Many of us know that simply talking about how much danger the planet is in is not enough, but who or what should be doing more when it comes to tackling climate change? Emily Brown discusses.

Last month, the curtain fell on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s partnership with BP; one that span almost a decade. The oil firm, which has been the focus of vehement campaigning in recent years has enabled 80,000 young people access to the RSC, through their £5 scheme for 16-25-year olds.

Is this act setting the stage for other institutions with similar associations to follow suit?

The RSC are not the only organisation tied up in financial association with corporations which are playing a large part in the climate crisis. Establishments sponsored by BP include the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and the British Museum, with all the subject of harsh criticism by protesters. The RSC’s association with BP began in 2012, only two years after the desperately destructive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Entering into this sponsorship deal raised fierce concerns amongst artists with BP being the third-largest contributor to climate change out of any private company, ever. An open letter was published at the time in The Guardian expressing deep concern that the RSC was “allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities.” The first name signing this letter was associate artist, Sir Mark Rylance.

In June this year, another open letter was published, this time authored by Rylance and announcing his resignation from the company after 30 years. The letter, headlined ‘BP or Not BP? That is the Question’, explains his resignation ‘not because it is any less of a theatre company but because of the company it keeps’. We’re in a state of dire emergency… Isn’t it time everyone takes responsibility? Isn’t it time to act?

More and more, high profile industry individuals are using their platform to raise awareness for climate change. At the Royal Albert Hall in October, Olivia Colman and Stephen Fry were seen wearing Extinction Rebellion (XR) badges in support of the movement’s two-week disruption of London. Other celebrity supporters included Benedict Cumberbatch, Sienna Miller, Jude Law and Steve Coogan. However, as has been highlighted by several different voices, these famous protesters are being condemned as hypocritical. Emma Thompson reportedly flew 5,400 miles before taking part in a protest. Colman is the face of British Airways and Benedict Cumberbatch, previously a face of Jaguar, is a brand ambassador for MG in India, a luxury car company with wildly thirsty engines, in a country where air pollution has been linked to horrifically high annual death rates.

These names anticipated the backlash and proceeded to publish (yes, you guessed it) an open letter to their critics, high-fiving themselves for taking the time to acknowledge their high-carbon lives. However, the reality of the situation is more damning. The gravity of the climate situation is being undercut by these ‘celebrity activists’ who are raising their voices in support. At a time when the XR and climate change awareness is reaching new heights of prominence, the whole message of their call for action is being undermined by such figures who are not doing what they claim to be.

The XR movement had its first anniversary on October 31 this year. They have played their part within the arts industry by occupying several cultural spaces in an attack on BP’s sponsorship. The Royal Opera House’s open air screening in Trafalgar Square saw XR use performance itself as a form of protest. Campaigners staged their own version of the Shakespearean tragedy Petroleo and Fueliet. However, it is not just those mentioned that are at fault. Theatres are key in treading the world’s boards with a large carbon footprint. Soaring fuel bills, set-piece scrapping, delivery lorry mileage, marketing materials mayhem – the industry garbles resources like a piece of dialogue it just cannot spit out. But this doesn’t all happens behind the scenes. Yes, a lighting rig uses enormous power but it’s the front of house, box office, bar and offices who create such an issue. And do not get me started on mega global tours and cruise ships.

It can’t all be doom and gloom can it? Over the last decade, major plays in major theatres have been tackling this very major issue. Some significant examples include Mike Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London (National Theatre, 2010), Richard Bean’s The Heretic (Royal Court, 2011) and Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs (revived at The Old Vic, 2019). Although putting on plays in theatre about the issue may seem like a minor accomplishment, things have been improving dramatically since (you won’t believe it) Boris Johnson introduced his Green Theatre Plan in 2008. Many venues are now assisting Oxford University’s Environmental Change programme by sharing their energy performance. In East London, the Arcola Theatre works endlessly as a pioneer for sustainable theatre.

Change needs to happen across the board. Each aspect of the industry needs to take responsibility for the part it plays. Gregory Doran’s announcement that the RSC’s partnership with BP is coming to an end is a step forward in the right direction. Now is a chance to re-cast. Why not put more sustainable organisations centre-stage as arts sponsors? It is time for the pillars of the cultural community to be held accountable for the company they keep. Some of these pillars take the form of the Cumberbatch’s and Colman’s of the world and action, not words must lead the way. Perhaps just don’t fly in a private jet to a climate conference? Just an idea. As for the theatre world itself, re-cycling has always been at its core with sets being re-dressed, costumes altered and lights re-programmed. It is time to act, to return to our sustainable past, make changes, and for everyone to take responsibility for the future of both the planet and the industry.