Thursday 30 October 2014

'Everyone a designer' - permaculture in the Fun Palace

 by Sally Fildes-Moss

The invitation

On Saturday 4 October, The Everyman will be transformed into a magical Fun Palace … We want your imagination, ideas & input.’

On encountering this invitation online, I was intrigued.

Some background: the Everyman is a Liverpool theatre known for producing work that is often politically daring, and for fostering talents such as Julie Walters and Pete Postlethwaite.

It recently celebrated its 50th birthday in a new building, opened earlier this year on the original site (a building which, by the way, features beehives on the roof and has been rated as environmentally ‘Excellent’ under the BREEAM scheme, as well as having just won the RIBA Stirling Prize 2014).

The New Everyman Building, Liverpool

Shiny new premises notwithstanding, it was surely the Everyman spirit of old that prompted the theatre to throw open its doors to become a Fun Palace. And what exactly is one of those…?

Fun Palaces

According to, back in 1961 theatre director Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price thought up the idea of a Fun Palace as a ‘laboratory of fun’, ‘a university of the streets’, intended to provide ‘a temporary and movable home to the arts and sciences that would welcome children and adults alike’.

The idea finally came to fruition on October 4th 2014, when over 130 such places sprang up nationwide – in ‘theatres, gardens, tents, woodlands, shops, car parks, schools, libraries, swimming pools, public squares and town halls’.

In Fun Palaces, ‘Everyone [is] an artist, everyone a scientist’. The organisers claim, ‘This is not just an event, it is a movement, putting cultural participation and public engagement at the heart.’

Reading all this, I began to understand that this was a cross-disciplinary undertaking that everyone could get involved in, which was designed to build collaboration while emphasising personal satisfaction. And, naturally, I came to the conclusion that this sounded a lot like permaculture. ‘Everyone a designer’, right? Or potentially so…

Bringing permaculture on board

The Everyman had already lined up attractions including spoken word, a synaesthesia presentation, gong baths, and people icing their heads while reciting Shakespeare. I proposed adding a ‘Permaculture Surgery’ – an informal and irreverent corner where people could ponder some key elements from permaculture philosophy.

Assistant Artistic Director Nick Bagnall was orchestrating the event and fielded my initial email, which I sent with only a week or so to go. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Please do that.’ I paraphrase, but it was largely that easy.

In the week that followed, I called in favours, scavenged for materials and painted a banner (swearing all the while during that last one – ‘Everyone an artist’, my backside…).

Most of all, I wondered how best to communicate about permaculture on the day with a wide variety of adults and children … What is permaculture truly about? Whose words should I borrow for my signage? What resources and activities would draw people in, and reflect the aim of bringing the arts and sciences together? And how could it be FUN?

Getting it together

Various local and not-so-local permaculture contacts helped me out with feedback and suggestions. Also, I owe a particular debt to Hannah Gardiner and Nala Walla for their inspiring work to date in bringing the arts and permaculture closer together – in my preparations, I made use of the Facebook discussion group Hannah has initiated on ‘The manifesto of art in permaculture’ and Nala’s article ‘The Embodied Activist: Where Permaculture Meets the Arts'.

Also, great thanks go to my friend and local activist Stephanie Rooney, who made some brilliant suggestions and contributed many of the resources we used for the event.

Stephanie Rooney

The points I eventually chose to highlight were –
  • We can transform ourselves from consumers to producers – whether we produce food, new fuels, social connections, or anything else permanent culture needs from us.
  • Doing this meets our true needs better than consumer capitalism does. Also, it’s a world away from simply struggling on with our existing, misdesigned lives while ever more environmental anxieties pile up.
  • To become producers who can innovate and persist as necessary, we need to 1) play lots, so as to exercise our creative muscles and relieve tension, and 2) develop arts which are inclusive and which examine the real challenges of the age.
  • Plus, there is huge potential to increase our sanity and effectiveness by learning to observe before we do anything else!
To present these ideas, I made plenty of signs. Some of these featured quotes from permaculture pioneers, while others invited people to suggest ways they felt they were already living the principles, or would like to, or to record their thoughts on bringing the arts and ecology closer together.

Signs waiting to be hung up

Don't sweat the small stuff

Also offered on the stall were: a range of leaflets; summaries of the principles in various renderings; copies of Nala’s article; some key permaculture texts and books on upcycling; a pack of permaculture playing cards; some tactile objects from nature and crafts; and, in case all the above failed us, some monkey and parrot glove puppets (nothing to do with anything, but they do bridge a lull at social gatherings).

