Becky Burchell - CHANGE Festival
Please tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
I’m an independent arts producer and curator, specialising in what I call ‘hope-ism’: sharing stories of hope through the arts to help imagine and create a better future. I am the founder of the new arts festival CHANGE, which presented over 20 events to audiences of over 1,000 at the Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, in October 2019. I created the festival as a platform for inspirational performance, music, discussion and workshops that invited audiences to consider their own role in manifesting positive change.
I also recently envisioned and produced a future-focused new theatre production, The World We Made, inspired by Jonathon Porritt’s book of the same name. Set in 2050, the story is told by two students who look back over 50 years to reflect on the changes that have happened in that time and the extraordinary people who led on this. The play follows five characters, three of whom are based on real people, and shows the challenges, triumphs and bravery that each has faced in order to create a better future. Following this project, I was awarded a Fellowship at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey.
I have a background in festivals and was previously the Arts Producer for two of the UKs most popular festivals, Bestival and Camp Bestival, creating areas and experiences across artforms from circus to carnival parades to spoken word. I also recently had the pleasure of working with folk artist Sam Lee to produce the wonderful Singing With Nightingale conservation event series, where musicians perform duets with wild nightingales.
18 months ago I moved from London to rural Dorset to join a small and very special village community, with my husband, my two young childeren Davey and Jarrah, and my mum Sue, who also lives with us. I grew up in Somerset, so it has been transformative to my outlook and wellbeing to be back amongst nature once again.
When did you begin to realise how important community and environmental causes were to you?
My childhood home was a rambling cottage, the only house at the bottom of a steep valley on the edge of Exmoor. We were surrounded by tiny meadows and tumbling woodland, with two steams meeting at the bottom of our garden. My parents had a 4 acre smallholding, managed with the help of my grandparents, where we raised our own meat, drank goats milk and grew our own vegetables. It was the 1980s – living the ‘Goodlife’ was an antidote to the Thatcher years! My brother and I had a huge amount of freedom, exploring the forest, climbing trees and building dams in the stream. We treated the whole valley as if it was our backyard. So I have always been strongly connected with nature, and in turn, this has meant I’ve been more aware of environmental issues, even from a young age.
My parents were very political: staunch labour supporters and active members of CND and they took us along on protests ranging from anti-nuclear to ‘Save Our Schools’ marches. Our primary school head teacher was also very environmentally engaged and in the late 1980s she showed our class a rainforest film that featured Sting. This was the first time I understood the scale of the destruction that humans were causing and the links between our food production, mining and deforestation. Also, around the age of 9, I decided to become vegetarian for animal cruelty reasons. Despite growing up witnessing some of the best organic, animal welfare standards possible on our small holding, I still had a strong personal sense that killing animals to eat seemed morally wrong to me.
Was there some kind of event or moment that catalysed this?
In 2015 when I had my first child, Davey, I felt a deep responsibility to find out as much as possible about climate change, the state of our natural world and what the future might have in store for her. I read Naomi Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ as I sat breastfeeding a newborn baby and it was a huge shock to accept just how seriously we have endangered the natural world and the lives of future generations. At first, this enormous realisation is scary and disempowering and feels very overwhelming.
But as I researched and read more, that sense of disempowerment changed. I realised that in fact there have been many people, who have been tirelessly dedicated to solving our environmental problems for a very long time, and have already developed and discovered many of the answers we need to solve this crisis. There is infinite ingenuity, creativity, entrepreneurship and collaboration happening across the world, from individuals, to communities, to organisations and companies who are dedicated to carving out ways to live regeneratively and consciously on this planet. The more I learnt about these stories, the more inspired I became – because many of the things we need to do to solve our environmental crisis, also have the power to address other social injustices: climate change is the mother of intersectionality.
What led you to begin CHANGE Festival?
The idea for CHANGE Festival was born through a desire to hear more stories of hope. I wanted to create a platform where we could celebrate the people, the communities, the projects and ideas that were already catalysing around the world to take action on the environmental crisis. Having been the arts curator for Bestival and Camp Bestival for many years, I was already practiced at devising a joyful, life-affirming programme of events for festival-goers, so I started work out how I could apply these skills to a new festival; one that had the goal of inspiring audiences to feel hopeful about the future.
