A Green Deal for the Performing Arts

YouTube link

Author of the text/moderator: Martina Pecková Černá (CZ) / ATI International Cooperation Department
Michaela Rýgrová (CZ) / producer and expert on sustainability in theatre
Gwendolenn Sharp (FR) / founder of The Green Room, a non-profit organisation developing strategies for environmental and social change in culture and the music industry
Anna Galas-Kosil (PL) / theatrologist, expert of international relations in performance arts and curator of the interdisciplinary cultural organisation Biennale Warszawa
Petr Dlouhý (CZ) / curator of live art, dramaturg and cultural organiser

The springboard for discussion in the “Green Thursdays” series and for this episode was the Theatre and Environmental Protection survey, a piece of research carried out in spring 2020 as part of Theatre Night in the Czech Republic, in which the majority of respondents stated that they actively try to minimise the environmental impact of their activities, albeit in a somewhat haphazard way. We spoke with guests from the Czech Republic, Poland and France about current ecological trends in theatre management or production and cultural mobility, as well as how the topic of sustainability resonates in communication with the public, in artistic programs and the pandemic-induced slowdown, which we are coming to terms with on a daily basis, more or less organically. We progressed from concrete examples, attitudes and measures, through emphasis on their sustainable management and systematic evaluation, to reflecting on artistic and personal practices and the lot of the performing arts in the context of the European Green Deal and the new – pandemic and post-pandemic – normality.

Links to projects, organisations and initiatives mentioned in the discussion and in this episode:
Results of the the Theatre and Environmental Protection survey (in Czech only)
Sustainability Codex of Theatre Night in the Czech Republic: From theatrical culture to culture in theatre (in Czech only)
Culture for the future (in Czech only)
David Finnigan: I was wrong about the fires
The Green Room
Julie’s Bicycle
Green Music Australia
The Shift Project
Broadway Green Alliance
Buried Sun
On the Move
Bruno Latour: What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?

#04_A Green Deal for the Performing Arts

Martina Pecková Černá 

The colour green embedded in the title of the Green Thursdays discussion cycle and the European Green Deal (a set of policy initiatives presented on November 11, 2019), inspired a discussion titled A Green Deal for the Performing Arts.

In our discussion, we sought potential answers to the question of the performing arts’ attitude towards environmental policy. Do theatre, dance and contemporary circus accept environmental initiatives as a matter of course, or does this issue sit at the back of the queue, behind other, more urgent priorities? We investigated this topic with the following guests: 

– Michaela Rýgrová, producer and the author of the first Czech publication focusing on sustainability in the performing arts; 

– Gwendolenn Sharp, founder of The Green Room, a non-profit organisation specialising in the development of environmental strategies for the music industry;

– Anna Galas-Kosil, an expert on cultural mobility and curator at the interdisciplinary Biennale Warszawa; and

– Petr Dlouhý, curator of Cross Attic, a Prague venue for performance art, and Performance Crossings, an international festival. 

A survey titled Theatre and Environmental Protection, carried out by the Arts and Theatre Institution in Spring 2020, served as the springboard for this discussion. Divided into seven parts, it was distributed among representatives of publicly-funded theatres and independent theatre organisations throughout the Czech Republic. The survey asked respondents about their attitudes towards environmental protection in general, as well as with regard to specific provisions dealing with operations, mobility, production, promotion, artistic programming and communication with the public. A narrow 51% majority of the respondents stated that they are actively trying to minimise the environmental impact of their activities, but, at the same time, these attempts are quite random in nature. The responses showed that such activities are primarily based on the personal beliefs of individuals, rather than on a systematic approach. Specific examples of environmentally-friendly practices currently prevalent in Czech theatres include attempts to reduce electricity consumption, or sort waste. The majority of respondents strive to follow green procurement practices. Respondents also prefer more sustainable transport and make use of recycling in the production of scenery and costumes. In terms of the content of the programming they offer to audiences and the way they communicate with the public, environmental topics do not yet seem to have much resonance.

Environmental protection as a systematic, scientifically-grounded human undertaking is far from a new topic in the industrially-oriented Czech lands, where there is a mining tradition. Environmental protection fuelled civic movements even before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Still, the return of the former socialist countries to Europe in the 1990s was predominately symbolised by the free market economy. Discussions of ecological matters were pushed outside the mainstream and, while scientists have drawn attention to the risks and professional environmental movements and organisations have long been active in the Czech Republic,as in other countries, societal discourse on climate change has, with a few exceptions, reached the cultural sphere only in recent years. 

Because of this, Michaela Rygrová’s Sustainable Theatre, published in the Czech Republic in 2014, was somewhat ahead of its time. Michaela was motivated to address this topic by her own experience of unsustainable production models. Her book refutes the persistent belief that more environmentally friendly modes of productions must necessarily be more expensive and shows that, in the long run, they are often more efficient and financially sustainable.  

