Features Published 10 September 2018

Changing the Climate

Annegret Marten argues that it's time for the theatre industry to shift its attitude to environmental reform.
Annegret Märten

Matthew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’, which is pioneering a scheme for Creative Green Touring Certification as it tours this Autumn. Photo: Bill Cooper

Good news! It seems as if the dystopian scenario of all our theatres going dark will be averted. We are not home and dry yet but the industry is hopeful. The European Commission had proposed to ban the sale and import of a whole range of industry-standard theatre lighting fixtures from September 2020 onwards. Now, following an extensive public consultation period, a taskforce consisting of the Association of Lighting Designers and their counterparts from countries all over Europe have made a case to reinstate the exemption covering these fixtures. As a result, an updated regulation has been passed and this new document, which will soon be circulated, is expected to yield to most of the task force’s demands for exempted fittings.

After months of anxiety in all corners of theatreland, the lighting design community underdog seems to have slain the regulation-wielding EU beast. Publicly, the surrounding discussion was starkly framed in terms of the “threats”, “bans”, and “risks” emanating from the EU regulations. The costs of implementing the directive was projected at over £1 billion. MPs were called to step in, designers were urged to stockpile bulbs, venues were seen at the verge of having to close and successful West End shows were going to shut down. Even Beyoncé was in danger.

Yes, it’s true that governing bodies such as the EU often rely on crude quotas to reach environmental goals set out in treaties like the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. But why did the conversation become so heated? Is there some inherent conflict between environmental action and artistic integrity? This last question seems to be confirmed by last year’s “Sustaining Creativity” report which examines how the creative industries as a whole take steps towards producing sustainable work.

Miguel Figueiredo, Deputy Chief Electrician at the Donmar Warehouse and a lighting designer, explains the heightened mood: “It’s not so much that the legislation is skewed against theatre, it’s the fact that within the broader spectrum of the lighting industry, the theatre is the most vulnerable.”

There’s a consensus among theatre lighting designers that the sector is more dependent on traditional fixtures, such as the tungsten filament, because it is reliant on subtle nuances and moods to create emotional journeys. Technology to render the effects that theatre designers require while complying with EU regulations simply does not exist yet. According to Figueiredo, theatre is not in a position to drive the technological advancement in lighting and put pressure on manufacturers: “Unlike the live music and film industry, theatre is a very small market for manufacturers.” Pointing out the comparatively low effect of lighting within theatre’s overall environmental impact, Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation whose sole purpose is to foster environmentally conscious behaviour within the creative sector, gave their support for maintaining the exemption for stage lighting in the EU directive until a more thorough impact analysis has been undertaken.

One of the goals of Julie’s Bicycle is to untangle dichotomies between creative vision and sustainability. Their take on the situation was that the EU’s initial proposal “could derail much good-will built up in recent years by creating a false conflict between the cultural and environmental sectors.”

Making theatres greener
In the past decade, spurred by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s Climate Change Action Plan, this goodwill is evident in the consistent efforts that theatres and makers around the country have made to be more accountable for their environmental footprint. Initiatives like the message board Set Exchange or the recycling company Scenery Salvage help theatres reduce or completely avoid potential landfill by recycling and repurposing old sets. Many theatres have started gardens on their premises which yield fresh produce for the kitchen and increase biodiversity in inner-city regions. The Lyric Hammersmith in London has gone paperless in several of its office departments and has managed to completely avoid single-use plastic. To embody the theatre’s green efforts the theatre has even adopted a mascot called “Cyril the polar bear”. A reminder sticker with Cyril on the screens helps staff remember to switch off their work stations at the end of their day.

