Riding a Bike on Stage

Green Theater and Katie Mitchell’s Production of Lungs

The concept is clear from the very beginning. A sign outside the theatre proclaims “All electricity needed for this production is generated by the bikes on stage.” While the young couple on stage discuss their potential baby’s carbon footprint, they pedal their bikes to power their lights. And the four silent cyclists on the sides are supplying—in real time—the electricity for their microphones, the sound console, and a projection of the world’s constantly increasing population. In director Katie Mitchell’s latest production Atmen, a German version of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs at Berlin’s Schaubühne, this principle of human-generated energy is more than just flimsy greenwashing, it shapes everything about the production, from the lighting to the blocking to the sound design.

Actors on a bike
Photo of Lucy Wirth and Christoph Gawenda in Atmen by Stephen Cummiskey. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey. 

With this extreme reduction of energy use, Mitchell’s production could be dismissed as just another high-concept theatre gimmick. Sure, it’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t have much to say about how we can really make our theatres greener in the long run. And while this might be true on a certain level, Mitchell’s treatment also contributes an important element to the dialogue about eco-theatre, simply because the limitations of its green production contribute to its aesthetics rather than restricting them.

This production caught my attention when I first heard about it because Mitchell has established a reputation in the German-speaking theatre world for elaborate film sets that produce a cinematic take on the play or opera, live on stage. This stripped down, low-energy concept would be a stark contrast in some ways: extremely limited lights, sound, and projections. At the same time, the focus on the live moment would remain the same. Live film production is just replaced with live electricity production.

Unlike many concept theatre productions where the text is ripped apart and reshaped to fit whatever the director chooses, the text is still the heart of this production—as the blocking is basically nonexistent, the dialogue becomes even more important. Mitchell said she, Macmillan, and set designer Chloe Lamford were “keen to find a different genre which spoke much more strongly to the environmental themes in the play,” than the naturalistic productions that dominate Lungs’ performance history. And the concept certainly does slant the play’s focus. The couple’s incessant bike riding highlights the sections of text devoted to statistics about carbon emissions while adding a hamster wheel spin to their relationship troubles. In the end, cycling is also an apt symbol of how fair-trade coffee drinking twenty- and thirtysomethings approach living responsibly—including the decision of if, when, and how to have children.

They envision a “truly sustainable theatre industry” and point out the discrepancy between the content of eco-plays and their often not-so-green execution.

an actor on a bike
Photo of Christoph Gawenda in Atmen by Stephen Cummiskey. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey. 

Macmillan’s 2011 work can be seen as part of a wave of new plays that address environmental issues. Eco-theatre in general has been around for quite a bit longer, but this more recent surge in eco-conscious content was also accompanied by a shift toward green policies in theatre management. The Green Theatre Plan for London and Broadway’s Green Alliance were both launched in 2008 as part of a larger trend toward more ecological practices across industries. The organization Julie’s Bicycle has since helped implement greener policies at multiple London theatres and spread awareness further across the United Kingdom. They envision a “truly sustainable theatre industry” and point out the discrepancy between the content of eco-plays and their often not-so-green execution. Broadway’s Green Alliance employs similar checklists for a step-by-step reduction of waste and emissions, as well as charming-but-minimal flagship projects like the reuse binder project and Guitar Strings Project, where used guitar strings are “up-cycled” into bracelets by the Wear Your Music nonprofit.

The justifications behind most of these recommended changes, big or small, can be summed up in two main points. The first is moral. We are making the theatre community better by using the earth’s resources responsibly and saving something for our children and their children. The second is economic. As the original London program states: “Many of the ideas in this plan—switching to greener lighting, reducing energy consumption, reusing materials—will, in the medium-term, save you a considerable amount of money. With rising electricity, gas, and oil prices, there is a financial urgency to take action.”

What was so striking to me about Mitchell’s concept was that it did not prominently emphasize the moral or economic aspects of sustainable energy; its main focus appeared to be aesthetics. While the London program focused on ensuring that these changes would not compromise aesthetics—“It will help theatres to communicate the message about climate change to audiences, without imposing on their artistic integrity or reducing the quality of shows”—Mitchell’s production embraced these compromises as part of the concept. Green principles aren’t just behind the production, they are the production. Instead of devoting its pages to theoretical essays on the play’s context or implications, the program simply lists energy definitions, the amount of energy generated by each bike, and the materials used to create the set—all recycled or from previous productions, naturally. Even if it starts to get heavy-handed when the flow chart of energy conversion begins with the food the performers eat and ends with the energy transferred to the audience, the concept remains uncompromisingly transparent.

Actors on a bike
Photo of Lucy Wirth in Atmen by Stephen Cummiskey. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey. 