The cover of the book features a photo of the National Theatre in Prague. Since 2006, the building has been undergoing an ambitious transformation. In collaboration with the energy company ENESA, the theatre aims to permanently reduce its consumption of natural gas, electricity and water. As a result of this initiative, the theatre now uses renewable resources: solar energy and hydroelectric energy powered by the Vltava river, which flows alongside it. Since 2011, the savings have amounted to more than 50% of the original energy costs. Still, as Michaela Rýgrová points out, in the Czech Republic, the National Theatre is more the exception that proves the rule:  “Many people are employed in theatres with outdated institutional structures and in systems where it is difficult to initiate change. It’s a slow process and even small changes require a lot of patience and courage.”

The tendency to emphasise the role of individuals in the sustainability of cultural operation was confirmed by the results of our survey of Czech theatres, as well as by an additional piece of research, based on a survey distributed among individuals who had received support from a short-term mobility programme for artists and workers in the cultural sector. The pandemic brought about an unexpected and radical reduction in theatre operation and cultural mobility. Theatre-makers have not only responded to this situation with artistic experimentation in theatrical and non-theatrical formats where social contact can be avoided, or with content creation in educational settings. They have also redirected their capacity and energy to provide social services, producing masks or offering assistance to seniors and other citizens in dealing with life’s necessities. 

Playwright David Finnegan, author of the play Kill Climate Deniers, wrote this reflection in September 2020, just less than a year after the catastrophic fires that engulfed nearly the whole of Australia:

“My strongest artistic experience was not a change of opinion, but a slowing down of thought. It allowed me to see myself in a different light… Art can put our situation in a historical context and gives us a longer, richer perspective on our actions, rather than feeling trapped in an eternal present. Art can train our empathy, help us see the world through other people’s eyes, and illustrate the ways that this crisis exacerbates existing inequalities rather than impacting us all equally. And for me, most important of all: art can gather us together and let us know that we’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed and inadequate to deal with the crisis.” 

In the context of another extreme situation that we are now contending with around the globe, it is more apparent than ever that the arts cannot change the world. Still, the arts themselves are changing in response to concerns about self-preservation and the experience of disrupted relations with the public. While both this process of change and reflections upon it will continue for a long time, it’s already possible to understand it as a chance for the cultural sector to repair its own ecosystem.  

In comparison with industry, agriculture or transport, theatre operation places a much smaller burden on the environment. Still, despite this awareness, many organisers and consumers of culture now believe that they can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and try to take responsibility for their carbon footprint. This is much more than just a discussion about plastic cups and waste sorting at concerts or festivals, which is now a condition of some public support schemes in France, as Gwen Sharp noted in our discussion: “According to the available studies, the biggest source of emissions in the performing arts is transport and travel. Imagine a symphony orchestra tour or current practices in popular music, where it is not uncommon for bands to take up to 40 trucks on tour. Up to 80% of the carbon footprint can be generated by audience mobility, so the responsibility not only falls on the artists and organisers, but on the spectators as well. A shift in relation to audiences is also evident: it turns out that good communication around environmental responsibility can attract new audiences that are receptive to these issues. At the same time, though, it is also necessary to change thinking at the level of those providing support and to realise that not all that glitters is gold. Bands, for example often receive funding to tour to five European capitals, as opposed to touring to smaller cities in a single region.” In contrast to other areas, transport is the only area where greenhouse gas emissions have not  declined since the 1990s, mainly due to the increase in road transport.

However, the relationship between cultural, economic and environmental values is now being discussed primarily in the context of live productions’ mass migration to digital platforms. Some numbers are truly shocking: for example, The Shift Project, a French think tank that advocates for the transition to a post-carbon economy, has calculated that the carbon footprint of a single viewing of a two-hour live stream is higher than that of a single physical visit to the theatre. 

Large institutions and independent organisations also differ substantially in their approach to sustainability. Of course, environmentally and financially inefficient buildings are a huge burden when it comes to enforcing changes in operation. The French covid recovery plan currently provides 200 million euros for the ecological transformation of cultural institutions. It is important, though, that investments into building renovation go hand in hand with more environmentally friendly models of production and distribution. According to Gwen Sharp, independent organisations tend to be more enterprising than public institutions: In their case, however, another problem arises. They often do many different things and lose sight of the main goal because of the quantity of initiatives. It’s necessary to start with small steps and the rest will grow organically.” This is why sustainable management and standards are important; they help in the formulation of plans and evaluation systems, which cannot rely solely on the voluntary initiative of individuals. The Green House in France, Julie’s Bicycle in the United Kingdom, the Broadway Green Alliance and Green Music Australia are examples of organisations in the culture sector that can help with this. 

