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Wednesday 24 April 2024

A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY

Cristina Delgado-García

Cristina Delgado-García is a Lecturer in Theatre and Performance in the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on contemporary playwriting, socially-engaged theatre and political thought.

On Tue 5th March, theatre-maker Andy Smith presented his new piece, A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY, at the James Arnott Theatre thanks to the support of The Dear Green Bothy and Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow. Andy Smith is a theatre-maker, director and researcher based in Lancaster. We were delighted to host this performance in one of its first outings and to do so with a large, lively and varied audience. There were many students and colleagues from the School of Culture and Creative Arts, of course, but it was extraordinary to experience this participatory piece with others outwith our School: a lawyer specialising in environmental protection, a geographer, an Extinction Rebellion activist, a person working in community land ownership, a teacher, a photographer, an actor, some theatre-makers and artists. How do I know who else was in the audience? Well, we talked.

A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY is the latest and most ambitious instalment in a series of performance work called PLAYS FOR THE PEOPLE – plays created by Andy in collaboration with other artists and designed not to be performed by actors but to be read by the people in the room. ‘We are the cast. These are our costumes. This is the set. The lighting. The sound. The characters in the play look like us. The room they are meeting in is a bit like this’, Andy told us at the start of the performance. We simply couldn’t get it wrong. ‘These people have met in this place to discuss the climate crisis, climate breakdown, or climate emergency’. And so, script in hand, we brought this three-act play to life collaboratively: some read out loud, some volunteered to be onstage, others simply read and turned pages silently, some talked. We all took part. Everyone did their bit. We did great.

Andy Smith in A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY at the James Arnott Theatre, University of Glasgow. Photo: Ross Finnie

Created in collaboration with Applied Arts Practitioner Lynsey O’Sullivan and with the support, among others, of The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at The University of Manchester, A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY is not a didactic play about ecology, or at least not in the way you might expect. Its core mission is not to lecture about the extent of environmental degradation, warn about its present and future consequences, or point the finger at the worst culprits in this crisis – even if facts like those are indeed contained in this fictional assembly. Instead, the characters in this story share competing views on the climate crisis, get annoyed with one another, declare agreement to be impossible, and occasionally express frustration at Andy for not having a clearer mission. As we ventriloquised these citizens, what became clearer to me was not the problem itself but the precondition for our dealing with it. What the climate emergency requires is that we show up with the same disposition we so easily modelled on the night of the performance: keen to play a part, capable of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, patient to ride the disagreements and frustrations, aware that we must make some progress, and trusting that we can cooperate to bring any project to fruition. A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY cultivates and energises our sense of individual and collective agency, in the theatre as well as in something as vast and complex as the climate emergency. ‘We are the actors in the story’!

Andy Smith and a spectator-participant in A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY at the James Arnott Theatre, University of Glasgow. Photo: Ross Finnie.

Taking part in the performance, I was once again reminded of the disarming generosity and commitment to optimism that characterises Andy’s work. Andy’s plays have often explored how theatre shares the basic grammar of political change and how this is, in and of itself, a reason to remain hopeful when so much seems to be going wrong, or not going anywhere. My friend and colleague Liz Tomlin has written insightfully about his plays as ‘prologues to change’ and I recommend that you read about it in her book Political Dramaturgies and Theatre Spectatorship (2019). Indeed, in plays like all that is solid melts into air (2011), commonwealth (2012), SUMMIT (2018) and A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY (2024), Andy gently invites us to see theatre as a practice-run for political action, and as proof of our inherent goodwill and desire for positive outcomes. In the theatre, we gather with perfect strangers with the collective expectation that something good will happen, knowing that this something does not need to follow the logic or momentum of the world-out-there. This coming-together, hopeful expectation and understanding that reality as we know it can be paused and imagined otherwise are great starting points – they are the starting point – for progressive change. This does not mean that Andy presents political change as a spectator sport or wishful thinking. All the opposite: his plays often invite us to imagine ourselves at the cusp of collective organisation, ready to change the state of things. A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY goes a step further in allowing us space to practise just that; first holding our hand, then gently letting go. In this show, we did not need to wait for any actors – the professionals appointed to represent the world of the play – to get on with the work of the performance; and it follows that we can perhaps get started with work needed elsewhere, right now, without waiting for other kinds of representatives to speak and act for us. In this overlaying of theatre and political action, Andy’s encouragement to keep reading in A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY doubled as encouragement to navigate feelings of inexperience, overwhelm or fatigue given the scope and uncertainty of the problems we face. ‘It doesn’t matter if we make mistakes or stumble or trip or get lost. We just need to keep going’. ‘Now, I know what you might be thinking’, Andy anticipates in all that is solid melts into air, sensing scepticism or dejection creeping in, ‘but stay with me’. Considered together, Andy’s plays practise and invite hope against all odds. 

The performance on the night was followed by a discussion on collaboration, dialogue and the initial responses that A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY has already elicited on the climate emergency. Andy reflected on the genesis of the PLAYS FOR THE PEOPLE project as result of material constraints and a happy accident, the latter, the product of misremembering the finer details on Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke or ‘learning plays’. He framed A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBY as a continuation of a broader experimentation with what he has elsewhere called a ‘dematerialised theatre’, emerging from ‘gentle acts of removal’ of that which may be superfluous. In this performance, Andy explained, this entailed a process of somewhat removing himself from the work to make space for others. 

The next day, Andy led a workshop titled ‘Audience, Acting, Activity and Activism’, in which University of Glasgow students experimented practically with the principles of his theatre-making practice and began to write in this manner responding to climate change concerns. In the opening exercise, Andy illustrated his dematerialised approach with a drawing exercise. He asked for a volunteer to be observed by workshop participants for a short period of time. Someone stepped in. Following careful study, Andy asked us to draw them: first allowing a minute, then thirty seconds, eventually only ten. We were then invited to share our drawings: we spread them on the floor of the James Arnott theatre and were prompted to think about what each of us had saved when economy was required, what we had deemed essential, what had evaporated, and how we might translate this process into our writing for the stage. Unexpectedly, I found those drawings to be very moving, and an apt ending to Andy’s contribution to The Dear Green Bothy programme of events in response to the climate crisis. A small installation in the theatre, records of a human figure becoming increasingly tenuous, disappearing. Lines sketched as time is running out.

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A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY

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