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A sustainable theatre for a greener future

COP26 has entered into its final days in Glasgow and the focus now is on what (if any) documents, deals and commitments are delivered. The COP26 summit was designed to bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

'The UK is committed to working with all countries and joining forces with civil society, companies and people on the frontline of climate change to inspire climate action ahead of COP26.'

But what can we in the Theatre industry and as theatre freelancers be doing to help make our practice greener and more sustainable. 

We reached out to Theatre Green Book co-ordinator Paddy Dillon and Will Attenborough from Equity for a Green New Deal to help us out.

In the earliest conversations that led to the Theatre Green Book, we reached some important conclusions.

First, we realised that theatre needed a simple, shared code that everyone could work to. Simple because no one has time to use anything too demanding. And shared because theatre is made by freelancers who move from show to show. Imagine if, at each stage door, they were handed a different set of standards. Sustainable theatre could never get under way at all.

The second thing we realised was that moving theatre towards sustainability isn’t just about personal commitment and passion. We met any number of designers, production managers and others who feel utterly passionate about this. But no one can change theatre on their own. Take a stage designer. For the production to achieve a sustainable outcome, it doesn’t just need them to design differently, it needs everyone else in the production to work differently too. The producer needs to give them more time – and pay for it. The director needs to share responsibility for creative decisions that allow sustainable working. The production manager needs to support the whole process. The set-builder needs to come on board early, and work collaboratively to build out the idea in the most sustainable way possible. 

The same lesson of sharing and collaboration is true for every other role in the production. Sustainable Productions (book two of The Theatre Green Book) wasn’t written for theatres. It was made for – and by – theatre-makers of all sorts, working in different roles, on different types of show, in every part of the UK. Only by understanding how productions are made, and how roles fit together, was it possible to see where change was needed, allowing sustainable outcomes to follow. 

Theatres have a crucial role to play in all of this. As producers they need to set up productions in ways that allow sustainable working. They need to allow – and budget – time for teams to work together to nudge an idea towards its most sustainable form. They must provide the support freelancers need to work sustainably, connecting them with teams for other shows, making available information on sustainable resources, and sharing in-house facilities and expertise. 

For freelancers, meanwhile, the Theatre Green Book is a resource for working sustainably, whatever their role. The guidance tells them not only how they can work sustainably, but – crucially – what they have a right to expect from the teams and companies around them. The Sustainable Productions toolkit, available online, is a shared resource (written and curated mostly by freelancers) that links expertise and best practice across the sector.

The Theatre Green Book has concentrated on environmental sustainability. But what emerged as we brought together focus groups of designers, producers, directors, production managers, writers, dramaturgs, production staff, and others – and linked them with our sustainability experts, Buro Happold – was that working sustainably requires a sea-change in how shows are made. Old hierarchies block the collaboration and mutual respect on which sustainable outcomes depend. More diverse voices are urgently needed to foster fresh thinking and challenge old assumptions. Above all, production budgets need to focus on people rather than things. That’s because working sustainably takes longer. And that extra time – thinking time, learning time, time focused on making more with less, or time spent trawling second hand shops rather than buying fast online – is the crucial difference that will make theatre sustainable.

It’s an investment theatre urgently needs: an investment in people. It’s a shift from valuing things to valuing the people on whose skill, craft and creativity theatre depends. Because the climate crisis is changing theatre, just as it’s changing how we live, eat and travel. Make the same shows with less material, and of course they’ll look shabby or austere. What’s needed, as we widen theatre’s perspective to encompass the needs of our planet, is theatre-makers’ creativity to find new ways of making and thinking, new ways of sharing stories, new ways of working together to make theatre in a world under threat.  

- Paddy Dillon

In February 2019, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, the formidable Democratic congresswoman, stood at a podium in Washington and announced plans for a ‘Green New Deal’ in the United States.   This was a giant step forward for an idea in development for almost 20 years. The Green New Deal takes inspiration from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s – a sweeping series of job creation programmes that lifted the USA out of the poverty and despair wrought by the Great Depression.   Now, humanity is facing new crises: glaring inequality and extreme warming that threaten our very existence. The Green New Deal would mobilise every aspect of society to reach 100% clean and renewable energy, guarantee living-wage jobs for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities—all in the next 10 years.

This is a tall order. But it has inspired activists and movements the world over with a vision that takes the crushing responsibility for a global crisis off individuals, and instead calls on the collective power of whole societies.

We may each be valiantly using our reusable water bottles, but at the end of the day we know this problem is systemic. Fossil fuels are baked into the way we live our lives – they are the noxious engine that powers much of the human world, and that must change within a matter of years.

Equity for a Green New Deal is a vibrant network of union members from across the UK, collectively fighting for this vision. We aim to tackle the climate concerns facing performers and stage managers by centring workers and environmental justice.

So far, we’ve identified three main types of action:

First, we use the union as a political body to lobby government. The union exists to ensure every member has the right to work safely. So, what’s the point of a secure workplace on a burning planet?

Second, we are resourcing and networking members to create true sustainability in their workplaces. We collaborate with Julie’s Bicycle and promote the Theatre Green Book, while pushing venues to retrofit and source materials locally.

Finally, we examine and act on the union’s own ecological impact. This has ranged from an internal Green Review, to examining supply chains, ensuring train travel over flights for staff and activists, and installing solar panels on the union’s office building.  

Crucially, this also means looking at the power of our money. Along with BECTU and the Musician’s Union, Equity members have roughly £200 million in pension investments. After years of campaigning, Equity for a Green New Deal has succeeded in moving this money out of the hands of some the worst polluters and into a low-carbon pension fund.

Pensions may sound dry and boring (!) but they are a £2.6 trillion sector in the UK. This money has enormous power, and it belongs to ordinary citizens. We will continue to hold our fund managers to account, pushing until our investments are completely fossil fuel free. We believe the arts have an essential role to play in the creation of a greener, fairer society. Art work is not just Hollywood. Art work is freelancers, local theatres, festivals and youth groups. It is the low-waged workers who hoover carpets, scrub toilets and tear tickets in our venues. When truly accessible to all, and embedded in communities, art work is green work.

A little known part of FDR’s New Deal was called the Federal Theatre Project. Profiled in Katherine Hearst's excellent article, the Federal Theatre Project was an ambitious programme in the 1930s to employ arts workers, while wresting theatre away from elite audiences and making it widely accessible. Its creator, Hallie Flanagan, believed that art is how a society understands itself. Theatre is not a luxury, she declared, but a necessity for a democratic society – a medium through which people can participate and imagine. And when faced with a crisis, few things have greater power to guide us through than the public imagination. With that in mind, we need more members, more minds, more voices.

If you would like to join Equity for a Green New Deal, please contact us by email at equity4gnd@gmail.com. Or on Twitter: @equity4gnd.

- Will Attenborough, Equity for a Green New Deal

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