The Biennale Warszawa is a new type of public cultural institution. Originally a municipal theatre founded in the 1970s, in 2017 it transformed into an experimental interdisciplinary hub that fuses research with art and activism. Its main mission is to open societal debates, of which environmental topics are an inseparable part. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the Biennale Warszawa’s dramaturgical team decided to devote its programme to discussions about the world after the pandemic. In collaboration with artists, it searches for new and alternative environmental, economic, social and cultural models. Buried Sun, an online documentary about energy, is one output of these processes. A combination of texts, images, videos and narration, it is available on a website that uses carbon-reducing colours. The emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach facilitates mutual inspiration, for example between theatre and visual arts, where environmental issues are far more resonant. And not only in the works themselves, but also in discussions about the shape of public cultural institutions, such as the call initiated by the Museum for Climate Change for radically transformed museums to support a fairer and more sustainable future. 

“The situation regarding the promotion of sustainable principles in Poland is similar to the Czech Republic,” Anna Galas-Kosil explained. “There is no strategic grasp, the initiative comes mainly from the bottom up. It is true that Poland was the sole European country not to sign up to the European Council’s conclusions to achieve EU carbon neutrality by 2050, proposed as part of the European Green Deal. At the same time, I understand that it is a complex issue with great financial and societal implications. I want to be optimistic: I believe that societal change is already coming, and faster than political change. In Poland, for example, many people — including those employed in the mines — understand that coal cannot be mined indefinitely.” Galas-Kosil also compares conditions in different parts of Europe as the former president of On the Move, an international network for cultural mobility that engages with environmental issues. As early as 2011 and in collaboration with Julie’s Bicycle, the network prepared the Green Mobility Guide for the Performing Arts. Later, specific mechanisms of support, such as the European Commission’s Creative Europe and Erasmus programmes, and the STEP travel grants offered by the European Cultural Foundation, gradually began to advocate for green mobility. We in the Arts and Theatre Institute drew inspiration from the STEP programme when recommending overground travel, ideally by rail, for distances up to 700 km in guidelines for the Czech short-term mobility programme. As Galas-Kosil observed in closing, “These rules are certainly beneficial, but at the same time, they reveal huge differences: just compare the state of the railway infrastructure in Western and Eastern Europe. How to balance such inequalities is a question for the future. How to preserve cultural diversity and, at the same time, maintain its accessibility? Radical change is certainly needed, but it also raises new questions and not only related to climate justice.” 

“In live art, which is already the most precarious field and the one most affected by the pandemic, dissatisfaction, fatigue and exhaustion are accumulating and it is starting to become clearer that a return to normal will not happen immediately. Tensions are rising; the system is forcing us to compete with one another even more than before Covid. Still, I don’t think that art is an endangered species. What is endangered are the social structures and forms of art that we have been used to thus far. We must redefine the measures of success and approach art not as a product, but as a process, which can be applied even outside the arts thanks to the soft skills artists possess.” Petr Dlouhý, curator of Prague’s Performance Crossings Festival draws inspiration for these reflections from, among others, the European project Reshape, which set itself the goal of seeking alternatives to the existing European artistic ecosystem and defining new tools and models of collaboration based on principles of justice, solidarity, geographic balance and sustainability. 

Along with eight other curators from different countries, Petr is thinking about new concepts of mobility in a trajectory of the project called “Trans and Post-National Art Practices.” Criticism of the paradoxical situation in which it is often easier to find suitable conditions for international collaborations than for collaborations with a partner who lives around the corner is nothing new in international forums. The simultaneous suspension and slowdown of activity as a counterpoint to hyper-mobility and hyper-production is undoubtedly a positive aspect of the pandemic. Petr introduced an emphasis on the local or micro-context and an awareness of the most immediate surroundings into our debate, illustrating it with the metaphor of compost as an artistic practice that returns us to the solid ground beneath our feet and to an awareness of our mutual entwinement with the surrounding environment. 

“The first lesson the coronavirus has taught us is also the most astounding: we have actually proven that it is possible, in a few weeks, to put an economic system on hold everywhere in the world and at the same time, a system that we were told it was impossible to slow down or redirect… Hence the primary importance for using this time of imposed isolation in order to describe, initially one by one, then as a group, what we are attached to; what we are ready to give up; the chains we are ready to reconstruct and those that, in our behaviour, we have decided to interrupt.” 

This intellectual exercise recommended by French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour can also be beneficial for theatre-makers, whose activities are currently impossible in their usual, pre-Covid formats. It is part of the ecological, or, if you will, the environmental dimension, which is gradually being associated with traditional values of culture, sometimes from above and sometimes from below. It is helpful to re-emphasise the social and  immanent values of culture, which have lately been pushed to the background by economics. The resulting discoveries could lead to a Green Deal for the performing arts which – in the field of theatre – might lead to a shift from theatre culture to the culture of theatre. This time – as is evident from the above examples – it is not about a programme of political or revolutionary theatre of the sort we are familiar with from the history of art and propaganda of the twentieth century, but about the personal stance of theatre artists, producers and their audiences, who are creating new communities on this basis. In this sense, neither theatre nor the performing arts are truly an endangered species. At least not so long as human communities exist on earth.