University of Nottingham

Reflecting on environmental change through site-based performance

Project outline

Bringing together researchers in theatre/performance studies, geographers, artists and activists, this network examined the potential of site-based performance as a means of representing the dynamics (and histories) of environmental change. Most genuinely site-specific theatre practice tends to be explicitly local in orientation, e.g. reflecting on local history or community identity. But can the local specifics of human habitation and environmental impact also be used, in performance, as a means to reflect on global ecological questions?

Fountains Abbey, October 2010.
Fountains Abbey, October 2010.


To help focus our discussions, the network met in three contrasting, iconic sites: Fountains Abbey World Heritage Site (N. Yorks); Cove Park artists' retreat (Argyll & Bute); Kings College's former Anatomy Museum (central London). The contrasting locations reflected differing types/degrees of human intervention in the environment, and varying histories of cultural-natural, urban-rural, and human-animal interaction.

Workshop 1: Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, North Yorkshire

Date: October 16th-17th 2010

Operated by the National Trust, this World Heritage Site demonstrates many contrasting forms of interaction between humans and environment taking place over centuries. The largest medieval abbey ruins in the country sit alongside England's most spectacular Georgian water gardens. Landscaped grounds give way to working farmland. The River Skell has been redirected for both pragmatic and aesthetic purposes. In the medieval deer park, 'wild' animals are managed as livestock. Fountains Abbey represents some of the most treasured aspects of English heritage, yet such delicately maintained sites are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Workshop 2: Cove Park artists' centre, Argyll & Bute

Date: February 12th-13th 2011

Situated on a fifty-acre site overlooking Loch Long, on the fringes of the 'Loch Lomond and the Trossachs' National Park, Cove Park lies in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), where the mountainous landscape has prevented excessive human exploitation. The site has a history as a conservation park, dedicated to the preservation of indigenous plants, flowers and wildlife, and also grazes highland cattle and sheep. A few miles along the Loch is Coulport naval base, a storage site for nuclear missiles since the 1960s. The larger base at Faslane is also nearby.

Workshop 3: Anatomy Theatre and Museum, King’s College, London

Date: May 20th-21st 2011

Now used for a variety of cultural and research events, this 'site' is entirely human- made, in the heart of one of the world’s most densely-populated urban environments. Its history is rooted in the enlightenment project of categorising and (literally) anatomising the natural world, as a means of bringing it under 'rational' control. Located on the Strand, the venue is close to the hub of London’s commercial theatre district, and to the headquarters of global oil companies such as Shell and BP, whose business 'performance' depends upon the exploitation of fossil fuel resources, often in environmentally sensitive areas of the planet. London’s role as a key centre in such global networks is echoed by the Anatomy Museum’s state-of-the-art technical facilities, which permit multi-screen video-conferencing with respondents across the globe.

Network Meeting: Cabot Institute, University of Bristol

Date: 16th September 2011

A follow-up meeting with representatives from the network and the Environment Agency. EA representatives identified a site for analysis – the area of the city's Eastville suburb where the canalised River Frome flows into sluice gates / culverts. A follow-up funding proposal outlining plans for pilot, community-facing performance projects in Eastville and Shipley (Bradford) has now been submitted to the AHRC.



Two themed journal editions, co-edited by members of the network, have extended our insights and findings in a number of critical directions:

  • Research in Drama Education (The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance) Vol. 17, No. 2 (May 2012). Special edition on 'Environmentalism' edited by Deirdre Heddon and Sally Mackey.
  • Performance Research Vol. 17, No. 4 (August 2012). Special edition 'On Ecology' edited by Stephen Bottoms, Aaron Franks and Paula Kramer.

Immediate creative outcomes of the network included: (i) at Cove Park, ten solo performances that were made and presented during the weekend (documented in detail on our blog), representing a spectrum of individual responses to the physical location and climatic conditions; (ii) in London, three new performances were commissioned in advance, fusing the intimacy and locatedness of live encounter with the fact of London's status as a global hub of environmental impacts. These included two walking performances and a live, online collaboration with environmentally ill performance artist Julie Laffin (confined to her home in US).

As a practice-focused network, our work sought to develop perspectives and approaches relevant to various external partners/stakeholders. During the network programme, we engaged directly with professional artists/companies including Dead Good Guides, NVA, Fevered Sleep, and PLATFORM, all of whom we continue to maintain discursive relations with. In June 2013, PLATFORM presented Oil City as part of Arts Admin's '2 Degrees' festival of climate-change related arts: this site-specific theatre piece, set in the City of London, developed directly from the performance walk originally commissioned for our May 2011 workshop.

A particularly productive collaboration has developed with representatives from the Environment Agency: during 2012-13, AHRC 'Care for the Future' funding enabled us to collaborate with EA and other agency representatives (local councils, etc.) in the development of exploratory, site-specific, community-based performance projects in two case study areas identified by the EA as at risk of flood risk from local rivers (Eastville, in Bristol, and Shipley, in Bradford). This project, titled Multi-Story Water, built directly on conversations with local residents. It led to a further performance commission from Bradford City Council to make a piece marking the opening of the 2013, EU-wide Flood Resilient Cities conference. The Multi-Story Water project's findings also fed directly into the development of a large grant AHRC consortium project, under the 'Connected Communities' programme, titled 'Towards Hydro-Citizenship' (PI Owain Jones, Bath Spa University). The four case study areas for this 2014-17 project again include Bristol and Shipley, enabling us to build on established community and stakeholder relationships.

'Being, not being a tree' (Cove Park, February 2011).


Award details

Duration: July 2010 - October 2011 

Principal Investigator:
Professor Stephen Bottoms

Higher Education Institution:

School of English, University of Leeds


Performance work

  • Ten solo performances at Cove Park, 2011
  • Three commissioned pieces for London meeting, 2011
  • Site-specific theatre piece, 'Oil City by Platform, for Arts Admin's '2 Degrees' festival of climate-change related arts, City of London, 2013
  • A performance commissioned by Bradford City Council to mark the opening of the EU-wide Flood Resilient Cities conference, 2013

Themed journal editions

  • Research in Drama Education (The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance) Vol. 17, No. 2 (May 2012). Special edition on 'Environmentalism' edited by Deirdre Heddon and Sally Mackey.
  • Performance Research Vol. 17, No. 4 (August 2012). Special edition 'On Ecology' edited by Stephen Bottoms, Aaron Franks and Paula Kramer.

Collaboration with non-HEIs

  • Collaboration with NT at Fountains Abbey
  • Collaboration with Environment Agency

New grants/projects

  • 'Multi-Story Water', funded by AHRC under 'Care for the Future' scheme, 2012-13
  • 'Towards Hydro-Citizenship' (PI Owain Jones, Bath Spa University), funded by AHRC, 2014-17 

Related links


Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071