Award-winning Pigfoot's co-director Bea Udale-Smith discusses the joys & stresses of using energy-generating technology in live theatre, before HOT IN HERE premieres at CPT 25-26 Sep & 4-6 Oct before going on tour.
From what I can remember, up until about 20 minutes before the first performance of our family show, How To Save A Rock at the National Student Drama Festival back in 2019, we thought we’d have to perform the show in darkness. Our lights worked – but they were plugged into our bike-generator, which converts the kinetic energy of a bike’s back wheel into electricity – and our bike-generator was in disconnected pieces on the Curve studio’s floor.
How To Save A Rock was our first carbon-neutral show, which we started making while we were still students. Once we left uni, and got our first Arts Council funding, we commissioned the epic Bicycle Boy to build us a new bike-generator which is sturdier, has plug-sockets, and is – most importantly – PAT-tested.
We’ve always performed How To Save A Rock with a bike-generator on stage. For most of the show’s life, that’s meant one actor cycling in each scene, on a stationary bike; although for our run at VAULT Festival just before COVID hit, we also got the audience on the bike for some scenes (mostly so we could have a break). We’ve always found it strange that, from an audience perspective, having an actor on a bike doesn’t affect a scene that much (especially because we know how much it affects us while performing!).
So it does seem strange that, despite the hours that we’ve spent with this tech, it continues to surprise us – as does other people’s (particularly young people’s) response to it. We love taking the bike into schools, to make short pieces of carbon-neutral theatre and demonstrate how renewable energy works. We’ve also started hiring our tech to other companies when it’s not in use by one of our shows: Theatre Centre recently used our bike-generator for some pedal-powered poetry at their ‘Recharge’ event (a night of music, poetry, discussion – and free food! – to give young people space to reimagine the future). Rambert and Theatre Peckham used our bike-generator at an event run by their epic Future Movements group, for young people interested in working in the arts, to power up a projector showing graphic notes of what culture means to the 16-19 year olds running the event.
Once it’s built – and once we’ve finished using it – we hope to hire out our new technology too. An energy-generating floor works much the same way as a bike-generator, converting the kinetic energy of our performers’ bodies into electricity, and we’ve wanted to use one in a show since around the time we got our first bike-generator working. With support from the ‘I’ve got an idea fund’, our lighting and dancefloor designer, Jack Hathaway, has actually incorporated a more “traditional” bike-generator motor into our floor’s new design, converting the vertical, up-and-down motion of the floor into rotary motion, before that energy is harvested for electricity.
So that will be the tech that powers our new show, HOT IN HERE (opening at CPT on 25 Sep), which celebrates action for climate justice. The show’s been made from interviews with climate advocates from countries worst affected by the climate crisis, mostly in the Global South and nearest the Equator; it explores the UK’s place in the global climate crisis and the action taking place to mitigate it. It’s also the first time an energy-harvesting dancefloor has been used in live theatre, worldwide! Although as we’re often reminded, Coldplay have recently used one in their Music of the Spheres World Tour (although we would like to say that we did have the idea before they did, and we wouldn’t mind at all if they wanted to drop us a credit-line on their next Instagram).
Each tile of our dancefloor generates energy, so when it’s just one person moving on stage, only a small amount of electricity is created. With 2 people, it’s double. With a whole stage full of people, we can generate loads more. So it feels like a pretty perfect metaphor for how climate action (or any type of collective action) works: one person can make a difference, but lots of people working together, taking the same action, can force a corporation to change its practises, hold a government to its promises, or create the type of community and culture we need to mitigate the climate crisis.
But we’ve not had much time to play around with the dancefloor ourselves, let alone give it to other people to try out. There’s still a lot to figure out, but that makes it more exciting during a devising process. What might seem like an obstacle – needing to jump, dance or move – becomes an opportunity to be more creative. Most of all, we’re excited to see where other people take it – what else the floor can be used for.
HOT IN HERE (An energy-generating dance party) is co-produced by the Gate Theatre, commissioned and supported by Camden People's Theatre.