Interview With Artist And Change Maker Lucy Neal

Lucy Neal is a theatre maker and writer exploring celebratory events that act as a catalyst for change: from the gifting of a small seed in a six-minute ritual to the staging of a theatre of fire for 20,000 in a London Park. Co-founder Director of the influential London International Festival of Theatre (1981-2005), she has been active in the grassroots Transition movement in Tooting, SW London since 2008. Her handbook Playing for Time - Making Art As If the World Mattered, (Oberon Books 2015) maps collaborative arts practices emerging in response to planetary challenges. Lucy tutors on The Arvon Writing Course Fierce Words and is a Trustee of the Aluna Foundation. She is author of The Great Imagining - how the arts spark cultural change in Zero Carbon Britain's Making It Happen and a founder 'declarer' of Culture Declares, a global movement of artists and cultural organisations declaring a climate and ecological emergency. She is currently working - as one of four women artists - on Walking Forest a commission for Season for Change and Coventry City of Culture 2021 that draws on the inspiration of trees, the forest ecosystem and creative movements of resistance and change making across the world, past and present.

Natasha: Lucy, thank you so much for chatting to me. I wondered if you could start by telling me a bit about your work. I'd especially love to hear more about the walking forest work.

Lucy: Well, I'm in my early 60s, so my journeying through my professional creative life has had a number of chapters and the one I'm in at the moment genuinely astonishes me and surprises me. So I'm a writer, artist, facilitator, change maker, and activist. You know, it's not always so easy to kind of put your finger on things, but it's with some humility that I look back at the previous eras of my working life and regard them with the kind of awe really in terms of the risks that I took, the learning that I gained and the people I collaborated with from whom I learned so much. So I started out as a theatre maker. I just loved being in shows, plays, acting, directing, helping to stage them. And quite early on, I met my first collaborator at university, in fact, Rose Fenton, and we dreamt up this idea that we would start an international theatre festival called Lift, The London International Festival Theatre, and in our early 20s, we threw ourselves at that. We travelled the world. We invited theatre artists from South Africa, Chile, China, Germany, Palestine, from all over, and crafted a festival in London that celebrated the communities in London and made the festival a real connection point between London as a city and artists from around the world.

But I mention that really because I did that for 25 years. So it was a huge adventure from which I was constantly learning a lot. We did a lot of site specific shows —so making things work outside, having to work across disciplines with many, many different individuals from different sectors. But we were also learning about change and learning about how artists are so often travelling ahead, you know, with these incredible antennae about how change happens. In terms of how they are, who they are, and how they think, write, imagine, and conjure, they are so often travelling ahead with stories. So I just mention that because with all humility, I see those years as something of a root ball in terms of how how often I draw on knowledge of story and those artists that I worked with for so many years. Fast forward to the present moment and I left the festival. We thought 25 years was a good was a good sort of chunk of time to give your life to something.

Then I ventured out slightly more precariously into wondering what my own creative practice would be if I was just me Lucy creating and and making things happen. And it was quite quickly into that time, I suppose, quite deliberately, I let things go a bit. And it was into that space that I began to really let things settle in me about quite how awful and terrifyingly real what was happening on Earth. I might have taken it on board intellectually, but I had never really allowed it to stop me, stop me in my tracks. And a lot of what I do today comes really from those two things combined, a theatre making background and then this total existential moment, of an inner collapse of all certainty in me.

Natasha: I love that background because I think that's such a unique story and I love how you have that kind of that synergy. It's very lively. But if you could go just a little deeper to what now?

Lucy: I mean, one of one of the key things that brings me to where I am at the moment is my work with three other artists, Ruth Ben Tovim, Anne-Marie Culhane and Shelley Castle. We've been working together for about three years, and have a project called Walking Forest, which we say is a 10 year artwork so from 2018 to 2028 with an intention of planting and growing an intentional woodland in 2028, where every tree that is planted in some way has that story behind it of a particular, for the most part, woman activist. And so the weaving together of the story of trees, the story of activism and women that are leading that now today around the globe on the front line, but also taking real inspiration, almost from the forest floor of a mycelial network of history and contemporary activists.