The stall

Read or investigate our objects tray, choice is yours

Further information

I also prominently displayed our banner, which declared to everyone ‘YOU HAVE BEEN SPECIALLY SELECTED TO DESIGN YOUR OWN LIFE’. This was intended to subvert the type of promotional blurb that assures you of your special status while ripping you off and letting you down in a thoroughly standardised way. Permaculture, on the other hand, says that, if you customise right, you will always obtain a yield.

Sally Fildes-Moss during set-up

Portrait wall with banner

I hoped that all these tasters would pique people’s interest in permaculture design.

On the day

As well as helping with the preparation, Stephanie Rooney joined me on the day, and a photographer friend Jona (Jona @ Tona Photography) kindly took pictures of what went on.

Photographer Jona in the frame, but resisting

When people approached the Surgery I tried to focus on hearing from them, first of all – if indeed they wanted to speak rather than browse. I wanted to avoid jumping in with information and directions. This allowed some very genuine exchanges, and I found I was more likely to be able to point people to resources or activities that would fully engage them if I did things that way round (the power of observation at work again). 

Most small children needed nothing but a clear view of the table, with its tray of tactile natural and craft objects, and shiny books, to launch themselves straight in. They tended naturally to lead our conversations; even the shyer children opened up if asked with enthusiasm about food, travel, fun – anything that was important to them (and permaculture tends not to bother with things that aren’t important to people!). With children even more than adults, it was crucial for them to have some activities to get stuck into throughout their time with us.
One of many families we had the pleasure of meeting

Once people were engaged, their further options included: collecting information to digest at their leisure later on; playing cards; browsing the mini-library; and recording their thoughts in the following ways…

We asked visitors to contribute ideas about what they do (or would like to do) in daily life that is tantamount to revolution. Most of us are aware of the saying that permaculture is revolution disguised as gardening, and our visitors agreed with me that revolution comes in many forms – suggestions included foraging, singing, taking a moment to breathe, passing on unwanted possessions, and riding a scooter. One young revolutionary boldly promised ‘to be kind’. (Another child, no relation, had obviously been quick to absorb the importance of small, slow solutions, and, instead, promised only ‘to be kind to my brother’.) 

We invite your ideas for revolution

A debate about how we might bring the arts and ecology closer together took place in the exercise book we provided. Here’s a flavour of the responses: ‘include improvisation in the school arts curriculum’; ‘implement the designs into ways of learning in educational establishments, encourage people to take control of their own learning’; ‘have a spontaneous life … make a story, live that story, tell that story’; ‘be aware of beauty in the natural world and how we need to preserve it’; and ‘reach out to people on the margins to enrich my life’.

Vincent Killen, Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres Trustee, was among the visitors to the Permaculture Surgery, and he also spent a while at the Permaculture Card Table. He commented that he found our contribution ‘extremely interesting, thought-provoking and loads of fun. The interaction between the participants was well managed and extremely lively, and although the theatre setting was slightly unusual, it actually seemed entirely appropriate.’

Everyman Trustee Vincent Killen at the card table

Deal your hand

By the end of the day, Steph and I had talked and listened to scores of people of a variety of backgrounds and just about all ages. We learned a lot about them, about ourselves, and about ways to talk about permaculture, as well as identifying room for improvement in any future Surgeries.

As you’d expect, everyone we met had something insightful to say about life design and their own cherished aspirations. I felt that it had been a worthwhile thing to do to prompt this exchange of views, which readily turned into a celebration of potential.

For the future

I would love to run similar ‘Permaculture Surgeries’ in future, and see others do the same. After putting this pilot together superfast, in order to make the Fun Palaces date, I look forward to backtracking to a more substantial observation period, and refining from there!

I think there is huge potential in giving games, design activities and performance a bigger role, based on my own preference and on observation of what engaged people most on the day. Plus, it would be fantastic to explore a variety of sites for delivery, such as smallholdings, shopping streets, bike shops, orchards, skateparks, stately homes…

Of course, developing these possibilities fully will take time and resources, and I personally need to obtain a financial yield from an outside source to be able to do this. Perhaps the option of using the Crowdfunder site, which has partnered with the Permaculture Association, will be a way to do this, and other suggestions are also welcome, as are opportunities for collaboration so that the Surgeries grow to be as inclusive as possible. Also, Permaculture Surgeries, in whatever form, could be delivered at future Fun Palaces, since the plan is for the event to be annual.

Overall, my objective would be to spread the idea that we are ALL specially selected to design our own lives, and our lives can be considerably more creative, resilient and sustainable than a traditional design approach would have us believe.

Watch the film:

- Sally Fildes-Moss 

Photos - Jona @ Tona Photography

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