Without Walls TALKS: How do you do social change in outdoor theatre? by Angie Bual

18 September 2023

Written by Angie Bual, Creative Director and joint CEO of Trigger

Angie Bual is an artist and director specialising in visual & participative events. Angie is the Creative Director of Trigger, a North Somerset based arts charity who create and produce large-scale work in response to varied social issues. Projects have included The Hatchling, PoliNations and most recently a touring show TEABREAK.

It was early on in my career that I became interested in the spaces where real world and theatre meet. Outdoor theatre has an incredible capacity to engage communities and spark conversation. By rethinking the boundaries of traditional performance, it invites us to use our imagination. It prompts us to think bigger, wider and reconsider the things we accept as fact about the societies we live in. 

I’ve always been interested in the ways we can use theatre to bring people together and address difficult issues without being divisive; how we can use its power to invite conversation without playing a part in the culture wars.

In 2021, Trigger was one of ten organisations commissioned to deliver a project for the UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK programme. Our project PoliNations was developed in the wake of national lockdowns and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. After being stuck inside for so long, it seemed we collectively developed a new relationship with the outdoors and with nature. It was at this time that I learnt 80% of the plants in our gardens were non-native. These plants I had been tending to were all immigrants! 

I wanted to share this biodiverse and multicultural message, and in the social and cultural climate of that moment, it felt impossible to address one without the other. The PoliNations garden was a truly epic celebration of colour and beauty. The invitation was simple: PoliNations was for everyone, and everyone was invited to be their true unique selves. Inclusivity and representation was at the heart of the project. We made the garden, and then handed it over to Birmingham.

‘When there are difficult histories and important stories like this to tell, how do we do so in a way that isn’t condescending or boring?’

As artists and creative practitioners, we can’t always be in the room where decisions are made. What we can do is use our creativity to show the decision makers – and the local community – what’s possible. The feedback we received from PoliNations was outstanding; people began gardening for the first time in their lives, they incorporated a visit to the garden into their daily commute. Again and again, we heard how proud PoliNations made visitors feel – pride in their city, and in their own creativity. PoliNations was a mechanism to uplift the incredible talent, creativity and sense of community already existing in Birmingham. 

Using theatre as a tool to celebrate the skills and innovation within a particular place is a huge part of what we do. We’ve found that outdoor arts can be a powerful tool in bringing people together, providing a social cohesion or glue that get communities and neighbours talking. When we premiered The Hatchling in Plymouth in 2021, we had over 30,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder, watching a dragon fly. A mass participation project like The Hatchling has an incredible capacity to bridge perspectives – in this case, Eastern and Western perceptions of the dragon, or the ‘other’. In Plymouth we had people of all ages, races and backgrounds come to watch this visitor hatch, roam the city and eventually take flight. It created an incredible feeling of unity. 

In May this year we began touring our brand-new show TEABREAK with support from Without Walls. TEABREAK uses the story of tea to think about our colonial history, and the legacy of empire that still exists today. When there are difficult histories and important stories like this to tell, how do we do so in a way that isn’t condescending or boring? A big part of what we do is thinking about how to create an invitation to the public that’s open, inclusive, inviting and inspiring.

What we did with TEABREAK was interview people all over the country and beyond, including tea historians, mindfulness practitioners and other everyday people with stories to tell. This created a very emotionally rich experience. The invitation of TEABREAK is light, breezy and accessible – who can’t turn down the invitation to have a cup of tea on a sunny day at a festival? The output is that people might think differently about this drink that they have every day. They might think of tea as a political drink.

The next challenge we’re going to explore is around the ways we unwittingly instil climate anxiety into children and young people. The way we speak to kids about climate change is really distressing – we are passing on a paralysis of responsibility without giving them to tools to respond. Positive climate action is going to involve creativity, with children who are inspired, motivated and keen to problem solve. One of our new projects will be addressing this – getting kids out into nature, empowering young creativity and providing hope in the place of paralysis.

Image credits:

TEABREAK at Norfolk and Norwich Festival © Luke Witcomb