Theater Commentary: Who’s Agitating for a “Green New Theatre”?

By Bill Marx

The arrival of Groundwater Arts suggests the birth of efforts to organize artists and others to press cultural organizations to take meaningful action on the climate crisis.

Given the anemic response of America’s theater companies to the climate crisis, it is easy to become disheartened. “We’re doomed. Now what?” pointedly asks essayist Roy Scranton. In Boston, not much of significance has occurred since my 2020 column in which I lamented the continuing indifference of our stages to the accelerating danger to life on our planet. A major Boston stage, the Huntington Theatre Company, deals with global warming next season with Hurricane Diane, a comedy in which “the Greek God Dionysus returns from the heavens in the guise of a butch gardener named Diane, who’s hell bent on reversing climate change and restoring earthly order by seducing a band of mortal followers. Why not begin with four real housewives from New Jersey?” The Real Housewives media franchise meets The Bacchae…amusement for the privileged as the world burns?

Meaningful resistance, particularly calls for activism, are rare amid the complacency. Doesn’t somebody, somewhere in regional/commercial theaterland realize that change on and off the stage is demanded? And that time is running out before show business (or other businesses) cease to exist? “The long-term potential of humanity depends upon our ability today to value our common future. Ultimately, this means valuing the resilience of societies and the resilience of Earth’s biosphere,” proclaims a recent statement by an academic group including 13 Nobel laureates. “The next decade is crucial, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by half and destruction of nature halted and reversed. An essential foundation for this transformation is to address destabilizing inequalities in the world. Without transformational action this decade, humanity is taking colossal risks with our common future. Societies risk large-scale, irreversible changes to Earth’s biosphere and our lives as part of it.”

It turns out that there are stage groups, mostly made up of young people, who are determined to shake up the current extinction-bound status quo. Members of one, Groundwater Arts, gleefully rabble-roused on Earth Day at the Theatre Communications Group Climate Action and Environmental Justice Summit. (The conference can be viewed here — Groundwater Arts comes on at around 1:54.) Tara Moses, Anna Lathrop, and Annalisa Dias decried doom and gloom. Instead, they insisted, with feisty optimism, that theater workers have the power to push back on nature’s degradation by backing a pragmatic, if challenging, solution: a “Green New Theatre.” Groundwater Arts’s goal is to supercharge a bottom-up strategy grounded in an elemental equation: “climate justice = racial justice = economic justice = a decolonized future.” These issues are all-too-often separated — even placed in destructive competition — in order to serve the strategic goals of those in power who are resistant to change. But the unification of these demands is as logical as it is inevitable. What’s more, Groundwater Arts is (thankfully) not just about demanding that theater companies produce ‘enlightened’ shows. like Hurricane Diane. The group wants theater workers to question how theater is produced, not just what is produced. And that is where the rubber hits the road: climate justice demands, among less painful actions, that theater companies divest from fossil fuel interests and sponsorships.

Those who want to read up on the Green New Theatre should go to the Groundwater Arts website, where they will be invited to sign a pledge to become part of a Divest to Invest campaign, which is dedicated to moving “arts workers and institutions away from fossil fuels and towards a regenerative future.” The Green New Theatre’s main action points include: 1) Community Accountability 2) Publicly Transparent Budgeting 3) Decolonized Leadership Principles 4) Sustainable Resources 5) Right Relationship to Land & History 6) Immediate Divestment from Fossil Fuel Interests and Sponsorship. These ideas, or some along these lines, will be part of any collective effort to “build theater back better” in the name of creating a more equitable, just, and safer world.

But progressive notions like these are largely absent in public discussions of the theater’s future in New England. Most of the articles in the mainstream media’s arts or editorial pages (NPR and the Boston Globe) are about the campaign to make the hard hit arts matter in the post-pandemic economy. The emphasis is inevitably on stoking businesses, cultivating political support, and revving-up audience demand rather than fighting for economic justice, divesting from fossil fuel, decolonizing arts leadership, etc. Organizations who back the arts, such as Americans for the Arts and MASSCreative, draw on the same go-for-the-gold language, epitomized by Boston Foundation’s programs that are about “increasing capital access for entrepreneurs of color in Massachusetts” and training artists to think of themselves as “entrepreneurial brands.”

