For this article, ETC interviewed three people: Caroline Barneaud, Director of Artistic Projects at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne; Tristan Pannatier, Production Manager at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne; and Darious Ghavami, working at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Sustainability of the University of Lausanne. Their answers are presented as one.
The three interviewees are currently working on the production of No Travel (provisional title), a theatre experiment for sustainability with artists Katie Mitchell and Jérôme Bel. It is being produced by Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne.
‘No Travel’ (provisional title) is a fascinating take on international collaboration. For those who have not heard of it, can you give us a little overview of the project?
This performance project was borne out of the meeting of the ecological concerns shared by Katie Mitchell, Jérôme Bel and our own at the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. In the last few years, Katie and then Jérôme have both decided not to fly anymore and started setting up new working methods. At Vidy, we are also willing to question our practices and models, towards more balance and sustainability. So we decided to join up and do an “activist” project together which would deal with environmental issues.
Our wish was to address these issues not only in the content of the shows we would produce together, but also in the way these shows would be produced, performed and toured. To involve our team and international partners – theatres – In a “full-scale exercise”, an experimental process in sustainability* in the field we have means to act on, namely theatre.
The Interdisciplinarity Centre for Sustainability of University of Lausanne (CID) also joined us in this adventure. Here’s the definition of sustainability they shared with us: “When we talk about « sustainability », we express the functioning of human societies in their relationship to the natural environment, that ensures their long-term stability and makes human flourishing possible across generations. This implies keeping the impact of human (social and economical) activities within the ecological boundaries of the planet, while ensuring basic needs for all and promoting equity in all its dimensions.”
Continues after video
This video shows extracts from the project team's second artistic meeting on Zoom, back in May 2020. While things may have progressed since then, the video aims to gives the spirit of the experiment, its starting point and 'philosophy'. "It also shows how the artistic process is developing - through video meetings!"
Appearing in the video (clockwise from left) - Katie Mitchell - Caroline and Tristan - Christian Wilmart and Vincent Baudriller, Technical Director and Director at Vidy respectively - Jérôme Bel - Rebecca Lasselin, Executive Director of Jérôme Bel’s company.
The first playing rule we set ourselves as part of this experiment was that nobody and nothing would travel in the frame of this production, hence the provisional title No Travel (even though it’s not our only concern). For the rehearsal process, the consequence was pretty straightforward: Jérôme and Katie would have to rehearse remotely using a team of technicians, producers and performers in Lausanne. A first show, written and directed by Katie Mitchell with the collaboration of Jérôme Bel, will premiere in Lausanne in September 2021; a second show will be written and directed by Jérôme Bel with the collaboration of Katie Mitchell and will premiere in June 2022. International theatre partners will contribute financially to the production of these shows.
After their creation, the shows will go on tour to be presented by the partners. To do that without having anybody travelling, we’ll put together multimedia scripts describing in detail not only the performances themselves (that is the texts and staging indications), but also all the steps that need to be taken to (re)stage them (from the casting to the technical constructions, through the relations with the audience and the financial aspects) and also the related questioning from a sustainability perspective. Only these scripts will travel: on their basis, each international partner will produce, adapt, stage, and present their own version of the shows, working with a local director, a local producer and a local cast.
"The first playing rule we set ourselves as part of this experiment was that nobody and nothing would travel in the frame of this production."
The collaboration with our international partners should not be limited to coproducing and sharing scripts, though. We also want to share with them the lively reflection that is behind the script – and goes beyond it. That’s why, as a first step of the collaboration, we invite each partner institution to conduct – together with its staff, audience and artists – a sustainability self-questioning of their practices on the basis of a questionnaire we have specifically developed and which they can further adapt. All together, we will then share our questionings and discuss our conclusions. We’ll identify concrete sustainable actions or tools we would like to test in the (re)creation the show. These commonly identified actions will include the team and the audience of the theatres; they will join the “no travel” principle as playing rules of the experiment.
And hopefully we will be able to draw out of this experiment shared long-term goals for more sustainability in our institutions, in the theatre field!
After the experiment and the touring at the partner venues is over, the scripts and other resources developed in the project should become open-source so as to be at the disposal of anybody wishing to use them.
How has the process of working on ‘No Travel’ influenced your approach to sustainability at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne?
When we started the project with Katie and Jérôme, we first focused on the energy and carbon question and how to reduce it. The meeting with the scientific committee put up for our project by the CID changed our perspective: the carbon approach was much too narrow. They advised us to adopt a more global perspective that includes social and economic issues as well. This has helped us to better articulate our different concerns as a cultural institution.
"How much energy do we allow ourselves to use in the performance? How do we ensure pay equity within the team of the show? How do we promote diversity in the project?"
