Developed by a Cambridge academic and theatre director, 3rd Ring Out was an immersive drama about our possible climate-changed future. By inviting audiences to rehearse for possible climate change disaster, the work opened up new spaces for conversation – spaces now being used to discuss other key global challenges.

The project is not just a performance, but an ongoing process of exchange and conversation

Dr Zoe Svendsen

This performance gave excellent insight into our future and caused the audience to dwell, and even act on, the thoughts it provoked

Audience member

As a theatre venue, two bright orange shipping containers rank among the more unusual and arresting. Kitted out as a state-of-the-art planning cell plus a strategy cell, these theatre spaces toured the UK in 2010 and 2011 as the stage for 3rd Ring Out: Rehearsing the Future.

Developed by Cambridge theatre artist and academic Dr Zoë Svendsen of the Faculty of English, with artist and designer Simon Daw, 3rd Ring Out invited audiences to rehearse how they might respond to a developing scenario of a climate-changed future.

In the emergency cell, 12 audience members became players in the drama, a simulation set in 2033. Seated around a map table, the action played out through a mix of immersive soundscape, live performance and video projected onto screens and the table itself.

Facing a series of events that could plausibly occur if communities do nothing to mitigate global warming, the audience – wearing headphones and pressing voting buttons – shaped the direction each performance took. Next door, the strategy cell provided a space to jointly imagine, discuss and create a future for their local area between now and 2033.


Cold War to climate change

Reflecting her practice as both an academic researcher and a theatre director, 3rd Ring Out was not only compelling drama, but also research into the nature of rehearsal. This was a question Svendsen became interested in after coming across a series of Cold War exercises, during which 17,000 people would retreat to bunkers across the UK to practise for the ultimate disaster – nuclear war.

What, she wondered, might it mean to practise for disaster, and how might that relate to theatre? Instead of nuclear war, Svendsen decided to frame her work around climate change, offering both drama and a political edge.

Although 3rd Ring Out was developed with input from climate change experts and planners, it provided no solutions. Instead, by pulling together large themes, it offered scripts for action and space for investigation.

Measuring the impact of a piece of theatre is not as easy. The play toured the UK – from the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 2010 to the 2011 Edinburgh Festival via Cambridge, Ipswich, Newcastle and London, earning enthusiastic reviews and winning awards.


Making space for conversation

Even Svendsen, however, was unprepared for the impact 3rd Ring Out had on its audience. Hungry, perhaps, for a public forum, they emerged with an astonishing desire for conversation about climate change.

Not surprisingly, the project was presented as an example of best practice in addressing climate change at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters 2013, an annual conference for theatre producers in New York. In 2015 it was selected for the Prague Quadrennial, and even though 3rd Ring Out was last performed in 2011, it continues to attract attention from theatre directors interested in the potential of immersive performance.

In Cambridge, too, it has found applications across disciplines, from workshops for the MPhil in Public Policy to discussions with senior civil servants through the Centre for Science and Policy.

And what she learned from 3rd Ring Out, Svendsen is now using to develop a new project, World Factory, addressing the UK's relationship with China through the lens of the global garment industry.