Festivals Declare Emergency?




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Festivals Declare Emergency?

Rose de Wend Fenton is the co-founder and former director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT)

Co-founder and former director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), Rose de Wend Fenton, considers how festivals can respond to the triple emergencies of climate, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter

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Mar 24, 2021

We are in the midst of an accelerating climate and ecological emergency.

We know that we have less than ten years to ensure global warming stays below 1.5º C. Anything beyond significantly increases the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. The last five years since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed have been the hottest on record; one million species are at risk of extinction, biodiversity is collapsing, and as I write, Arctic glaciers are melting, and fires are raging across the world.

COVID-19 – inextricably linked to the climate and ecological emergency – has lifted the lid more starkly on the huge inequalities, injustices, and fault lines in our fractured and failing societies. Taking effective action is now accepted as an urgent priority across society.

In this environment, what is the existential basis for international festivals of the future?

Throughout the ages, festivals have traditionally been a place where people have come together to celebrate what sustains them as a community, offering a pause from daily life to step back, question, and re-set the world around them. They are “experimental zones of sociability” [1] where new ideas can be explored, new futures imagined.

So how might international festivals today evolve and be part of leading the vital changes needed to decarbonize and regenerate our planet? In order to resonate and thrive, what must we relinquish, restore, and repair?

Many festivals have already taken effective actions, embedding environmental sustainability into their operations, creative work, and business practice. These include adopting an environmental policy for their organization, appointing someone in their team responsible for environmental initiatives, and creating a dedicated sustainability budget for their event. Some festivals are reporting on their carbon emissions; others are exploring the idea of adopting a “carbon budget.” How many flights, how big a company, how many productions can we afford? At the same time, festivals are increasingly commissioning discussions and work from artists – many collaborating with sociologists, economists, scientists, horticulturalists – that specifically address the climate and ecological emergency, with topics ranging from climate justice to re-establishing our long-neglected relationship with nature.

Throughout the Salzburg Global Seminar program, What Future for Festivals? (held online) there was a plea to go beyond mechanisms and production and to return to the values and vision that underpin our work. How do we get away from the ego of producers with their exclusive premieres to create more meaningful collaborations that truly interrogate the benefits festivals bring to the communities we serve, linking in with civic structures across housing, health, education, local government, and local commerce?

All agreed that the triple – and interrelated – emergencies of climate, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter was a unique opportunity to rethink what cultural exchange means through a more equitable lens. Can we “decolonize” our festivals by inviting in co-curators and “change artists”?

The international festival model of flying in an unlimited number of artists, including whole orchestras, for two nights, is irresponsible, no longer fit for purpose. Do we have to consume so much? Can we not focus less on the quantity, size, and prestige of productions and more on quality of engagement with visiting artists staying for longer, creating more meaningful relationships?

And what might a new “internationalism” look like, forging alliances between the local and the international, with our digital age opening up many possibilities, both in terms of access and creating dynamic collaborations and exchange? The potential is enormous.

Many have appreciated experiencing a different relationship to time during COVID-19 giving them an opportunity to experiment, to think in a different way. Can we hold on to this and slow down, creating space for reflection and working “at the speed of trust”? [2]  

Through coming together in solidarity and sharing best practices, the international cultural community has a significant role to play in addressing the defining issue of our lifetime. I am part of Culture Declares Emergency (CDE), a growing international movement of individual artists and organizations who have undertaken to tell the truth, take action, and seek justice. Taking their lead from CDE, we have Architects Declare Emergency, Music Declares Emergency, Tourism Declares Emergency. Could there be an International Festivals Declare Emergency movement?
As international festivals, we have a unique opportunity to be part of creating a regenerative future, reinventing and reimagining our world at a time of systemic change and uncertainty. We can give voice to new narratives and contribute towards shifting societies’ values away from consumerism and commodity and towards community and collaboration. In this way, we can help transform the conversation around the climate and ecological emergency and – crucially – translate it into action.

Resources and Ideas

Julie’s Bicycle is a London-based charity that supports the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability. Visit https://juliesbicycle.com

Culture Declares Emergency is a growing international movement of individuals and organizations in the cultural sector declaring climate and ecological emergency. This means telling the truth, taking action, and seeking justice. Inspired by CDE, other groups have been set up, including Architects Declare Emergency, Music Declares Emergency. Visit https://www.culturedeclares.org


[1] Dragan Klaic The Turning World: Stories from the London International Festival of Theatre, Rose de Wend Fenton and Lucy Neal

[2] Adrienne Maree Brown

Rose de Wend Fenton is a freelance arts producer and advisor. She co-founded the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) in 1980 and was its co-director for 25 years.