Climate change: ‘How can art inform people without depressing them?’

Future Limerick, Ireland’s first climate arts festival brings together like-minded creatives

In their 2019 play Afloat, Eva O’Connor and Hildegard Ryan imagine a world where the climate catastrophe that scientists have warned about has already happened. Dublin is underwater and two young women are trying to find a way to ensure they survive the crisis. In the years since the play premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival, the environmental endpoint they dramatised has become even more prescient. However the artist-activists are not despairing. Instead they have become even more invigorated about the opportunity art offers to raise public consciousness about environmental issues. Indeed, this is the impetus for Future Limerick, Ireland’s first climate arts festival, organised by Sunday’s Child, the theatre company founded by O’Connor and Ryan in 2010.

Speaking to me from Belfast, where Sunday’s Child has just completed its first live performances post-pandemic, O’Connor explains that Afloat “made us start thinking very seriously about how you can talk about climate change in art in a way that will be entertaining and informative, without being depressing. I suppose one thing we were interested in was how to provoke an urgent discussion that doesn’t make people bury their heads in the sand. How do you tackle big issues but make them digestible for audiences? The scientific facts are there on a plate, but how do we communicate them in an engaging and accessible way? How can art inform people without depressing them?”

As Ryan explains: “Art and creativity can be really important tools for sparking debate about climate change.”

If Afloat proved to them the effectiveness of using drama to communicate an environmental message, the pair were keen to find a way to continue a conversation about “issues of sustainability and climate change” through their work. “We were wondering what other things we could do to keep the conversation going,” Ryan elaborates. They applied to the ESB Brighter Future Arts Fund, a scheme to support artists and arts organisations to engage with their local communities about climate change issues, and were one of five arts projects to secure sponsorship. The others were the Theatre Royal Biodiversity Garden, Waterford, led by artist Elaine McDonagh; a solar-powered greenhouse installation by David Beattie at the Visual Centre of Contemporary Art in Carlow; Almanac for a Walled City, a partnership between sound artist Christopher Steenson and the Nerve Centre, Derry; and a light show during Dublin Dance Festival exploring the themes of sustainability and human connection.

Creating a festival, O’Connor explains, was a way of “giving a platform to other artists and activists who are also raising environmental awareness in their work”. The programme features some of them: Dublin theatre company Brokentalkers have reworked their installation Rising, which premiered at the Dublin Theatre Festival last year, for the Shannon-side city, while author Manchan Magan and teen-activist Saoirse Exton will headline a discussion about individual action.

Sunday’s Child also invited ideas for a scratch night and have been overwhelmed by the standard of proposals: “There are a lot of people trying to have this conversation, in lots of different artforms, who haven’t had the opportunity yet to put their ideas out there.” The company will also remount Afloat at the Lime Tree Theatre, to give local audiences an opportunity to reflect on the urgent themes that their drama raises. Limerick’s Lime Tree Theatre is providing the logistical support.

The Lime Tree was O’Connor’s local theatre when she was a young aspiring artist, and it has been supportive of Sunday’s Child since its first productions, “so there was an established relationship with a team of amazing women who we have known for years”. As Ryan elaborates, “we have never run a festival before, and they have helped to give us a platform we otherwise would not get”.

One of the issues that O’Connor and Ryan are keen to highlight in the festival and in their own work is the tension between individual and collective action. When the women first became involved in environmental campaigning, they explain, “there was this idea that if everybody would just do their bit, we would all be fine”, as O’Connor puts it. “But the debate has really moved on from that now [taking] the onus away from personal responsibility and the individual, [highlighting instead] the role that bigger corporations need to play.” The question for activists then, Ryan says, is “how to strike a balance between personal action and political and corporate agitation”.

Ryan, who is based in London and has been involved with the Just Stop Oil movement in the UK for years, has first-hand experience of direct action. She was even arrested for it, after “breaking into an oil depot and locking ourselves in to disrupt the supply chain”. For her, being engaged in direct action “makes me really hopeful that things can actually change, instead of being depressed and thinking ‘oh nothing we do matters. Hahaha. We’re all going to die’. [Direct action] makes you feel like you can help bigger change come about; that grassroots action can yield amazing results.”

O’Connor chimes in, “so you might not be able to change the world, but working at a community level, you can change your little part of the world and all that connects to [having a] big chain effect”. A festival like Future Limerick, then, they hope, will inspire local communities to come together to make changes that will have a collective effect. The point is, they conclude, as artists, as individuals, “we don’t have any of the answers, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask the questions”.

Future Limerick: Climate Arts Festival, May 16th-22nd, limetreetheatre.ie

Re-Staging: sustainable set building company

Ireland's theatre community gets a little bit greener this month with the launch of Re-Staging, a sustainable set building company. Spearheaded by Stephen Bourke, who has 30 years experience with companies including Dublin Fringe Festival, Fishamble, and Anu Productions, Re-Staging will use sustainably-sourced materials to build, dismantle and reuse sets. The ambition is to reduce the amount of virgin material being used in set construction, reduce landfill dumps and unnecessary storage. Re-Staging hopes to achieve a carbon neutral process in design and reduce the environmental footprint of the live performance industry. Re-Staging.com