Campus Transformed Into Cardboard City

Aerial view of Polyglot Theatre's makeshift cardboard city outside the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center.

Imagine thousands and thousands of cardboard boxes as building materials used to create your ideal fantasy city, then knocking them all down into a "gloriously chaotic heap of cardboard rubble." We Built This City is an interactive play by Polyglot Theatre that allows children and adults alike to get creative, playing the role of the performer, creator, audience and architect.

We Built This City is having its UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Center from October 8- 17.

Q&A With Artistic Director Sue Giles

How did this idea come about?
Have you ever played with a cardboard box in the backyard? I did and so did my kids. It was after watching them playing for days with one box that I thought, "Why not a massive space and thousands of boxes, and open this sort of constant imaginative play to lots of people?"

Where does the cardboard come from?
Various places, depending on the different cities. Sometimes the boxes are made by a packaging company, sometimes they are collected second hand by the presenter. Once, in Singapore, we found out that the organizers had been collecting boxes off the street for weeks beforehand.

How much time does it take to set everything up?
It's a big day that involves many volunteers and our team. It's an important day because this is when we get to know who is helping us, and when they start to understand how much goes into making something of this scale. We work hard and it's a very full day — but we try to make it fun too. It's also the time when we set up the site and make it specific to the city and the site we're in. Our head designer, Mischa Long, is adept at cardboard sculpture and comes up with the most fascinating icons.

What other preparations are required? 

We make the site individual to the city through design and sculpture with the cardboards. We make a huge welcoming entrance, places to put crushed boxes, draw up roads for the imaginary city with tape, set up the sound and signs, and also rehearsed our performance routines. The performance is central to the smooth running and joyous nature of the event.

What happens to the cardboard afterward? Is it recycled?
Yes, and this is important. We are aware of the footprint we make with the large scale works and re-using or recycling is vital. Recycling the cardboard materials and paper tape is perfectly possible if presenters have systems in their city. In some cities, like Seoul, people who collected boxes for a living came and collected what they wanted.

Why do you think people have responded so positively since the tour began in 2001? 
We Built This City is a very simple idea. Although it is complicated to make happen, it is at the core, utterly simple. It is a non-prescriptive, open-ended play that is creative and all-involving. It is a very happy event. I think its success is in all these — the simple things like involving the senses, a sense of adventure, the excitement, and also the unexpectedness. For families, this is a non-screen event where it is physical, playful, and takes risks. It allows kids and adults to work together, as well as devising ways for kids to disappear from over protective parents.

Does the "performance" vary from city to city?
Although some things are the same, there are definitely differences because we have found that every country or city displays its culture and psychology in different ways, for example parental culture, as well as national culture. We are in a vitally modern city (Abu Dhabi) on the edge of an ancient nomadic tradition. The style of building, the way people engage, all these contributes to individual expression even when the task is simple and straightforward. 

Which country has been your most memorable visit to date, and why? 
That is a hard one, but I think the expedition into Japan to a town called Minamisanriku has to be one of the most moving ones we've done. This town was devastated by the tsunami in 2011, and recovery was proving to be very slow. The children had no houses or shops. One of the things they built most were shops; hat shops, jewelry shops, even box shops! It was a very special expedition because we decided — in consultation with the townspeople — that we wouldn't smash the city down once we'd finished the day. They thought the children might be traumatized by the image of such destruction. In hindsight, I regretted not doing the final crushing of the boxes because I think the opportunity to choose your own time for destruction would have been a helpful thing to allow the children to experience. Also, the children were just into having fun and it had been a completely different resonance for them, proving once again for us, that children's perspectives on the world around them and what is important to them, is very different to the perspectives of adults.

Any tips/advice for parents?
Relax into it. Take your time. It can feel chaotic and confusing, but if you think of it like surfing a wave, going with the flow and not struggling against it, you will feel exhilarated rather than anxious. Your children are safe — people will be hit by boxes but no one gets hurt. We ask that people respect each other's creation and that no one knocks anything down unless the Builders say they can. Throwing boxes or stomping on them deliberately is forbidden. Anyone seen doing this will be asked to make a box — and then they'll realize what it takes to make thousands of them!