Source: Avignon Festival
Date: 22/04/2012
Event: Katie Mitchell describes working with Stephen Emmott on Ten Billion
Credit: Avignon Festival

  • Katie Mitchell: Theatre director

[The interviewer's words have been translated from the original French. During the interview, after Katie Mitchell spoke, each segment was translated into French by an interpreter.]

Interviewer: Katie Mitchell, you've come back to us to present another work. This work is very special. It’s a meeting between you and a scientist, Stephen Emmott around a theme which has run through the Avignon Festival - the future of the planet. It’s run through the festival in very different forms, like most of the themes treated duing the festival. We’ve seen artists taking up a certain number of subjects like that, and treat them in very different ways. You have chosen to put this scientist, Stephen Emmott, on stage. I apologise for his absence this morning. He’s hurt himself quite badly, but he will be performing. So, you've chosen to put a scientist on stage. Why?

Katie Mitchell: We spent several months researching the subject, and the subject was so big that we couldn't find any existing forms of theatre practice to communicate it. So we then decided that the best thing to do was to put the thing itself on stage. And this man, Stephen, is a very powerful talker. And he doesn't look like a scientist, sound like a scientist - he swears a lot. Which is all very useful.

But also, if we got an actor to be a scientist, it would be easy to avoid what he was saying. But if you have a scientist there, you have to listen to what he's saying.

And finally, he said that scientists were struggling to communicate the scale and the complexity of our future, and that he needed help with that. And that was a very compelling request.

Interviewer: I was hoping to ask Stephen in person about his work, so I'll ask you to tell us about Stephen Emmett and his standing as a scientist. What's his speciality, and why did you call on him particularly?

Katie Mitchell: Stephen is by training a neuroscientist, and - but now he runs a laboratory, a Microsoft laboratory in Cambridge, where he has a group of very, very amazing young scientists, in a whole range of fields including biology and physics. He does very avant-garde science, and he advises the British government, he's advised the American government. He's a very important scientist. 

Interviewer: So, you take this scientist and you put him on stage. The first thing that comes to mind is that we're going to see something like a lecture. But from what we know of you, Katie Mitchell, I imagine it's not exactly that which you've done.

Katie Mitchell: What are you imagining? [She laughs]. Well, it does resemble a lecture. The main work that we have done with Stephen is to make him talk in normal language so that we actually understand the information and the science. So the script - or the agreed points that he's going to say - took a long time to develop. And we have some animation that goes alongside the talking.

Interviewer: Precisely. I thought there must be a certain amount of improvisation on his part when I saw that there would be a translator on stage with him to translate live, that’s to say, without subtitles. There’s someone there to translate what he’s saying.

Katie Mitchell: Yes, the text is a very unstable thing, and he's agreed to order his points in a certain order. And there is live, simultaneous translating going on. But maybe the thing to say is that when we worked on it, it became very clear that we shouldn't do anything theatrical to interfere with the information. Because the information is very frightening and important. 

Interviewer: Quite. There are always several possibilities for this kind of encounter between the public and a scientist. It may be a statement about the state of the planet, or it may indicate a way forward towards a better state of things. In this case, are there the two, the state of the world, and how the world can be changed?

Katie Mitchell: Oh dear. I think the problem about it is the scientist isn't very hopeful. And so - simply, what he says: it divides into three sections. One is about the past, the fact that there was no population growth for 10,000 years and suddenly we have increased our population. And he looks at what has increased the population. Then there's the present - what's going on now, in food, transport, water, climate, energy... And then he talks about the future, the bit that you're talking about, what we can do. Ands he suggests that there are two things that we can do. One is to technologise our way out of it, and the other is to change our behaviour. And he doesn't think we will do either. And he thinks we're fucked. And there's nothing I can do with what he thinks. He just thinks that. So I just present what he thinks.

So, what started off as a project which was quite optimistic, has turned into a very pessimistic project. And art and theatre simply helps this man communicate his pessimism - about us, really. So all the lovely theatrical effects I was hoping to do [laughs] have been completely oppressed by his pessimism.

Interviewer: Thanks, Katie Mitchell, for that future which you are offering us. Now when Sephen Emmott proposed this work to you, in fact he wrote: "The whole world is asking itself the wrong questions, at the wrong level. The wrong decisions are being made, according to the wrong time scale" which is already a not particularly optimistic point of view. So, in the work you’ve done with him, does he talk about his own role, his speciality which you spoke about at the beginning of our talk? After all, he's often called upon by the British and American governments to serve on specialist committees. What's his feeling about this kind of work? Does he feel that he manages to influence things?

