theatre & the environment

(this title sounds like the broad nondescript name of a college course. sorry. )

I am always struck but the lack of environmental sustainability in theater communities and the film industry. There is so much waste at readings, in rehearsal rooms, during tech and on film sets with craft services. Plastic water bottles abound, paper programs are churned out and discarded willy-nilly, cheap packaged food is everywhere, scripts and sides are printed without any regard for the paper being used… and while I can’t speak to film as personally because I don’t have much experience on sets, I find the wastefulness in the theater industry to be such a contradiction, full of hypocrisy and I’ve never been able to quite get to the bottom of why we do this.

Why are we so wasteful? Aren’t we, after all, trying to change the world in some way? Aren’t most of us liberal activists, painfully aware of climate change and our worlds destruction? Thankfully, finally, more and more necessary conversations about representation and diversity across all demographics are coming into the mainstream in our industry. More and more plays are being developed that address important social and political issues of our time. Yet we all know that climate change is the greatest threat to our world right now, and it seems to take a backseat. We know that with just 2 degrees increase in temperature we run the risk of major cities in the Middle East and South Asia becoming uninhabitable during summer. There could be up to A BILLION climate refugees!  Resource wars are already a thing and ohhhhhhh are we just at the beginning of all that madness. We know we can’t separate the environmental problems of today from any social justice or human rights related issue. And yet, in the theater world we always seem to brush this aside and focus on the “more important issues”, and it just doesn’t sit right with me. I find it hypocritical to make theater that highlights oppression or calls out the fucked up systems that run our white supremacist capitalist world while also selling water bottles and serving wine in plastic cups and passing out paper programs that we know everyone is just gonna throw away later. And I see these same artists sharing articles about our worlds impending destruction, about rising global temperatures and how it is disproportionately affecting poor marginalized communities and how we have to act now. So why is it still such a separate issue? Maybe these things I am asking for are small and ultimately insignificant, but it bugs me.

At various companies I’ve worked for, I’ve tried to address this in small ways. Do we need to buy plastic water bottles for every reading and rehearsal? Can’t we just ask people to bring their own? When providing food, why are we getting disposable plates and forks and knives and napkins again and again and again? Can we spend a few more bucks on at the very least compostible ones? Is occasional double sided printing out of the question? Can we pay a little more for recycled printing paper? Almost always these questions and suggestions have been met with an eye roll that suggests “oh Mari, you are so young and idealistic, this isn’t how things work, let’s get back to the things that really matter”. It reminds me of how I felt when I first got to college. I suddenly found myself surrounded by a world of east coast prep school kids, and most of what I said was dismissed lightly and easily because I was that California hippy girl. It annoyed me then, but it upsets me now, so much more, when it comes from my people, my fellow artists and collaborators. When met with these responses I want to scream “yes, I am idealistic! Aren’t you?? Isn’t that why were artists?? Because we envision a better world and we think art can contribute to that?” Why is it kosher and hip and vogue to make art that challenges the systems in place but annoying and trivial to suggest that we stop using plastic water bottles? That we spend a few bucks more on organic veggies for that table spread because we don’t want to contribute to an industry that sprays our foods with toxins, harming the often poor, immigrant farmers that tend to them? Why are we selective in how our beliefs manifest? I would love to hold everyone to higher standards when it comes to individual choices and actions, but in general I expect theater artists to be a bit more invested in these things than I often find them to be.

More Questions: Is it unfair that I hold smaller poorer theater companies and artists to higher standards than large ones, because I expect more of the moral characters of the individuals who make up these communities? Because unlike the large film industry or, I don’t know, Broadway, we are definitely not in it for the money. (The film industry and larger theater communities like Broadway have literally no excuse, as far as I’m concerned, to make their sets and environments more green.) But for the rest of us… I know we’re poor. I know every theater company is struggling and we want to prioritize comfort where we can, but I’m not talking about changes that are that radical am I? And in some cases, like creating digital programs instead of printing them, I am talking about changes that could actually save money.

I actually think a lot of it comes back to the idea that the small acts don’t really matter, that we can’t actually make that much of a difference on our own, that ultimately, it all comes down to the laws and the government to put caps on carbon and to stop destroying our parks and forests and our oceans etc etc. This is true, in a lot of ways. On the Still Processing podcast (the only podcast I listen to every episode of)  a couple months ago Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham talked about this very concept with David Wallace-Wells, climate columnist and author of “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming”. (I could basically write a novel about the whole episode because they all ask my questions and get all the devastating answers I’m afraid of getting and also leave me with glimpses of hope.) Neither Morris nor Wortham claim perfection when it comes to their footprint (and nor do I!), but they want to live ethically with the environment and it’s frustrating when things outside of their control make it so much harder. Their questions, and mine, boil down to the following: Can individuals actually make that much of a difference? Is it worth it to focus on the smaller acts, or are we deluding ourselves into thinking we are doing more than we actually are? The conclusion they came to, after speaking to Wallace-Wells, was complex. On the one hand, no, we can’t do that much just by recycling those bottles or trying to cancel annoying paper mail. We know political action is the only way for real change, and while yes, we could all be better in our daily lives, focusing all our energy on the small things runs the risk of making us feel more active than we are. We need to vote, we need to protest. We obsess about plastic and paper because those things are tangible (images of plastic in the ocean stick in our mind), but the real threat, the rising carbon levels, is invisible. But on the other hand, what do we do in a governmental system that seems to be ignoring so many of these issues? At least these small acts create a mindset shift. They focus our energy and attention, albeit in a small way, on caring for our planet and not being fatalist or apathetic about what’s happening. At the very least, the small acts do more than sharing an article link on Facebook or twitter, right?

I don’t think the solution is to say “fuck it let’s use plastic whatever who cares it doesn’t make that much of a difference but we’ll vote and protest in the meantime.” PLUS for the most part, the people who are protesting and being active are ALSO the ones making changes in their personal lives. The people who say, “my individual choices don’t make a difference so I’m going to keep using this plastic water bottle because it is convenient” are NOT the ones protesting or writing letters to elected officials etc etc.

So let’s do both, okay? Let’s make theatre that challenges the world, let’s vote for the right people, let’s protest and write letters, and let’s also do what we can as individuals. Come on. Right? Wallace-Wells says that any steps matter! “Any story you have is a good one, any impulse you have is a good one”. I’m not saying invest all our energy in the little things and call it a day, but let’s limit our contradictions, even if all it does is keep these issues on the forefront of our brains, encourage us to continue to do more in all ways and just be a little more conscious about everything we do. Deciding not to buy plastic water bottles makes us slow down and think for a second. Yes, we have to problem solve. Yes we have to put some of that precious energy that we need to make and produce art on thinking about our purchases and our footprints, but I think that’s okay. I think that’s a good thing. I think that is our responsibility as people making art for a better future. Call me idealistic.