Are theatres able to prioritise sustainability?

With the climate crisis finally being addressed, I wanted to discover how sustainable theatres are, and if they can do more.

Are theatres able to prioritise sustainability?

Since the turn of the century climate change and its effects has become commonplace, with awareness at an all-time high. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report detailing how global warming must be limited to 1.5°C by 2030 to prevent irreversible climate change and severe environmental damage[1]. Since this there has been a rise, and quite rightly, in measures to avert the climate crisis. The general public has also been a catalyst for change; demanding paper straws, using reusable bottles and striking to force governments to take action. In order for the IPCC limit to be met, measures are having to be taken internationally and across all industries. I have personally taken great interest in this subject - I believe I should have the same prospect for a future as those before me and as well as being environmentally minded, I am a theatre lover and work at Chichester Festival Theatre. I have always considered theatre to be very unsustainable, with elaborate (sometimes excessive) sets and costumes, energy hungry lights and print heavy marketing methods. This leads me to wonder, in the age of the climate crisis, can theatre pull its weight and increase its sustainability whilst continuing to function as the theatre we know and love.

Theatres can prioritise  

One of the easiest ways to improve sustainability is to reuse and recycle within the theatre, from, Front of House through to the backstage areas and offices. Recycling public waste can be easily done. Items such as plastic and glass drinks bottles, plastic cups and flyers are all readily recyclable. Public venue recycling companies can now recycle other, less commonly recycled items like coffee grounds and coffee cups. This massively reduces the volume of waste that venues send to landfill. ‘First Mile’ is a public venue recycling company who claim that they recycle up to 90% of the waste they collect.[2] This can massively improve a theatre’s sustainability as their waste is being reused to produce another product, preventing virgin materials from being used. These companies can also offer these services in backstage admin areas again reducing companies’ environmental impact. However, one of the hardest things to recycle within theatres are the sets and costumes which are often specific to the production and are unlikely to be used again. As storage is expensive, many theatres will opt to throw away these items when the production ends. Encouragingly, there are websites and forums set up to enable set, costume and prop reuse for example[3]. Where theatres can post items they either have or want and other members reply to these posts; another great way to reduce the volume of material going to landfill and a potential saving on production costs. 

There are organisations set up whose purpose is to assist arts organisations who want to improve their sustainability and reduce their environmental impact. One of the largest of these organisations is Julie’s Bicycle; a charity whose aim is to support the creative community when acting on climate change and environmental sustainability. They offer a diverse range of workshops, talks and online tools as well as working directly with organisations. Much of what they offer is free which makes it really accessible, even to the smallest theatre companies with no budget for sustainability. On their website they state ‘we try to keep everything that can be free, free, and everything else as reasonably valued as possible. We make enough money to grow a bit each year, but not so much that we lose our flexibility and relationships with one another.’[4] As a result, every organisation nationwide can have access to up to date facts, advice and personalised support in regards to their environmental sustainability. 

Julie’s Bicycle (JB) works in partnership with Arts Council England (ACE); supporting regularly funded organisations, the National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), to reduce their environmental impact. In 2012, the partnership led to ACE becoming the first cultural body in the world to include action on environmental sustainability in their funding agreements with the NPOs. Over a six year period, these organisations saw a number of benefits of this being included. From 2010/13 to 2017/18 energy usage dropped 23% and emissions from energy usage dropped 35%. Further to this, savings of £16.5 million have been made with 75% of organisations saying their environmental policy helps support their funding applications.[5] This evidence clearly shows that being environmentally sustainable not only has the obvious benefits to the planet but also provides financial benefits due to savings from a reduced energy consumption, to name just one. Therefore, a lack of funds shouldn’t be a barrier for theatres to achieving sustainability. 

Theatres can’t prioritise

It can be hard for theatres to prioritise sustainability. One reason for this is the fact that organisations and forums that are set up, such as, are often very dated and seem unprofessional. Often theatres value time more than sustainability as they are likely to be working to a tight schedule to remove one set and install the next, requiring instant removal of sets and costumes. Moreover, the items which are available from these sites can be limited and, if a production has a specific style or influence, they may be unlikely to find items they can use. It can also be hard to reuse and recycle sets and costumes if they have been designed and commissioned for a certain show as permission from makers could need to be obtained. This can be a lengthy and expensive process. 

