In 2015 Oregon Shakespeare Festival was preparing a long-term strategic plan for 2016-2025. They conducted an organization-wide SWOT analysis as part of their planning, and identified climate change as a threat. The large body of research they conducted as part of the plan pointed them towards climate change-related trends that might destabilize the theatre, and they identified the need to diversify funding sources to create resilience and provide a buffer in the event of a financial downturn. They created a specific initiative to do so in fiscal year 2016, and consequently were prepared to mobilize help for their region during the devastating Almeda fires of September 2020. We can’t predict the future, but we can conduct thorough research on trends, make plans to act on the research, and carry out those plans systematically--and that’s the next best thing. It’s called strategic planning.

The multiple natural disasters of 2020 showed us that we cannot ignore the evidence of what’s coming down the pipeline, nor can we shelter in the idea that climate change-related disasters are unpredictable. They are actively being predicted; now we need to listen and plan. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said in their latest report that “without limiting global warming to 1.5°C [that’s 34.7 Fahrenheit], key risks to North America are expected to intensify rapidly by mid-century.” Many of us are already aware of the melting glaciers and biodiversity loss related to climate change, but we may not think about how the theatre industry will be directly affected. Oregon Shakes identified one such way--economy--but a host of other issues also await if climate change continues at this rate.

And here’s the thing: we need theatre to stick around to help us solve climate issues! The disconnect between scientific research and addressing climate change does not come from a lack of information, but from a disconnect between people and that information--what climate scientist Michael Mann calls the “hope gap.” Even among those who believe in climate change, many people don’t see how they can make any difference, or they believe that climate crisis is a foregone conclusion. We need to exercise people’s imaginations through the discipline of the arts in order to solve the hope gap. Scientist and writer Elin Kelsey has focused her life’s work on the importance of hope in addressing climate change; the importance of envisioning a future that isn’t apocalyptic. She calls this evidence-based hope. “To be hopeless is to be uninformed,” she says, pointing to the many positive solutions being created around us every day. “What we know from the psychological literature is that fear and shame cause us to shut down and give up.” Meanwhile, some theatremakers like Superhero Clubhouse in NYC, who make theatre about the environment, include hope as one of the four pillars of their organizational values. “Our work is joyfully rooted in ecological knowledge, relationship to the land, and imagination as a powerful tool of resilience,” their mission states. Who does imagining and visioning better than artists? I believe keeping our arts organizations safe from climate change in order to fight climate change is essential. Strategic planning processes, when built well, can help us strategically approach a future theatre world affected by climate change--as long as we take inspiration from Oregon Shakes and are willing to acknowledge it as a threat.

Be strategic, but flexible

Not all strategic planning processes are created equal, and not all processes are equipped to address a future as volatile as the one that acknowledges climate change. Consultant and nonprofit strategist David La Piana advances his theory called “real-time strategic planning” in his book The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution, which strikes me as a particularly helpful framework for climate-informed planning. The theory asserts that the traditional 3-5 year strategic plan often seen in nonprofits is insufficient for today’s rapid-response world, and suggests a mindset for strategic planning that allows constant evaluation and revision of an organization’s plan. “The focus of a traditional strategic planning is to produce a formal written document, within a preset time frame, that will ‘endure’ for a predetermined length of time (usually three years),” La Piana observes. “The fatal flaw in this is that…once complete [these plans] are not fluid and organic, but static.” He refers to today’s world as VUCA, an Army acronym that stands for “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous,” and suggests that we need a framework to evaluate new challenges or opportunities against our strategic plans, rapid-fire.

Climate change is the ultimate VUCA event, as La Piana himself observes: “The increased frequency and severity of hurricanes, droughts, and fires, means that a nonprofit’s long-range plans can literally go up in smoke,” he says. La Piana offers us a way to think about strategy in a VUCA world that is somewhere in between throwing up our hands and saying “planning is useless!” and having an unhelpfully-rigid strategic plan that crumbles at the first diversion from the expected course.

