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Lyn Gardner: Does theatre have a crucial role in the fight against climate change?

Alanna Mitchell of Sea Sick. Photo: Chloe Ellingson Alanna Mitchell of Sea Sick. Photo: Chloe Ellingson
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What would you do if your house was on fire? You probably wouldn’t pop to the Edinburgh Fringe to either see a show or star in one.

But, of course, that is what thousands of us are doing this month despite Greta Thunberg’s speech about climate change in Davos earlier this year, in which she said: “I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” Here in Edinburgh, are we simply adding to the problem or can we be part of the solution?

On Monday afternoon I took part in a discussion organised by Staging Change, a network of more than 150 performers, shows and venues that are working together to improve the environmental sustainability of the festival. Campaign initiatives include the Sustainable Fringe Awards, which are hosted by Creative Carbon Scotland, and Take a Photo, an alternative to printing flyers.

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There are many sustainability issues for the fringe to tackle from printed programmes and tickets, through to travel to and from Edinburgh, to plastic hoardings, lighting of shows and plastic cups in the numerous bars.

Staging Change is still small but it’s growing, and it needs to because Edinburgh Fringe faces particular problems in becoming greener, not least because of its pop-up nature. But what happens on the fringe is a reflection of wider issues in the theatre industry. Every night thousands of people travel by car (there is no public transport outside of many metropolitan areas) to see shows performed by casts who have travelled themselves, often in vans, sometimes for hundreds of miles. Venues seldom work together in collaborative ways to ensure that tour dates are synchronised to minimise travel.

Even our funding system colludes in the wastefulness. Without core funding, the only way many can access money is on a project by project basis, so of course they are always going to make new work – with a new design, new print, new props – to get paid, rather than keeping existing work in the repertoire. We know that local work made locally for local audiences can have enormous power, but it also makes sense in a time of climate emergency.

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It seems the Edinburgh Fringe can only be adding to the problem rather than helping. The flyers all over the streets, the rubbish overflowing from the bins and the plastic hoardings defacing the city are all evidence that support the need for change, which Staging Change and the Edinburgh Fringe Society are trying to bring about.

But might there be other good reasons for making theatre as the house catches fire. Earlier in the week I saw Alanna Mitchell’s Sea Sick at Canada Hub, and while I was watching her detail how we are killing the oceans and idly speculating on how many miles she had flown here to perform her show to fringe audiences, she said something that made me sit up.

Science, she pointed out, can give us the facts or the 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. And, of course, theatre is one of the most brilliant ways of telling stories.

Sea Sick is a case in point, a show that doesn’t just guilt trip us, but tells a story that may empower us if we so choose. Theatre still needs to green-up and green-up fast, but it may potentially have a crucial role to play in helping to put the fire out by telling the stories we need to hear.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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