The project is also leading us to think about sustainability in a much more concrete way. We are not facing the issues in abstract terms as part of a general discourse, but approaching them in a very practical way, as they relate to production questions and also as they are asked by artists: How much energy do we allow ourselves to use in the performance ? How do we ensure pay equity within the team of the show ? How do we promote diversity in the project ? Adopting this concrete and experimental approach has allowed us to identify questions we hadn’t been aware of and see how seemingly separate problems were actually connected. We also realize that many of the questions that arise in connection with our theatrical experiment actually go beyond its scope and have a more general relevance. In some way, the community around the project acts a microcosm of a larger society.
Are there any particular sustainability challenges that you’re proud of overcoming?
So much work needs to be done, so that we don’t really see reasons to be proud. But there are many reasons to be enthusiastic: many diverse artists and art institutions are now converging toward more sustainable practices or are showing the wish to do so and we, at the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, are having great conversations, connections, common projects with other institutions about those questions. Many inspiring collaborations are emerging with universities, scientists, society, activists. In this context, we are especially happy about the relationship and collaboration that we have established and strengthened with the University of Lausanne and in particular the Interdisciplinary Centre for Sustainability of the University of Lausanne (CID). That’s why it was important to us, Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne, to include Darious Ghavami from the CID in this conversation with ETC about sustainability.
"Sometimes we realized that we had delayed or given up actions because we wanted to have all the answers sorted out before starting to act. It has often proven more productive to adopt an experimental approach and to accept the need to start small and to make mistakes."
In the season 19/20, the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne and the University of Lausanne have opened up a "common space" about desirable and sustainable futures, called « Imaginaires des futurs possible ». In this season 20/21, we have invited the philosopher Prof. Vinciane Despret to co-create and animate a cycle called « Enquêter avec d’autres êtres - Investigating with other beings”: 4 lectures and collective co-constructions of narratives with a group of 7 artists and 7 scientists and with audience.
The collaboration between artists and scientists stimulates creativity and imaginaries on both parts, challenges practices, provides questions, contents and new perspectives. Many scientists agree that the Anthropocene is first and foremost a cultural crisis: a crisis stimulated notably by the representation we modern humans have of environment and that arts and cultural institutions have an essential part to play. In the discussions, “The Doughnut Theory” was often referred to: a way of visually representing sustainable life society as the doughnut-shaped space delimited at one extremity by the nine planetary limits and the other by the minimum social standards as identified by the UN in the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. But we realized that these minimum social standards don’t include culture and arts. We wondered why. What does it mean? What happened? What can we do about it ?
You mentioned that you will work alongside a specially-formed scientific committee for the project. What does this involve? Would you recommend this sort of collaboration to other theatres?
A scientific committee has indeed been specifically set up for No Travel by Nelly Niwa, Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Sustainability of the University of Lausanne and is coordinated by Darious Ghavami. This multidisciplinary scientific committee is made of 7 female researchers, each expert of a different field (civil disobedience, life cycle analysis, business rhetoric, social challenges, environmental humanities, …).
The collaboration has started with several video meetings with them, Jérôme, Katie and us. Each scientist was asked to make a short presentation of the key points in her research in relation to sustainability, which then led to a discussion. These exchanges have greatly nourished the research and imagination of both the artists and the institution, challenged some of our ideas and assumptions and made us question our practices.
"The meeting of artists and scientists can be very beneficial and inspiring to both sides. Both are researchers; they just have different – and complementary? – ways of dealing with facts and feelings."
The process also revealed that scientists as well are welcoming the help of artists – even calling for it. Research in sustainability invariably comes to the conclusion that radical changes in behavior are needed. But at the same time, scientists know or eventually notice, much to their dismay, that the theoretical information they publish in their papers is not generating – and cannot generate – the changes they are calling for. Some of them came to the conclusion that emotions and sensitivity are needed for setting up new research processes and spreading ideas, and that the creation of new narratives and collective imaginaries is required to overcoming the current crisis.
The meeting of artists and scientists can therefore be very beneficial and inspiring to both sides. Both are researchers; they just have different – and complementary? – ways of dealing with facts and feelings. So yes, we definitely recommend that other theatres collaborate with universities and scientists, especially as part of a concrete project, without any obligation to deliver a result (neither a show nor a scientific publication), but with only the obligation of sharing and exchanging!
At the ETC conference in November 2020, we heard that you decided not to have just one person responsible for sustainability at Théâtre de Vidy—but instead have someone responsible for sustainability on every team (restaurant, marketing, artistic direction etcetera). Do you think you’ve now found the right organisational structure to fulfil your environmental objectives and obligations? What would you change if you could restructure everything again?
