Gulp!: making choices, stories and theatre about water

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“It seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.”


Earlier this year, the UNESCO World Water Development Report was published. Its headline findings make for grim reading

climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, threatening the effective enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for potentially billions of people. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

On the other hand, without plastic, UNESCO’s sustainable goals cannot be reached. There are only two ways forward: to do nothing, too often what seems to be the environmental policy of those who purport to be our leaders, or to think and do at least something.

The impetus to make Gulp! came before we created its forerunner, Where’s My Igloo Gone?, a piece about climate-change. We realised just how ridiculous bottled water and the consumer con-trick around that ‘industry’ is, let alone its environmental impact. We began to think more widely about water. We wanted to create a positive, participatory experience for our audiences again, made up of children 7+ and their families and carers. It seems to us that a fundamental dramaturgical shift (the form and content of the work) has to be from a bleak mirroring of a problem, to a principle of empowering and empathetic stories and experiences.

No work can happen without a web of partners. Our theatre-making has been significantly funded by Arts Council England, several trusts and venue partners, the University of Birmingham and through a collaboration with Severn Trent Water. The two pieces combine to create a practice as research and ‘impact’ project around the efficacy of empathetic, positive dramaturgies of performance and the environment. We also benefit from ongoing relationships with a set of scientists. Recently, this has been extended through my links with the Birmingham Plastics Network.

In terms of empathy, a dramatic strategy, and one which is actually pretty classic, is to have a central character who undertakes a kind of journey. Spectators (in order to involve everyone, there are only sixty at a time) see someone in a situation and can identify with them. In Gulp!, Maya (the name means water in Hebrew) gets - wait for it! - sucked up a tap! In Gulp!’s recognisable world, complete with adverts for bottled water (our is cheekily called ‘EviClever’), Maya gets spat out of the tap in various locations: a city experiencing a flood; a rural location being polluted by discharge from a factory; the ocean; a desert. Spectators see Maya getting into problems, but as a kind of coda to the story, through participation they help Maya to sort things out: they lend their sandbag cushions to hold back flooding, protest at the ‘baddie’ polluting factory boss, by working together they help to bring water to the elephant at the empty watering hole. Drawing on earlier experience, the show also features no spoken English, in part to reach EAL and d/Deaf audiences, but also to stimulate a communicative world of sound, partly comprising the made-up language of ‘Waterish’.

The real problem was finding a story that would ‘hold’ the topic of water. For many people, water is just not a problem - we turn on the tap and water comes out of it - it is instead a phenomenon with which we have a relationship. Made up of several perspectives, ‘water’ won’t easily be marshalled into a storyline. Yet it is one of the fundamental things that unites all of us globally, even if many in the world have no tap and no clean water. One of our scientific advisors, Professor David Hannah thus shared how water can be conceived as part of a continuum: too much, too little, too dirty. This conception underpins the locations above. Later, we conceived of water as a set of binaries: global and local; need and taking for granted; and also through climatic extremes (heat and flood); and human interventions such as access, control and denial. These themes also hold the topic together across the story.

The production toured extensively to schools, theatres, community and rural settings over 2019-20. Funded by Severn Trent Water, we also produced three thousand copies of a comic-book version of the Gulp!, beautifully illustrated by Emily Jones, given out free after many performances and also made available digitally. Severn Trent Water also produced a very extensive education pack to go with the show and took part in post-show discussions, as well as funding twelve performances in six diverse schools local to us. We also created a ‘PPP song’, which cheerily celebrated what should only go down your loo: paper, pee and poo!

And, of course, we had to gather feedback through several mechanisms. Analysis of post-show free-text responses demonstrated that a quarter of people confirmed their changed perception around water use and waste; another 25% of respondents wrote about their changed behaviour in terms of consumption, significantly around the use of plastics. A further 25% of respondents explicitly wrote that they would cease the use of bottled water. Perhaps this is a response to the thread of ‘EviClever’. But I hope too because of the ocean scene, when plastic objects are turned into an underwater world: at first beautiful, but then where plastic-bag jelly-fish get caught in a turtle’s jaws, and a plastic water bottle is swallowed by a tarpaulin whale.

As the UNESCO report also says, water is a direct way we experience climate. And plastic won’t go away. The way we understand and interact with these phenomena (the report speaks of adaptation and mitigation) has global consequences. Now and in the future, education and empowerment to make choices is crucial. If you want to shift people’s knowledge, intentions and, perhaps, behaviour, a means to engage what really leads to change needs to happen. Ultimately, this is people’s hearts and minds.