Change is coming – now to help shape it

Ice on the ground

– Written by William Reynolds, Artistic Director, Metta Theatre

Six months ago we joined the first cohort of Julie’s Bicycle’s Accelerator Programme. We started with the luxury of a short residential course, where I met the rest of the group as I climbed off the train and made a bee line towards a likely looking gaggle of strangers soaking up the last few rays of winter sunshine outside Stroud station. We spent the next few days at the stunning Hawkwood College, wandering the idyllic, frost-jewelled fields of the cotswolds, feasting on the heartiest vegan food I’ve ever tasted and quaffing organic red wine from the honesty-box bar by night. But that was just the surface.

As a group we came from all over, with representatives from major theatres, City Councils, artist-collective-organisations, museums, huge music festivals plus touring companies like my company Metta Theatre. Our organisations have all put environmental sustainability at their heart, and we all share one huge ambition – beyond getting our own houses in order, we all recognise the vital role that the creative sector can, in fact must, play in enabling and shaping the systemic change necessary to keep global temperature rise to 1.5ºC. The recent IPCC report recently laid out in no uncertain terms that “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” were necessary, and in a 12 year hurry. It was time for the cultural-sector to start helping cause a culture-shift, and the Accelerator program is the next step in Arts Council England’s efforts to support the sector do just that.

Systems thinking and culture change

Arts Council England has teamed up with Julie’s Bicycle to support and develop two cohorts of sector-leading organisations over two years – we were the first cohort, the guinea-pigs, and we started by spending these few sunny days in Stroud discussing issues of climate science, systems thinking, macro-economics and culture change as we went on a whistle-stop journey through a condensed Creative Climate Leadership course. It’s not surprising some wanted to raid the wine cooler of an evening, our heads already spinning before we even found the corkscrew!

The next phase of the Accelerator programme was to take what we’d learnt back to our respective organisations, and to start putting our ideas into practice. We’d all gone to Stroud with ideas of how we might help develop and accelerate this culture shift – and I for one know that my ideas were churned around all over the place in the hot-house of those three days, only to emerge all the stronger for it. Metta has now teamed up with some others from the cohort as well as some from outside to form a Sustainable Touring Group – a small research and peer support group which will foster, encourage and support both touring theatre companies and receiving houses in greening the mid-large scale UK theatre touring sector.

Sustainability Action Plan For Touring

We’re developing a model Sustainability Action Plan For Touring – like those action plans all Arts Council NPO’s have had to create and are genuinely starting to see the benefits of, but specifically for touring. We’re taking a pick-n-mix approach – no two tours are quite the same so no-one could make a simple one size fits all blueprint; rather we’re pulling out all the great thinking that’s already been done and looking at how it applies to life on the road. We’re producing a multi-part plan, with different parts useful to different people. We’re digging into the research, writing up case studies, compiling fact sheets, talking to suppliers – highlighting the quick easy wins others have found that everyone can do immediately, and starting to demonstrate demand to our suppliers to encourage investment in the technologies we’ll need tomorrow.

There was an energy in the air as we left the crisp, clean air of the Cotswolds at the end of the week, giddy with anticipation and ready to change the world. A short train journey home, and I was jumped on by the kids, who joyfully reminded me that life must go on alongside these lofty ambitions. Metta is truly a family business – my wife Poppy and I run everything from our kitchen table, darting in and out for the school run or to meet the Artistic Director of the National Theatre almost interchangeably it sometimes seems. On a good day we remember to eat lunch. I arrived home just as things were getting busy with pre-production for our latest show – In The Willows – and the tsunami of admin pushed my sustainability work onto the back burner.

Maintaining momentum

We managed to squeeze in a first meeting for the Sustainable Touring Group at the Lyric Hammersmith, but then I blinked, and all of a sudden it was the end of Feb. We’d opened an incredible show, audiences were loving it, and while I’d managed to keep sustainability as a prominent criteria in most of the decisions I’d had to make (as producer and set & lighting designer) I hadn’t always managed to keep it the top priority for everyone else, and our sustainable touring group had slipped sadly down my to do list. Then March, and keeping a big show on the road turns out to be a lot of work. Who knew (ok, I should have done, we’ve done this before…) I managed to snatch a few moments for quick pockets of sustainability research here and there, but now April has come and gone as well.

The logistics and economics of running a company with a tiny infrastructure are stacked against changing anything that already seems to work. There simply isn’t time or energy. You seem to spend your days firefighting, and it’s hard to prioritise thinking about change over simply making sure the show actually happens tonight. But looking back, we achieved some great things with Willows – we have the biggest show we’ve made using a fraction of the power that would have been required only a few years ago. It will be seen by more people in more places than any of our previous shows, whilst the environmental footprint from creating it is roughly the same. We have one rather full truck on tour, yet the show is frequently compared to those touring with several pantechnicons.

Embedding accessibility

We’ve brought a beautifully diverse story of empowerment and hope to audiences across the country, touching people deeply and spreading joy. That’s the power of theatre, and exactly why theatre must keep engaging with environmental sustainability. Metta’s work has always dealt with issues of social justice, and at the end of the day environmental sustainability is important because it’s an issue of social justice. We’ve successfully embedded diversity and accessibility into the way we run our company by writing those issues into the stories we tell. Now we need to make sure that we also consider sustainability in every decision we make, and making it an integral part of the work itself is the best way to achieve that. We’ve done it before – most notably with our productions Well and Mouthful – but it doesn’t always need to be so explicit. Willows has a deaf character, it’s not a show about deaf people – we don’t need thousands of shows about climate disaster, we simply need to remember that every human story is in some way a story of our interaction with the world around us, the world we depend on for life. And as we remember that, it will become easier to think about the environmental implications of every decision we make.

Responding to a climate emergency

Since our group first met in Stroud six months ago, there’s been an incredible shift in the way society around us perceives the threat of climate change – first the school strikes, then 16 year old Greta Thunberg was invited into Westminster, and the Extinction Rebellion protests which garnered support across the whole country in a way unimaginable only a few months ago. Emma Thompson demonstrated the power of the arts, reading from a pink boat moored in Oxford Circus, part of Letters To The Earth. Metta has joined many other arts organisations, businesses, councils and local authorities in declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency. And earlier this month, Labour steered the UK to becoming the first country in the world to declare an ‘environment and climate emergency’. Change is coming, and the arts and culture can and must help to shape and encourage it.

I can only hope that as the groundswell of public opinion builds it will continue to get easier to keep up with our sustainable touring group and the other amazing projects the rest of our Accelerator cohort is pressing ahead with. Fingers crossed we’ll soon make it over a tipping point as the creative sector really starts to amplify the cultural shifts that are clearly getting started across the country and the world!

– Photo by Will Reynolds of a frosty morning walk at Hawkwood College in Stroud