Communicating Climate Change: An interview with Nick Nuttgens

The Green Impact blog is being handed over to the SITraN team this week! This post is by David Stevenson, the team’s Green Impact Project Assistant. If you or your team would like to contribute to the blog, email

For my last post I met up and interviewed Nick Nuttgens. Nick has a background in theatre and education and has interests in the environment and activism. Nick ran a great interactive workshop for a SusSEd training session a couple of weeks ago. The theme was sustainability skills and we found ourselves thinking about the skills needed to be sustainability champions and roleplaying situations where we might be talking about sustainability and climate change. (Including one group’s roleplay of a discussion about climate change on top of an elevator being repaired!) Nick did a follow up session last week where we got to go into more detail about the skills needed to discuss climate change and how we can bring it to the fore. It was a great opportunity to reflect upon sustainability, what it means to us and what we can do to help. I found Nick’s approach using techniques from theatre to be a really novel and fun way of discussing climate change. Nick is embarking on a PhD titled “Exploring Applied Theatre as a tool for facilitating dialogue about, and stimulating action on, climate change” in the School of English at Sheffield. We discussed his interests in theatre, the environment and his upcoming PhD. It was great to talk with Nick, and I would definitely recommend his workshops to anyone interested in sustainability.


David: So I understand that you have a background in theatre, what sort of work have you done in theatre, how did you get involved with that?

Nick: Well when I was at University I did English, I’d always been interested in theatre, I’d done a bit at school. I went to Cambridge and I found that the theatre scene there was full of these extremely intelligent, extremely ambitious people. And I basically chickened out, I just thought I can’t cope with this. In the third year though I found a couple of student theatre groups that were doing work in the community and that did get me going. I went to Drama school as a postgrad, and did musical theatre training. In my gap year I’d been teaching English as a Foreign Language and I bumped into someone who worked with a company that taught English as a Foreign Language through theatre. So straight out of drama school, with her, I created a theatre company which was all about teaching and interacting with people. It basically got me into this field of theatre and education. For quite a long time, about 15 years, a lot of my work was dance based, I did choreography and movement for theatre and education companies. Then little by little I started directing plays myself. I worked with Opera North in Leeds, their education team, I did projects in schools with them. A fairly early project for me was at Sheffield College; that was the first time I’d worked with teenagers on my own. I got a job doing drama in prisons for a while. Then I got a wonderful job which was running the youth theatre at Sheffield Theatres. The young people that were coming in were doing plays about being young or other social issues. We took some of the work out into schools and we did lots of workshops, and worked with teachers. So that job met all of my interests really.

David: So how did the environmental aspect work its way into that?

Nick: I actually can’t quite pin down when I first started reading and thinking about the environment. I’d been quite active politically, when I was doing all my dance work in London in the 1980s. This was a time when there was a lot of stuff going on about different groups’ rights. So I’d done a lot of that consciousness raising stuff, but not a lot of that was explicitly about the environment. But I think it was implied in my background. My Grandfather was a stained glass artist who made windows for Catholic Churches, he had a beautiful studio on top of a hill next to some woods. So when I was a kid, he’d be doing his windows and we’d be going out into the woods, and I think I acquired a love of nature really. Later on, my sister was active in the Green Party and one day she just said to me “Come on, put your money where your mouth is, you’re always talking about this, join the Green Party”, so I did.

David: So before now have you done much work integrating theatre and the environment?

