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Extinction Rebellion and Performance Activism on the streets of London

Image credit: Photo of Marisa Carnesky (in red) by Ruth Bayer.

Marisa Carnesky asks artists from The Red Brigade, Mrs Noah and The Regeneration Game that participated on the performance aspects of the XR International Rebellion to reflect on their experiences. Extinction Rebellion (XR) occupied a series of major London sites on 15th April in protest for ten days. They continue to organise protests, events and actions. On the first of May, directly after this protest, the UK Parliament declared a Climate Change Emergency, recognising one of XRs key demands. For further information and how to get involved see rebellion.earth/act-now
Day one Parliament Square. With trepidation and excitement, I turn up to the suggested meeting place, the Ghandi statue on Parliament Square to meet Lucy Hopkins, swathed in repurposed gold fabric and an original take on a witches hat and hopefully lots of performers who will want to play the XR Regeneration Game. The days XR activities begin with a breath-taking parade in a march around Parliament Square. Activists in full funerary garb holding skeleton figures of humans and animals lead, followed by a surreal and spectacular group of performers in red. The march has a stoic yet excited energy to it, the activists seem aware that there is going to be a long struggle ahead in getting their demands heard. As the march comes back to the centre of Parliament Square, Lucy gets onto a microphone and leads the first game, circles of people start acting out absurd and extraordinary actions together in a unique structured improvisation performance ritual.

On that first day when we all assembled, I was dressed in red in my performance activist identity as a Menstronaut, inspired by my work on menstruation in corporeal and eco-feminism, connecting the themes of the cycle of the body to the cycle of the planet. When I saw twenty more people dressed in red emerge from the archaic landscape of grey government buildings, I got very excited and felt deeply moved. This was the fantastic Red Brigade who had come down from Bristol, created by the Invisible Circus. A group of multiple red draped living statues in mourning they gathered in poetic tableauxs in a matching mime of mass proportions. On the second day on Waterloo Bridge, performing in slow motion on top of a bus stop, they created an emotive live performance that effectively punctuated and declared the resistance and emergency of XR to the public, media, the activists and to the growing number of police. The director and performer Doug Francisco acts as a leader of the group and I asked him a few questions about the project.

Marisa Carnesky: Can you tell me about your performance project and how it evolved?

Doug Francisco: "The Red Parade was kind of a decade’s later development of a white theme we did for the anti-Iraq war march back in 2001, which in turn was adapted from our signature white slow-motion characters we toured with as a street troupe in the 90's.  I decided on red this time to represent the common blood we share with all species past and future (if we have one!) and also because it would be a very striking contrast visually and energetically, with its slow motion movement and air of mourning, so it could sit in between worlds in a way and create moments of beautiful distraction / disruption as well as de-escalate tension points."
Marisa: Can you tell me about a couple of your most memorable moments from the International Rebellion?

Doug: "We arrived at Waterloo Bridge one day as police lines were surrounding the Truck stage, positioning ourselves in front of them facing the line or in between once we were in the kettle, this whole things was really intense but the moments we spent in front of the truck kneeling to make silent contact with the people glued and locked on underneath through the police legs was incredible, tears all round. the impact it had on this situation over all was really beautiful also, it just made everything even calmer than it already was, it was incredibly hard to leave, so we didn’t for a long time.But I could give you a similar story from each day to be honest, every day more intense than the last in a completely different way! Leading the funeral procession from Parliament sq. past Buckingham Palace to Marble Arch on the final day of the Sq. was also personally a huge honour, again facilitated by the Police at last minute discussions."

Marisa: Before you began did you make any decisions as a group re arrestiblity? Did the Red Brigade have any trouble from the police?

Doug: "We made the decision to avoid arrest at all costs really, in costume at least!, as we were far more useful for the reasons described above, and once breached that line can then be crossed again, the police were pretty helpful on the whole, we even got a  police escort one day who controlled the traffic for us! I nearly got arrested while we were getting changed as I tried to reason with the officers serving section 14's on people at Oxford Circus."

Marisa: Why is performance important to you in an activist context and how does it differ in its role from other forms of protest?

Doug: "It’s important because Art in all its forms is a language that everybody can understand, its deeper than words in many ways, in the protest environment it is incredibly powerful in the moments as I have described, but it also creates a huge energy and brings people together in the moment when live, we were incredibly free to do whatever we wanted, we were respectful but no one seemed able to stop us, not physically but internally, if we didn’t talk to the police they directed the traffic, people saw it, wanted to be part of it and were in costume next day, some never having performed in their lives. As well It helped to create a powerful visual image to engage the media and help spread the message further."

Marisa: How have the experiences you had on the International Rebellion helped shaped your future plans?

Doug: "Ha ha, everything else seems a bit pointless no? I am definitely committed to continuing to be a part of this creative surge, with the Red parades, future XR actions, supporting other environmental campaigns and projects with my Plastik Paradiso sea plastic art project, doing more basically that is meaningful and what I am passionate about, which I have been lucky enough to do a lot in my life, but things have definitely changed a lot from this experience and I feel empowered and emboldened to do more!"

The Invisible Circus can be found at invisiblecircus.co.uk and produce a variety of projects in Bristol, nationally and internationally.

The Regeneration Game was formed over a month in the run up to the 15th April, each Thursday at 6pm, by fellow ‘Clown Witch Priestess’ Lucy Hopkins and I, through our  ‘Performance Activist’ training offerings in the belly of the XR headquarters in Euston. Some weeks, fifty people showed up ready to think about performing in the streets and creative ways to protest. Lucy introduces the idea of playing a theatre game inspired by one of her teachers John Wright. Its rules are simple, yet its outcomes are myriad. Lucy, who is extraordinarily able to lead a group and inspire the will to perform in almost anyone of any age encourages us. Egos and identities are put aside, and we play like children, we move all of a sudden as one, all know what’s going on without words.

