Human Sustainability in Theatre

By Sadie
Published January 2022

The word sustainability is thrown around a lot. It’s become a fad word, one of those words that when you say it enough, you forget what it actually means. Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as:

1 : capable of being sustained

2a : of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged

b : of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods

When you think of theatre does it meet any of these conditions? Sustainability is a broad term that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Theatre is a visual, material artform, so it’s easy to visualize and jump to the physicality of a theatre when talking about sustainability. It’s much harder to talk about ourselves and what is sustainable. It’s very personal to talk about what is sustaining to us each as individuals and artists. Based on Merriam-Webster’s 2b definition, does theatre establish ‘a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods? As an artist, I’ve often thought that the message is in the medium. In theatre, a critical element of the medium is people. If theatre is an artform that celebrates the human condition while using the human form to tell stories about our shared experiences as humans, why is the execution of the artform often riddled with processes that lead to burn out, fatigue or even worse, abuse and danger? 

Sometimes it’s sneaky. What is the tipping point when something goes from fun and putting a lot of time into it, and not fun and putting a lot of time into it? What is that line? It’s different for every person. There is no cut and dried answer to this question, but can you answer it for yourself? What are your flags or lines to cross when something goes from fun and fulfilling to hard work and depleting? Sometimes you can only answer these questions after experience. Theatre is also a collaborative art form, so you may have these questions answered for yourself, but how do your actions contribute to a production’s culture that promotes sustainability? How do we begin to shift a cultural norm? Take time between each project to reflect on what could be improved and commit to that change in your next project, no matter how big or small the change is. 

The cliche is that you don’t go into theatre for the money. The theatre and entertainment industry has a horrible reputation of financial, emotional, and physical abuse. Why is it that the idea of the starving artist is glamorized? How did we get to this point culturally? In an artform that expresses the human condition, why is a common experience that we can all share stories about being taken advantage of and burned out? We can never call theatre sustainable if it perpetuates racism, sexism, or any other ‘ism’ that creates unequitable power dynamics that causes factions of people to work harder to participate in the art form. One of the principles of the Broadway Green Theatre Alliance, “We must build an equitable and just climate movement and address the disproportionate effect of environmental degradation on poor and BIPOC communities. There is no climate justice without racial justice.” When you put racial justice at the forefront of your values, you will be relying on a process that puts the betterment of others at the core of your decision making process.     

We can each individually work towards defining what is sustainable for ourselves, but if we’re not talking about it with our colleagues and employers, it’s hard to build systemic change. A variety of organizations have come together to define a set of standards to improve the industry. Standards give us a starting  point and are a tool for education to establish positive work environments.  

Chicago Standards 

Microsoft Word – CTS 12-11-17.docx (notinourhouse.org)

League of Independent Theatre (NYC)

Anti-Sexual Harassment Toolkit — League of Independent Theater (litny.org)

Los Angeles Anti-Racist Standards

LA ARTS | Los Angeles Anti-Racism Theatre Standards (latheatrestandards.com)

Cleveland the Clean House Standards

MergedFile (playwrightslocal.org)

Minnesota Theatre Accountability Coalition

FOUNDATIONAL STANDARDS | MNTAC

Each of these sets of standards captures a different unsustainable aspect of the industry.  MNTAC’s Minnesota Theater Foundational Standards for Safety and Accountability states it beautifully, ‘The MNTAC community acknowledges that each individual contributes to the shape of our culture, both passively and actively. This document is a demonstration of our commitment to actively shift our culture in theater making and education to one that centers the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of everyone above all else.” We all have individual choices that contribute towards a larger culture that we have the power to change. 

Coming out of the pandemic, we see a lot of people not coming back to the industry. There are a variety of reasons that someone leaves the industry, but a common theme is that it isn’t a sustainable lifestyle. In an artform that celebrates the human condition, work life balance shouldn’t be a question, it should be the given norm. We all do better when we all do better. Excellence shouldn’t be achieved at someone’s expense. Can we prioritize ourselves the way we are talking about keeping costumes, props, and sets out of the trash? 

I’m not interested in working towards sustainability just to save lumber from dumpsters. I’m interested in making this a better industry for all of us. Not just to save the environment, but for ourselves. Don’t just accept the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. Find the part of the industry you are passionate about improving and change it. 

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