This blinkered attitude has been met with little to no criticism in our servile media, which should at least acknowledge that the wealth-generating response is short-sighted when it comes to combating the climate crisis. Detoxifying the environment will not be based in transforming theater and other arts workers into entrepreneurs, a long-dangled carrot that doesn’t seem to have worked out very well for the majority of nonprofits. “Declining revenue streams was reported as the biggest pandemic-related challenge nonprofits are currently facing,” reports the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. “More than 60% of respondents report revenue loss, with an average revenue loss of 34% over the previous year. Over 50% of respondents report that they have six months or less in cash on hand. The Arts & Culture sub-sector had the highest percentage of respondents experiencing declining revenue streams (65%).” Instead of becoming wheeler-dealers, arts workers should come together as a community and push to change the way the arts are funded, with whom they do business, and how arts organizations treat their employees. And that means arts and culture organizations should be encouraged to develop credible transition plans, announce public strategies for how they will transition to net zero. And that means, among other actions, refusing to be funded by the fossil fuel industry and their enablers, including banks and universities.

At the very least, serious questions should be asked about the behavior of well-heeled stage organizations who have more than six months cash in hand. The Groundwater Arts approach encourages a healthy skepticism about how our moneyed theaters are dealing with the climate crisis.

The Huntington Theatre Company recently announced that its theater is going to be restored, renovated, and modernized. The price tag is $110 million. Thankfully, the rejuvenation is about more than the comfort of the troupe’s patrons. The project “will use key elements of sustainable design, moving towards the city of Boston’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050: there is a significant savings of embodied carbon by reusing the existing structures; improvements to the efficiency of building systems, as well as new windows and better insulation, will reduce energy use by up to 70%; 80% of the energy used in the building will come from electrified systems; new plumbing fixtures and systems will reduce water use by up to 30%; building materials will be non-toxic with low volatile organic compounds (VOC); and low-touch and non-touch hardware will be used whenever possible.”

These improvements should be applauded, but the media and arts workers need to press beyond the press release. Journalists should demand transparency about budgeting issues and decision-making. Are fossil fuel interests involved in the funding in any way? If they are, what are the connections? Was the community consulted in the renovation plans in any way — or is this another exercise in control from the top down? Will there be diversity in terms of who is working on the project? What does “moving towards the city of Boston’s goal of carbon neutrality” mean? Is there a timeline? Has the effort been designed to fall short and we are not supposed to notice?

Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater has productions in development that examine the climate crisis. There’s Ocean Filibuster, “a new music theater experience that draws from myth, stand-up, and science.” And The Circle of Becoming, a “wild new musical fairy tale about a teenage girl and her posse whose determination to save the planet endows them with powers they never knew.” The high-caliber talent involved in the latter project includes playwright V (formerly Eve Ensler); songwriter Justin Tranter; actor, performer, and songwriter Idina Menzel; and A.R.T. director Diane Paulus. Keep in mind, though, that both of those efforts, one of which might well be heading for Broadway, are being financed by Harvard University, which gives the A.R.T. millions every year. And the university is on the defensive because of its recent refusal to divest from fossil fuels. Instead, the school has put forward a plan to “set the Harvard endowment on a path to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.” (Is “set on a path” the same as “moving toward”?)

