Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Why we're bringing climate change musical WeCameToDance from US to Scotland amid Covid lockdown turmoil – Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack

For the last three months, if we’re being honest, we’ve had dozens of conversations with well-meaning Scottish theatre, government, non-profit, academic, and other professionals who strongly urged us to skip this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

We’ve decided to participate anyway.

Tomorrow, Food Tank, our US-based research and advocacy organisation that fights for food systems change and battling the climate crisis, will register its immersive, climate-focused musical, WeCameToDance, to participate in the 2021 Fringe. After a year of isolation, we are ready to usher joy back into the community.

Our musical tells the story of extra-terrestrial life that arrives on Earth to warn its inhabitants of a climate crisis that their own planet has experienced. While guiding a fully immersed audience through rhythms, dance, and song, the characters relay a call to action and convey the tragedy of a changing climate, yet a sense of hope percolates through each and every motion, movement, and note.

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WeCameToDance was originally meant to debut last June with Tony-award-winning, non-profit theatre company La MaMa as an off-Broadway run in New York City. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the show’s run was called off.

We understand the Fringe will look very different this year. But we decided that bringing WeCameToDance to Edinburgh is worth the risk. Here’s why.

In the wake of a pandemic, gathering people together for a shared experience represents the light at the end of the tunnel. A musical filled with joy and hope can be a gift to all of us who have missed the connection, energy, and magic conferred by live theatre.

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This year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe is going ahead although performances may still have to abide by some Covid-related restrictions (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)This year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe is going ahead although performances may still have to abide by some Covid-related restrictions (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
This year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe is going ahead although performances may still have to abide by some Covid-related restrictions (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

We also believe impact-driven, non-profit theatre is ready to be revitalised.

Theatre shouldn’t be passive. Built-in seating, a forward-facing stage, and silenced technology asks the bare minimum of the audience. It’s a stale model, one that is far too safe. We know people want to connect on a deeper level.

Theatre can’t be a one-night stand. Often, the performing arts explore important issues like the climate crisis, gender inequality, and systemic racism, but the experience is fleeting. We need to mobilise audience members post-experience, inspire a drive for tangible change.

As participants sing and dance alongside the cast, WeCameToDance proposes a new model of theatre that embraces vulnerability. The show empowers the audience to co-create their experience alongside the cast. Much like our fight to mitigate climate change, this show demands accountability.

WeCameToDance is also, put simply, a blast. Audience members will interact with aliens from a real exoplanet (they call it “Hanyana”) that we have reimagined through conversations with Nasa.

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The performers will sing in their own language created by famed linguist David Peterson, who developed Valerian for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Along with the cast, attendees will groove to music created by Grammy-nominated Ghanaian artist Rocky Dawuni and participate in synchronised dance designed by Mary Page Nance of Broadway musical Finding Neverland. It is an ethereal, truly otherworldly experience that builds layered rhythms over spoken word poetry performed by an all-Scottish cast.

We know that allowing the audience to fully arrive and engage wholeheartedly with the story and the movement that guides it will have a fiercely powerful impact. A sense of mutual respect informs this production, as cast and audience work together to craft their own experience.

With this model, the end of the performance serves as the beginning of a relationship. WeCameToDance is an opportunity to not only foster connection and trust amongst an audience from beginning to end, but to hold on to that connection after each member walks out the door.

This model is designed to be persistent. With the UN climate change Cop26 summit coming to Glasgow this autumn, the Festival Fringe is tasked with honouring the global effort toward mitigating climate change. But the effort must also be an individual one – it is essential we inspire and challenge every participant to take action in their own lives.

We are crafting partnerships with Scotland-based non-profits as we facilitate local volunteer opportunities, cultivate Cop26-specific action steps, and organise Food Tank’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow immediately following the performances. This summit, free to attend for former audience members, will invite deeper learning and inspiration from food systems and climate leaders worldwide.

We are walking the talk and reducing our carbon footprint. We are hiring all Scottish creatives and performers, both to limit travel and to empower local communities. Throughout the process, we have been astounded by the sheer abundance and passion of Scotland’s community of creatives. We are modelling a zero-waste show design using upcycled set pieces, recycled materials for costumes, and reusable merchandise.

Part of this commitment must address accessibility in the theatre space, as under-representation and disenfranchisement are endemic in the climate crisis.

Ensuring access to theatre and the arts hinges on where, how, and to whom these productions are offered. Prior to the Festival’s commencement, we will offer a week of completely free, socially distant, outdoor pop-up performances across Edinburgh, from city to suburbs.

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During the Fringe itself, we will be presenting special performances at local schools. Afterwards, we will take the show to London to be performed at the Vaults, followed immediately by encouraging performances of WeCameToDance at schools, universities, and community centres by conferring the right to license and perform the show for free.

Finally, we want the show to be accessible and safe so it may accommodate all pandemic-related concerns. We are embracing the potential for reduced capacity, social distancing, and considering branded and rewearable masks for attendees.

More than ever, we feel the visceral desire to sing, dance, and celebrate together. We also know the deep need to do so while considering the changes our world is facing. WeCameToDance is our opportunity to do both. We invite you to join us in our mission to bring joy and movement back to Earth.

Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg are co-founders of Food Tank, a US-based research and advocacy non-profit working towards a more sustainable food system

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