How did the festival evolve?
I developed the idea for CHANGE Festival slowly, over a four year period, during which I had my two children, who are now 4.5yrs and 3yrs old. I juggled child care with research, meeting arts organisations, community leaders, think tanks, sustainability consultants, wildlife experts - all with the goal of trying to get a sense of what the ‘new narratives’ about the future might be. What were the stories that could we tell through CHANGE Festival to inspire action and hope? This research let me to meeting Jonathon Porritt, who is one of the UKs most eminent environmentalists, and proposing to him that we create a theatre adaptation of his book The World We Made. His vision of the world in 2050 is so vivid, plausible and compelling, I felt that there was huge potential in bringing this to life on stage. This play turned out to be one of our most successful events at CHANGE Festival and the first event to sell out.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your work?
It’s been a huge privilege to have been able to spend the last four years researching ways we can create a better future. Through the festival, I have been able to take a deep dive into our environmental crisis and discover what we can do collectively to respond to it. This is something I wish we all had time space to understand, but the reality is that there is so much pressure in our daily lives already, it’s not realistic to expect everyone to have the time or inclination to engage on the level that is necessary. Therefore, it seems more important than ever that those of us who work in the arts – the storytellers and creators – are helping to seed these ideas across our culture in a wide variety of ways.
Are there times where you have doubted your work in this field? How did you work with these doubts?
My biggest frustration with the festival (apart from funding!!) was finding the right work to programme. The overarching theme for the festival was ‘imagine better’; to explore ways that we can all live differently that will positively impact our natural world and also our own wellbeing. The festival wasn’t about education people about global carbon emissions, or the scale of soil degradation, or the extinction of the insect population. The aim was for audience to leave the festival feeling empowered and inspired about the role they could personally play in creating change.
I was looking for shows across theatre, spoken word, comedy, family shows, circus and dance that would help tell alternative, hopeful stories about how we can live differently. But I became increasingly frustrated to find that hopeful narratives were few and far between – there were far more stories about dystopian futures and the damaged state of our current world than there were imaginative visions of the future.
So the final-line up for the first CHANGE Festival in 2019 was definitely a compromise. There were some events I experimented with that worked well and others that didn’t. But I have now become a fierce champion for ‘hope-ism’ within the arts – we need more ambitiously imaginative work to inspire and uplift us!
Our series is about 'leading in a climate changed world'. What qualities do you think people need, to embrace the challenges we face today?
Collaboration. Being able to work across sectors, across projects, outside of our silos and outside of our comfort zone. One of the most rewarding things about adapting The World We Made into a play was working closely with Jonathon Porritt and also Professor Tim Jackson and his team at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity. They were integral to the success of the play, because their rigour and expertise ensured that the script was plausible and as factually accurate as possible. Beth Flintoff, the script writer, did an incredible job of working to a very tight brief for the play, and responding to input from numerous parties throughout the process – not everyone’s cup of tea!
The other quality I think that leaders need moving forward is the ability to connect with a wide range of people. As we face increasingly severe climate shocks in the future, we are going to be thrown into situations where we need to work closely with those who we may not ordinarily feel we have much in common with. For example, how many of us really know our neighbours? What would happen if our street was flooded, how would we work together to support each other? So building connections and community at a grassroots level I feel is a necessity for all of us.
Can you offer any advice for people who want to introduce the need to engage with environmental issues to their friends, colleagues, neighbours and so on?
One easy thing I have discovered is that talking in the first person can help. For example, rather than saying ‘everyone should try and fly less’ it’s less confronting for others if you say ‘I am trying to fly less’. This allows for conversations about why you have made that decision, rather than your loved ones feeling judged or put upon. I also think that talking about the co-benefits of climate action can also help, for example that becoming vegan has makes you feel healthier, or that cycling more has got you fitter and saved you money. Most of the things we need to do to solve our environmental crisis are also good for our wellbeing – who doesn’t want to feel fit and healthy and be surrounding by inspiring, flourishing nature?!