Still, one of the benefits of this transparency is that the execution of the concept becomes part of the experience. Self-proclaimed inventor and tinkerer Colin Tonks provided the technical know-how needed to turn the original plan into reality. His Electric Pedals group peddles the art of pedal power in various live contexts, most recently launching a backpack cinema—the world’s smallest movie theatre. Their human-powered devices aren’t necessarily intended to be a substitute for more efficient renewable energy sources. They’re just an effective way to demonstrate how much energy it takes to do certain things, like power a light bulb, boil water, or toast a slice of bread. One of Tonks’s first high-profile projects was a 2009 episode of British television program Bang Goes The Theory, in which the power necessary for a single family home was generated by eighty cyclists. British television took up a similar motif two years later in dystopia series Black Mirror’s “Fifteen Million Merits” episode, in which nearly everyone earns their living by pedaling energy, day in and day out. While we thankfully haven’t reached that extreme level as a society, these stark depictions show how vivid equating physical activity with electricity can be. And it’s exactly that tangible feeling of human-generated power that can create such a powerful experience in the theatre as well.

The electricity production was always visible, as soon as the actors slowed down, took a break for water, or toweled off their brows, the red energy meters on the front of their podiums clicked down and began to blink, then the lights would fade until they picked up the pace again.

Despite my interest in the subject of sustainability and my well-developed love of concept theatre, I still experienced an initial acclimation period to the minimal staging—are they just going to pedal this entire time? I wasn’t alone: less than five minutes in, the gentleman to my right let out a big sigh and checked his watch. But after a while I found myself drawn into this almost radio play-like experience of listening to two characters while they pedaled their bikes. The electricity production was always visible, as soon as the actors slowed down, took a break for water, or toweled off their brows, the red energy meters on the front of their podiums clicked down and began to blink, then the lights would fade until they picked up the pace again.

And as the performance went on, the human-power component continues to shape and inform the text. Lower energy from the actors translates nearly instantaneously into lower lights, flickering and sputtering. When the male protagonist passes away at the show’s end, he stops cycling and his lights slowly fade out. A simple yet profound image, with plenty of room for interpretation.

By the end the production succeeded in keeping true to its manifesto, and remained completely off the grid—for the duration of the performance. Since that final goal could not be compromised, other modifications became part of the development process. Tonks refused to use a laptop to run the sound since it would have required at least one and half more cyclists, or cheating and using a battery. The solution was a simple console and various Foley strategies: a pickup on the inverters for the electricity; one of the “silent” cyclists in the back breathing into a mike. The overall result of this rigorous execution was a considerably lower level of power consumption: a twentieth of a normal production according to Tonks’s estimation.

This production is definitely an extreme example, and wouldn’t be suitable for many plays. Said Tonks: “Sometimes you need all that power to get your point across.” But the minimal approach isn’t without its supporters. With the exception of a few dissenters who found the low lighting difficult to cope with, Mitchell’s concept was mostly praised in the German press. Even Mitchell herself confessed to being ashamed of her high-tech shows’ energy consumption in retrospect. Of course human-generated power is also just one form of renewable energy, and it’s probably the least practical. The leader in carbon-neutral techniques in London at the moment is the Arcola Theatre—who helped formulate the Green Theatre Plan for London. Their energy incubator was so successful that Arcola Energy Ltd. became a separate company in 2011.

Atmen is not the first experimentation with such live electricity (see Milk Presents’ Bluebeard: A Fairytale for Adults ) and it certainly won’t be the last. Tonks is currently collaborating with the London theatre the Unicorn on a new production called At the End of Everything Else. This children’s theatre show promises to be even more demanding because it requires the same concept with more extensive projections, so Tonks remains cautiously optimistic: “If the will is there, it’s possible. But people have to pedal, and they have to continue to pedal.” It should also be said that these extreme, and often expensive concepts are much easier to realize in Germany’s well-funded theatre world than in either the United Kingdom or the United States. But human-generated power can also be implemented in other contexts, with less rigorous execution. The London-based theatre group fanSHEN collaborated with the pedal power group Magnificent Revolution and local gyms to charge batteries that were then used to power their production Cheese. The volunteer cyclists were rewarded for their contributions with coupons for a corresponding discount on their tickets.

It’s clear that there is no single path to creating an environmentally-friendly theatre culture. At the same time, ecological impact is an issue that the theatre cannot afford to ignore. And, as a live art form, performance is uniquely suited to cut through the apathy caused by checklists, endless sensational television specials, or didactic speeches about the coming environmental apocalypse. And this message-in-the-moment isn’t just created by texts that address climate change, or by switching to solar-generated electricity and high-efficiency lights. It’s created by incorporating these techniques into the production’s aesthetics. It is not enough to just talk about them, or even implement them behind the scenes; these concepts also have to be shown. It’s long been said that some limitations promote creativity instead of stifling it. So why not approach the “restrictions” imposed by environmentally-friendly strategies as inspiration for innovation, as the very material for performance? The environmental movement is creating techniques and tools that are not only relevant for their green impact, but also for their theatrical potential. Riding a bike is just the beginning.

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Thank you for such an inspiring and thoughtful post. I'm so glad to see more people talking about the wonderful possibilities of sustainable practice and that this can drive creativity in exciting new directions