There was a graph. Then there were some balloons. And then they started dancing.
You find some pretty weird things at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But I can (almost) guarantee there’s only one show with a waltzing climate change Prof.
The Hero Who Overslept is a two-man “lecture-drama hybrid” that its creators say tries to take climate change science out of the world of “thinky thinky” and into the realm of “feely feely”.
The show is written, directed and performed by the Open University climate scientist Dr Stephen Peake and Philip Woodford, a lawyer turned business coach turned actor.
In today’s distracting world, the pair wanted to try and craft a fresh answer to a familiar question: How do you help people understand and care about climate change?
They’ve ended up with a theatrical production which pits an instantly recognisable, introverted, frustrated climate scientist against a hammed-up, free-spirited intellect with a love of Descartes and interpretive dance.
“No. Really,” I say to my somewhat sceptical companions as we make our way to the roomy attic space above an established Edinburgh theatre at the heart of the Fringe’s festivities.
The show is a light-hearted affair, with the protagonists emoting rather than proselytizing as they strive to make the audience connect with the often amorphous topic of climate change.
In one scene, the climate scientist asks his companion to imagine a bath full of different coloured ping pong balls to try and explain atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. In another, the climate scientist is put on a psychologist's’ couch and asked to think about the sustainability of his lifestyle, with an inflatable globe getting a kick each time his carbon footprint grows.
The show is “an expression and attempt of a new story of connection and love” around the planet and people climate change impacts, Peake tells me later.
Woodford agrees. Climate experts are always “trying to persuade, convince. But always through the head,” he says. This comes at the expense of exploring “what’s it like to try and fall in love with the planet, which for many people is inanimate.”
That’s difficult because “it does seem so far off. It’s not right in front of you. We haven’t got the water lapping at the door.”
We speak as the show approaches the end of its first week at the festival. While audience numbers have been moderate so far, both Peake and Woodford are determined to persevere with telling the epic story of climate change in a new way.
Both argue that to encourage people to act, they’ve got to care. And while a lecture presenting a shopping list of low-carbon lifestyle changes may be an efficient way to offer practical advice, it's never going to address the underlying problem.
At one point in the show, ‘Professor Stephen’ talks about how his fictitious students walk through an ‘amnesia scanner’ every time they leave through the lecture theatre doors.
That’s because however much sense climate science makes to them, however motivated to act they may briefly be, they never connect on an emotional level, the (real) Peake argues.
And that’s the critical point of the show — that feelings are ultimately stronger than thoughts.
It is an argument for the times, with some obvious high-profile examples of people making political choices with their hearts as much as their heads.
Peake in particular is critical of major scientific institutions that seem to think that the best way to connect with confused, disengaged public is through “more science”. That’s why the pair, sharing a yurt while on an arts course in the countryside, decided they needed to do a show.
“The thing that you need to connect with is a respect for the world around you, and a respect for nature, and a connection with nature, and a connection with others around you,” Peake says.
“Should we build better houses? Should I not travel on the plane as much? Should I become vegetarian? All these things follow from that fundamental reorientation about what your head and your heart is doing.
“Whereas if you just say go and switch your electricity provider, go and eat less meat, fine, that will have a beneficial impact, but you still actually haven’t changed your fundamental understanding about why I am doing these things.”
Woodford agrees: “I’m not saying we’ve got the answer, but I think when theatre can move people, then there is a more enduring recollection of what they feel at that point.”
“And then when the next encounter comes, whether you see an advert for Greenpeace or you see the Green Party talking, you might just think ‘oh let me follow this up more’ because something inside is stirred.”
While the show makes an admirably good fist of communicating this, it doesn’t necessarily explain why the two chose the world’s largest Arts festival to try the exercise.
Given many climate scientists break out in a sweat at the prospect of giving a quote to the local news, it seems a ballsy move.
“The fringe does seem daunting at first,” Peake admits, but “we looked at what was on offer and realised sustainability wasn’t really being done.”
“We realised the Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s greatest Arts sandpit. And we knew that we wanted to play in the sandpit.
“So, yes it’s daunting and it costs us a lot money as we’ve had to self-fund it. But on the other hand there’s something about Fringe audiences where this is a space with people looking for fresh approaches and experimentation. So it’s not a bad place to do it.”
Neither of them see the Edinburgh Fringe run as the end for the show. Woodford envisages altering it for different audiences – corporate, school-age, or just vaguely interested.
Peake intends to take the lessons he’s learned from writing and performing the show back into the lecture theatre, to try and make environmental sustainability more than something “surface level” for those he teaches.
“My frontier is not the arctic, it’s not the Amazon. My frontier is the Edinburgh Fringe audience. And I have some stories to come back and tell.”
Whether the dancing persists in the telling, however, remains to be seen.
Photo: Chris Valentine