Katie Mitchell: Yes. But the thing is - you keep searching for hope. He's asking you to face a much more serious situation, which has got less possibilities for hope. But of course, if the governments, globally, were to change what they did, and if we were to change what we did, maybe it would mitigate what we have done, with all of our industrial processes since 1800. But the fact is, the picture is very bleak. And it's not his opinion - it's just the science. And the sooner we realise how bad it is, the better.

I suppose what he made me realise, and what the show tries to communicate, is that what we are doing is too little. So, we do a lot of recycling in the United Kingdom, and he made it very clear that that is a completely pointless thing, and that if we wanted to make a difference there would be - we would consume less stuff - no meat, no fish, only vegetables, we don't live in concrete buildings, we don't have any heating, we don't drive cars, we don't fly aeroplanes, we don't go on trains. So if you wanted to make a difference, you would have to really, radically consume less and live completely differently. And anything else is pointless, in his opinion. It's quite frightening, really.

Interviewer: So, this is the first time you've worked on stage with someone who is neither an actor nor a musician, or an artist of any kind? It's the first time? So what difference does it make?

Katie Mitchell: Well, he doesn't understand anything about our processes. So midway during the technical rehearsal with the lighting and the video, he suddenly said: "“Don’t you all lose the will to live, working like this?" And he doesn’t understand the slowness of an artistic process, first, and secondly he doesn’t understand rhetoric or structure or energy, or anything to do with how you communicate language in time. So he just says everything in the same way very fast, and it’s very difficult to stop him from doing that.
Interviewer: Didn't you find that frustrating, as a director?

Katie Mitchell: No, I really love this scientist, and I love the engagement with his mind and his way of looking at the world. Every single thing that you do with him, whether you eat or you travel on a train, he just looks at the world in a completely different way. So if you have a salad with him, he tells you about all of the processes by which the fucking lettuce got onto your plate. So it's - you can see now I'm a bit, you know, low. It's because I did about six hours travelling with him yesterday. So I had to look at the world from his devastatingly depressing point of view. And it has got to me, I have to say now. Sunday morning...

But, seriously it is an amazing privilege to travel with that man's mind. And - but the thing underpinning the whole project is his rage that we are not doing anything. And his compassion and his kindness, as a human being, is amazing. So I thought, when I started out, that I was making a show about the environment, and I realise now that I'm just allowing a very remarkable scientist to talk to you about what's going to happen. And I think it is a remarkable event, that this man is bothering to talk, in your language, about his very complicated field. It's rather moving. 

Interviewer: So, you’ve already presented a kind of preview of this show in London at the Royal Court, with I think four performances. I had the feeling as a potential spectator of this show that at the end I'd have lots of questions to ask, details to clear up. Did the audience in London express this desire to continue the debate?

Katie Mitchell: People were a bit shocked at the end of the show. [Laughs.] No-one really wanted to talk, for a bit. It's like an hour - it's one hour, one minute of very fast information, and people were very quiet at the end of the show. No-one was ready to ask him anything. But later, in the bar, there were many, many conversations about - people wanted to know how to live, or they wanted to avoid what had just happened.

Interviewer: And I hope the Thames wasn’t filled with the bodies of suicides at the end of your show-stroke-lecture. A little detail I'd like to clear up about Stephen Emmott and the work he does in the laboratory which he has created entirely himself. It’s true that this lab is concerned at the same time with humans, animals, plants, micro-organisms, in the heavens and on earth, and in the oceans. It’s an incredible job that he’s taken on, isn’t it?

Katie Mitchell: Yeah, the laboratory's very different, because it does very complicated, joined-up science [waves her arm], between many, many different fields. But I don't feel that I should talk about it, because - he really needs to be here to talk about it. I should say that he can't be here, because he has a very bad back problem.

Interviewer: Yes, I know from what you told me, with Stephen, because he took part in the interview, that he had, thanks to this laboratory, and thanks to all the people he worked with, a kind of vision like that, and he told me during the interview that the problem is that we have a kind of tendency to treat these subjects separately, and everyone is looking for small solutions to small problems when what we need to do is to find a big solution to the terrible problem facing us. Just one question. Do you think the theatre can really get across this kind of message, better than lectures or articles in scientific journals - because after all, the information gets around, of course, in the specialised fields? Do you really think you can open up the information to a wider audience?

Katie Mitchell: Yes, I think forcing this scientist to use language that's everyday language means that we can, at last, understand the science. So that is the heart of the show. And already the show has been invited to party political conferences, a lot of environmentalists are asking that a film is made of it, so that it can go into schools. So without doubt, what has been made is a very simple way of communicating very complicated science. And I think this will make a difference. It will make a difference in my country, this piece of work. A tiny difference, but it will make a difference. 

Interviewer: Yes, it’s rather nice for a theatre festival to realise that as theatre we can get across something which up till now, hadn’t been communicated in all its complexity and entirety.