Not a day goes by where we are not faced with words such as ‘Climate Crisis’ ‘Single Use Plastic’, ‘Carbon Footprint’, and many more. In our daily lives we all make the effort to be more environmentally friendly, whether that is bringing our own cup into costa, remembering our bags for our weekly shop or choosing to take the train instead of driving into work. However, it can easily slip our minds to think about the environmental impact that arts, and especially theatre has on the environment. We go to see shows to be entertained, by the magnificent lights, impressive sets and innovative costumes. And lets not forget the printed programmes and marketing materials, the bright foyers and bars and restaurants housed in our nation's theatre venues. But how is theatre responding to the climate emergency?
Last week the arts council released their environment report for 2018/19. This report detailed how the carbon footprint for the National Portfolio organisations is 114,547 tonnes of CO2e – an amount which would take almost 115,000 trees 100 years to absorb. However this is something that they aim to change, and some organisations are already taking action. 64% of NPO’s are taking steps to eliminate single-use plastics and 47% are trialing sustainable production or exhibition methods. You can read the report here
Many theatres including National Theatre, Royal Court, and more locally the Belgrade and Birmingham Hippodrome have created and implemented environmental policies to reduce their impact on the environment. Also, theatres have been cutting their ties with organisations that they, and their audience feel go against these values. For example the RSC recently ended its partnership with BP, who supported their £5 ticket scheme. Organisations are coming together to help reduce their impact. In April last year the Culture Declares Emergency campaign launched in London with many organisations declaring their support. Julie’s Bicycle is an organization that exists to help the creative industries lower their greenhouse gas emissions, and has recently launched a programme to help theatres play their part in the fight against climate change. The issue of reducing environmental impact is very complex, and within theatre there are many factors to consider. According to Tom Wicker, sets and props present a complex challenge. In his article for the stage he states that even individually recyclable materials are hard to repurpose if they’ve been textured or fixed together. And when space is limited, there’s the cost and carbon footprint of having to transport large items to an off-site storage facility.’ At the National Theatre, disposal of a typical show in their largest space, the Oliver, produces about 12 tonnes of material. Ellen McDougall, artistic director of London’s Gate theatre thinks the industry has been environmentally wasteful for too long, however she states that “Every organisation faces an enormous amount of time and financial pressure,” and “Cycles of creation are so tight – sometimes to the minute – so, of course, we sometimes go: ‘We need this now, so we’re going to have to buy it off Amazon.’. There needs to be a big conversation alongside designers about how to reuse and repurpose materials, without curbing creativity. Venues also need to consider additional factors when being more environmentally friendly, as a theatre’s physical infrastructure accounts for its greatest energy output and waste. Tom Wicker considers how newer venues such as Home in Manchester have environmental sustainability incorporated into their design. However this new build theatre is rare and the industry is currently working with old buildings. “We’re often using buildings from stock that hasn’t been consistently invested in for the past 100 years,” says Tom Stickland, theatre adviser at the Theatres Trust. To alter these buildings can be very pricey and in an industry facing cuts, this can be tricky. It is estimated that more than £550 million will be needed across the next five years for capital projects to upgrade and maintain UK theatres. Not only have theatres been talking about climate change behind the scenes, but also on the stage. There has been a surge of shows about the issue in the last decade. These performances have varied, with those that contain clear scientific facts, apocalyptic scenarios and those looking at our day to day impact on the environment. Sam Solnick looks at some of these including Caryl Churchills Escaped Alone, Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs and Ella Hickson’s Oil, for his article ‘How theatre is tackling the biggest issue of all: the future of our planet’.
In an article by Lyn Gardener, artist Alanna Mitchell says that science can give us facts and knowledge but ‘as a species we don’t always respond to facts because they make us feel guilty and paralysed. What we respond to as human beings are stories.’ Of course theatre is one of the best ways to tell a story.
In addition to these big changes, theatres are also making small, but significant changes to their operations in order to reduce their impact. From using recycled paper for their marketing and programmes, to reducing their use of single use plastic cups, all these changes can make a difference. It’s wonderful to see the theatre industry taking action and I look forward to theatre becoming greener in future years.