Image credit: Photo of Extinction Rebellion by Ruth Bayer.

Workingat the headquarters with Lucy was inspiring. It felt urgent and immediate. Outside the workshops we were running multiple strategies were being dreamed up, including rehearsals for acclaimed playwright April De Angeles new work created especially for XR and for the streets. Mrs Noah featured actors Naomi Paxton and Ade Adepitan retelling the biblical epic in a thrilling radical eco feminist interpretation. I asked April to reflect about the differences of bringing a play into a street protest situation than a more traditional theatre context:

"Mrs Noah evolved in a meeting when we were looking for ideas and I remembered hearing about Noah's Flood a medieval mystery play and how Mrs Noah had refused to get on the boat. I decided to do a street theatre rewrite.  What is different is there is no higher power - the commissioner IE theatre to legitimise the result. You have to take full responsibility. I found that quite challenging. Also getting the actors together was work I was unused to. I found it hard asking them to be part of a performance that was part of a rebellion with possible legal ramifications! Guilty writer! It was ultimately amazingly liberating to perform outside the institution of a theatre. To link directly to an audience without selling them anything and in a performance space that was free and subversive".

It was so inspiring to be making performance activist work alongside artists like De Angeles. Performance strategies were being dreamed up and created by XR affinity groups not just in London but in cities across the UK and the world. Artists working to find performative language on the major environmental issues we all face right now in a myriad of forms under the powerful XR banner.

I leave the workshops at the headquarters imaging the possibilities of the Regeneration Game on the street- a mass of people running about waving and fooling about in a seamless unison, we could potentially change the mood of a crowd at will, create diversions and human barriers. The following week I lead a workshop on creating a regenerative performance identity, piecing together images, themes and issues. I wanted very much to create a structure with the performance identity building game where intersectional and queer voices could join the XR dialogue. With the Regeneration Game we hope to open the door to the creation of multiple new narratives and propose new inclusive futures. The creations we devise should recognise the trouble we are in and address the global injustices and crisis caused by white capitalism. We end up with some deeply innovative concepts flying around the room and green witches against fracking with anti-pollution wands are coming into being. The aim is to turn up and play the game in a newly formed performance persona. Weaving performance forms together proves challenging, but the workshop participants rise to the challenge, howling their way into performance action.

I asked Lucy to share her thoughts on performance, improvisation and activism post the game’s first outing at the International Rebellion:

"I see performance practice as a playful application of mindfulness and a way to develop personal presence. In Extinction Rebellion where we actively practice non-violence in settings that might become tense or confrontational it’s really important to be present! If we can be present in the moment, listen to, accept and respect it, we can also transform it. And if we have practiced playful spontaneity then we have a toolkit with which to do that. The workshops at XR were a lot of fun, and also afforded us the opportunity of working with seasoned non-violent protestors which helped prepare us for the streets. As performers we are used to improvising, connecting to self and responding to what is going on around us - to being present in the moment. I see these skills as a set of muscles that can be identified and trained by anyone who wants to. In a society that is constantly giving people the message, through advertising or political techniques that they are not ‘enough’ or do not really know what they want, then empowering people to identify and develop these muscles becomes a subversive act in itself. Playing in Oxford Circus, weaving through the crowd and watching peoples’ faces light up as we passed, taking bucolic play to the affinity groups holding the roads at each corner of Parliament Square as a performative gift of thanks, de-escalating an annoyed passer-by who turned into a barking dog then a mewling kitten - amazing how play is irresistible to folk even when they are seeking to express annoyance. Then taking free play into public space is in itself a spectacle of liberation! This spirit of performed play is really important in a protest setting as a means to relieve tension, to release anxiety, to experience connection and to laugh! Spectators get to witness a group of people creating spontaneously in the moment. Whatever the players come up with it is always a beautiful, hopeful and ancient thing to observe.”

Lucy hopkins performs and teaches workshops, details of her work can be found here: lucyhopkins.com.

Watching how the performance strategies at work could intervene, change and effect the protest environment, educate and entertain was raw theatre in action, truly inspiring and at times very emotional.  Wanting to be effective and a sense of frustration at not being able to do more or be at all the sites when needed was a challenge but knowing that everyone’s presence and contribution meant something is a legacy of action we carry back into the everyday and stays with me long after leaving Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Oxford Circus and Parliament Square. The aims of performance in XR activism are simple, to bring the demands of XR to attention with the drive we have as performance makers and participants. In the words of circus and variety and fire entertainer, RedSarah who is a councillor at the performer’s union Equity, summing up her experience of being part of the Red Brigade:

"I've been moved to tears so many times over the last weeks but this day at the museum surrounded by our extinct species was the turning point for me. I've always been green, but I know there is more I can do. I have to! We all do. I need to fly less (my biggest carbon footprint), eat *even* less meat and dairy, drink only from my refillable bottle, reduce my driving, and change the way I teach fire...... Recycle - Re-use - Repurpose"

Many people that took part left XR International Rebellion week, like RedSarah, with a renewed commitment to live greener lives, but also a renewed sense of urgency in our rebellion and calls to have XRs demands recognised and met. Perhaps most of all we leave with a renewed sense of hope that people can affect change through direct action and as performers we can use our art and skills to play an important and vital role - to contribute through performance to XR.
For more info on the XR Regeneration Game see facebook.com/XRRegenerationGame

Marisa Carnesky is a live artist and showwoman for more info on her projects see carnesky.com

Image credits: Photo of The Red Brigade by Emma Myrtle (left). (Right) Photo of Extinction Rebellion by April de Angeles (April on Wiki, and her agent is Casarotto Ramsay & Associates Limited).