Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

30 Aug 2006

Engaging Magic and Wonder in Energy Descent preparation.

sultan 1“Magic” and “wonder”. Not words we read too often in the peak oil literature. I contend, however, that if we are actually to engage people in energy descent as a positive transition on the necessary scale, we need to work magic and wonder into what we do. My mum recently passed on to me a video of an amazing thifrom BBC4 of a thing that happened a few months ago in London, called “The Sultan’s Elephant”, a huge piece of street theatre by the French theatrical magicians Royal de Luxe that took place in the capital in early May. The whole thing was prepared in the greatest secrecy, and took people by surprise, and the event that unfolded over the next 4 days brought magic and wonder to millions of people, and the film about it, I confess, brought tears to my eyes.

rocketIt began early in the morning of May 4th when a ‘rocket’, made of wood was found ‘crashed’ in a street in Westminster. Looking like nothing anyone had ever seen before, people were perplexed by it, some even believing it to be some kind of strange craft that had actually crashed. The news went around that the craft would be opened the following afternoon. Huge crowds gathered, and when it was opened, what emerged took everyone by surprise. A huge puppet of a giant girl, which moved in an incredibly lifelike way, came out and began a walk about the city. Later that day a huge elephant also appeared, the size of a 3 storey house, again incredibly lifelike, which also went walk about. There’s a lovely bit of film of the giant girl here.

sultan2The story emerged that 100 years ago a Sultan decided to track down a magical girl lost in time, and had his engineers design him a time travelling elephant. The Sultan and his elephant travelled through space, and finally in London they met each other. The bits when the two first met each other were very touching, the girl in particular being amazingly lifelike, and the puppeteers behind her being amazingly skilled.

sultan 4For the next couple of days the giant girl and the elephant walked around the city, the elephant spraying people with water adn trumpeting, and the girl riding her huge scooter, eating a lolly and spending the night sleeping in a huge deckchair in one of the London parks. She also gave lots of children rides in her hand. In the film, one woman observes how every child who climbs into her hand, the first thing they do is to look up into her face. Watching the faces of the young children watching her is to really get a feel for what magic and wonder really mean.

On the last day, she climbed back into her spaceship, which closed and then reopened…she had disappeared! People were in tears as she waved goodbye, and stunned when she vanished. They had so grown to love her over her brief time in London. it cost over £1 million to stage it, but it had such a hugely positive effect on the city.

sultan5It made me think about whether it would be possible to work magic and wonder into our work with our communities, engaging artists and theatre people in some kind of spectacle that brings the idea of a transition to a lower energy world to people in a way that is engaging and surprising. I have no ideas in mind, but The Sultan’s Elephant shows the kind of thing that can be done. In the excellent new 40th anniversary edition of Resurgence, Tim Smit of the Eden Project, in a piece called ‘Imagination Holds The Key’, argues that we need to think big and think imaginatively.

We need to be bold and creative, and to engage people with the unexpected. I found the Sultan’s Elephant, and the giant girl in particular, so enchanting and entrancing, so graceful and wonderful, in the truest sense of the word. Could we collaborate with artists and the local authorities to create an event where overnight, a part of a town becomes how it would be in a powered-down future? People wake to find the streets planted with carrots and solar panels everywhere? I have no idea if this would be feasible, but if something could happen on the scale of the Sultan’s Elephant that would leave people with a sense of excited anticipation about
the emerging future, of localised food production and so on, it would be so so powerful.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


30 Aug 3:50pm

Good piece Rob. While not exactly non-carbon producing, a group in New York has hit on a low cost mobile display tour de force — found here:

I can’t imagine the reaction if someone hired a U-Haul (as in the article) and took “The End of Suburbia” on a mobile suburban tour.

31 Aug 9:39am

There is nothing better than theatre for exlploring the possible and the potential in a safe experimental way. Also, in these days of community division, nay alienation, and passive entertainment on a grand scale there is nothing better than street theatre to galvanise a feeling of community empowerment.

Such a shame our highest-profile large-scale street theatre company (Welfare State) recently became defunct. Lets hope someone else picks up the baton and runs with something a little more tangible than the simply feel-good Sultan’s Elephant…

Sarah Brightwood
4 Sep 4:56am

Totnes is blessed with gifted and creative people. What a wonderful collaboration it would be to create a transformational, magical event in the heart of the town. Theater Alibi (based in Exeter) brings magic on the road and into the schools every year with resourceful staging and amazing scripts. Chris Salisbury and Toby Fairlove through the West Country Story Telling Festival provide a gargantuan feast of possibilities and workshops to share the tools of the trade. Playback Theatre weaves entertainment out of the smallest breath of a suggestion. Every movement needs its bards and poets and our grassroot culture already holds many hidden jewels. This may be the path to inspire us to leap into an evoving culture of participatory entertainment, by engaging the masters of the craft with an enthusiastic circle of support. Lets share a glass of inspiration.