We are inspired by certain individual women in the past and particularly drawing on the suffragettes who here in this country, in Great Britain, have just amazing stories of their bravery, their courage, their ingenuity, their creative actions that had a performative quality, but were also really grassroots. They were bringing about change for women to bring women the vote. They wanted to shift the way women were represented in our political systems and our legal economic systems, and cultural systems. But they were doing it for everyone. They were doing it for the working classes. They were doing it for their children. They were doing it for families. So it did have a community aspect to it, which we found really inspiring because it was so connected.

When I stopped doing LIFT, my youngest child — I have four daughters — and my youngest child was eight still. So I was still walking down the road, holding her hand, taking her to primary school. And I just knew instinctively that this was a sort of phenomenal opportunity for me to really relish motherhood and to be at home, having been so internationally busy. So I made a resolve that in terms of trying to understand a role I had to play in addressing my personal and planetary relationship, that I would not only stay at home, but I would also explore a creative role for myself locally where I lived. I live in southwest London in Tooting, and it was actually through a trip to Totnes, I became aware of the transition movement and came back to London actively looking to join a transition initiative somewhere. I was very hungry to lean into some role I could play where I could settle these nightmares I was having, but I could settle into some kind of practical focus and really address myself to feeling and learning how the systems could be changed and how one could address that where one stood literally. I didn't find that immediately because we didn't have one locally.

So I started Transition Town Tooting and that was a mad roller coaster for four or five years as that got going. And it did get going. It went from strength to strength. And I was learning so much not only about the systems, about the carbon, the economy, food growing, heating and lighting, and also slightly blowing my own mind, really reading books about oil and carbon and things like that. But it allowed me to understand that if we are to really radically alter the systems in which we live, that there is a hugely creative role to be played as citizens, literally as we walk outside our front door.

And after several years, I felt a real need to come back to my own creative practice and to come back to what I felt was me in all this. And of course, that was a world of imaginary making things happen creatively with others. So I just got stuck in and we did huge events, we did a big carnival that went down the high road, we did something called the Tour de Tooting. We were just constantly looking and feeling, and asking: How do you gather people up together? What kind of invitation do you issue to people to to tell these sort of big stories? It has to be in a way where people feel they can enact something, they can experiment, they can rehearse, they can try things out. They need to quell their own fear that's rising in them, and recognize that in collaborations with others in creative ways, we are capable, and we have capacities of action that we don't understand unless we jump in.

So that background, if you like, of being a community activist or an artist, those two roles began to blur for me a little. And it was out of that slightly blurry view of suddenly realizing that actually the role I was playing locally was different from a role that I had played as the director of an international theatre festival. You know, it was still creating and holding a space in which stories could be told and they could be stories of different experiences. They could be imaginary and they could be essentially about how we connect, how we find this commonality of our experience when there is so much joy and there is so much anxiety. How do we come through that together and work out alternatives anyway?

Natasha: And I can imagine it being very cross-generational as well.

Lucy: And also I tend to do things from my own experience. That's how I learn. Academia is not a place I've ever completely dwelt in because I gain my own knowledge from trying and making things work with other people. It was through many of those experiences that I did decide there was something to write about it. And it was out of this understanding that I saw it actually as a big piece of theatre, really, that there's an arc of a narrative happening here. There's a sort of dramaturge, if you like, of what is happening to us and what actions are we taking that can change the story. Are we in a tragedy where we're only ever going to see what's happened to us too late and it's just too late for all action? Or actually, is there a story of a more comedic one which is about community and connection? What role can each of us play in this story?

And so I began to see this in a slightly broader concept of a dramaturgy in terms of how things are playing out and how each one of us sees a role for ourselves. And that has to be everybody because everybody's experience of life is valid here, whether they're from this culture or that culture, towards the end of their life or a young child. And it's only when all those stories are playing together, I think, that we that we tap into the shared experience that makes change possible. That's my view. But it was through that sort of inquiry of my own, that one day I I asked myself, where is there a handbook for this? The skills that we can develop and flourish with and as you know, Natasha, that's where Playing For Time came from, in my mind, from the blurring of being a community activist and being an artist.