In a letter explaining the school’s net-zero portfolio to the faculty, President Lawrence Bacow asserted that it would be more useful to work with fossil fuel companies rather than demonize them: “The strategy we plan to pursue focuses on reducing the demand for fossil fuels, not just the supply.” Many within and outside of Harvard strongly disagree with this decision, unconvinced that the university can reach net-zero with its proposed timeline. Here’s the question for the A.R.T.: aren’t its productions open to charges of greenwashing? Harvard University believes in working with fossil fuel interests and then pumps money into shows that warn us about a climate crisis exacerbated by the fossil fuel industry. Why? There is a long, hallowed tradition of giant companies and megabanks using philanthropy as a way to airbrush their public reputations. With a relatively small amount of money (given their deep pockets) corporate players routinely market wholesome images of themselves through their support of the arts. There are lots of benefits to go around: if a climate crisis musical becomes a hit on Broadway (empowering tourists about the coming catastrophe), there is a profit to be made and Tony awards to be won.

Of course, many will disagree with my position, which they will condemn as inflexible. I have argued with many (including Fuse critics) who insist that theaters and other arts organizations should accept funding from the politically connected and financially powerful. It doesn’t matter if they are supported by (or supporting) industries that are aiding and abetting “large-scale, irreversible changes to Earth’s biosphere.” The defense is that the money is being used to create art, in some cases art that makes radical political points. Artists should take the money as they always have (with the inevitable strings attached) and run. But given the accelerating nature of the climate crisis, there is another perspective that should be part of the conversation. The artistic community no longer has the freedom to be so cavalier. We all need to do what we can to keep the oil in the ground, and divestment from fossil fuels is an important part of the strategy.

What can be done? Who will get the word out about a Green New Theatre? Aside from there being less of it, arts coverage in Boston’s major media remains inert, anchored in the past. Over the past decade or so the job of the critic has devolved to that of slaphappy publicist. There are incisive examples of expanding and energizing arts coverage, but they are outside of the mainstream. I have recommended the website Critically Minded, which spotlights cultural critics of color in the United States. Is it any surprise that critics outside of the privileged class are searching for ways to assert a reviewer’s ethical and political responsibilities? Arts writers are coming along who are interested in looking at how art is produced and financed, who demand answers from the people calling the shots. Real journalism — rather than boosterism — is the aim. My feeling is that the approaches and values promulgated by this younger, more diverse crowd of critics and editors will be increasingly heard and eventually drown out the hawkers.

As for theater workers, the arrival of Groundwater Arts, and no doubt other groups, suggests the arrival of efforts to organize artists and others to press cultural organizations to do the right thing about the climate crisis. It is a fight we can win. Over the past year, a number of popular protest movements have forced the powerful and the superrich to back off. Recently, local oligarch John Henry, owner of the Boston Globe, the Red Sox, and the Liverpool Football Club, apologized after angry fans rejected a plan to start up a European Super League. Henry’s combination of arrogance and greed isn’t new — what’s refreshing is how the “power of the fans” caused such a quick and abject reversal. Aren’t we all fans of the Earth? By acting together, members of the American arts community can propel significant changes from the top that will help make the Green New Theatre a reality. And that needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse on May 5, 2021 at 9:45 am

    The case for cultural institutions to end subsidizing the fossil fuel industry (including refusing to take money from those who subsidize fossil fuel) is becoming stronger and stronger. The arts community should be leading.

    A statement yesterday (as reported by Common Dreams) from John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

    “We just have to end the subsides” for fossil fuels to tackle the climate emergency. Kerry made the remarks during a virtual panel—entitled “Raising the Bar on Climate Ambition: Road to COP 26” — which was part of the Asian Development Bank’s annual meeting.

    “It’s illogical,” Kerry said of the subsidies, “at a moment we all know we have to incentive alternative, renewable, sustainable” energy.

    He added that “technology necessary for about 50% of the [emissions] reductions is not yet available. It’s going to come from future technology,” he said. “How do we do that? We need incentives.”

    “You must create incentives for the right behavior, not the wrong behavior, and we have still have [fossil fuel subsidies] in the United States. We’re going to try to end them,” Kerry said. “They’ve got to be ended everywhere around the world.”

    The pledge to no longer prop up the dirty industry — long a demand of the climate movement — follows the White House’s proposed repeal of fossil fuel subsidies.

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