Ella Langley: Interview with Michael Galligan, Solarplexus
“People are getting more and more awake every day to the reality that we live on planet Earth”
With a climate change apocalypse approaching, Solarplexus presents us with a sci-fi comedy about environmentalism and corporate greed. Exploring the ways we respond to imminent doom, in and out of the world of the play. The show strives to walk the environmental walk, spinning renewable energy live on stage to help power the production. We spoke to Michael Galligan about the journey of creating the show and bringing it over to the fringe for the first time.
Origins: Solarplexus is the first play you’ve written. Can you talk to me a bit about where the piece came from?
Over the summer of 2015 I read Endgame by Derrick Jensen it was the heaviest piece of environmental writing I had read; it was like a tonne of bricks falling on me. He speaks pretty militaristically about how to fix the environmental issues that we’re facing. He’s very quick to blame large corporations and he was very quick to cut through actions that are not drastic enough to help.
So, it started based off of a character, a comic depiction of this violent sooth-sayer trope. That then became more of a sketch and then more of a play. The impetus for the play was to create an ensemble of characters that represent the different ways that we can react to the unfortunate realisation that the earth is dying.
The goal was to make it function like a modern-day parable that we can all see ourselves in. But there was a constant risk that this could easily cross the line into preaching. That was something that I constantly grappled with: that I don’t know enough about this to be teaching it. I found the solution was to ground it in the personal, the story of a family, and to use the act of writing that story as a way to re-express something that inspired you, and hope you pass that on to others.
Something really important to that was having a slow devising process. I was able to share this source inspiration with the people working with me and we developed this language together and were really careful and intentional about what kind of message we wanted to deliver.
Symbiosis: The show manages to marry its environmental content to its management in such an explicit way. Where did that come from, and how do you feel about the content versus management argument with sustainable theatre?
People say don’t criticise the system unless you can offer a solution. So, if we’re gonna criticise the way our society is handling these issues through the play, we wanted to have the production practices reflect the utopia that we strive for however small scale that is.
Actually, the spark of the idea for the play came from when I was visiting Edinburgh in 2016. I saw a bunch of plays that were experimental and had something in their production that was informing the actual content of the play. So, I came up was this kind of nebulous concept of a bike that generated energy and I wrote it into the play but we had no idea how to do it.
The summer that we were planning to do the first production a friend kind of popped into the scene who knew somebody, this artist named André Feliciano that also works at a summer camp in New York and teaches kids how to make DIY renewable energy projects. We brought him into the fold and it was kind of this miracle. The idea that there’s a set piece on stage that’s transparent to the audience and able to be worked by every member of the cast and production was really cool.
Hindsight: What do you wish you had known as first-time Fringe goers trying to keep it eco-friendly?
I wish I had known earlier that the Fringe is such a stacked deck and it’s stacked in the favour of people who have a lot of money and don’t care about environmentalism.
There’s a nice kind of catch to that, which is the message that there’s power in numbers. You can game the system by creating this little movement of people who are trying to do something different whether it’s not using flyers or asking people to take pictures of their flyers or their shows having sustainable practices. Fringe is looking for shows that have buzz. I thought that sustainable Fringe did a really nice job of using that to their advantage and I was proud to be a part of that.
When we did this show for the first time two years ago we converted a none traditional theatre space into our own version of a theatre space and we used our own LED bulbs and we hooked it all up to the bike so about 60-80% of the production was powered by the bike. And then due to the nature of the fringe, which we saw as an opportunity to get the message out to more people, we made compromise after compromise to that vision.
I think if I could do it again I would have avoided a lot of those sacrifices because I think other productions were able to succeed by actually doubling down on their message.
Responsibility: You said the book that inspired this play was quick to blame big corporations, who do you think holds responsibility when it comes to theatre’s environmental impact?
A lot of people are putting the onus on corporations, but that's giving them the benefit of the doubt that corporations are people with feelings.
That’s been such a big global conversation not just in theatre and I think that taking a side is to an extent a way of sidestepping responsibility. A lot of people are putting the onus on corporations, but that’s giving them the benefit of the doubt that they’re people that have feelings. They're not. They're profit-driven institutions that rely completely on consumer demand, so we have a shared responsibility with them.
In the theatre world at the end of the day it’s gonna be bigger organisations that make the change, but without the artists to demand that it’s not gonna happen. Also, the relationship between artists and bigger producers is one that needs to be symbiotic and not combative (which I struggle with).
Inspiration: Is there anyone else whose work in theatre and sustainability is inspiring you?
There’s a group in New York city called Superhero Clubhouse. They do a thing called Big Green Theater, where they have professional actors come in and help kids create environmental pieces. It’s a great combination of theatre making and environmentalism and education - which is so important.