Interview: ‘It’s Surprising how Much you can get Away With When Restraining Your Electricity use’

The triumph of directing a theatre production entirely powered by bikes. SCENE. interviews Mingyu Lin, director of A Play For The Living in a Time of Extinction...

(Image: James Drury)

On the 26th of April, SCENE spoke with Mingyu Lin about her experience directing Miranda Rose Hall’s innovative eco-critical one-woman show, A Play For The Living In A Time of Extinction. The show has drawn in audience’s across the country with its experimental format, local casts, and call-to-action message against the climate crisis. 

Dan: What got you involved in this in the first place? Why did this [idea] appeal to you?

Mingyu: “Before I joined York Theatre Royal, I was an associate at a theatre company called Headlong, in London.

So I was really passionate about bringing work up North, and especially to York. One of my roles at Headlong was in commissioning, and I did a lot of programming, and so I read a lot of new plays.

When the season’s shortlist came out, I asked all the agents if I could see their clients’ work. I read this play, and I remember thinking, Oh it’s a really strong female writer, it’s about the environment and about climate change…but also this sense of human fate, and a human story at the centre of it. 

And so this play, I thought, was really rare in that it was so in-depth, it doesn’t pull its punches, and it’s also a play that makes you care. And [care] about the character, about the protagonist, which, in turn, makes you care about the message that it’s talking about. So I loved it from that moment on. 

While I was at Headlong, I was saying, Look, we need to try this, we need to put this everywhere, our team needs to go to York. And so, at Headlong, we put together this national tour. 

Now, obviously, tours are not eco-friendly, and that was when we came up with the concept of a tour that does a tour, and very serendipitously, I was moving to York, and joining York Theatre Royal, so we could plan York as major pit-stops of the tour.

Dan: Have you had any complications with the setup, in terms of this whole thing being powered by bikes, that must be quite a technical process?

“I wouldn’t say there have been complications, but there have been a lot of challenges. I think we just have to think differently as a team. 

Electricity is one of those things that you don’t think about how much you use when it comes to putting a show together. 

You think about how many laughs, you think about the resources in terms of how much you spend on everything else, but you don’t think about the electricity that we’re running through; so that was an interesting new challenge.

We limit ourselves on what we’re using because we think, Well, we can’t go above this amount of power. 

It would be literally impossible to power the usual sound systems we have in a theatre with the 8 cyclists we have on stage, so we’re using much smaller speakers. And, I think, it’s quite a nice, pleasant surprise actually how much you can get away with when restraining yourself in terms of electricity.

Alice: With this way of thinking about the effects of theatre and tours on the climate, do you see the bikes as a novelty, or something that is the future of this industry, to be used by other directors?

“Perhaps not bikes, but it would be great if more people used different ways of generating the electricity they use. 

I think the bikes are one aspect of it but actually the whole ethos of the show raises it on a different level. 

So, for example, the thing about touring is moving a whole set from London to everywhere else is a problem, it’s difficult. And a theatre can’t really sustain itself outside of London without touring.

I would hate to see theatre get even more London-centric. So, I think what has been really good about this production is the fact that even though the show tours, the concept tours, the cast and director are all locally based at each venue. 

In terms of the set as well we have been restricted. We haven’t been allowed to buy anything new; we’re only using whatever we had in stock at that theatre already. And everything that we purchase for costumes, for example, was second hand; so nothing new. 

Alice: When you talk about the ‘cast’, are you framing the cyclists as actors, or as part of the production team?

“Cast is probably a bad word to use because there’s only one ‘actor’ in the whole thing, it’s a one-person show, so I guess I mean the actor, but also yeah the volunteer cyclists and the volunteer choir are all locally-based as well, and they’re local to each venue.

Near the start, the most fascinating moment of the play is when you see everything power up. 

Dan: How, in this play, does feminism and ecocriticism/climate consciousness intersect, especially for you, taking on this play, how do you interpret this intersection?

“The play says that systems that prioritise any demographic, or are prejudiced against any demographic, inherently then become bad systems. Because, actually, the problem with where we’ve got to in terms of climate change is that humanity has come to think of certain areas of the world as sacrificers. 

The play touches on this theory by saying that it’s economies of extraction, and extraction…without taking care, because you are taking from a region that is not your home, and the people who live there are not people, and therefore you can take. 

And so I think that’s where the intersection of all of this comes in when once we start seeing that certain identities, or certain things that define people, makes them less bad in any way that then impacts how we treat the world around us, and that’s why, actually, it happens, because we think, Oh we’re trying to chop down rainforests somewhere else, we’re trying to mine somewhere else…because we start seeing different people as not our people.

Dan: And it kind of gives the term ‘man-made’ another dimension?

“It does. And I think in the media, especially outside of London (but London’s not any better), we don’t see enough representation of female protagonists. 

One thing that I used to always say when I was working in London was, Hey, the population of the world is roughly 52% female, so why aren’t the protagonists that we see on stage 52% female? 

I’m not saying about the supporting characters, we need to be looking at protagonists because otherwise you see a lot of where there’s the same demographic of protagonists on stage and then they stick all these minorities in the supporting cast to say they’ve ticked the box. 

One thing wonderful about this play is the female protagonist…she’s local, because another thing I really didn’t want to do was to have an actress from London come up and tell everyone how you should live. 

You want someone local talking to your audiences.

Dan: You often get accused of hypocrisy, especially when speaking about the climate, if you haven’t considered those kinds of details that you have. It almost makes the argument of this play a lot more convincing because you’ve thought through every single aspect, it’s very clever.

“I think what we really didn’t want is to be hypocritical about it.

I think that’s why we sort of made sure that each show touring has an ethos of production that was really extreme, we’ve been really strict of ourselves on it, just because we don’t want to be telling our audiences to do something that we’re not trying to do. 

Alice: When we talk about location, how accommodating have you found different venues to be with this idea, and with the cyclists?

Dan: Yeah, how has that been, because obviously you’re going to be working with people who don’t necessarily share the same vision for the production?

“It’s been great here. I can’t comment on the other venues because I actually haven’t been to those, because of the ethos of the play, but also I’ve held back from travelling to see another version of the play because we can’t get on the train for the play. 

So, at York Theatre Royal, and I might be slightly biassed because I’m also a resident artist here, but they’re really great here. 

I’ve been chatting to the theatre about it for almost a year now…so they’re putting it front and centre, there’s collaborations with York Environment Week, and also the whole theatre has started doing these pledges to reflect the ethos of the play, people in marketing, box office, HR, are doing these pledges where we find one thing we can do in our lives.

We’ve got a whiteboard of all the pledges up in the foyer, whatever people can do in their daily lives to try and help. 

So we’re really trying to all come together and think of different ways to help.”

A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction is no longer touring, but you can still make pledges in the York Theatre Royal foyer, or on social media using #IPledgeWithYTR to participate.