Theatres sustaining communities sustaining theatres

This week I took part in the Theatres Trust's annual conference, Delivering Sustainable Theatres. I chaired a panel discussion looking at lessons learnt from previous waves of capital development, the changes to the National Planning Policy Framework including the introduction of duties to consider local cultural needs and well-being, and the architectural and technical advancements of recent years. The whole day was useful and interesting, and even rather affirming at times, but not exactly in the way I expected.

Although there was reference beforehand to the 'triple bottom line' of sustainability for theatres - environmental, social, financial - I had expected a greater emphasis on how canny design might reduce impact on the environment, whilst saving money. Whilst this was there - and there look to be some great case studies emerging from the Theatre Trust's EcoVenues work, amongst other projects - I was struck by how many of the speakers and discussions focused on the centrality of the social function of theatres to their future sustainability.

This social sustainability, as described by several speakers, had at least three consistent aspects:
  • a theatre's roles in its town or cities as a (often) beautiful building open in the evening, which can have what one person slightly apologetically called a 'civilising' influence on the nighttime economy in some places and become symbols of civic pride
  • theatres' roles as shared civic spaces for communities to meet in, and not just for entertainment or theatrical purposes
  • theatres' roles as the home of stories for a community and its theatre artists, and most importantly for stories that matter to that community
I would suggest that you need at least two out of those three, if not all three, to do anyone one of them properly, and sustainably. This idea that if a theatre didn't matter to a place or its people, its sustainability is diminished seemed a powerful one, and connected to the idea that Dame Liz Forgan put forward that theatres - indeed, all arts organisations - needed to respond to the environmental/climate change agenda because it was right to be 'better citizens'. (There was agreement with this, despite some acknowledging the difficulty at times of being a better citizen when that means spending more money when you don't have it, or adjusting your behaviour in a very uncomfortable way, like not programming in a particular way which increases your heating bill.) 

This discussion meant I didn't ask my version of Diane Ragsdale's questions about what are we sustaining some artforms for, as there were powerful answers coming from places as different as Greenock, Matlock and Barking, just to mention places with a k in. Connecting the art form to the locality through deep partnerships of bodies, venues and audiences came out as a clearly lived way of building what I would call adaptive resilience. I was reminded of a mission statement I once had an oar in shaping about putting the arts at the heart of national life: despite the challenges there seemed to be that sense again: we need to deliver sustainable theatres not for the environment, not for economic gain, not just for bums on seats or arts development, but for the whole shooting match and the resultant contribution to civic life. As I summarised at the end of the panel discussion, it seemed as if the mindset and the technology might now be coming together to really create some resilient ways to deliver sustainable theatres.

There were lots of practical ideas for reducing the environmental impact of theatres, and through that their cost, or is it the other way round? No matter. Many of these can be found in a very useful looking guide produced by the Theatres Trust and Julie's Bicycle and launched at the conference. (We all got nifty bamboo USB sticks with it on.) Energising Culture is aimed at all arts organisations, not just theatres, and should be on every CEO's reading list - and probably the board's too.