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Nature takes centre-stage as theatres emerge from darkness

London's National Theatre is among more than 50 in the United Kingdom following a Theatre Green Book that lays out how to remove thousands of tonnes of unsustainable material from set designs, re-use costumes and eliminate waste.

By: Reuters | London |
November 9, 2021 12:00:53 pm
sustainable theatre, eco-friendly theatre productions, climate change glasgowActors perform in a production of 'Paradise' at the National Theatre in London, Britain. (Helen Murray/Handout via REUTERS)

The drama of extreme weather and the complexities facing negotiators at U.N. climate talks in Glasgow are not lost on theatres that have made sustainability central to their reopening from pandemic closures.

London’s National Theatre is among more than 50 in the United Kingdom following a Theatre Green Book that lays out how to remove thousands of tonnes of unsustainable material from set designs, re-use costumes and eliminate waste.

Materials for its production of “Trouble in Mind”, a satire of racism in theatre that opens next month, will be about 90% re-used or recycled.

The National Theatre’s head of production Paul Handley told Reuters theatres had returned from lockdown resolved to “consider our environmental impacts in a very considered and robust way”.

The challenges include persuading creative contributors and audiences, which often pay high ticket prices, that reducing carbon need not be an aesthetic compromise.

sustainable theatre, eco-friendly theatre productions, climate change glasgow Lesley Sharp performs in a production of ‘Paradise’ at the National Theatre in London, Britain. (Helen Murray/Handout via REUTERS)

“We’ve got to get away from the language of reduction and going without,” Handley said. “It doesn’t mean the creativity is any less.

“Spearheaded by theatre architect Patrick Dillon, the Green Book evolved from Zoom conversations with theatre workers held during lockdown and is drawing international interest.

“If theatre is relevant, then it has to be part of this conversation about the biggest challenge that humanity has faced, but it can only be part of it if it is itself sustainable,” Dillon said.

SMALLER AND NIMBLER?

For smaller theatres, used to using whatever is at hand, sustainability can come more naturally, but upfront investment is a strain on limited budgets.

In Hackney, northeast London, the Arcola Theatre in 2007 set itself a goal of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral theatre. It has installed solar panels, a heating system that burns waste and it re-uses materials whenever possible.

 

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Although its carbon impact is not yet at zero, executive director Ben Todd said the ambition itself sent an important message.

Theatre-goers “want to imagine new futures, alternative futures,” he said. “Using the arts as a place to do it, to showcase, to demonstrate sustainability kind of made real, I think is a really powerful tool.”

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Climate concerns dovetail with social justice as extreme weather tends to hit poorer communities, often Black, hardest.

That has been particularly true in the United States, where the Black Lives Matter movement has converged with lockdowns, hurricanes, flooding and drought.

Sandra Goldmark, a theatre professor at Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York, has developed a sustainability toolkit to guide socially just, inclusive and environmental performances.

sustainable theatre, eco-friendly theatre productions, climate change glasgow Actors perform in a production of ‘Paradise’ at the National Theatre in London, Britain. (Helen Murray/Handout via REUTERS)

Among those using it is actor Bryce Pinkham, who is working on “Dignity, Always Dignity”, an adaptation of the musical “Singin’ in the Rain” for times of climate crisis.

Expected to be staged in Connecticut next year, the production aims to be carbon neutral and socially inclusive.

Its music director is Rona Siddiqui, whose father is Afghan. She describes herself as a climate justice warrior, and is making musical instruments out of reclaimed or “found” objects.

“We are talking about head-on the social implications. Whiteness. Capitalism. The effects. And then how do we adapt?” she said.

BEYOND THEATRE

At the University of Glasgow, beside the U.N. climate talks that are striving to make the global economy carbon neutral, Minty Donald, professor of contemporary performance practice, favours a more radical interpretation of eco-theatre.

She speaks of the need to “de-centre” humans so that “other-than-human things are viewed as collaborators or actors”.

“It (eco-theatre) is intended to challenge the ideas that humans are superior and exceptional – an idea that arguably caused the climate crisis in the first place,” Donald said.

To coincide with the climate talks, she has been walking, or “drifting” https://erraticdrift.org, into the city carrying a rock from a former quarry that provided the sandstone for many of Glasgow’s buildings as a reminder of our links with the earth.

For her students and other young people, making climate central to the action is compulsory, says 23-year-old theatre director Signe Lury
a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin.

“We’re making theatre in a time of climate crisis: if we want to keep doing it, we have to reform it,” she said.

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