To me suddenly one day I just felt that was the same role. It wasn't that one was a kind of voluntary capacity of working in a grassroots way locally where you live, and one was a professionally assigned maker, designer writer, playwright, or artist. Instead, I could see a role where they were the same thing because that's what it felt like that I was doing. And that was when I just began to gather up and look around and see where there were artists that were working with land, water or food, or working with the seasons. They were all growing our connections to the natural world. That's how Playing for Time came about.

Natasha: Tell me, about your project the Walking Forest. You're working so closely with trees and with the land. For example, you told me about that extraordinary tree near Bath, where I live. And I'm curious how that informs your sense of generational thinking. I imagine having that very intimate, playful, exploratory connection with these historical trees must give you a different sense of time.

Lucy: Yeah, I think quite early on I came to make my peace really with something, which is that I believe that whatever we all do today, we are never really going to see the fruits of what we're doing today and therefore we just have to accept with some humility that we're just playing the part that we can play now. And when we discovered this particular tree you mentioned — the suffragettes all planted an arboretum near Batheaston, which was to honour the courage of each individual woman — the arboretum was growing all the time that they were sort of engaged in their campaign, but they were planting those trees knowing that not only would they never see those trees in their full growth, but that they would be unlikely to see the results of their campaign. So I think a tree will always give us that extraordinary reaching back in time and reaching forward in time. And that has always been, for me, just a really helpful way to see my work because there's something in you that relaxes and you can really surrender to the demands of what you're doing if you don't think you've got to have it all wrapped up by next February.

The arboretum was in fact all destroyed in the 1960s except one tree, which interestingly was the outlier. It was the one tree that was on the edge. So it was somehow saved. And of course, now it's an Austrian Pine it's absolutely enormous. And we've collected a lot of the pine cones and we're now propagating from the tree. We call them the radical sisters. They're at Shelley's house and one is nearly two foot and one is a bit smaller than that. When you look at that, you get the shivers. We carried the seeds of the tree to the climate talks in Katowitce in December 2018. We make these rather sweet little bags, which we embroidered, and we put a little box inside and then we gifted them in little ceremonies when we met lawyers, activists, change makers. We just slightly cut across their path. You know well that climate talks are like, they're completely out of this world experiences. Thirty thousand people all descending. And the tension and the feelings are not always expressed because people are so focused on the task of what has to happen and the agreements and the consensus. But the feelings are huge, you know, so we sort of cut across people's path and just asked if we could tell a story and make a gift. And for the most part, we were stopping people in their tracks, creating this little bubble of time and then with a sort of arrow from past, present and future, we were gifting them something of the natural world, which was a seed from this tree. And we told the story of the tree. What was incredible about telling the story and gifting the seed was that we found that we were sort of handing back to people their own courage. We were creating a taproot for them down literally into the earth and reconnecting them with the sort of seed that was in them. That was what allowed them to stay with the task, to stay with this indescribably difficult task that they had set themselves.

Natasha: I love that sense of connection that you generate just from these little micro actions.

Lucy: I know. Shelly said this feels like homoeopathy. It's so small, what we're doing in this crazy, massive conference centre and I described it to somebody. Who said yes, she said because the system wants to tend towards healing, and so by gifting the seed, you're sort of gifting something which sort of reminded everybody that the natural world system tends towards healing, and that's really, really strong when you find yourself in the middle of something that's just craziness.

Natasha: And that makes me really think of that connection again between the generations. The symbolism of a seed is so rich, isn't it? We see so many young people getting involved now. I often feel like I want to say, what's your message to young people, but I don't feel like that's really the boat we're in anymore. I feel like they're giving us messages. What's your connection with young people through your work?

Lucy: Well, I mean, interestingly, when I had my kind of dawning moment, it was at Schumacher College where I'd just done a week's course. It was 2007. And I was just getting ready to come back home to London. I was waiting to get a lift to the station, so I just went outside. It was winter, it was quite cold and I just stood against that big chestnut tree, which is outside Schamacher, and I just leant against the tree and I looked up and it was dark, it was night, there weren't stars even. Just by stopping still for a few moments, my world at that point, my vision of myself literally on the planet, in the universe, just tumbled, tumbled, tumbled. It just completely fell. I just felt everything was moving and shifting and falling. And I was falling. And I suddenly couldn't see forward. I couldn't see a future. I couldn't see a future for myself, and I couldn't see I couldn't see a future for my children. I knew from that moment that every single thing I did from that moment on would be of a different order of how I came to things.

