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Climate change: can theatre help tackle the greatest threat of all?

Extinction Rebellion climate change protest in Parliament Square, London, in April 2019.
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Angry protests have led to a greater urgency over our collective response to global warming. Industry figures tell Tom Wicker what theatre is doing to be more sustainable and how this could transform ways of staging shows…

Climate change has filled the front pages this year, from the Extinction Rebellion protests that brought central London to a halt to  campaigning by Swedish student activist Greta Thunberg. But how are the arts responding to what is being billed as a potential environmental catastrophe?

On April 3, the Culture Declares Emergency campaign launched in London with a procession in which theatre organisations including Shakespeare’s Globe participated. Less than a fortnight later, at CDE’s first event, Letters to the Earth, more than 50 arts venues hosted readings of letters by the public.

Alison Tickell runs Julie’s Bicycle, a London-based charity that works with arts organisations on developing and embedding environmentally sustainable policies focused on energy – the cultural sector’s main source of carbon emissions. Supported by funding bodies such as Arts Council England, it offers advice, puts on events and provides tools to help measure carbon usage.

Julie’s Bicycle founder Alison Tickell. Photo: James Allan

Tickell is unambiguous. Of all the issues that theatre is grappling with, climate change “is a genuine, existential threat,” she says. “In that sense, there’s nothing quite like it. If we don’t deal with disability, it won’t kill off vast, often the most vulnerable, swathes of life; if we don’t deal with diversity – it’s a hideous act of social injustice – but it won’t threaten our life systems.”

Theatre companies around the UK are increasingly developing and programming climate change-themed work, including about its disproportionate impact on poorer communities. But theatre is rooted in bricks and mortar and business concerns as well as ideas. What are the practical challenges – and responses?

‘Storage is one of the biggest issues for London in terms of pollution and energy’ – Paul Jozefowski, NT head of building design

For venues such as Home in Manchester, which opened in 2015, environmental sustainability can be incorporated from the earliest design stages. It can cover everything from the strategic use of glass, to the installation of LED lighting, to centrally managed, real-time heat regulation to reduce carbon emissions. Home has a BREEAM rating – which stands for Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method, and is the predominant construction-industry building sustainability standard – of ‘Very Good’.

But new-build capital projects of Home’s scale are relatively rare. “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, which focuses on design, planning and sustainability in the UK theatre sector. The maintenance issues facing what are often heritage buildings are a major obstacle to achieving green efficiency.

It’s a costly problem for a sector hardly flush with cash. In October 2018, a survey of nearly 150 venues by the Theatres Trust, UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre calculated that more than £550 million will be needed across the next five years for capital projects to upgrade and maintain UK theatres.

ACE runs dedicated capital-funding schemes, but the largest are open to application only by its national portfolio organisations. “As the Arts Council looks to its next 10 years, we’re keen to make sure that appropriate allocation is made to  that capital ‘pot’, and that it’s opened up to all theatres, not just NPOs, which represent only 12% of the theatres in the country,” says Stickland.

Manchester’s Home, built in 2015, incorporates environmental sustainability into its design. Photo: Machteld Schoep

A theatre’s physical infrastructure accounts for its greatest energy output and waste. But sets and props present a complex challenge. 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.

And, says Paul Jozefowski, head of building design  and environmental sustainability at the National Theatre, few commercial contractors have specialist theatre experience. Like many other theatres, the NT uses the Reading-based recycling centre Scenery Salvage, which collects, stores, strips down and hires out sets and props, while using leftover timber as biomass for heat generation.

Sets going spare can be advertised on websites such as  Set Exchange – think Freecycle for theatre – but it’s hard for bigger theatres such as the National to find a home for large-scale pieces. And if they do, another venue may not be able to take it straight away.

For example, at the NT, disposal of a typical Olivier  show produces about 12 tonnes of material, eight tonnes at the Lyttelton and half that for the Dorfman.

In the 2018/2019 season, 11 shows were sent for disposal, which costs the same as about eight weeks’ storage. During the season it moved 23 shows and projects in and out of storage, the largest was Follies at about 2,025 sq ft, though the average size is 675 sq ft.

