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How Training and Education Can Create a Greener Performing Arts Sector

More than a decade ago, Bill Moskin and Katie Oman’s “Making the Case for Environmental Sustainability in the Arts” demonstrated that ecological sustainability is a win–win for the recipients of arts grants and grantmakers and funding bodies. Adopting greener practices not only leads to increased efficiency and financial savings; it also secures legal compliance and may yield reputational benefits. More importantly, a commitment to environmental responsibility is a tangible response to one of today’s major global issues: the climate crisis. And yet, as Moskin and Oman noted, this concern did not seem to have translated into institutional or industry-wide knowledge or action. So they asked what was standing in the way.

First and foremost, they found a lack of environmental literacy among staff, boards, arts service organizations, and funders—a problem that persists to this day. Moskin and Oman contended that environmental sustainability demands new ways of thinking and requires overcoming “the inertia of the way things have always been done.” From acquiring a working command of environmental vocabulary to building literacy that would enable practitioners to effectively navigate the complexities of environmental sustainability, access to knowledge is crucial for moving the entire field forward.

Improving Knowledge and Understanding from Within the Sector

Back in the nineties, capacity building, guidance, peer learning, and the development of arts-specific resources were identified as prerequisites for the ecological transition of the cultural sector by theatremakers and educators Larry Fried and Theresa May. In 1994, Fried and May published Greening Up Our Houses, their trailblazing guide to a “more ecologically sound theatre.” It functioned as an easy-to-use reference book for their colleagues in the United States and was written to provide “practical alternatives and guidance for every person working in the theatre.” Ellen Jones, also a theatre practitioner and educator based in the United States, published her own Practical Guide to Greener Theatre: Introduce Sustainability into Your Productions in 2014. At around the same time, the Broadway Green Alliance (which guides productions towards sustainability in New York and beyond) established what became one of their most impactful initiatives: the Green Captains training program. With the support of and resources from the Broadway Green Alliance community, any member of a production team can become a Green Captain with the power to implement and encourage a wide range of environmentally friendlier practices onstage and backstage. Another example is Creative Carbon Scotland, which supports more than one hundred key cultural organizations in mandatory carbon reporting to the public body Creative Scotland. Since the early 2010s they have made it part of their mission to provide Scottish arts organizations with training in carbon measurement, reporting, and reduction.

Five people sit around a white table, writing on a large white poster on the table.

Participants of the first international Sustainable Cultural Management course, 6-10 June 2016, Thessaloniki, Greece. Organized by mitos21 in collaboration with the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Photo by Iphigenia Taxopoulou.

I am a founding member and general secretary of the European theatre network mitos21, which set up a green managers’ group in 2014. The program functions as a peer learning initiative, given that one of the network’s members, the National Theatre in London, was already a recognized international leader of sustainable practice when the group began. It soon became clear from the group’s convenings and its varying levels of environmental literacy that member theatres and their teams needed a more systematic understanding of environmental issues and the methodologies and processes of embedding sustainability in practice. In 2016, mitos21 launched the Sustainable Cultural Management international course, which was co-designed with the cultural and environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle. In June 2016, a weeklong pilot edition was taught by leading international experts and peers with hands-on experience. It covered all areas of sustainable management, including theatre buildings, daily operations, stage production, and artistic programming. It also included an introduction to environmental issues and the climate crisis, and a day dedicated to best practice examples from the cultural field.

Building on Global Movements

In the performing arts sector, the desire to become actively engaged in the ecological transition gained urgency following the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, the Fridays for Future climate movement in 2018, and the European Union Green Deal in 2020, among other relevant landmark events.

Setting an example of environmental commitment, multi-arts venue HOME in Manchester, United Kingdom, has prioritized the empowerment of their team by providing the skills and knowledge to communicate climate awareness and drive change. HOME is the first arts and cultural venue in the world to have 100 percent of its staff trained in carbon literacy as certified by the Carbon Literacy Project; in-house staff trainers deliver regular workshops, ensuring that all new starters are trained within six months of joining the HOME team. Training is proven to have a very positive impact, “amplifying HOME’s mission [of] sharing knowledge, influencing others, and inspiring action in our commitment to collective responsibility, accountability, and action.”

There is a significant surge in the demand for environmental training and capacity building among theatre professionals and an increasing number of performing arts institutions.

As more and more arts practitioners have become environmentally aware, several other initiatives have been developed in response to the need for capacity building and professional empowerment. Julie’s Bicycle created the international Creative Climate Leadership course; the mitos21 Sustainable Cultural Management course continues to evolve, with the most recent version co-designed with the European Theatre Convention in 2022 and jointly delivered to more than seventy member theatres across Europe; KiFutures, an international coaching and training network for sustainability in the arts, was launched by KiCulture in 2021; and the Broadway Green Alliance has taken the Green Captains program to the next level with over eight hundred Green Captains across the country on Broadway, off-Broadway, and in regional theatres, as well as an active College Green Captain program that provides free educational and engagement opportunities to student artists and climate activists at over seventy colleges and universities.

These initiatives, which are mostly international in character and ambition, contribute to the creation of an ever-growing global community of like-minded culture professionals and expedite the sharing of existing knowledge and expertise across borders. They also demonstrate that there is a significant surge in the demand for environmental training and capacity building among theatre professionals and an increasing number of performing arts institutions.