Nick: A little bit. I used every year to go to a dance workshop in Dartington College in Devon, they did a lot of experimental dance, it’s a beautiful place. And I remember there doing dance workshops in the fields, all sounds a bit hippy but it was great, fantastic, really beautiful. There was a woman in America who really inspired me called Anna Halprin, who does work in nature, some people who trained with her in the States came over and I did a workshop with them where we all walked barefoot through the woods with our eyes shut and then created rituals, and I just loved it all. Then at the Crucible Youth Theatre one of the biggest projects I did with my colleagues was a 2 year project with a small art centre in Japan. The centre gets children doing writing and artwork in relationship to nature, it’s partly because Japan’s become so highly technological, they’re fighting back against that. So they’d take kids out from the cities like Osaka and Tokyo and they’d go to this centre and live in huts in the woods, and they’d go out and swim in the river. and they’d write and they’d draw about it. We took a group of youth theatre members out there. And when we came back here we created an outdoor show in Weston Park , based on Japanese stories. The audience moved around the park, we did this in the summer obviously! The stories were Japanese stories about nature, but the writer, Richard Hurford, had the modern world intruding. So one of these characters would be telling a story about a princess who has turned into a fox and then just as she’s getting to the climax of the story her mobile phone would go off. So I suppose that show – it wasn’t just me, it was working alongside the writer Richard Hurford and my colleagues – that show in a lot of ways put together my different ideals.

David: So the PhD you are going to be doing, who’s supervising you and how did that come about?

Nick: I knew Bill McDonnell in the School of English, who’s a senior lecturer in Drama there from my work at the Crucible Youth Theatre. So I thought I’ll just make a proposal to him “if I were to go with this would you be interested?” And I was just really pleased he said yes, because he thinks it’s a really important issue. What I was picking up from my reading was this whole thing that climate change is such an important issue but people aren’t talking about it. I genuinely think that doing creative and experiential work can make it easier for people to get into talking about these very difficult issues, complex issues, and maybe issues that seem remote, making them more immediate in a space, in a studio, in a theatre.

David: Is the work for your PhD principally aimed on the climate change issue or are there other issues you want to try and tackle?

Nick: That’s an interesting question, is it just about climate change? Yes, because you have to focus on something, and that’s already huge. But there’s a kind of tactical question there, because climate change feels complex and remote, many people may not be able to identify with it, but they may be able to talk more about something like air pollution or waste, they may be appalled by the huge island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, they may be worried about floods. They may be beginning to think about aspects of where the environment is going wrong, which are more local or of more immediate concern to them.

David: So it’s a gateway to talking about broader environmental issues?

Nick: A kind of gateway yeah.

David: So if you can talk about something they can relate to, if you can make somebody relate their personal situation to an issue, then you can get them a lot more engaged with it, and involved with it?

Nick: Yeah exactly, and then there’s a slightly wider response to your question too, which is that does the issue of climate change throw up other political and social interests that I have and that others would have? And obviously yes, but I think it’s really important to say that if people asked me, yeah, I’d probably describe myself as a green socialist. But I’m really, really concerned about people with hidebound ways of thinking. George Marshall is doing a lot of work on how you talk to people from the right, because not everyone in the world signs up to green socialist ideals! And also some people in every movement can be dogmatic and narrow minded about things, and I genuinely think none of us has the whole answer yet. So even though many of us may agree there’s a problem with capitalist consumerism… personally I’d agree but, what I’d love to do is get into some places where I can actually talk to people who are from the right or whatever, and say why do you feel those things, what’s important to you? And what would your answers be to this?

We also talked about Nick’s two SusSEd training sessions on talking about climate change

Nick: I really would like to do a 3 day version or spend long enough with a group of people that they go away thinking “I really have practiced, I feel very confident about those different suggestions, I’ve tried them all out, I’ve anticipated some of the problems. I feel ready to talk about this to my housemates, my colleagues, to my family.” Some students from here will be going home and they’ll say to their Uncle Geoff, “I’m getting very interested in environmental politics and climate change” and then Uncle Geoff will say “That’s not even happening, typical of the kind of rubbish they teach you at University”. And you’re immediately thrown in to having that discussion. Other people will finish here (University) and they’ll go and get a job, and within 3 days they’ll have noticed some major [environmental] problem and they find their boss doesn’t seem to be very willing to talk about it. It might be that by working with students, I’d be doing really good “seed work”. I’m hoping to set up research projects in a range of organisations, such as Housing Associations, and I’m already linked into a network of climate activists, but it may be that working with students who are going to be doing jobs in different sectors all over the world, I’d be having more impact. There’s a strategic question here, there is a certain urgency about this topic!

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