Dartington - Three Days Of Creating

At the core of Climate Stories lies a conviction that everyone can be a storyteller - and that the medium in which this story is told doesn't always have to be within well-established, professional frameworks. In our case, climate scientists could tell us about climate science and climate change using other storytelling means than scientific papers or conference presentations. They could tell us about their work and the world through the medium of a poem, for instance, or a picture. Just because they are not professional poets or printmakers (at least not yet), doesn't mean they cannot make an eloquent, true and artistically valid statement. They can find another voice, another way of putting their point and their knowledge across. Our 3-day course at Dartington was the testing ground for our thesis.

Before our cohort of climate scientists got to Dartington, we asked them to reflect on their expectations of the project. Stewart Barr and Ewan Woodley who lead the evaluation/reflection part of the project, arranged to chat to all our participants about the project and their view of it. We also asked them to view a preparatory presentation to give them some background on the project and related science communication models. So when the first day of our workshop dawned, our cohort was already primed to engage in some way with what we had to offer. 

Wednesday 2nd May started very grey and rainy - not ideal given we were hoping to be able to make use of the magnificent grounds of Dartington Hall. But the Met Office was forecasting improving weather and eventually sunshine, so the outlook was cautiously optimistic. The first participants started arriving bright and early, before us course leaders had even quite finished the set up, so there was a last-minute dash to get the Great Hall ready for everyone. By 9.30 we were all assembled, and quite a number of participants immediately spotted the jelly printmaking activity laid out on the Great Hall table by our Printmaking tutor, Fiona Lovell of Double Elephant Printmaking Workshop in Exeter. No-one needed any encouragement to get stuck in, and very soon very useful paper bags printed with colourful motifs started appearing in people's hands. Sally Flint, our Creative Writing tutor, had devised another icebreaker activity: a 6-word challenge. The instructions were to 'describe your work as a climate scientist in 6 words, and stick them on our display board'. The board was soon covered in interesting word combinations. This 'can-do and want to get on with it' attitude on display right there and then proved to be totally typical of our incredible cohort of volunteers, and made for an electric atmosphere of critical engagement and enthusiastic creative immersion. We had, by the looks of it, found the ideal group of people to work with.

Evelyn O'Malley, our Theatre tutor, used one of her skeins of wool from her knitting in a neat 'get to know each other activity' that weaved us into a group with a common purpose, then it was time for everyone to find out which of the four workshops they would attend first. Once everyone had been pointed in the right direction the place fell very quiet. The only group left in the Great Hall was Fiona's first printmaking group. She explained the task for this group which was to create a long paper banner that would be hung from the minstrels' gallery above. The theme: Tread Lightly on the Earth. The materials to be used: recycled materials (a polite way of saying rubbish). The group set about this massive task with incredible energy and inventiveness. Meanwhile the other three groups were absorbed in their various activities: the theatre group with Evelyn were in the exquisite gardens of the park creating site specific responses, the creative writers with Sally Flint were writing poetry in a wood panelled study with a ticking clock and the song writers were composing lyrics under the direction of Rosie Eade and Dan Plews in a sunny room with a view of the courtyard. By the time the first set of workshops finished at 1pm, the printmakers' banner was done and hung in the centre of the end wall, a totemic image and a wonderful echo of the wall hangings and decorations that would have graced this medieval hall once upon a time. Everyone coming back to the Great Hall from the other workshops was visibly startled. Here was a blazing, tangible, inspirational proof that this process we had set to explore was working. 

After lunch, the climate scientists each headed off to a different workshop to the one they had undertaken in the morning. The weather obligingly followed the Met Ofice prediction and in the afternoon there were blue skies encouraging not just the theatre makers but also some of the writers and songwriters to venture outside, prompting plenty of thinking about their relationship with the environment. Following the afternoon workshops there was some free time, with a chance to reflect on the day's activities and wander through the grounds.  

At 6.30pm we all reconvened for dinner, with everyone very hungry indeed after so much hard thinking.  After dinner we took our drinks and wandered down to the Great Hall, to sit around the great oak table and listen to some fascinating presentations and performances, and spend time discussing and debating. On the first evening, Josh Gaunt showed us just how exciting printmaking animation is, and what a powerful means of communication it can be. Peter Stott read us an excerpt from his writing about his encounters with climate denialism and Sally Flint shared some of her wonderful published poetry.

The second day followed the template of the first. Participants were now able to sample the two other activities to the ones they had experienced the day before. In the evening, Chris Rapley explained the creative process behind the play '2071' and shared some of the fascinating challenges he faced performing it. Rosie Eade (aka Folk Pixie) and then Dan Plews sang us a couple of their fantastic songs each. Two evenings spent listening to stories and songs and exchanging ideas in the surroundings of this glorious Great Hall - it couldn't really have been more medieval, in the best possible sense! 

Friday was a little different because we had to move into another set of rooms, since the Great Hall complex was being used for a wedding. So we hung our banner from the beams of the Upper Gatehouse instead. At the end of Thursday we had asked our cohort to choose one discipline to concentrate on during the last day. This gave them the chance to dig a little deeper, think a little harder about a favoured activity. The morning and first half of the afternoon was spent doing just that. A lot of time was spent in individual discussions with tutors, especially in the creative writing group. Poems and writing was polished, songs rehearsed, and the printmakers created printed faces that once put together as animations spoke words they had chosen, reflecting their work and concerns around climate change. And alongside the creative work of the day, Stewart Barr and Ewan Woodley joined us to conduct some interviews with the participants about their impressions of their time at Dartington Hall.

At 3pm we all came together again under the Banner, and shared some of the work we had made. Billed as 'Showtime!' on our timetable, this turned into a profoundly moving hour of poetry, song, theatre and imagery, generously shared and deeply appreciated by the whole group. We watched in awe Josh's film of the animations created in our printmaking workshop, and his time-delay film of the painting of the Banner. We listened to wonderful poetry delivered with a keen sense of dramatic placing, and we sang along to two great songs with excellent choruses. And wonderfully, we heard of a number of projects taking shape as a result of the work done over these three days - something that we project leaders had not dared dream would happen. It shows the calibre of our cohort of climate scientists that they disregarded disciplinary boundaries and started imagining books, plays, installations, science gardens and exploratory walks using all the options of imagery creation, wordsmithing and sound that they had explored during these three days.

And all too soon, it was over. After a last cup of tea and a cookie, everyone was gone.