But the next thought I had was that everything I would do from then on would be to explore in a sense, for my children, a way of living. I knew it wouldn't be a way of saying to them, you have to do it like this and you have to do that. Instead, I would attempt myself to model and explore a creative life for myself. I would harness intentional change and creativity because that's all I knew how to do. I just prayed that by doing that every day in home and around home, that I would be learning sufficiently to sort of help them till the soil a bit and see a way forward for themselves. Now, you'd have to ask them if it worked. But I think it had an impact on our household. It unnerves them, of course it unnerves us all, but I like to think that somewhere they have knowledge and they have their feet in the real world so that they understand what the dangers are, but that they can keep looking at it.

And that's all I wanted to do, was to find a creative way of saying let's look at this, but let's keep looking at it, because there are ways in which things can happen and ways that we can do things. So my youngest, for example, Xanthe, the one that was eight when I left the festival. She went to Brighton and she's now a ceramicist. But in her work she digs clay at fracking sites. She's really interested in the provenance of the clay, but she works with her hands so she's constantly working with the material of the earth and understanding the earth's stories, whether that's the microbes and the bacteria or the terracotta pots that archeologists find that go back millennia. I'm delighted that that's the way she's found to approach things. You know, that's lovely.

Natasha: OK, Lucy, I just want to ask one final question, what what is it that's giving you the most hope and joy in the climate action space at the moment?

Lucy: It's like you've got to do two things at once. One is being completely harnessed every day to working quite hard, but whilst knowing you're never going to know the impact. But then you do sometimes get this kind of joyous glimpses of some real change happening. So you have to trust, I think, and trust and trust and trust and trust and trust and trust and keep going and keep going. I've just described something about dedicating myself and my work to not just my children, of course, but to entire generations that have not had all the gambling and frolicking and travelling around the world that I had when I was in my 20s and 30s without thinking about consequences in planetary terms.

One of the things that's genuinely giving me pleasure in this last month is that my dad, who's nearly 94, has come to live with us here. I'd never really thought about what it would mean for me personally, if I also dedicated myself to somebody towards the end of their life. And one of the things that I'm learning quite deeply from that is this whole idea of restoration. You know, we talk about restoring, restoring the natural world and and restoration projects. But restoration is an extraordinary process, to restore somebody to their senses, to restore life to somebody. I see daily small things in my father that are coming back to him, knowledge and awareness and sensibilities. It's an ability to be a full person and watching that restoration, I just think, well, yes, of course, we dedicate ourselves to young people, but that's not to exclude what we can also learn restoring others in the vulnerability of illness or old age.

I think the thing I will always come back to is joy. I've always believed that joy is a very, very radical force and that when you can conjure moments or occasions, events or celebrations, gather people together where they connect to each other in in moments of celebration, there might also be moments to honour the dead or to grieve. So they can be celebrations where you mark loss as well. But I think that's just my lifelong habit, really, of wanting those moments where people capture something that may be just a passing moment, but it's so strong in the impact that it has on us, because it just returns us to a sense of commonality. It feels at the moment that to remind people of that commonality is in itself quite a political act, because everything is set up to divide us and we're not going to get anywhere when we feel divided. So I think just keeping returning, returning to a commons and returning and returning to this sense of commonality and if you can hold and make the spaces where that is felt, understood, expressed and exchanged, it's rather humbling. Moments of peaceful, convivial, communal moments are what is needed, and I'm perfectly happy to have that as my bar.

Natasha: I love that, Lucy, that's a perfect place to end. Thank you.

Lucy: Thank you.

Written by Natasha Rivett-Carnac

Natasha Rivett-Carnac is an American writer based in Devon in the UK. She writes about the environment, arts & culture, and education. Her blog supports women at the intersection of their creative work and motherhood. Read her blog here.

Read this next: Interview with Artist and Gentle Activist Eva Bakkeslett