Here are a few trends I have observed in performing arts nonprofits related to strategic planning and climate change:

Build resilience through diversified revenue sources.
As Oregon Shakes knows well, diverse revenue streams help minimize funding fluctuations in unprecedented times. Michelle Ramos, Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS shared that she has been building relationships with funders who are not theatre-specific, but who fund racial justice initiatives, diversifying her funding sources and connecting her organization to other fields besides the arts. Activist and community organizer adrienne maree brown reminds us that biology teaches us this diversification: the super-resilient mycelium mushroom networks growing beneath the dirt touch the roots of every tree for miles. How apropos that biology gives us the tools to address our own seeming war against the natural world! As Oregon Shakes demonstrated, organizations can make more intentional plans to diversify funding when that goal is built into a strategic plan and has resources, timelines, and personnel allocated.

Build resilient teams through a focus on Human Resources (HR).
Many theatre workplaces are already thinking more critically about worker burnout, low pay, and the famously taxing workload of producing theatre in the traditional North American model--and this stress will only increase as climate change advances. Research shows that climate change has significant negative physical and mental/emotional effects on a large swath of our population, and medical literature has formally recognized “climate anxiety” as a health condition. A 2021 study by the University of Bath (UK) found that 45% of people report that feelings of climate anxiety have had a significant negative impact on their everyday lives. Leaders in the arts are responding to the call for a more humane work environment: Baltimore Center Stage has officially implemented more humane working hours, while the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has implemented a robust employee wellness initiative (note: information about this was shared by an Ailey staff member during a class visit). While we slowly work on this culture shift for our field, we can take a look at our own HR practices, and perhaps work changes into our strategic plans. Some climate-informed HR questions to ask during strategic planning might be: Is our organization’s leave policy sufficient to cover both the physical and mental health issues that might increase as climate change worsens? Do we have a workplace culture that fosters emotional resilience through mutual support? Is our benefits package taking into account the rise of air pollution and other health risks caused by climate change? Now is the time to ask these questions and allocate significant time and resources to answering them. It is likely that climate change will get worse before it gets better, and creating a more supportive and responsive workplace for employees is never going to be wasted effort.

Address climate change through your operations.
As we strategically plan for the realities of climate change we can also plan for and adopt practices to fight it. There is a growing body of research around making carbon-neutral theatre, so we are fortunate that we have many models to look to: Pigfoot Theatre out of the UK is a leader in carbon-neutral theatre production as well as a producer of climate-centric theatre stories; Staging Change is a grassroots artist-led organization that supports theatre makers who are responding to the climate crisis, and it’s run by a 23-year old theatre sound designer; BIPOC and women -led Groundwater Arts is focused on “reenvisioning the arts field through a climate justice lens,” and they are working on a collaborative live document called Green New Theatre, tracking trends and next-practices for greening our industry; Broadway Green Alliance is working on greener practices for Broadway, while the nonprofit Julie’s Bicycle has been working to mobilize climate strategy in the arts since 2007. This kind of research--and the resultant sense of hope, empowerment, and direction--is what might turn up in a strategic plan and research process that acknowledges climate change. La Piana stresses this importance of locating oneself in the context of peers’ work through robust research: “You need to understand which of your own and other organizations’ actions…created the current situation, and you also need to know what forces may shape your future” (from The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution). A strategic planning process can help with this, if properly prepared to acknowledge and address the threat of climate change.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“We have to act, we need a whole of society approach, no one can be left out, no household, no businesses, no government,” Debra Roberts, an IPCC scientist said. With our specific ability to inspire hearts and change minds, the theatre sector needs to remain poised to guide our society through the next few critical decades for climate change. Climate change may feel like a bigger problem than just the theatre industry can address, but remember: we folks who make theatre address big, seemingly insurmountable problems every day! Every tech week that results in a show is a small miracle. Theatremakers excel at motivating people, working creatively with limited resources, and pushing towards a goal in the face of huge odds. By planning strategically we can mitigate risk to our organizations in the short term, address our contribution to climate change in the long term, and ultimately take good care of the future of our art form and our planet.

Rachel Nunn is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.