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Jo Caird: Theatre goes green

Thrillingly, Arts Council England has become the first funding body in the world to embed environmental sustainability into its funding programmes. Last week, Alan Davey, ACE's chief executive, announced that from April all national portfolio organisations (NPOs) must begin measuring and improving their energy and water use as a minimum requirement.

The Arts Council has partnered with Julie's Bicycle, the brilliant not-for-profit company that works across the arts to help venues, companies, festivals and artists (among others) to integrate environmental sustainability into their businesses. ACE and JB will offer advice and practical support to help NPOs meet the new funding requirements – including running a series of national workshops and providing a free online carbon calculator – with measures being implemented from April 2013.

Greening the theatre industry has been on the agenda in this country for a few years now, but ACE's announcement is a significant step forwards. Since 2005, when the Dominion, West End home to We Will Rock You, became the first UK venue to embrace environmental sustainability in a joined-up way, more and more venues and companies have become wise to the benefits to going green. Many, however, are either still in denial or simply unsure about how best to proceed. It is these organisations that have the most to gain from Davey's announcement, which was made, appropriately enough, at a conference called Tipping Point.

I won't repeat the economic advantages of an eco-friendly business model for theatre here. It's an acknowledged fact that major savings can be made through even small changes. Instead I want to consider the potential positive impact that theatre pursuing environmental sustainability can have on society in general.

Firstly, we mustn't underestimate the symbolic importance of ACE's new policy, let alone the bravely unambiguous language with which it was announced. In his speech last week Davey referred to “the magnitude of the task required to deal with the challenges of climate change”. He acknowledged the “economic imperative” of greening the arts, but he also spoke at length about the policy being motivated by “ethical concern”. At a time when climate change has misguidedly been allowed to fall way down the government's list of priorities, Davey's words are a hugely encouraging statement of intent.

Words alone are not enough of course; it's what ACE and the NPOs do that counts, and that is yet to be seen. But this new policy and the measures it will implement undoubtedly represent an excellent opportunity for theatres and theatre companies to set a good example to the public of environmental best practice.

Many of the changes that ACE and Julie's Bicycle will help organisations to implement will be visible ones. This might include simple measures like placing recycling bins in foyers or displaying a Display Energy Certificate (DEC) somewhere prominent to ensure that punters are made aware of the how a building rates in terms of energy consumption (DECs are only a legal requirement for public buildings over a certain size, so most small venues won't currently have them).

Other more complex measures, such as updating a building's central heating system or designing shows with low-energy technologies in mind, won't be so obvious, but organisations are encouraged to keep audiences informed about progress towards environmental sustainability via notices in foyers and e-newsletters. Appealing directly to the public to consider the environmental implications of their own theatre-going behaviour (in a non-judgemental way, clearly) is another option: do they really need to drive or take a taxi to theatre?

By being loud and proud about their efforts towards environmental sustainability – and crucially, about the successful outcomes of those efforts – theatres and companies can help to normalise green practice and hopefully persuade punters that it's worthwhile making similar efforts in their own homes and businesses.

We've got to be realistic of course. According to the Department of Culture Media and Sport, only 42% of the English adult population attends or takes part in theatre, and of that 42%, a reasonable proportion will be attending commercial theatre, which can do as it pleases when it comes to energy policy (for the nerds among you, there's lots of interesting data on arts attendance on the Arts Council's website). So there's only so much theatre can hope to do in terms of affecting attitudes and action on climate change. But you've got to start somewhere and I'm quietly optimistic: the jury's still out on whether theatre can change the world, but I'm always very happy to see it try.

And with that, it's time for me to say goodbye. I've been writing this blog for exactly a year and have loved sharing my thoughts on some of the issues in contemporary British theatre that have got me excited, angry, puzzled and amused. I'm off to Australia for a few weeks, but will be back writing interviews, reviews and one-off blog posts for Whatsonstage.com in no time. You certainly haven't heard the last of me. Thanks for reading.


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