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The Sustainable Theatre Practice Treaty

This week on HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change begun last April with this special series for Climate Week NYC. How does our work reflect on and respond to the challenges brought on by a warming climate? How can we participate in the global conversation about what the future should look like, and do so in a way that is both inspiring and artistically rewarding? As the director of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, and Theatre Professor in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design at York University in Toronto, Ian Garrett has been an inspiration for years. He is a pioneer in the field of sustainability and the arts and has been extremely active in that arena, speaking, publishing, organizing conferences, and devising new ways of working. He is also an artist who is not afraid to think big thoughts. —Chantal Bilodeau

A broken ice shelf
The Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Photo by US Department of State.

I should have had a tale to tell of hardihood, endurance, and courage.Robert Scott, Antarctic explorer

Imagine a place without war. A place where the environment is fully protected. A place that is dedicated to new discovery and scientific research. That near-utopian ideal is present in Antarctica, where the Antarctic Treaty has insured international cooperation and stewardship for decades. Theatre should also serve this purpose. There are a number of ways in which climate change is being addressed through theatre and the arts. But as Antarctica captures the imagination and shows us what can be done in the most extreme conditions, I propose that we adopt an ambitious agreement modeled on that success to aggressively address the urgency of climate change now. Will you be party to the Sustainable Theatre Practice Treaty?

What if we thought bigger? Like Antarctica big. Could we model our commitment to sustainable practice in the theatre the way nations have been cooperating since 1959 to conduct their shared relationship with our Southern-most continent?

Many countries claim parts of this icy continent, though these are not universally recognized. There is no government or permanent population of Antarctica, and all claims have been suspended since the adoption of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959. When the treaty was agreed to, all of Antarctica became “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” The effectiveness and longevity of the Antarctic Treaty System, which includes the original treaty and a number of related agreements, is impressive. However, this seeming utopia may only be possible at the ends of the earth because it is so inhospitable and incapable of supporting anything but the most dedicated research. But it does provide a case study on human cooperation and stewardship, and that should give us hope.

I feel similarly about theatre. Practically, it depends on human cooperation. It creates social dialogue that is a form of stewardship for our communities. Though as a faculty member at a research university who studies the sustainable impacts of theatre at the core of my research, research may not be its main purpose. What I have found is that theatre as a collective activity is often environmentally, socially, and economically positive. It, and other shared arts experiences, are some of the best drivers of a sustainable society. That should also give us hope.

In the course of my research, I have come across a number of commendable certifications, agreements, and plans. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has a checklist for buildings and facilities. The Arts Earth Partnership (AEP) offers a green business certification for small theatres and galleries in Los Angeles. The Broadway Green Alliance offers tips and leadership advice to advocate for green change on the Great White Way and beyond. Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company created the Green Theatre Choice Toolkit, Julie’s Bicycle in London offers the “Industry Green” IG Tools. Recently, I’ve been discussing a new option with some sustainably oriented colleagues to develop something they call the EcoScene pledge for designers. It would ask those taking the pledge to commit to a variety of practical efforts in their practice and to serve as an advocate in their work. They would also use a mark like that of a union or professional association’s designation on their documentation.

These are all great initiatives and opportunities. I recommend you consider them all for your buildings, companies, and studios. These can all contribute to a more sustainable theatrical field and have significant positive results with regard to our contribution to climate change.

What if we thought bigger? Like Antarctica big. Could we model our commitment to sustainable practice in the theatre the way nations have been cooperating since 1959 to conduct their shared relationship with our Southern-most continent?

What are the articles of the treaty? First of all, Antarctica is to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; military activities are prohibited. The treaty guarantees continued freedom to conduct research. It promotes international cooperation and requires that research findings be made freely available. It also provides that no activities will affect previously asserted territorial claims, and that no new claims can be made. It prohibits nuclear explosions and the disposal of radioactive waste. It provides for inspection to ensure the observance of, and compliance with, the Treaty. And it requires parties to give notice of expeditions; provides for periodic meetings; puts in place a dispute settlement procedure; and a mechanism to amend the Treaty.

