On the Edge

The University of Hull and National Youth Theatre collaboration for COP26

Project summary

The Challenge

The University and NYT were presented with a chance to devise and perform a new theatre piece on climate science and environmental change at COP26

The Approach

The EEI led interactive workshops on climate change and its impacts which fed into the creation of NYT’s On the Edge, performed at COP26

The Outcome

Participants could speak freely and authentically as young people and audiences were encouraged to both think and act differently

Lead academics

Funded by

Project partners

The Challenge

Since 2020, the University of Hull and National Youth Theatre (NYT) have collaborated on creative theatre projects focusing on climate science and environmental change. The University and NYT were offered the opportunity bring young people’s lived experience of navigating human-induced climate change to an international audience, highlighting the impact of increasing flood risk, coastal change and community marginalisation against the backdrop of the global climate crisis.

The Approach

We knew that this would allow us to foreground young people’s experience of climate change and show the impact that transdisciplinary co-creativity can have.  We wanted to celebrate the creativity and dynamism that we’d seen in our previous NYT collaborations and showcase their creative young voices on an international stage.   

In an intense research and development process, we took some deep dives into the reality of climate change and its increasingly hazardous impacts.  During a two-week writing and rehearsal period, we collaborated to weave together the expertise of climate scientists with the lived experience of NYT’s young cast and creatives, transforming both into ‘On The Edge’.  The final performance in Glasgow featured a short play, ‘I Don’t Care’, and a climate cabaret featuring spoken word, music, comedy and magic.

On the Edge was performed live to an audience of 50 but has since then reached over 3.7K viewers on YouTube

The process of devising On The Edge was co-creative: ‘I Don’t Care’ was jointly devised by the writer/director Adeola Yemitan, the NYT cast and academic colleagues from the UoH, based in part on her participation in joint workshops held online in May 2020 and October 2021. With a week to go before COP26 opened, the show was still in development as cast and creatives iteratively re-shaped their work based on their own lived experiences. The technical elements of the show were created alongside the performance, so audio and visuals were devised and recorded as the work evolved. As academic advisor to the project, Prof. Briony McDonagh participated in this final week of preparations, and contributed advice and answered questions about the climate crisis and its impacts on people and the environment in the UK and globally, referring to colleagues back in Hull where necessary – she also appears in the performance’s audio track.

An additional challenge – as well as having only a short amount of time to devise an original theatre piece from scratch – from NYT’s perspective was planning for a performance in a space that none of us had seen in advance, and which wasn’t a traditional theatre setting: the short play opens with a scene of young people attending a far-from-engaging climate conference, and the climate cabaret specifically acknowledge the context of the performance and the challenges that NYT members identified in trying to get their voices heard amidst the clamour of international negotiations.

On The Edge gave young people the opportunity to highlight their multiple, sometimes conflicting experiences of eco-anxiety and eco-anger, as well as coastal change, both in their marginalisation and in their creative, hopeful solution-seeking. Dr Kate Smith

The Impact

We know from our audience feedback, and from personal experience journals written by NYT participants that both the process and the performance of On The Edge was impactful.  For the participants it offered a rare chance to speak freely and authentically from their experience as young people facing a myriad of challenges, of which climate change is often the least pressing.  For our audience, we know that it encouraged them to both think and act differently. Crucially, the majority of our audience told us that their advocacy or actions in relation to young people, flooding and climate impacts would change.  

NYT On the Edge rehearsal COP26 credit Ali Wright web
NYT rehearsal images by Ali Wright

Next steps

The live recording of the performance was shared with attendees of the UK Climate Resilience Programme showcase in Hull in September 2022.  Some members of that audience were visibly moved by the experience.  We know that On The Edge works for audiences – it is bold, provocative and funny – and look forward to exploring with NYT more ways in which the co-creative processes we developed can deliver impactful work in the future.