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INTERVIEW: Rachel Briscoe on bike power, a petrol-free future, Mark Rylance and her cheese of choice...


Rachel Briscoe is co-artistic director of fanSHEN, director of theatre at Oval Space and active member of Tipping Point- 'energising the creative response to climate change'. Ground breaking projects of Rachel's include the bicycle powered Green and Pleasant Land, and her latest play, 'Cheese'. 

Cheese is a humourous adventure through the twists and turns of an absurdist system which is too big to fail; a political comedy about the end of the world as we knew it, and what happens next… powered by electricty generated in gyms and community centres local to the performance venue.

We spoke to Rachel about bike power, a petrol-free future, Mark Rylance and her cheese of choice...

RR: Cheese is bicycle-powered theatre- do you ride a bike in London? Do you think the recent protests for more road space for cyclists will be successful?

RB: Yes, I do ride a bike in London. I think that anything that draws attention to how many London cyclists there are is a good thing. There are studies which show that the biggest contributing factor to cyclist safety is a critical mass of cyclists using the roads, rather than everyone wearing helmets or dedicated cycling lanes or whatever - it's more that the numbers reach a tipping point where it becomes normal for drivers to look out for cyclists. So the recent protests are useful in that they draw attention to numbers. Will they be successful? I don't know - I'm not sure how you'd measure success - more cyclists than motor vehicles on the roads?

RR: You'll be installing customized exercise machines which will charge enormous batteries which will be used to power the show. Electric “contributions” are then rewarded by money off tickets equivalent to the power produced. Do you think the price of theatre tickets can put people off going to the theatre?

RB: Definitely. That's not really the reason we're trialling this cash back scheme, that's more to do with establishing a link between electricity, what it takes to generate it, it's carbon footprint and it's cost. But yes, I think money is short for everyone at the moment. Schemes like Travelex and the new cheap tickets at the Donmar are great in that they offer affordable tickets for big shows with high production values. But it also means that the fringe theatre has to think about its offer - if I can see a production of The Cherry Orchard in a big, well-resourced theatre for £12, why would I pay £15 or £20 to see The Cherry Orchard in a room above a pub on a set that has been begged, borrowed and stolen? Hopefully this gives an impetus for the fringe to rediscover a more alternative identity - an offer of something different and exciting rather than aspirant mini-me productions.

RR: You're running some great post-show talks on important topics like austerity, fracking and how theatre can change the world. What changes have you set out to make?RB: The idea that theatre can change the world sounds hopelessly naive but I do believe that if we all make small changes in our own corner of the world, that contributes towards a bigger shift. The best theatre productions that I've seen have made me question why I do things in the way I do them - and that awareness that there could be different options is the beginning of a change. Our adventures in 'green theatre' started with realising there was a disconnection between our belief that theatre could, in some small way, make things better - and the amount of damage we were doing to the environment by making that theatre. So Cheese has a power 'budget' of 3 kWh per performance (a show lit in a more standard way would use about 21 kWh); that power is generated by people working out; and 80% of our set and props are recycled. As for the play itself, it's a very smart exploration of the 2008 banking crisis and the conditions from which it arose - it unpicks the narrative of the demon banker and uses humour and absurdism to critique a whole system. I hope that, having been on a journey with the protagonist, the audience might change how they think about the events of 2008 and how they feel about how we go forward.

RR: Green and Pleasant Land is an outdoor pedal-powered show about Englishness and what things might be like in a future with less oil. What does that vision look like to you?RB: I think we have a choice - we can look at the future and get sad and resentful because it will be like now but petrol (and therefore all consumer goods) will be more expensive and we won't be able to get strawberries in December. Or we take the opportunity to have a rethink - if you ask people what makes them happy, the answers you get are usually about spending time with people they care about or being somewhere beautiful like the English countryside or doing something quite simple like gardening or (in my case) riding my bike. The thing that makes them happy is rarely about having new stuff --and yet we spend so much of our time chasing after the house, the shoes, the car - and the money we need to get them. I think a future with less oil might be a happier one, if we can let go of our obsession with stuff and go back to first principles and build the way we live from them: what makes us happy, what do we value, what are we prepared to let go of in order to keep those important things. It sounds reductive and there are lots of other elements to that vision, but I am often struck by how we seem to have ended up with a set of principles that I don't think we ever consciously chose.

RR: Do you think people working in the arts have a responsibility to be raising awareness of climate change?

RB: I think anyone who is aware of any problem has a duty to make other people aware of it. But yes I do think that the arts can engage people with ideas that are unfamiliar or difficult. fanSHEN's mission statement is to help people imagine what they haven't thought of yet - whether that's a future with less oil or a situation where two groups address previously unreconcilable differences. Being able to imagine a different possibility is the first step in making any sort of change - you can't do something that you haven't imagined. For me, theatre has a unique capability because it's polyphonic - you get a variety of opinions and positions represented on stage, so you can present audiences with dialogue and conflict and let them find their own way, rather than telling them what to think. With arts around climate change, there's a real challenge - the dominant narrative for so long has been the disaster future where it has all gone wrong; but in my opinion, people are unlikely to be terrified into changing their habits. People tend to change their behaviour because they perceive that they will be happier/ better off if they do so - but where is the drama in showing an alternative future where everything is rosy? In the last couple of years though there has been a real shift in how many people are engaging with the issue, and in really interesting ways, so I'm hopeful that the arts will find a meaningful way of contributing to the discussion around climate change, and that this will be good art as well as raising awareness.

RR: Your patron at fanSHEN is the fantastic Mark Rylance. Do you think it takes big names to make successful theatre these days?

RB: No. I think the way that people responded to Mark's performance in Jerusalem was about the sheer brilliance of what he was doing onstage; you could have had a much more famous but less talented actor playing the role and the play would have been nowhere near as successful as it was. For every theatre show 'made' by a star, there is a Blackwatch or a Three Kingdoms or a Chimerica which has no big names in it and is transformative and memorable.

RR: And finally- which is your cheese of choice?

RB: Just one? That's by far the hardest question. St Agur is lovely but not that versatile, goat's cheese is a winner on taste and texture but I think my Desert Island cheese would have to be good old cheddar.


Cheese is on until 28th September- full details here.