Importantly, the Treaty also contains an ambitious environmental protocol. It commits the parties to “comprehensive protection of the Antarctic Environment.” It designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” It sets out the principles for environmental protection. It bans all commercial mineral resource activities. It requires an Environmental Impact Assessment of all activities before they are allowed to go ahead.

Is it foolhardy to think that we can practice theatre as though we’re moving towards utopia? This past June, I attended a talk by Mike Pearson, a professor of Performance Studies at Aberystwyth University and an archaeologist turned site-specific theatre luminary. He has also spent time in Antarctica. In his research, he has considered the impact of changing climate conditions upon performers and audiences. In the presentation, we could consider numerous examples of polar imagination expressed through theatre and performance such as Hugh Broughton Associates, designers of the Halley VI research station; Chris Rapley’s performance of 2071 at The Royal Court, written by Duncan Macmillan and director by Katie Mitchell; and Mariele Neudecker’s scale models of the Halley VI, Some Things Happen All At Once. This work demonstrates how influential that vast and frozen place, and the spirit of inquiry and research it inspires, can be.

2071 Returns January 2015
2071 Returns, January 2015.  Photo courtesy of Ian Garrett. 
Halley VI Antarctica
Halley VI Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Ian Garrett.

It is Lucy + Jorge Orta’s Antarctic work that I feel gets closest to the idealism of Treaty. In 1995 they presented the Antarctica World Passport at the Biennale di Venezia. And in 2007, they traveled to Antarctica to install an Antarctic Village and raise the prismatic Antarctic Flag, a “supranational emblem of human rights.” The flag was late reinstalled at the Southbank Centre in 2012 as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The Antarctica World Passport is a “universal passport for a continent without borders, and the common good of humanity” since “climate change has no borders.” One can sign-up for the passport online and commit:

  • To act in favor of sustainable development through simple, daily acts
  • To defend natural environments under threat, as a global public resource
  • To fight against climate change generated by human activity
  • To support humanitarian actions aiding displaced peoples of the world
  • To share values of peace and equality
  • To impart this charter to future generations

Taking this as inspiration, can we look back to the root of international cooperation and utopian ideals of sustainability to change how we work? To ambitiously address how we make performance? I believe so, and would ask that you be a party to the Sustainable Theatre Practice Treaty, based on the Antarctic Treaty System. Would you be willing to join me in a similar agreement for your theatre practice?

Numerous examples of the work of polar imagination expressed through theatre and performance demonstrates how influential that vast and frozen place, and the spirit of inquiry and research it inspires, can be.

Let us consider that the articles of the Sustainable Theatre Practice Treaty:

1) stipulate that theatre is to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes; provide a forum for mutual understanding and be created to be inclusive and accessible; prohibit activities that reflect antagonist aggression in symbol or practice;

2) guarantee continued freedom of artistic expression;

3) promote international artistic cooperation including the exchange of models and personnel, and require that results and outcomes of this cooperation be made freely available;

4) set aside potential for disputes between treaty parties by providing that no activities will enhance or diminish previously asserted positions with respect to shared artistic ownership;

5) prohibit toxic materials and the disposal of harmful waste;

6) provide for inspection by observers, designated by any party, of studios, theatres, and equipment to ensure the observance of, and compliance with, the Treaty;

7) require parties to give advance notice of their projects; 

8) provide for the parties to meet periodically to discuss measures to further objectives of the Treaty;

9) put in place a procedure and mechanism to modify the Treaty;

10) commit the parties to the following environmental principles:

a. The protection of the environment shall be a fundamental consideration in the planning and conduct of all projects.

b. To this end:

i. projects shall be planned and conducted so as to limit adverse impacts on the environment and dependent and associated ecosystems, as to avoid:

1. adverse effects on climate or weather patterns;

2. significant adverse effects on air or water quality;

3. significant changes in the atmospheric, terrestrial (including aquatic), glacial, or marine environments;

