‘Culture for Climate’ is a pilot study report that provides valuable insights into how Australia’s performing arts organisations, mainly theatre companies, are responding to the global ecological crisis in their programming, practices and policies.
It can be found and downloaded here.
The report focuses on 13 institutional leaders of different sizes and operations at the intersection of live performance and environmental advocacy. Though necessarily limited in its scope, we hope it inspires more arts organisations to take the lead on the climate agenda, and that it helps to identify the resources needed to facilitate a transformation in the sector’s approach to sustainability.
Without exception, the companies that engaged in our study believe investment in climate justice should be integrated into Australia’s cultural policy-making as a crucial next step in fostering genuine change.
How important is it for performing arts organisations to have environmental sustainability embedded into their programming, practices and policies (what we call ‘the 3 Ps’)? In May 2022, the research project Act Green put this question to UK theatre audiences. It found that 77% of respondents expected theatre companies to address the climate emergency by ‘making sustainable productions, running sustainable buildings, and operating sustainably’. But what about Australian ones?
We know comparatively little about how Australian cultural organisations are addressing environmental issues. As the effects of climate change sweep our nation – with floods literally lapping at the doors of theatres and halting performances – they obviously have a key role to play. Yet the recently released national cultural policy, Revive, does not make environmental sustainability an explicit goal for the sector.
‘We were supposed to tour to Lismore this year, but the theatre was under water. That kind of evidence is right in front of us now and you can’t really get a better demonstration of the impact – we have to address that.’ Gill Perkins, Bell Shakespeare Company (‘Culture for Climate’, page 23).
The UK, Europe and Canada have made significant commitments to addressing the climate crisis in their performing arts. Arts Council England’s Environmental Action Plan, launched in 2012, regulates to reduce carbon emissions. It provides money and sustainability advice through the non-profit Julie’s Bicycle. This includes the National Theatre in London, which has an ambitious goal of reaching net zero carbon by 2030, including offering a 10% fee increase for freelancers to take on environmental challenges.
In 2021, 46 major theatres across 25 European countries pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 2030 as part of the European Theatre Convention’s aim to create a ‘more conscious, mindful and just future’. Last year, Arts Council Quebec announced that eco-responsibility will be part of its next funding cycle, with cultural organisations expected to sign up to the Creative Green platform supported by the Quebec Council for Eco-responsible Events (CQEER). These are a few examples of the environmentally-conscious initiatives happening in the cultural sectors of other countries.
‘The most mind-altering “social changing” theatre has happened in parts of the world in times of crisis… I think the future of theatre is not about big performing arts centres and people travelling a hundred kilometres to go see a “big thing” every six months… It’s low-fi, it’s local and it really is about community.’ Caitlin Dullard, La Mama (‘Culture for Climate’:’, page 33).
Despite the terrifying impact climate change is having on Australian communities, little research has been undertaken into how cultural organisations are responding to the crisis, or their aspiration to do so. Compared to arts companies embracing greener strategies overseas, our report suggests that Australian ones are yet to fully grasp what climate leadership means. At a minimum, more research is needed into how ‘the 3 Ps’ can be effectively implemented.
While ‘Culture for Climate’ reveals a deal of useful activity happening, especially in the independent theatre sector, our wider survey suggested minimal public-facing commitment to environmental practices and eco-initiatives from many companies. In the past, national initiatives such as Tipping Point, Greening Our Performance, Greener Live Performances and Greening the Arts provided sustainability guides and carbon calculator tools for theatre productions.
But government-supported initiatives such as these have been few and far between in recent years, leaving arts organisations to pursue ecological goals on their own. They can fall as yet another burden on an already overstretched and underfunded industry. The nugatory result of the climate change denialism of federal Coalition governments from 2013 to 2022 has been stalled momentum and limited achievements, exacerbated by the lockdowns of the COVID pandemic.
‘Shifting from “old ways of doing things” requires active collaboration to build new traditions, networks and sharing platforms, where sustainability can become a central part of the performing-making process.’ Alys Daroy, Shakespeare South (‘Culture for Climate’, page 57).
Yet as Australia confronts an age of climate uncertainty, the cultural sector faces a clear choice: it can embrace the ecological challenge sweeping across the world, or it can bury its head in the sand. The choice is both a matter of moral principle, and one with concrete implications for the future of its creative practices. National cultural policy-making has a crucial part to play in setting environmental goals for all cultural organisations – and making sure they are adequately supported to achieve them.
Beyond mitigating the climate crisis in their practices and policies, arts and culture are also ideal platforms to engage audiences in conversations about national and global responses to the environmental changes happening around us. Theatre, especially, is an unparalleled medium for communicating stories and experiences that feed our common imagination and strengthen our common resolve, germinating more sustainable ways of thinking and being in the world.
As the playwright Theresa May (2013) says in our report, ‘Stories create a matrix of belonging, a living tissue between past and present, and between human and non-human communities’. Coming together through culture to explore ecological questions, strengthens our collective bonds and reinforces the message that environmental sustainability is a goal we should strive for in every aspect of our lives.