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Kate Smith and Briony McDonagh

30 November 2021, 2:26 UTC Share

The rewards of letting go: putting young people’s voices centre-stage at COP26

In a ground-breaking Knowledge Exchange collaboration between academics and young creatives, researchers from the University of Hull have been working with the National Youth Theatre to create a powerful, site-specific response to the climate crisis for COP26.

The University of Hull’s collaboration with the National Youth Theatre (NYT) pre-dates COVID-19. MELT is a multi-year collaboration between the University and the National Youth Theatre in response to the climate crisis. Of course, the pandemic has limited the extent to which NYT members and academic researchers have been able to gather or perform in person. But over the past 18 months colleagues from the Energy and Environment Institute at Hull have worked with National Youth Theatre members to explore scientific understandings of and creative responses to climate change. We’ve had a particular focus on how climate change will impact our relationship with water and flooding, as part of the AHRC/NERC-funded Risky Cities project which explores the effectiveness of using arts and humanities to build climate awareness and increase flood resilience.

Our performance of On The Edge at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month came together in only a few short weeks. After an exploratory series of research and development workshops and two creative projects in 2020 (MELT at First Light Festival and The Last Harvest at Soulton Hall), in September 2021 we met with a small team of performers, writers and technical crew for a series of intensive workshops. At these, Hull academics shared their research on flooding and climate change, coastal communities and young people’s experiences in the face of an uncertain climate future. Even though the workshops started remotely, the team at Hull were very aware of the emotional impact that these workshops had on National Youth Theatre members. The reality of the climate crisis is stark and often distressing: the reflective journals we suggested members could use to record their experience bear witness to this.

The challenge really started for us once the workshops had been delivered. Having started the process of knowledge exchange by sharing our knowledge with the National Youth Theatre community, we waited to see how it would shape the process of devising On The Edge. We knew that they were planning a new play written by Adeola Yemitan followed by a ‘climate cabaret’ including spoken word, music and a magic act, but what this would look or sound like was completely unknown – and the unknown is an unfamiliar space for academics to occupy. The trust and reciprocity that had been built between academics and theatre colleagues, however, gave us the confidence to let them go with whatever process or flow worked for them in the days between the workshop and rehearsals proper in London. We awaited a first look at the play script and cabaret with some excitement but not a little nervousness. 

We needn’t have worried! With Briony in the theatre in London and other colleagues in Hull contributing to the co-creative process, the final fortnight of devising and rehearsals was a slightly stressful but hugely rewarding experience. And the performance that went to COP26 far outstripped our expectations of what could be achieved in only a few weeks of writing and rehearsal. The team at National Youth Theatre and the University of Hull created a piece of theatre that was funny, moving, challenging and truly informative. Perhaps most importantly, the young creatives also challenged our expectations that anxiety was the dominant feeling amongst young people about climate change, and showed us their anger and frustration about making change happen. They highlighted the intersectional challenges faced by young people who are dealing with not just a climate crisis, but also rising inequality, social dysfunction, and long-term economic adversity. They made us laugh, they made us cry, but most of all they made us think.

We learnt that letting go of how our knowledge would be used actually gave it more impact. Not steering the young people’s use of that knowledge resulted in a transformational experience for everybody involved and showed us that innovative approaches to climate and flood risk and resilience communication really do work. We are really excited to see what happens in the next phase of our work with National Youth Theatre as part of Risky Cities.

Kate Smith is a post-doctoral researcher within the Flood Innovation Centre at the Energy & Environment Institute, University of Hull 

Briony McDonagh is the Risky Cities Project Lead and Professor of Environmental Humanities at the Energy & Environment Institute, University of Hull 

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