4. detrimental changes in the distribution, abundance, or productivity of populations of species of fauna and flora;

5. further jeopardy to endangered or threatened species or populations of such species; or

6. degradation of, or substantial risk to, areas of biological, scientific, historic, aesthetic, or wilderness significance;

ii. projects shall be planned and conducted on the basis of their possible impacts on the environment; such judgments shall take account of:

1. the scope of the project, including its area, duration, and intensity;

2. the cumulative impacts of the project, both by itself and in combination with other activities;

3. whether technology and procedures are available to provide for environmentally safe operations;

4. whether there exists the capacity to monitor key environmental parameters and ecosystem components to identify and provide early warning of any adverse effects of the project and to provide for modification of the project in the light of the results; 

iii. regular and effective monitoring shall take place to all assessment of the impacts of ongoing activities, including the verification of predicted impacts;

iv. regular and effective monitoring shall take place to facilitate early detection of the possible unforeseen effects.

c. Projects shall be planned and conducted so as to accord priority to artistic practice.

d. Projects undertaken pursuant to artistic practice, tourism, and all other governmental and nongovernmental activities for which advance notice is required, including associated logistic activities, shall:

i. take place in a manner consistent with the principles in this Article; and

ii. be modified, suspended, or cancelled if they result in, or threaten to result in, impacts upon environment or dependent or associated ecosystems as is inconsistent with these principles.

If you would like to become a party to the Treaty in your practice, email [email protected] and we will include you in future developments.

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Thoughts from the curator

The climate crisis has been called a “crisis of imagination.” The phrase refers to our inability to grasp the magnitude and violence of the changes we are facing, our reluctance to let the reality of it permeate our collective consciousness, and our resistance to envision positive futures. But imagination is the currency of artists. In this ongoing series, Chantal Bilodeau, playwright and artistic director of the Arts & Climate Initiative, invites theatre artists, practitioners, and scholars to reflect on the ways in which they use their imagination to create the stories that will support us through, and lift us out of, this transformative moment.

Theatre in the Age of Climate Change


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This treaty doesn't really include the components of sustainability. It focuses on environmental impact, but doesn't account or provide for social or economic impact. What you have here is an Environmental Best Practices Treaty. A true sustainability compact would include consideration and progressive steps towards social change, fair artist compensation, and a commitment to diversity and inclusivity. It would also set economic parameters that would sustain the successful operation of these measures. Without the three components, enacted through community building, you are forwarding an incomplete notion of sustainability.

As written, I would say that both in the actual Antarctic Treaty and this mirror applied to the arts that points 1- 4 about about being "inclusive and accessible", "freedom of expression", cooperation, and insuring attributed "artistic ownership". There is a lot in both documents about the environment because in the nested model of sustainability, the environment contains everything. But even in the larger political idea of sustainable development, which is inclusive of the human impact on the environment as it affects the social and economic fabric (that's the UN's approach at least), it's there. Though I understand the issue you're taking with this. It is based on a treaty governing a place with very strict environmental concerns and with little permanent human community. But, the spirit of it is the sense of cooperation, but it is not explicit in setting targets of how it achieves an inclusive, accessible, free, cooperative community that respects the environment, just that it and the parties would work towards those aims.

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I did notice the portion about inclusive and accessible, after I had posted, so I see that point. I am in the process of trying to apply sustainability to theater, as a byproduct of my graduate education. One step I am taking is becoming a LEED Green Associate to see if there are any aspects of green building methods that can be usefully transferred. I like the idea of more quantifiable and consistently applied set of best practices. I appreciate the idea of this treaty, though. It is a great starting framework.

The mission statement of Theater Three Collaborative, a 20-year-old social and ecojustice poetic theater co-founded by George Bartenieff and me, and our work to-date, is absolutely in-line with the treaty proposed. We will gladly sign on behalf of our theater and our collaborators. "Extreme Whether" our newest production will be seen in Paris as part of ArtCop21. check artcop21.com for all the listings and www.theaterthreecollaborati... for more info.