same time, I don't want to make art that is still coming from that same cognitive place. I'm trying to translate that concern that comes out of the information into feeling. Rather than solely looking at the information, I want to make work that is about life, survival, and the future. I want to look at the beauty of the evolved planet and explore how we can make people feel that, without needing to know the information. It's about feeling. It's the battle between knowledge and feeling within a work and the creation process.

Find out more about Mechanimal's work

Mechanimal's website

Watch Zugunruhe

Watch Vigil

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