This story is part of a special issue on theatre and climate change; the whole package is here.
There’s a lot of talk these days about sustainability in theatre practice. Many believe we have reached a point of no return and must all, immediately, reexamine our ways of working to aim for a zero-waste paradigm. That gives those of us who work almost exclusively in the world of international touring a lot to consider. And for those of us who’ve made theatre for young audiences (TYA) our focus, there may be even more urgency to this question.
The importance of good theatre for young audiences is borne out in hundreds of ways. Not least of these is art’s effect on a young person’s humanity, providing kids with the opportunity to view the world around them with empathy and global perspective, to hear from one another and understand all societies in new ways. Audiences from varying cultures are invited to open their imaginations to stories and rituals from other lives, and to sit in one space together to embrace or argue one another’s views. For young people to embrace, or at least to understand, our differences, exposure to other people and other ways of life is vital.
For those who provide international performing arts experiences, touring is obviously a necessary part of bringing live performances from different areas of the world to their theatres. At two recent convenings of professionals who develop, create, and tour work for young audiences, interested and concerned delegates discussed the impact of touring on the environment, and the possibility of lessening live, personal interaction and exchange. Can there be viable international reciprocity in the arts without it? Are there other areas of off-set that could somehow ameliorate the carbon footprint of the travel necessary to do this work?
At the ASSITEJ (the French acronym for International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People) Artistic Gathering in Norway last fall, around 100 theatre folks met for a breakout session entitled simply “Sustainability Conversation.” Led by ASSITEJ executive committee member Bebê de Soares, creative producer of Amazonas Network, an agency that represents South American artists who tour the world, the room was teeming with questions, concerns, ideas, and provocations. It was not lost on this group of international delegates that they had mostly all taken a flight (or two) to get to the conference. As de Soares put it, “Theatre is about meeting actual people in a room, not mediated by a screen.” The thrust of the conversation centered on measuring carbon footprints, researching funding, spaces (existing and non-), and the sharing of resources, all with the view that live arts experiences are crucial to have in everyone’s lives, especially children’s.
Over the course of this mini-forum the theme of partnership continued to surface. Attendees agreed to bring the urgency of the topic back to their local communities and networks and to make sure that sustainability was at the forefront of every creative endeavor. There was support for the sharing of resources, learning how to effectively measure each carbon footprint and ways to off-set it, and to advocate for the prioritization of transforming existing spaces rather than building new ones. Certainly ways of making theatre came into play, with artists investigating the heightening of sensory theatre and striving to make more immersive experiences with less “stuff.” One idea suggested that every show create a list of all the materials used (e.g., 100 dance mats, 42 par cans, 1000 meters of fabric, etc), not unlike the calorie lists now required at some food chains.
Then this past January at the annual IPAY (International Performing Arts for Youth) conference and showcase in Philadelphia, there was a “kitchen table” convening on the impact of international touring. There were stories of varying degrees of waste-free and/or carbon-neutral events, but no one could suggest a way to successfully participate in a global performing arts market without air travel. Talk of cooling down theatre production and focusing on local communities, perhaps to do something called “slow theatre,” was ubiquitous, as was the need for education on what local and personal actions the field could take. One example: Scotland’s Arts Council now asks for carbon budgets from applicants seeking funding to tour. And logistics and accessibility were key to recognizing the value of taking work into communities, rather than relying on a stationary theatre to which audiences must travel.
Leading this particular session was artist and advocate Jess Wilson from Australia. Wilson and several of her compatriots have been very focused on carbon emissions and how to off-set the impact of Australian theatre artists touring internationally. Emphasizing the need for more information and conversation on how to reduce the impact of flying, Wilson said, “We know how to swap out the grid for renewables, but we do not know how to reduce the harm to the environment that comes from flying—other than not flying.”
Not flying wasn’t the answer, nor was flight-shaming helpful. But raising the consciousness of those who do fly and encouraging theatre professionals to take stock of how many staff members need to fly and when, as well as what each individual can do reduce emissions and waste, seemed a simple yet necessary start. Practical solutions involving the use of systematic upcycling, sharing, and re-use, for example, and/or coordinating a platform for information exchange to encourage more collaboration in theatremaking and presentation, were all suggested as things our theatre service organizations could host and facilitate.
We live in a digital world and can easily communicate without leaving our homes. But for a field that thrives in human connection and the sharing of each other’s lives and stories, there is a need to rethink what it means to advance international touring—live plays with live audiences—in a way that has the least impact on the environment, while maintaining the critical import of learning more about how we all exist in life together. While the delicate balance of life itself is at stake in today’s discussions around climate change, for performing artists, theatremakers, and presenters, creating sustainable cultural exchange without becoming tech isolationists is the delicate balance we must learn to strike.
Mary Rose Lloyd is the artistic director of New Victory Theater in New York City.