“Storage is probably one of the biggest issues for London, in the sense of pollution and energy,” says Jozefowski. One much-discussed solution is a central storage place, shared by venues and funded by the Greater London Authority as part of its Green Theatre initiative. But nothing has materialised yet.

‘We want to work with designers to think about how we can reuse stuff, artistically’ – Ellen McDougall, artistic director, Gate Theatre

According to Sean Pritchard, Home’s technical director and head of production, similar conversations are ongoing between Manchester City Council and the local creative sector. He notes that one of the pitfalls of distantly off-site storage is “that there’s a temptation for it to become a bit of a dumping ground”.

Theatres around the UK are at various stages of scrutinising what they could reuse, while auditing the sustainability of their materials at source. The National Theatre is coming to the end of a comprehensive survey of “the 10 to 20 most common materials we buy, and their impacts, so we can see if there’s an alternative,” Jozefowski says, although this isn’t always easy.

Ellen McDougall. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Gate Theatre artistic director Ellen McDougall. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Ellen McDougall, artistic director of London’s Gate Theatre, thinks the industry probably has been environmentally wasteful for too long. “But it’s not as simple as that. Every organisation faces an enormous amount of time and financial pressure,” she says. “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.’ ”

The Gate reuses as much as it can – even tickets. Since 2018, it lists the materials used in each show (and what will happen to them after) on an audience free sheet. “It’s about bringing into conversation the notion of a circular economy,” says McDougall.

The Gate is also publishing a ‘green’ manifesto for its  40th anniversary this year. This will, in part, tackle wastefulness by reframing the idea that each show has to be “a new thing” and that ‘good’ design is a one-off process. “We’re going to talk about working with designers to think about how we can reuse stuff, but find ways to make that part of the artistic offer,” says McDougall. “So, it doesn’t just feel like we’re curbing creativity.”

And the UK theatre sector is already full of environmentally conscious designers, directors and other creatives doing their bit. Arts collectives such as the Manchester Arts Sustainability Team, the London Theatre Consortium and the Sustainability in Production Alliance are also mobilising to try to drive change.

‘Theatres use buildings from stock that hasn’t been invested in for the past 100 years’ – Tom Stickland, theatre adviser, Theatres Trust

The scale of climate change can feel overwhelming, but even minor interventions – from switching off lights, to giving casts reusable water bottles – make a difference. Sustainably sourced materials can cost more but there are savings to be made too. For example, money spent on better insulation lowers heating bills.

Sharing successful ideas between companies is crucial. For example, dance company New Adventures’ current production of Swan Lake is Julie’s Bicycle’s first “green certified tour”. It is working closely with Sadler’s Wells and Norwich Theatre Royal to share sustainability best practices between venues. “There’s already been a ripple effect,” says executive director Imogen Kinchin.

It’s also about getting involved with the wider social and business landscape. The Lyric Hammersmith won The Stage’s sustainability award in February as well as the green business award at Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s annual Brilliant Business Awards.

“There’s a lot we can do to inspire people,” says Sian  Alexander, the Lyric’s executive director. “We’ve got our stages, but we also play a role in our local communities.”

At Julie’s Bicycle, Tickell is optimistic. ACE now makes reporting on sustainability measures a requirement for its NPOs. “I think it’s worked,” she says. Only “a very small minority” still don’t. While she agrees much progress still needs to be made, “you have this group of theatremakers and artists who are really taking on the implications of climate change, conceptually and practically.”


Resources and funding opportunities

Arts Council England Capital Grants (Small and Large)


Theatre Improvement Scheme
(The 2019 theme is ‘Improving Environmental Sustainability’.) Theatre operators can apply for grants of up to £20,000 towards their building or equipment.

Accelerator Programme
Recruits two ‘cohorts’ of up to 10 organisations or consortia to work with Julie’s Bicycle to advance their sustainable practice and share insights with their peers and the wider sector.

Spotlight Programme
Over the next four years, the Julie’s Bicycle programme will be working closely with Band 3 NPOs to achieve measurable reductions through development of good environmental management practice.

Julie’s Bicycle

Theatres Trust

London Theatre Consortium

Manchester Arts Sustainability Team

Sustainability in Production Alliance

How Tara Arts breathed new life into its home

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