Each department of the theatre is concerned and involved in the transition towards more sustainability. Our whole direction board, including the heads of communication and audiences, production and projects, technical department, dramatugry and administration and finances, is involved.
In parallel a “green team” has been put up. It is under the responsibility of the administrative and financial director Sophie Mercier, and is open to all members of all departments, on a voluntary basis. Almost all the theatre activities are represented in this team which debates, participates to the analysis of practices, makes suggestions, participates to the implementation of actions in their departments, …
However, we keep on looking for the right organization. It’s indeed difficult for the team to dedicate enough time to fulfill our objectives and the coordination they imply. The animation of the green team would need to have more time and human resources allocated to it. Many other challenges are emerging as well: how to finance the new costs arising from the transition ? How do we deal with the contradictions between our economic model, our artistic ambitions and our ecological objectives? How do we decide priorities and balance our decisions ?
What have you learned during the recent renovation of the Theatre de Vidy building about sustainability in theatres?
The renovation work is still ongoing. It will be finished in September '22. We started in 2017 with the construction of a wooden pavilion to replace a big top, with particularly new and ecological construction methods and with a significant reduction in its energy bill. We are now renovating the historic 1964 building, also taking into account ecological issues.
In the process, we realized that making a new building more sustainable requires a lot of extra money, which can act as a barrier.
What responsibility do you think a publicly-funded theatre has to drive public action on the environment? Do you think this responsibility extends to introducing incentives or penalties (such as charging more for people who come to the theatre by car) to achieve these goals?
First, publicly-funded theatres, much like other society actors, contribute to the generation of more or less important flows of materials and energies that impact the environment. So, like other society actors, they need to question and somehow change the way they work and interact with audiences and citizens.
"We hope that our own questioning and 'self-exposure' can also act as an incentive for the audience."
Second, as “spaces” generating narratives and symbols, theatres can ask themselves how they can accompany paradigm shifts within our society and stimulate the emergence on their stages of new collective imaginaries. Is being prescriptive and normative the good way to go for the theatre(s)? Or could theatres and stages be public and “political” spaces where different people and realities meet, where different visions are debated and antagonisms expressed?
Also, theatres are very fragile, as the current pandemics shows. They are threatened by health and ecological crises, by identitarian closure, by logics of profitability or pure utility. They are real “zones to defend” ! Defending them involves being creative in re-thinking theatre practices as part of the general transition, but in such a way that their position becomes stronger, not weaker, and that their necessity is reaffirmed.
Regarding our audience’s behavior and practices, we for now adopt the same approach that we have ourselves towards our own behaviour and practices: trying to induce reflection and to find concrete ways to make the spectators wonder, for example, by what means they want to come to the theatre, how much they want to pay for a show, what they want to eat at the theatre restaurant and so on. We can help them do so by providing them with the information they may need to make informed decisions. We indeed have room for improving the transparency of our practices and could share more about what’s going on behind the scenes.
For example, for No Travel we will reveal the carbon footprint of the show to audiences. In the same way that No Travel is an experimental process for our production practices, we could also imagine doing experimental actions with the audience as well. And finally we hope that our own questioning and “self-exposure” can also act as an incentive for the audience.
We often hear that different countries are at very different points in their understanding of sustainability, and some people / theatres need more knowledge before they can act. Do you think this is fair? What advice would you give to a theatre that hasn’t integrated sustainability into its activity yet?
We can share our experience, our attempts, our failures. But it’s difficult to give advice. Knowledge is indeed important. What we’ve found to be tremendously helpful in getting knowledge is making connections with experts, scientists, activists, alternative places and other people who research or develop new ways of thinking and doing, surrounding ourselves with local actors who are familiar with our reality while at the same time connecting and communicating with other actors from different realities.
If knowledge is important, it also comes with experimentation! Sometimes we realized that we had delayed or given up actions because we wanted to have all the answers sorted out before starting to act. It has often proven more productive to adopt an experimental approach and to accept to start small and to make mistakes. For example, identifying a concrete social or environmental issue to improve in the institution and then attempting to do something about it collectively. The rest usually follows, like a snowball effect. It helps when you take into account and accept that resistance, denial are processes and try to accompany them.
Sustainability implies changes, sometimes radical. The more you include your stakeholders and community in adopting these changes, the more they will be seen as incentives instead of penalties and the more successful their implementation will be. So create inclusive and participatory dialogues and workshop. Include your staff members, your audience, your artists. Value their own experience and points of view – they may be the ones who know the best the weaknesses and strengths of your activities. Be humble. And… try !
Caroline Barneaud is Director of Artistic Projects at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. Tristan Pannatier is Production Manager at Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne. Darious Ghavami is working at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Sustainability of the University of Lausanne.
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