When the Arts Council England (ACE) made reporting on environmental impact a funding condition for its National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) in 2012, theatres had to start counting the kilowatts used by their buildings, the car miles travelled by their staff and audiences, and the cubic meters of non-recyclable waste produced by their bars and cafés. The Industry Green (IG) tools that Julie’s Bicycle, who are service partner to the ACE, provide prove crucial here. Catherine Bottrill, Creative Green Lead at the company, says that their work is about turning reactive behaviour of compliance into a proactive “ecology of practice”. This is why the tools were developed in constant conversation with members of the London Theatre Consortium (LTC) who subscribe to Julie’s Bicycle’s Creative Green certification scheme that allows them to report on their environmental impact.

The LTC acts as a forum for London’s leading off-West End producing theatres to come together and support one another. Environmental action and the sometimes substantial financial incentives to implement it have increasingly been on the agenda. Following the Lyric’s initiative, other spaces such as the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) have implemented a plastic cups recycling scheme. But when it comes to West End venues and major commercial theatres, there still appear to be fewer incentives to committing to climate action. The member organisation UK Theatre and its sister organisation SOLT (Society of London Theatre) have yet to formulate a stance on sustainability and environmental action. This is a real missed opportunity because West End venues in particular reach audiences of millions every year.

With commercial producers working to tight deadlines and margins, every show is a gamble on whether it makes a return on the investment. Perhaps the sector is worried that investments in reusable resources, such as reusable plastic cups to replace the thousands wasted each performance, might not be recouped as quickly as needed. But given the vast profits that West End venues make each year, it’s time for conclusive action. For now, UK Theatre’s latest business plan explicitly states that they are seeking to “provide resources and guidance to ensure environmental sustainability”. One way to moving forwards, both for the country’s largest venues and for pub and fringe theatres, could be to recognise that energy efficient lighting and recycling sets brings clear economic benefits. And after Blue Planet’s call-to-arms on plastic use, economically-minded producers should not underestimate the reputational benefit of implementing sustainable action.

Still, the best kind of environmental strategies go beyond visible actions to reshape the way an organisation works at every level. Tref Davies, leading the Green Team at the BAC, considers environmental action to be deeply integrated into the everyday processes of the building. Staff from operational, technical and creative departments use their specific expertise to figure out how to reduce energy consumption and generally lower environmental impact. Their initiatives stretch from mundane seeming actions, like reducing paper consumption within office processes, to more elaborate considerations around programming bursts of activity within the building to reduce heating requirements. Davies explains that reporting for Julie’s Bicycle is a year-round process and the team constantly identify new aspects that they can measure. “It takes two to three years to really get a grip on how your building performs and how much of the energy you put in is wasted.” Once the numbers on the CO2e (carbon emissions) are in the teams are able to make adjustments and then the measuring starts all over again. Nevertheless, Davies believes that having specific reduction targets in place is useful. “Our committed target across LTC is a 10 percent reduction in emissions. However, because we here at BAC are now at a stage where our systems do not resemble what they were two years ago we have to look at our most current results.” When rebuilding the Grand Hall after the devastating fire in 2015, the decision was made to seize the moment and drive sustainability further. This meant that old bricks were reclaimed, and that double-glazed windows and new blinds were installed which now allow for smarter light and heat regulation. The kind of environmental targets proposed by the EU might initially seem crude, but they’re not absolute. They are constantly moving and certainly allow for the needs of specific communities to be met or even enhanced.

Finding more sustainable ways of making work
Crunching the numbers is only one part of how the industry is shaping up against climate change. Shaping the conversation into a positive and hopeful discourse is equally important. If looking at theatres through the lens of sustainability means that they get to know a different side of their own buildings, perhaps a similar approach can be taken to the art that is being staged inside these buildings. At a venue like the BAC, most of the work is developed in-house, meaning that sustainability can become part of the conversation around the show’s design. Can the creatives, for example, use daylight to light the show? How might the decision to use recycled set and costumes inform the piece itself?