One of the biggest challenges facing theatres when improving their sustainability is their need to make money and operate as a business. Theatres aren’t set up to pioneer becoming more sustainable, their focus is curating great theatre and making enough money to continue operating. It is notoriously hard for theatres to make a profit. In the article from the stage[6], the cost of West End tickets is broken down to show where the money goes. The article explains that from the average ticket price for a musical of £49.93, only £6.46 is taken as profit. This is roughly an eighth of the ticket price. This illustrates how little profit is made from each ticket, and this is for West End musicals which are arguably some of the most popular shows. Off West End shows therefore have an even harder task when it comes to making a profit. If theatres then want to invest in sustainable technologies and methods this will reduce profits even further; many theatres simply cannot afford these sustainable initiatives. For that reason, theatres cannot prioritise sustainability when they need to continue making a profit. 

Linking to the last point of argument, large amounts of ACE funding is given to the NPO organisations, which I mentioned earlier. To unlock the ACE funding, these large organisations have to make a commitment to taking action on environmental sustainability in their funding agreements[7]. This means that the NPOs have to prioritise sustainability in order to receive funding. They can also invest in expensive sustainable technologies as they have the funding to do so. While this is positive, smaller, lesser funded theatres don’t always have the money to improve their sustainability dramatically and as a result these theatres fall behind and take longer to improve their environmental performance. 

Another reason why it is hard for theatres to prioritise sustainability is because of the cross departmental nature of it and the need for partnerships. In my interview with Georgina Rae, Head of Projects and Planning at Chichester Festival Theatre, she explained how theatres aren’t specialists in sustainability and therefore partners, who specialise in this particular area, are often needed to give their expertise. She gave the example of Veolia, the company who collect the theatres waste. CFT and Veolia worked together to improve their recycling rate. The result of this partnership was that waste which wasn’t normally recyclable, such as shredded paper, can now be recycled. These partnerships take time and resource to establish and sustain. CFT were able to justify the resource needed to create this partnership as they produce so much shredded paper, however, smaller theatres, who may only produce a quarter of this amount, may not be able to justify the cost of creating such a partnership as it may not make economic sense. In order for a company to work towards improving sustainability as efficiently as possible, all the departments must be working together. Georgia also explained how this is difficult as all the departments within a theatre will work on different timescales and are naturally very busy, meaning implementing full company changes takes planning and time, a further challenge for some theatres. 

Finally, there are specific challenges that are out of their control for some theatres for example, if a theatre is a listed building, they won’t be able to upgrade to double/triple glazed windows to be more energy efficient or add solar panels to the roof. CFT is fortunate as it’s built next to a park which means that they could have a ground source heat pump which heats the theatre. CFT was also completely renovated recently which allowed the newest technologies to be installed; resulting in the theatre becoming highly sustainable. Other theatres are limited by their own specific situations and locations which obviously reduces what technology they can install. 

My research has highlighted a range of ways where theatres are trying to be more environmentally focussed as well as a number of challenges that they are faced with in their attempt to become more sustainable. Before researching this topic in depth, I strongly believed that theatres could and should be prioritising sustainability.  While I fully appreciate that theatres need to be profitable and every case is individual, I still stand by my original view; we must recognise that we are in the midst of an environmental crisis, and as such, everything that can possibly be done needs to be done. I was amazed when I read about the reduction in energy consumption in ACE’s environmental report. In only a small number of years, a great change had occurred, proving sustainability was at the forefront of theatre development. Although this is great and it should be celebrated, it is only happening in large, regularly funded theatres. In order for theatre to take a large step towards whole industry sustainability, a more grassroots approach needs to be adopted to help the smaller, less funded theatres achieve the equivalent of their larger counterparts. There simply is no one size fits all approach. A theatre’s ability to prioritise sustainability is affected by a range of factors; their size, financial stability, their workforce and the structural make up of their building. However, the biggest component of a theatre is its audience. Its these people that are the beating heart of theatre, and as a result, can cause major change. If these people refuse to use single use plastic, demand better post-production recycling and want a greener, more sustainable future of theatre, it will happen. Demand better, spark change and speak up; because you will be heard.

[1] The IPCC special report -

[2] First Mile website

[3] Set Exchange website

[4] Julie’s Bicycle values -

[5] ACE 'Sustaining Great Art and Culture - Environmental report 2017/18’ - 

[6] Article from 'The Stage' - West End ticket prices

[7] ACE 'Sustaining Great Art and Culture - Environmental report 2017/18’ 


Freddie Dempster

Freddie Dempster

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  • Sienna James

    On 26 November 2019, 09:50 Sienna James Voice Team commented:

    What a fascinating topic to chose for your arts debate. It's interesting to think about how the arts sector has the ability to lead opinions, which I think you've highlighted here. How did you find the research process for this arts essay?

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