There comes a moment in every Executive Director’s career, when you realise that your work is less about management, and more about leadership. It can happen at any time, I’m sure. And, whilst that transition might be connected to the scale of your organisation, the depth of resources at your disposal and the strength of your senior management bench, I have seen far too much extraordinary leadership from those at the helm of small companies, or working independently, to know that whilst those things might make it easier, they are far from the essential ingredients.
The secret sauce is a boldness of voice, a recognition that your work has civic impact, and a bravery to act. Match that with a keen awareness of the big issues facing your community, and I truly believe that you have something capable of changing the world.
Which is good news, because the world needs changing.
I’m no climate expert, and the truth is that you don’t need to be in order to understand that we are heading for a profound existential crisis, at a speed that is hard to fathom.
You do need to be a climate realist, though. And, if you couple that understanding with a faith in the power of art to persuade hearts and minds, then you’re in danger of becoming something really very special indeed. You might just be an activist.
In fact, you already are an activist, because you’ve picked up this tool kit. You’ve already decided to contemplate change, to engage with the climate crisis, to figure out what your contribution might be. Keep going. Think big. Don’t be daunted. You need to do this.
You need to do this. And the minute you decide to, a wonderful community of likeminded leaders, committed artists, and purposeful organisations, all of whom are gathering rapid momentum on this most urgent of issues, will suddenly reveal themselves to you. You’ll be uplifted and encouraged in equal measure, and you’ll make some seriously good friends along the way.
It can be hard to know where to start, for sure.
For me, I was new in town. New in Canada, in fact, and getting to know my new organisation. Alongside the heady delight of those early days, I remember being struck by two quite simple images. First, that there were recycle bins everywhere. Brilliant, I thought. Second, that those bins were filling up on a near daily basis. Not so brilliant, clearly! It struck me that the company had already made some element of commitment to sustainability, but hadn’t yet thought it through on a strategic level. So, as part of the planning process that took over Soulpepper through the early months of 2019, I threw a question into the mix: “How can we use less paper?”. It was meant to be provocative, of course. I was keen that we stopped printing so much redundant paperwork, yes, but I was also interested in whether the company could become animated with a conversation about sustainability in its broadest sense. I wasn’t disappointed. Over the ensuing months, sustainability became baked into our strategic priorities and day to day life, led by an intrepid team of staff enthusiasts who aligned under the banner ‘Green Peppers’. Along with a significant reduction in paper usage, we began composting throughout our building, started growing fresh herbs and vegetables in any available space, and partnered with a brilliant initiative to welcome a bee hive to our roof, which gifted us a delicious and plentiful honey harvest. A commitment to sustainability was definitely starting to weave itself into our DNA as a company and, whilst there is significant work yet to be done, I am increasingly confident that Soulpepper is on the right track.
It's not enough, though.
Every business needs to think about greening its future. Of course we need to make sure that our theatres and production practices are as carbon neutral and kind to the planet as they can be. Let’s lead the way, for sure, and set an example for our patrons and communities, but let’s remember that this is no more than any other sector must do.
We need to rise to a greater challenge.
Too much of the climate discourse feels punitive. Too often we are told we must buy less, fly less, and do less, which oh so easily feels like somehow living less, having less and being less. It simply won’t work. We can’t be argued towards a greener world, we need to be compelled there.
The climate crisis is clearly a cultural challenge, perhaps even more so than a political or economic one. It’s about who we are and how we live. Those of us who are privileged enough to steward even the tiniest amount of resource within the cultural sector need to team up, focus in and get to work, because artists alone possess that unique power to inspire us towards a greener, greater world, and we need that vision, now more than ever.
The opportunity could not be clearer. The need could not be more real.
Cultural leadership is climate leadership, and it’s time to step up.
Emma Stenning is a British theatre producer who, between 2018 and 2021, was Executive Director at Soulpepper. As a committed environmentalist, she co-founded and led The Green Sessions, a series of industry gatherings designed to progress the sector’s climate literacy and capacity for activism.