Robbie Taylor Hunt meets with writer and director, Patrick McCarthy, to discuss his ‘hyperrealist’ play, The Sky is Well Designed, and the purpose of environmental theatre.
At the Melbourne Fringe Festival, there was a noticeably large amount of plays that centred on an apocalyptic world – unsurprising considering the current state of international politics. Being a fan of dystopic stories, I booked my tickets to a range of these imaginative, prophetic, cautionary pieces. One play, The Sky is Well Designed, was a brand-new sound-theatre immersive performance by contemporary theatre company Fabricated Rooms.
The word ‘unique’ gets thrown around a lot in show descriptions during any Fringe, but The Sky is Well Designed deserves the label. Set in the near future, it centres around two scientists – Thomas and Bear – in an unidentified barren part of the Australian landscape as they undertake a study examining the musical qualities of electromagnetic energy. As if the plot isn’t peculiar enough, the piece’s style is unlike anything I have experienced before, utilising music composition (the Robert Jordan-composed soundscapes are created live by the actors with looping machines), fragmented dialogue with a languid rhythm, and a sense of being kept in the dark. The Sky Is Well Designed professes to ‘transport audiences to a fleeting moment where humans attempt to speak with the natural environment as it decays around them’.
I meet the Writer and Director, Patrick McCarthy, in a café in Northcote. We order lemonade (for him) and an orange juice (for me), and settle into a comfy booth. His kind, unpretentious demeanour makes it easy to start chatting about the show.
Patrick has referred to the play as ‘hyperrealist’ and I ask why he decided on this style which I had been so struck by. “With hyperrealism, in terms of telling the story, what’s nice is there’s not a lot of narrative or action,” he tells me, and I recall the absence of a significant plot. We discuss how this allows the audience to figure out their own relationships with the issues that the play raises. “When writing about a future corrupted by climate change, if you don’t answer the questions for them, the audience forms their own relationship to the subject matter, and projects their own stuff onto it”. The audience is still given a strong sense of the world the characters live in, and their emotional states, which encourages us to find personal connections. “If things are happening all the time there’s not enough space for you to invest as much.”
The Sky is Well Designed claims it ‘explores our relationship to transience and the natural environment’. I’m interested in the relevance of transience to nature, as I would think of nature as a constant, rather than something fleeting. “The characters have a weird experience with the natural environment, by mediated means rather than naturally,” Patrick says, referring to how Thomas and Bear attempt to communicate with the sky through various technological and musical means. We go on to discuss how modern engagement with nature is often detached and brief, with Patrick giving the example of experiencing the Sahara through David Attenborough rather than travelling to it and experiencing it first-hand. “Or someone taking a picture of a bird and putting it on Facebook, while there’s a bird outside my living room that I could go and look at. We have an increasingly mediated relationship with nature.” Indeed, programmes such as David Attenborough’s recent Planet Earth 2 and Blue Planet 2 enjoyed great acclaim and popularity, but it didn’t necessarily inspire everyone to visit the world’s jungles for themselves.
Patrick was influenced by Professor Douglas Kahn’s work while developing the play. Kahn refers to how the weather has become a ‘vengeful climate’, where we live in fear of the sky. This seems particularly relevant with the strongest ever hurricanes and storms the USA has ever suffered, and the devastating earthquakes in Japan, Mexico and New Zealand. Patrick is relaxed as he tells me how we tend to build up an arms-length relationship with these catastrophes. “It’s too scary to live in a state of panic, even though every day we go on Twitter and there’s ten different things to be horrified about. We can feel helpless.” Social media and an increasing global connectivity means we are immediately aware of these natural disasters, and can see how they are affecting real people’s lives. Patrick agrees that websites like bind can help tackle the sense of helplessness. “Having a creative response to these issues, in terms of bind, is helpful as we have got to figure out how to live with that kind of stuff.”
We continue discussing bind and how it allows artists to share personal and creative responses to various issues surrounding our environment. “We need to try to think: what’s our emotional, lived experience of climate change? There’s loads of art at the moment of the world we might be heading towards. Art is good for exploring what it feels like during the day to day. It’ll probably still feel scary and intense, but it’s still nice to talk to someone else.” I agree with him, acknowledging the connections and togetherness that can come from experiencing art with others, either in reality or in an online space.
As I work in theatre myself, I’m keen to know what specific role theatre can have concerning climate change. “For me, it’s about re-introducing the human and emotional element into it, because it’s so easy for conversation to be hijacked by politics, and that clearly isn’t getting us anywhere. We were arguing the facts, and we all thought that would be sufficient but it’s not.” This seems particularly appropriate regarding how falsehoods were embraced during the campaigns for Brexit and Trump’s election (then his entire presidency), resulting in ‘post-truth’ being the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year in 2016. “There’s too many vested interests, and too much money in convincing people it’s not real, it’s not happening, and that the solutions aren’t real. Artists’ contribution is to re-humanize. What are the emotional qualities? So we should place the story [of climate change] with characters and in aesthetics that resonate with it.
“I have no illusions about change. People seeing a play about the environment are already on board, it’s not made for people who don’t agree, it’s a space to think and feel about these things.” Theatre is certainly the perfect space for communally tackling problems in emotive ways.
Conversations about socio-political theatre often result in arguments around the ‘echo chamber’, namely that people seeing a play on a particular issue are already going to be on-side so nobody’s opinions will be changed, but Patrick thinks it’s useful to make a space where people have community, generosity and support. “If you create that space then people unsure [about their position] can look at that group and be like, that’s the group I want to be on board with. They’re the conversations and events and the people I want to be on board with.”
We go on to discuss political theatre more generally and Patrick admits he is often frustrated with it being didactic. He gives me Back to Back Theatre (an Australia-based company of artists with perceived disability) as an example of how to do political theatre. Their play Ganesh Versus the Third Reich was about who has the right to tell stories. “It’s complex and messy,” Patrick says. “That’s sometimes absent from political theatre. In terms of climate change and where we’re heading, you’ve got to mess that up with personal stuff, science stuff, family, then put it all together.”
So, who has the right to tell stories about climate change?
“There are vital, interesting takes on the intersection between some identities [and climate change], like how it intersects with race, and class.” Or region, I add, as there are areas in the world that the impacts of global warming hit first and hardest. “So different people’s opinions are valuable in different ways, everyone has a different perspective to someone else’s. I just think about how my perspective is useful and contributes to the conversation.”
The Sky is Well Designed was presented by Darebin Arts Speakeasy and Fabricated Rooms.
The Sky is Well Designed photographs © Greta Costello