The three essential concerns of our daily lives are racial inequalities, economic recovery from an ongoing global pandemic and the crisis of climate change. These are all interconnected and have a profound impact on the arts as well. This hiatus has allowed our industry to question our systems and exposed the ways the arts have contributed to these issues and how they can impact change. Industry professionals and artist trainers ask big questions. We have the opportunity to rebuild, so why go back to the same models that don’t serve us well? Can we take advantage of this time to build a fair, sustainable and economically just artistic world?
Questioning our structures means taking a critical look at our habits and our ways of making art. My focus today is on the climate emergency and how the arts, and more specifically my field of theater, can make a difference to be part of the change. It also means examining how theater can educate and help act on this essential issue.
On April 22, 2021, on Earth Day, the Theater Communication Group (TCG), in partnership with Groundwater Arts and Broadway Green Alliance, hosted an inaugural summit on climate action and environmental justice. More than 200 theater artists gathered to hear from scientists and theater activists. Climate scientist Dr Sonali Shukla McDermid gave an excellent presentation of the current science and the motivation behind the urgent call to action. The summit is available to watch on the TCG Facebook page, and I highly recommend checking out Dr. McDermid’s excellent presentation.
Specific consideration of sustainability will be essential for the arts. We are asked to think about how we use and reuse resources and how we design, create and present our art. Our industry can be an incredible waste. The very idea that is at the heart of the experience of attending a live event, that the designers create the world of the play with sets and costumes specifically for a production which is then ‘minted’ at the end of the show. performance, is not a very durable model!
I challenged myself for our latest production of the musical “Ordinary Days”. I always rely on using a combination of costumes specially designed for a production, items taken from our inventory, items saved and items newly purchased. The challenge was, simply: could I use all recycled clothing from thrift stores to design this project? Yes, yes I could! With the exception of a pair of shoes, this production was entirely designed with recycled clothing. Our Technical Director, Stephen Krebs, is very attentive to the use and reuse of materials used to create sets.
During this academic year, all of our programs have been digital. Not having printed programs is a small step that theaters can take that collectively have a big impact. It is an example of the lessons learned during the pandemic that we can implement to rebuild a better theater world. Can we do more? Absolutely!
A few organizations are leading the way in the arts. The Green New Theater is a project sponsored by Groundwater Arts. The document is a great resource that compiles strategies and challenges for actively working on climate justice in the performing arts. To find out more, watch here.
Storytelling can be the key to how we advance climate justice. It’s an integral way for the theater to help the movement by telling the story of climate change and personal stories that can make information tangible to our communities and trigger action to bring about change. We can use our talents as theater artists to make a real difference in the world.
Climate Change Theater Action is a program sponsored by The Arctic Cycle. This year, the program called on 50 international playwrights to write 5-minute plays around the themes of climate justice. The project is available for community partners to produce one of the plays next fall. I am delighted that Hope College Theater is considering partnering on this project, so look for more developments next fall! You can read more about their work here and here.
The need is critical. We need to go beyond individual action and seek to partner with our industries and communities to make real change happen. To trigger change, we need to deal with building coalitions. I can’t wait to see other ways to perform in the arts.
In what ways can the groups you belong to make a difference?
Chairman, Hope College Theater Department
National President, Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival