How can theatre become more environmentally responsible?

Three essential concerns our day-to-day lives revolve around are racial inequities, economic recovery within an ongoing global pandemic and the climate change crisis. These are all interconnected and also deeply impact the arts. This time of pause has allowed our industry to interrogate our systems and has laid bare the ways that the arts have been complicit in contributing to these issues and how they can impact change. Industry professionals and artist educators are asking big questions. We have an opportunity to rebuild, so why go back to the same models that are not serving us well? Can we use this time to build an equitable, sustainable and economically just arts world?

Interrogating our structures means looking critically at our habits and the ways we make art. I am focusing the lens today on the climate emergency and how the arts, and specifically my area of theatre, can make a difference to be part of the change. It also means examining how theatre can educate and help to bring action to this essential issue. 

On Earth Day, April 22, 2021, the Theatre Communication Group (TCG) in partnership with Groundwater Arts and Broadway Green Alliance held an inaugural summit on Climate Action and Environmental Justice. Over 200 theatre artists gathered to hear from scientists and theatre activists. Climate scientist Dr. Sonali Shukla McDermid delivered an excellent presentation of the current science and the motivation behind the urgent call for action. The summit is available to watch on TCG’s Facebook page, and I highly recommend viewing Dr. McDermid’s excellent presentation.  

Specifically addressing sustainability will be critical for the arts. We are being asked to consider how we use and reuse resources and how we design, create and present our art. Our industry can be incredibly wasteful. The very idea that is central to the experience of attending a live event, that designers create the world of the play with sets and costumes specifically for a production that is then “struck” at the end of the performances, is not a very sustainable model!   

I gave myself a challenge for our last production of the musical, “Ordinary Days.” I always rely on using some combination of costumes built specifically for a production, items pulled from our stock, thrifted items, and newly purchased items. The challenge was, simply: could I completely use recycled clothing from thrift stores to design this project? Yes, yes I could! With the exception of a pair of shoes, this production was totally designed with recycled clothing. Our technical director, Stephen Krebs, is very thoughtful about using and reusing materials that are used to create scenery.  

During this academic year, all of our programs have been digital. Not having printed programs is one small step theatres can take that collectively have a large impact. It is an example of lessons learned during the pandemic that we can take forward into rebuilding a better theatre world. Can we do more? Absolutely!   

A few organizations are leading the way for the arts. The Green New Theatre is a project sponsored by Groundwater Arts. The document is an excellent resource that compiles strategies and challenges to actively work on climate justice in the performing arts. For more, look here

Storytelling can be a key to how we move the needle on climate justice. It is an integral way that the theatre can assist the movement by telling the story of climate change and personal narratives that can make the information tangible to our communities and spark action to make change. We can use our talents as theatre artists to make a real difference in the world. 

Climate Change Theatre Action is a program sponsored by The Arctic Cycle. This year, the program enlisted 50 international playwrights to write 5-minute plays around the themes of climate justice. The project is available for community partners to produce any of the plays next fall. I am excited for Hope College Theatre to consider being a partner in this project, so look for more developments next fall! You can read more about their work here and here.

The need is critical. We must move beyond individual action and look to partner with our industries and communities to make real change happen. To ignite change, we must be in the business of coalition building. I look forward to continued ways that can happen in the arts. 

What ways can the groups you belong to make a difference?   

Michelle Bombe, 

Chair, Theatre Department Hope College

National Chair, Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival

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