That ‘being green’ is not mutually exclusive with artistic integrity is being demonstrated by a series of projects within the UK theatre industry. While the audience appetite for environmental themes appears to develop slower on stage than off, individual writers certainly are already concerned with representing visions of our planetary futures. Duncan MacMillan’s dialogue piece Lungs, for example, has a young couple consider the environmental impact of bringing a child into this world, and his science-based collaboration with Climate Scientist Chris Rapley and director Katie Mitchell, 2071, was an experiment in bringing climate change discourse directly onto the stage. Green programming and community engagement is also increasingly part of many venue’s long-term strategies. Recent findings indicate that 73% of NPOs in ACE’s portfolio are already producing or planning to produce work with environmental themes. At the Young Vic theatre in London, an initiative called Classics for a New Climate has produced several pieces with the stated goal of a low-carbon footprint. In 2015, the policy-influencing charity Creative Carbon Scotland supported a series of performances and exhibitions called ArtCOP Scotland, which coincided with the Paris Climate negotiations. Providing practical tools for local action, Artsadmin and JB are currently running a national Season for Change in which various organisations such as the DN Festival Doncaster, the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham or National Theatre host events to inspire action.

The next big challenge to tackle within the production processes will be how to make touring more sustainable. Touring accounts for a massive amount of the CO2 emissions of many houses. But some touring companies are already ahead of the curve. Working with award-winning lighting designer Paule Constable, the upcoming tour of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake by the company New Adventures for example, is piloting a scheme in collaboration with JB called Creative Green Touring Certification. The production will not only measure its own emissions, but act as an ambassador to try and encourage receiving houses and collaborators to work towards a shared set of values and standards in sustainability.

Shifting industry attitudes
The way theatre buildings and companies are currently undergoing change is testament to the real appetite from operational and programming staff in theatres, as well as creatives, to change the culture of consumption. And, most encouragingly, they are willing to put pressure on senior management. Beyond the producing venues themselves, freelancers usually have fewer incentives to insist on environmental action. In his work, Dan de la Motte, Green Champion at the Young Vic, encourages young makers to define their own values more clearly. Comparable to Frances McDormands’ shout out at the last Oscar’s for an inclusivity rider, according to de la Motte, artists should be producing their own green riders to encourage their partners towards environmental action. Both BAC’s Tref Davies and de la Motte make comparisons to how matters of accessibility or diversity have moved from the margin of concern into an important issue in how venues deliver their work.

De la Motte is convinced that a real change in attitude needs to be affected within the industry to make the will to change last. “Theatre by its very definition is impermanent and that flies into the face of what sustainability is trying to do.” Rapid time frames and the constant rush towards the next production often leads to burnout among creatives and workers, and it usually leads to taking shortcuts in terms of sustainable action, because the time to source a show sustainably has not been factored in. “Because of this embedded mindset, theatre is still in a place where it’s very wasteful.” De la Motte believes that making space for reflection and slower creative processes would lead to more environmentally conscious ways of making work. 

The need to be conscious of the impact of individual actions, beyond top-level questions of climate change awareness, is the crucial takeaway here. It is true that crude targets for emission reduction need to be refined. The #SaveStageLighting campaign in response to the EU has shown that top-down regulations can be influenced by the industry associated with and affected by them. But resorting to scaremongering language around environmental reform can undermine support for efforts to fight climate change. Facing the changing state of our planet is a communal effort. A dedicated band of theatre producers, administrators and makers are showing endless creativity in making the theatre sector more sustainable. It’s time for the whole community to support their work, and to build on their efforts. 

Resources for theatre and the environment
Julie’s Bicycle Creative Green Certification scheme: https://www.juliesbicycle.com/creativegreen-certification 
Season for Change: https://www.seasonforchange.org.uk/ and the LTC Artists Climate Lab.
Scenery Salvage: https://www.scenerysalvage.com/
The Ashden Directory details many of the productions with environmental themes which were produced in the UK until 2014.

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Annegret Märten

Living and writing in London Annegret is a theatre maker and cultural researcher from Germany. She loves monsters, long words and being glued to her computer. Visit http://www.annegretmarten.co.uk or Twitter.

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