Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Staging Sustainability: Thriving through Innovative Thinking

By Brandon Moore, Communications Coordinator

Staging Sustainability came to Toronto on February 3 and 4, 2014.  Organized by York University’s Centre for Sustainable Staging and ArtsBuild Ontario, the conference was built on “a dream of bringing innovation from around the world to Toronto’s theatre community” through a conversation about sustainability in the performing arts.  In the opening plenary, Arlene Goldbard defined sustainability with an emphasis on “thriving”—and indeed many of the stories we heard over the two days of the conference were encouraging.

I attended a morning panel focused on how organizations can integrate and balance sustainability as a core value.  It was an ideal starting point, because it was really applicable to any organization value—including sustainability.  From my point-of-view , it was best articulated by Tim Cynova of Fractured Atlas, who described healthy organization structures with the “accidental” acronym VERDI: Vision (clear and articulate), Empowered (what can we do that makes a difference?), Recognized (specifically and frequently), Don’t Be An A--h--- (self-explanatory), and Investing In Others (again, specifically and frequently).  Whatever core value an organization may aspire towards—including sustainability—it is impossible without a healthy organization structure.

After lunch, I attended a panel focusing on how arts facilities are being built to respond to sustainability.  Case studies on consumption, such as Katie Oman’s study at Seattle Repertory Theatre, challenged conventional thinking—for example, the assumption that lighting design has an enormous impact on energy costs.  While certain effects, such as saturated cyc lighting in a pre-show cue, was shown to cause spikes in consumption, the overall impact was far less significant when compared to facility operations.  Similarly, a study of Theater Winterthur in Switzerland by Annett Baumast (who joined us via video-conferencing) analyzed the impact of presentations at that venue, including transport of materials and infrastructure.  (Unfortunately, the scope of the study didn’t include the impact of audience travel.)

This was a good set-up for the next panel: How are presenters thinking about sustainability in their programming?  Local leaders like Franco Boni of The Theatre Centre and Tina Rasmussen of World Stage at Harbourfront Centre were forthright about their place on the learning curve for these issues, but they spoke eloquently of the power of artists to affect change and the lessons in their work that can help us comprehend these issues.  Marie Zimmerman of the Hillside Festival in Guelph demonstrated how founders committed to sustainability instilled that value from day one.  Harry Giles of Festivals Edinburgh introduced us to his work as the organization’s Environment Officer and the challenging questions he gets to ask about the carbon costs of Festival programming decisions.

My colleague Bruce Pitkin attended the second day of the conference.  One of the programs that caught his eye was the Broadway Green Alliance, which works to motivate and inspire the theatre community about environmental practice.  One of their techniques is to recruit volunteer “Green Captains” so that every production has someone specifically focused on environmental impact.  As is always the case, concurrent events meant that I couldn’t hear panels of about artists on the front lines, or innovation in sustainable practices, or many other significant conversations.

As we aspire towards a thriving theatre community, the benefits of sustainability-thinking—whether the goals are artistic or economic—were clear throughout the conference.  There is an eagerness to keep these conversations going, and we look forward to hearing more.

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