In view of the climate emergency, though, is this enough to instigate the fast and broad sectoral change required? In my recent book Sustainable Theatre: Theory, Context, Practice, I argue for more “learning” versus “unlearning” to address what I see as a paradox: while members of the existing workforce upskill themselves to meet climate and environmental challenges, future theatre professionals are still trained by and into a system which, in certain aspects, is becoming obsolete.

In these examples, sustainable practice is meant to cultivate sustainable thinking.

Re-Skilling and Upskilling—Ad Infinitum?

In his article “The Ethical Turn in Sustainable Technical Theatre Production Pedagogy,” theatre artist and academic teacher Ian Garrett emphasizes that the formative years—in universities, colleges, academies, and drama schools—establish the values that guide students’ future professional practice. He describes the dominant pedagogical model as a combination of theatre and performance studies with “an apprentice-style transfer of established practices”; once out in the professional field, students tend to reproduce conventional methodologies, “while opportunities to explore novel methods of theatre making diminish.”

Since 2012, Garrett has been professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University in Toronto, Canada, one of the very few educational institutions in the world to have a graduate program dedicated to sustainable production. There has been only a handful of sustainability initiatives in an academic environment so far, mostly developed in the unique universe of academic theatre in the United States. An early example is recorded in Justin Miller’s “The Labor of Greening Love’s Labour’s Lost,” an account of his experience as a post-graduate student at Michigan State University (MSU) working on a project undertaken by the Department of Theatre in collaboration with MSU’s Office of Sustainability. The project aimed to develop greener production practices to help teach the next generation of theatre designers and technical managers how to incorporate ecological concerns into their work.

Another such project, the Sustainability Scholars Program led by Paul Brunner and Olivia Ranseen at Indiana University in 2015, paired students with faculty mentors to conduct research on a given environmental topic. Their research outcomes served as groundwork that allowed the theatre department to investigate “how to make an academic theatre production more sustainable from beginning to end and from bottom to top” and implement knowledge gained through this educational exercise.

Five people performing in a large room with black walls covered in random items.

Maddie Provo, Alex Katz, Katie Craddock, Victoria Pollack, and Alexis Wilcock in The Egg-Layers by Lauren Feldman, directed by Alice Reagan at Barnard College in collaboration with Farm Theatre. Photo by Stephen Yang.

A final example is Barnard College in New York, where sustainability has been consistently at the heart of its educational programs since 2013, largely through the academic work of set designer and circularity pioneer Sandra Goldmark. At Barnard, students, faculty, and staff of the theatre department are engaged in ongoing research about circular design and green production practices, which feeds into the curriculum, then into departmental productions and back again—an interplay between classroom and research that aims to provide a model for larger campus sustainability efforts, but also for application in the wider professional field.

In these examples, sustainable practice is meant to cultivate sustainable thinking—a systemic approach that extends beyond specific projects, such that sustainability is not an add-on to certain aspects of the curriculum, but an integral component of the educational process. Ian Garrett describes this as “a move away from the narrow priority of reducing environmental impacts and toward a broader systems-thinking approach to realize our work within the context of a more global consideration of sustainability.”

The climate crisis may have put some of the old models in question, but our field is constantly evolving in terms of its aesthetics, practices, tools, and technologies.

This new perspective remains marginal so far and has not yet been reflected at scale in performing arts education. A pilot project at the Contemporary and Applied Theatre Department at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, may serve as another good example in this direction. In “Greening Theatre Landscapes: Developing sustainable practice futures in theatre graduates,” Linda Hassall and Stephen Rowan present this initiative both as an exercise in green theatremaking and as a model of embedding sustainability in higher education. In 2015, their Greening the Theatre Project aimed to embed “green philosophies and practices within the university’s theatre production outputs,” as an expression of the theatre department’s commitment “to fostering environmentally sustainable societies through teaching and learning and campus operations.”

More recently, the Department of Drama, Theatre, and Dance at Royal Holloway, University of London, enriched its curriculum with a module on “Design for Performance: Imagined Ecologies and Sustainable Practice.” It also offers a carbon literacy training course scheme for both staff and students, in compliance with the department’s Environmental Sustainability Manifesto. In Spring 2023, the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, Portugal introduced a postgraduate program in Cultural Management and Sustainability (with a focus on performing arts). But such initiatives still remain exceptions to the rule. This is not a problem particular to theatre and the performing arts. UNESCO stresses that education for learners of all ages is crucial in addressing the climate crisis, and the organization makes persistent calls to governments to educate (and, therefore, empower) all stakeholders.

In their 2021 report Décarbonons la Culture! (Let’s Decarbonise Culture!), the Shift Project (an influential think tank in France promoting an all-encompassing agenda for the sustainable transition) maintains that the ecological transition of the sector would require all young professionals to have received an education that corresponds to major climate challenges and that will enable them to implement sustainable practices as future professionals. The report suggests that this process should start with systematically educating the educators by creating dedicated positions for sustainability experts in academic institutions and facilitating the sharing and exchange of existing educational tools and resources.

The climate crisis may have put some of the old models in question, but our field is constantly evolving in terms of its aesthetics, practices, tools, and technologies. If theatre education lags behind with regard to ecological transition in the sector, this is perhaps because the will to overcome “the inertia of the way things have always been done” is left wanting; to remedy this would mark a long overdue climate-conscious gesture of intergenerational solidarity.

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thanks for highlighting some international initiatives here; may it help momentum of scaling this to grow!