Using performance to probe issues around expoitation and environmental crisis

We Know Not What We May Be at the Barbican Pit Theatre (2018) (credit: Zoe Svendsen)

Two performance-led research projects in the English Faculty at Cambridge provided audiences with new ways of understanding complex issues related to exploitation in the global textile industry, and possible solutions to environmental crisis.

Zoe Svendsen’s practice-based research project explores the possibilities of theatre that is experimental, political, speculative and participatory, where audiences interacted in decision-making processes that led to varied possible outcomes. Outputs of the research include major performance pieces and methodological essays discussing approaches.

World Factory (2012-17) brought consumers into live interaction with the workings of the global textile industry. This work involved up to 96 audience members in a game, facilitated by actors, in which they played the roles of factory owners trying to maintain profitability and a workforce. The theatre production previewed at New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, was finalised at the Young Vic Theatre in London, and then toured to venues in Brighton, Burnley, Cambridge and Manchester.

Future Scenarios (2016-present) drew on the success of World Factory to address the problems of climate crisis. This work made people imagine future situations where the necessary steps to avoid catastrophe have successfully been taken. The main output was We Know Not What We May Be (WKNWWMB), a five-day interactive performance installation in 2018, presented as part of the Barbican Centre’s Art of Change in London.

Beneficiaries of the performances include creative/theatre professionals who have been presented with a new model of participatory performance and a new means of thinking about solutions to the industry’s response to the climate crisis.

This research has also reached more than 50 activists, architects, planners, urban theorists, conservationists, and policymakers through engagement at the Oslo Architecture Triennale in Norway and the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in Cambridge.

“Dr Svendsen’s work highlighted to us new ways of engaging different urban stakeholders to work together in developing innovative approaches to urban change.”

– Architect participating in workshop at the Oslo Architecture Triennale