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Blog: A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, or How to Power a Play with Four Bicycles and a Bag of Bananas

A Play For The Living In A Time of Extinction_Barbican_Helen Murray_23

By: James Banyard, TRP Blogger & Critic

June 2023


The thing you may have heard about the show in the Drum this week, A Play for the Living in a Time of Extinction, is that it is entirely powered by bicycles.

You don’t believe me?

Well, this week I went backstage to meet the cyclists and I am here to tell you that yes, this production really is completely off-grid. This is the story of how it all works.

First, why power a show with bikes? A Play for the Living…is about the climate emergency. The team behind it, Headlong Theatre, want to have fewer people and props travelling round the country in the name of entertainment. Apart from a single pallet of technical gubbins delivered to the theatre, everything else – the performers, back stage staff, the bikes, even the electricity – is sourced locally.

What arrives on that pallet are four rear bike wheels that each contain a dynamo, and four bike stands, plus some other bits and bobs. The bike wheels need to be attached by the theatre to some bikes.

The bicycles, loaned by Steve Toze from Rockets and Rascals, the bike emporium at the Barbican, are normal mountain bikes. In the Drum he has fixed the new rear wheels to them and clamped them into their stands. He attaches new pedals with his pedal spanner, a fearsome object as big a truncheon. Anything that helps raise the profile of cycling is good with him. ‘We’re not always able to do that with men in lycra,’ he tells me. As someone who cycles and refuses to wear lycra, I like Steve. A lot.

The four bicycles are connected by cables to a mini-bar sized box which contains a thing called a capacitor. Not a Flux Capacitor, this isn’t science fiction. A capacitor temporarily stores up electricity and releases it smoothly so it can be used for the lighting and sound desks without blowing them up. I am told that things blowing up in a theatre is to be discouraged.

The bikes don’t ride themselves. I meet two members of the Yogi Cycling Club from Plymouth, and two of their pals. John, Paul, Steve and David are the riders for today’s rehearsal, but others will be involved throughout the run. I chat with Steve, and try to bond with him over cycling. This year I rode from Barnstaple to Plymouth with my family and took four days to complete the journey. He tells me he did the same journey recently in one day. Steve is definitely the right man for this job.

The cyclists also power an LED display which, in real time, show how many watts are being produced. If the cyclists pedal faster, this figure rises, up to about 320 watts. When they stop cycling, it drops to 30 watts, then to zero watts, and then all the lights go out. This actually happened while I was sitting in the Drum. Later, I learn how crucial the number of watts is.

John, Paul, Steve and David are essentially taking the place of the burning coal in a traditional fossil fuel power station. They get hot, and they each have a towel draped over their handlebars to wipe the sweat from their foreheads. In this set-up, the equivalent of the coal is the backstage table groaning with trail mix, bananas, cereal bars, and sweets that the cyclists have to eat. No, I did not steal a Starburst. I did not.

Now everything is set up – the bikes, the riders, the electrical circuit, the snacks – it’s time to bring on the star of the show, Plymouth based performer and poet Shaday Barrowes-Bayewunmi. ‘OK, we’re going dark’ announces Ryan Wilce, the producer, and the house lights go black. The cyclists begin pedalling and lo – the stage lights up! Ropes of white LEDs snake around the stage, a pendant light above Shaday shines brightly, and a projector shows images of extinct animals. The meter on the wall shows a steady 300 watts.

Shaday is listing animals that have gone extinct in her lifetime. She is full of energy, and all seems well. But – all the pedalling, the rattling of bicycle chains, and the whirring of the dynamos makes quite a din. It’s hard for Shaday to project her voice to the back of the room above the noise. The director and stage manager ask two of the cyclists to stop. This reduces the noise a lot. The crew on this show, as well as being artists, are power station managers, keenly trying to match supply and demand by bringing on the cyclists as they are needed.

I chat to the producer and ask why they can’t just give Shaday a microphone.

Ryan laughs. ‘A mic would draw another 400 watts of power.’ Four bikes pedalling hard can comfortably generate about 320 watts which is just enough for all the lighting and sound. For Shaday to have a working mic, that would mean wheeling in another four cyclists. Think how noisy eight cyclists would be.

Luckily, I hear later that the crew find a way of solving the problem. It’s a lesson for all of us about the value of working together, rather like how we will all have to pull together to solve the climate crisis. I can’t wait to see the show.

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