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Exclusive: Polka takes on the Earth (and other stuff)

Published 20 September 2013

From 27 September, something very different and potentially life-changing will be taking place at the Polka theatre as three artists, director Lucy Kerbel, designer Simon Daw and playwright Joel Horwood put one of the world’s most crucial subjects centre stage at the leading children’s venue.

Climate change. It’s not a subject you might expect a children’s theatre to tackle, but if they did, you might well imagine it condensed into a pithy, but possibly not hugely informative narrative. Instead Polka theatre has taken the brave decision to condense months of research by both children and the co-creators into a sort of TED lecture for children, albeit with added fun and the promise of gunk. Here the trio of creative brains behind the project reveals the inspirational journey of developing the show and explains why they believe it holds the power to be life-changing.

Several years ago, Lucy Kerbel was working on a project with a group of primary and secondary school students. The subject of climate change came up and Lucy was flabbergasted by what the young people had taken from their science lessons to be factual information about the subject. With her company, Tonic, Lucy began to research more fully what young people in London and Surrey knew about climate change. The variation, confusion and misinformation on the subject seemed vast. In fact, as Lucy began to speak to friends, colleagues and family, the entire subject seemed a problematic thing to grapple with; full of guilt, foreboding and a sense that it was too big a problem to begin to understand. Lucy wondered: “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could just explain this issue, clearly and factually to the people who really will change the world: tomorrow’s adults? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could give some children the tools they need to begin to take responsibility for our home planet?”
Lucy brought playwright Joel Horwood and designer Simon Daw on board as ‘co-creators’. This invited the artists involved to take responsibility for a new ambition. Rather than writing a fictional, probably metaphorical narrative that would aim to drive home the themes of climate change but ‘in disguise’, Lucy committed to her hunch and the three began to plot a fun, interactive lecture: a TED talk for nine to 13-year-olds. With gunk. The co-creators interviewed scores of experts, read around the subject, attended conferences and lectures whilst researching the issue. They tried moments and workshopped ideas in schools, with the Polka Young Voices Panel (or PYVP – a group of children involved in the work of Polka theatre) and some professional actors. Gradually the idea began to form.
Over the past few months, producer Victoria Long helped the PYVP to interview experts on the subject. The young people involved interviewed everyone from university lecturers to Members of Parliament, Greenpeace policy makers to materials scientists. The PYVP were not afraid to ask the awkward questions, questions that adults might have shied away from or balked at. As a result these interviews describe the learning curve of a group of young people growing educated, empowered and impassioned about a global political issue. Suddenly the show had gained the spine of its structure.
Lucy, Joel and Simon worked closely together to imagine the last leap of this process. What would happen if the PYVP held some adults to account? What would happen if the PYVP had control over the theatre and asked two adult volunteers to tell a young audience a clear and practical answer to the question ‘how do we solve climate change?’ How might those adults structure a coherent and fun path through such a political minefield of a subject?
The Planet And Stuff is the culmination of several years’ work and is a wildly ambitious attempt to give a young audience the condensed version of the PYVP’s experience. The aim is to inform and empower rather than to deliver a more traditional, allegorical narrative. When the show ends, the experience grows; the interviews will be available for download, teachers can take lesson plans, bibliographies and lists of websites are freely available. The Polka foyer will have pre-paid postcards, petitions, alternative energy generators that the audience can try, small practical steps to engaging with creating the solutions.

Hopefully, The Planet And Stuff is a piece that delivers information clearly enough for our young audience (and adults who have been feeling that this subject is too complex) to engage with. Because why shouldn’t it be someone in our audience who – maybe not today, but possibly one day in the future – will solve climate change?

Lucy Kerbel, Joel Horwood and Simon Daw, co-creators of The Planet And Stuff


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