Steve Waters’ ‘The Secret Life of Plays’ became a staple of my bedside table reading stack before coming to university. Renowned as “the place where literature lives”, UEA has seen the birth of countless award-winning works of fiction, poetry, and drama, with a collection of critically acclaimed professors to match. Described as “one of the UK’s most accomplished political playwrights”, Waters has jumped from page to screen, as he tells me about his latest set of climate-related projects over Zoom.
In March 2020, a long-forgotten grant application to the Arts and Humanities Research Council returned successful. Having made the application with little hope, Waters notes his surprise in receiving a grant from an institute he had originally believed to be geared toward conventional academic study. Aiming to “amplify the message of conservation and get it out of the hands of the professionals and into ordinary contexts”, Steve embarked on the ‘Song of the Reeds: Dramatising Conservation’ with the support of Strumpshaw and Wicken Fen nature reserves.
Due to take place across a two-week period in September, the core funded element of the project is ‘Murmurations’, a show performed by outdoor theatre experts Tangled Feet at the two supporting reserves. Audience members are to wear headphones, as they are led into the performance space, uncovering layers of stories through character, poetry, and music. Waters says this play addresses the “human need for the natural environment”, a need which has become acute over the last 18 months as the world has been plunged into lockdown and prevented from leaving their vicinity: “suddenly, people have realised the ground beneath their feet is the subsoil of their happiness”. The play follows types of people you both would and would not expect to meet in a nature reserve, emphasising the necessity of falling in love with where we live again.
As a parallel endeavour, ‘Song of the Reed’ is a radio drama featuring UEA Scriptwriting lecturer Molly Naylor and Drama alumni Ella Dorman-Gajic – a deliberate choice from Waters to help “ground the play in the region”. Commissioned by the BBC in June, ‘Song of the Reed’ is a site-specific drama focussed upon the microcosm of a reserve and featuring the practical work of conservation. Waters tells me each episode has a guest species, the first being the Swallowtail Butterfly, a species I recognise, and the second, the Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail. He notices my confusion at the latter and is quick to reassure me: “don’t worry if you’re not familiar with it, no-one is” – an apt reminder of the importance of his work. Waters says there is something quite “comic and wonderful” about the proceedings of this episode, in which humans chase around for the welfare of this 5mm creature.
Moving away from the modular structures of the theatre company or the radio, Waters has also created ‘Voices of the Reeds’. This project is a 12-part polyphony featuring 12 voices which cross both geography and history, setting East Anglia as the “cradle of environmental and ecological thinking”. With the help of Literature, Drama, and Creative Writing lecturer Mike Bernardin, Waters has produced an open-source drama, with some monologues and duologues being recorded and laid against footage of the region from the East Anglian Film Archive. Within these pieces, he has made an effort to represent marginal figures from the history of ecology, noting the importance of “democratising climate change discourse”. He promotes the viewing of climate-related problems not only as an environmental issue, but also as an ethical and political one, pointing to the disproportionate effect climate change has upon marginalised communities: “climate change is seen as a left-wing issue… and the reaction to it is a right-wing issue. I think that’s a tragedy”.
Finally, Waters moves on to tell me about ‘Rothschild’s Walk’, a piece which emerged from his own fascination with the fate of the fens across the UK, taking note of the devastation of wetlands throughout human history. He chose to create a piece which speaks to Nathaniel Charles Rothschild one of the founding benefactors of Wicken Fen and The Great Fen, in epistolary form. Waters embarked on the 39-mile walk across Cambridgeshire between the two fens to create this play and first performed it in Ely in June.
Both ‘Voices of the Reed’ and ‘Rothschild’s Walk’ are to be performed at the theatre and activist festival organised by UEA students, which is due to take place at the end of October before COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference.
Delving deeper into his perspective on current climate action, Waters believes the recent increase in extreme weather events are profoundly challenging our political system: “projections have proved to be too mild, too cautious, and too far ahead… we’ve been concentrating on the idea that climate change is coming to get us in 30 years – it has arrived 20 years ahead of schedule”. Commenting more directly upon UK leadership and the government’s attitude toward the climate crisis, Waters expresses his condemnation: “historically, it’s unfortunate that we have this government at this time”.
So, where do Steve Waters’ playwriting endeavours fall into this? He is hoping to radically change scriptwriting by inverting the priorities of drama. “Hopefully, it will galvanise people, embolden them to think, engage, and take steps”.