Every now and then, the National Theatre tests its fire procedure. A pattern of intermittent beeps sound across the building and everyone ups sticks and leaves for the riverside, following a pattern Londoners have trod for centuries. We know the drill: there is a manual for a fire emergency.
On October 4, the National Theatre joined a growing band of organisations in declaring a climate emergency. No such procedure attended that declaration: there were no beeps, and no historic precedent. There is no manual. So why do it?
Without the processes in place to deal with the emergency, there is a danger that these declarations are no more than empty gestures in this age of righteousness.
But to name something as an emergency is to give licence to emergency thinking. A declaration is a deliberate self-provocation: end the denial and look at what we do. Look at the footprint generated by the creation of each new production, look at the running of the building and everything that emerges from it.
Thanks to Julie’s Bicycle, we know the UK touring sector annually produces the equivalent of 2,680 round-the-world flights in greenhouse gases alone. International touring magnifies the problem further. Part of the miracle of theatre has always been its ephemerality: there one day, in all its glory, and gone the next. But often where it’s gone is only as far as a great big skip.
If you were to follow strict environmental logic, the most appropriate response to a climate emergency would be to shut down our theatres. To pack up and go home.
Unsurprisingly, we’re not going to do that. But neither are we going to pretend not to know what we do know. And, although it’s tempting to react to a crisis of this magnitude with the paralysis of the guilty or the defensiveness of the finger-pointer, blame and shame are useless if they involve judging ourselves or others into a state of inaction.
Like many, we’re seeking out renewable sources, recycling, controlling energy loss and attempting to understand what ‘best practice’ means in terms of sustainability. And while we’re learning from other theatres and makers who are setting the bar – the Royal Court has committed to transitioning to carbon net zero by 2020 – the declaration is intended to introduce a new metric within the organisation. It signals to the several thousand who work in our building that decision-making underpinned by ‘emergency thinking’ is not only welcome but vital if we can imagine our way out of this. So, along with the fire alarm, the declaration has activated an environmental beep that will sound into every decision we make.
There’s no existing manual. But in theatre we trade in what doesn’t exist, in the art of the impossible. If our industry is to avoid extinction, we will do so only by applying our imagination to how we make, as well as what we make, with the same rigour and aspiration we apply to our art.
Rufus Norris is artistic director of London’s National Theatre. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/rufus-norris