"Out, Damned Logo!"
fossil fuel sponsorship and an ethical alternative
23 September 2007
Last year, I took a trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest. This year, I returned to Stratford and invaded the stage dressed as Shakespeare moments before Antony and Cleopatra was due to begin.
Allow me to fill in the gaps.
I am a long-term admirer of the RSC. However, something clicked into place in my brain as I took my seat last December to watch one of my favourite plays, The Tempest. Something which meant I could no longer in good conscience allow my love of the theatre, and my knowledge of what fossil fuel companies are doing to our planet, to coexist.
In my opinion, the RSC is a wonderful company. Alongside celebrating the works of Shakespeare and other playwrights, both classical and contemporary, it is dedicated to engaging with a younger audience and fostering within them the same love of theatre that I acquired as a child. This is achieved through the excellent kid-friendly productions they stage; the workshops they deliver to schools; and the RSC Key, a loyalty scheme for young people which provides discounts, special events, and most notably a £5 ticket deal for 16-25 year olds.
The catch? These £5 tickets are sponsored by BP.
The irony here is twofold. Firstly, watching the surging (and frighteningly topical) sea storm that opens The Tempest, then glancing down at one’s ticket and seeing the name of one of the world’s largest purveyors of dirty energy. A company that profits from the warming of our climate, the pollution of our oceans, the environmental racism as islands and communities in the Global South lie under siege from rising sea levels…well, it’s a disconcerting experience. “The tempest: sponsored by BP” would not look out of place in a newspaper headline.
The second irony lies in the targeting of young people by the RSC’s BP-sponsored ticket scheme; in other words, the generation that stands to be worst affected by the climate crisis in years to come. They are being sold their own destruction. Now, don’t get me wrong. Young people are sharp. They aren’t so susceptible to branding that they’ll exit the theatre as newly brainwashed, oil-worshipping pawns of BP. But what this culture of corporate sponsorship does is legitimise these companies, turn them into household names, and normalise their presence within our arts institutions. Inserting the BP brand directly into the name of an exhibition, an event, or a ticket deal – skimming the RSC’s website I lost count of the amount of times I had to read the phrase ‘BP £5 Tickets’ – is enough to create a passing positive association, one that paints a multinational climate-destroying corporation as a local, benevolent patron of the arts. It’s greenwashing, pure and simple and slick with oil.
There is hope that, in the near future, the era of fossil fuel sponsorship will be looked back on in the same way we look back on that of tobacco companies: unthinkable today, now that we know the adverse health effects smoking can cause. We know the effects of climate change, the havoc it wreaks on a global scale. Why on earth, then, are we still allowing dirty energy inside our institutions?
There is a coalition of organisations in the UK called Art Not Oil, formed of people like me who found their environmental activism and their appreciation of art to have become awkward bedfellows, and wanted to do something about it. Art Not Oil has helped spearhead numerous campaigns to lobby theatres, galleries and festivals to divest from fossil fuel sponsorship. Notably, in 2016 the group Liberate Tate was triumphant in their six-year-long campaign to call on London’s Tate galleries to drop BP from their list of sponsors. A technique favoured by these campaigns is the use of ‘creative interventions’: whether a flashmob, a skit, or an installation, these interventions are a non-violent (and often mischievous) way of drawing attention to the question of sponsorship, and may leave the audience wondering why a peaceful protest is discouraged from taking place inside a theatre, but a globally destructive corporation is welcomed.
I have campaigned with BP or Not BP, which targets BP’s presence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and back in April took part in a light-hearted – but with a serious message – stage invasion. A few minutes before that evening’s official performance, the audience was treated to a surprise warm-up act in which an actor playing a BP spokesperson gave a cringeworthy endorsement of BP’s love of Shakespeare, before being interrupted by the Bard himself (played by me) who saw through this trickery, and ended up booting BP off the stage and saving his legacy. We did all we could to make our performance as non-disruptive to the RSC cast and crew as possible, and in a short post-protest speech we stated that we wished we didn’t have to stage such an intervention, but that the climate crisis has become such an urgent issue that we felt it necessary to do so. Our skit was generally well received – we even got a little applause! – and after handing out some flyers during the interval we exited, pursued by neither a bear nor a security guard.
Invading the stage dressed in a rented ruff and feather hat was all good fun, but it’s not for everyone. Thankfully, activism can take many forms. As a companion to these more dynamic interventions, a brand new collective called Culture Unstained was formed under the Art Not Oil Umbrella, and has launched a pilot scheme: the Fossil Free £5 Tickets. Culture Unstained has engineered a way of continuing to offer young people access to great theatre, while keeping BP from reaping the benefits. Earlier this year an online crowdfunder was launched, with a twofold purpose: firstly, to raise enough money for theatre tickets to be bought and subsequently sold on at their discounted (and fossil fuel-less) price; and two, to demonstrate that there is a clear demand for an ethical ticketing scheme. This is key: the Fossil Free £5 Tickets are not necessarily intended as a full-time replacement for BP’s equivalent; what is important is that there is now a choice. Of course young people want cheap tickets, but they also want the option of where to put their money to avoid compromising their morals – or indeed, their futures.
The crowdfunder raised a quarter of its target within the first week, and a whole host of theatre professionals have come out in support of the scheme, including Mark Rylance, Andrew Garfield, and Emma Thompson, demonstrating the conjoined power of the UK’s activist and artistic communities. Furthermore, the Fossil Free £5 Tickets have constructed a relationship with grassroots organisations that are fighting climate change on the frontlines. 10% of all funds raised by the crowdfunder go directly to the activist groups Bridge the Gulf, which elevates the struggles and voices of communities living along the US Gulf Coast; and Free West Papua, campaigning for a boycott of BP and their support of West Papuan oppression (you can find more information on these incredible organisations on the crowdfunder page). The Fossil Free £5 Tickets are an excellent way for anyone to show their support to these ongoing environmental campaigns, both in the UK and on the global frontlines of climate justice, and enjoy some cheap theatre while you do it.
What I love most about activism is that there is always a space for you, no matter your skill set, or the level of involvement you seek. I recently attended a talk by the incredibly passionate and humble LGBTQ+ rights campaigner Cleve Jones, who when asked in the Q&A what young people – or anyone, in fact – can do to help the movement, advised two things: 1) find out what you’re good at; and 2) figure out how it can be useful. For some people, that means: 1) being able to drive a van; 2) transporting tents and equipment to the site of an occupation. For others, the magic combination could be: 1) an interest in journalism; 2) helping to draft and send out press releases to inform news outlets of a protest going down. In my case, I am good at memorising words and speaking them in front of an audience, which were all the tools I needed – along with a dose of adrenaline-fueled courage – to stand up uninvited on the RSC stage and perform our piece. It certainly took me a while to build up to this, having started out in activism with signing petitions and participating in the occasional march. Thanks to the support and mentoring I received from BP or Not BP, I was given the confidence I needed to take my activism to the next level, and found it to be a surprisingly easy transition. Buying a fossil free ticket may help you take that next step too.
The Tempest has recently reached the end of its London run, but if you missed out, you can still sign up for a Fossil Free £5 Ticket to any RSC show in Stratford or London. Just get in touch with Culture Unstained, and be sure to check out the following links for more information on the organisations I have discussed. You may even be inspired to get involved with some campaigning yourself!