Creating a climate of change | Katie Mitchell

The title of this collection is Why Theatre, and for me the answer lies in a different but related question – how to make theatre in a changing world. There have been many brilliant and creative theatrical responses from the broader theatre community during the coronavirus pandemic including the streaming of old productions and new pieces of work using digital means. But clearly this is only a short-term response and my fear, underlined by conversations with theatre and opera organisations across the UK and mainland Europe, is that most folks are simply waiting for things to return to normal. The view seems to be that if they wait long enough, what they used to do will start up as quickly and as suddenly as it stopped back in March 2020.

This perspective envisions theatre returning in exactly the same format as before with a few caveats. So, some productions have been cancelled, others rescheduled, downsized, re-directed in a socially distanced format, re-shaped into a digital format or turned into a blend of digital and live.

Under this revised business as usual approach, some organisations where there is more state support are making small changes, like the Schaubühne in Berlin which is now going to spend more money on how they film their productions in case they need to roll out the recordings in the wake of another pandemic. And in other organisations, in countries where the bailout for the arts is worse, they are making tougher economic decisions, such as the 25% staff redundancies at both the Royal Opera House and National Theatre in London.

Under both of these scenarios, the danger is, for me, that everyone is Just Waiting for the (gradual) return to business as normal, and not preparing for a different future.

The reality is that ‘normal theatre’ has been slipping from our grasp over the past decade or so without us noticing it or wanting to face it. And that is not because of the pandemic (which is in itself just a sign of a larger problem) but because the climate is changing irrevocably and at a pace startling to even the most reluctant scientist. The effects of climate change will cut deep into our societies not only changing the temperatures we live in but causing more pandemics, more mass migration, the collapse of our ecosystems, reduced water and food supplies and putting enormous pressures on our limping capitalist system.

Climate change will, and already is in this pandemic, affecting our cultural life and our theatre practise. Whether we like it or not many of our models of making theatre and touring theatre need to change, particularly when it comes to the physical movement of productions and artists internationally. Theatre was always going to be faced with the need to make deep changes to its practise because of the environmental catastrophe; the pandemic has just sped up the necessary and unavoidable process and done so in a brutal way for many of us working in the sector.

Theatre now needs to be lighter on its feet, examine its large administrative structures, reduce its operational carbon, be more flexible in how it moves between the digital and the live and push forwards with new forms hitherto unimagined that can cope with temporary building closures or social distancing requests due to future pandemics or environmental catastrophes.

We need to find new stories to tell and new forms to tell them with. We have to let go of the habit of thinking about theatre as if it were a sacred live experience where people sit together in one space with the performers. That has been – without us even knowing it – an unquestioned premise of theatre making for people from another age and now is not a time for rolling out arguments about the sanctity of that live experience; now is the time for re-imagining the art form from scratch, for being more elastic in our thinking and for reaching out into unchartered territory. We need to widen our definition of theatre.

There simply aren’t any rules anymore and, in some instances, there aren’t even many theatres as some have been forced to close due to the financial impact of the pandemic.

As citizens we all need to reduce our flying and car use, move away from a meat diet, insulate our homes to reduce energy waste and regularly lobby our governments to put in place provisions for the climate emergency.

As theatre practitioners, we need to mirror these activities in the workplace. This includes an overhaul of how we make productions, in terms of the materials we use and the construction processes. We need to challenge every aspect of our energy use, radically reduce our flying and embrace the likes of Zoom and Skype to rehearse virtually reducing the movement of people across the globe, whilst continuing to celebrate international collaboration.

We need to start making these first steps now and with this in mind I am currently working with Jérôme Bel and the Vidy Theatre in Lausanne on an experimental project to create a production (and a radical producing model) to make a show without any travel. We will rehearse using zoom – me from London and Jerome from Paris – with the show opening in Lausanne and then touring but without any movement of people or materials. The original production will be notated as a score that moves to the next city where everything is made from scratch out of recycled materials, with local performers and a local director or choreographer interpreting our original score. These are small steps in the process of renewal, but experimentation is fundamental if theatre is to evolve and thrive and the environmental agenda needs to be part of the everyday fabric of a theatre’s thinking, in the same way that education already is.

Now is time to move the discourse on from “Why theatre?”, a question more relevant to an age of past theatrical certainty, to “How do we make theatre?” That is the key issue and one I urge the theatre world to embrace.

Theatre has an important role to play in our cultural lives, and I hope the profession can rise to the challenge, embrace the need for change and enable theatre to thrive in this new world.

Katie Mitchell is a British theatre and opera director. she has been an Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court Theatre and National Theatre. She is currently a resident director at the Schaubühne Theatre and Schauspielhaus Hamburg. She advocates for women in theatre, in term stories told and how women are presented on stage. Since 2007 she has pioneered work about climate change in theatre. In 2009 she was appointed officer of the order of the British Empire for her services to theatre.