Guest Blog: On Being A Co-optimist

Lucy Davies, Executive Producer at Royal Court, shares her thoughts on working as a co-operative and what it’s like being a Co-optimist as member and Chair of the London Theatre Consortium.

I want to talk about being a Co-Optimist – to tell you what we have achieved at London Theatre Consortium (LTC) through our collective change, and how our work on sustainability taught us how to work as a co-operative, as a consortium – giving us a model that we are applying to other priorities, transitioning our practice.

And I want to talk about my art form, theatre, and the work we make about climate change at the Royal Court, and how this too has taught us what theatre can be, progressing our art form.

I am both a COPtimist and a Co-optimist and I think there are lessons for other sectors, creative or not, in our practice.

LTC is a consortium of 14 not-for-profit building-based producing theatres. We have a combined turnover of over £50 million, and a staff body of over 1500 people – but this rises by 10 times that when you include artists and freelancers, and 100 times that when you look at the audiences we reach. So we’re a big community. 

Theatres are generally run by two people: Artistic Directors, who commission and dream up the programme of work, and Executive Directors / Producers who deliver that work, and are responsible for the operational wellbeing of the organisations. It is the EDs / EPs who meet and form the London Theatre Consortium, we meet quarterly, with sub-groups meeting in between, and we talk all the time.

The consortium was established five years ago, inspired by Arts Council England, to cohere us around marketing and audience initiatives. But the group quickly galvanized around some other priorities, sustainability being the first. Our work on this priority, in partnership with Julie’s Bicycle, which has been written up very recently, has really defined how we work as a collective, co-operative group – not competitively, on our own terms and within our own individual scale – but aggregating into some incredibly meaningful actions and innovations. 

We are not for profit theatres on tight budgets, so we don’t have money to invest in infrastructure or additionality – our imperative became about reduction of emissions. And we’re on track. Since 2010 we have reduced emissions by 15%, saved over 12,000 tonnes of carbon and reduced our energy bills by £265,000 across the group. 

This combination of:

1. sharing and aggregating data,

2. working with partners – like Julie’s Bicycle, SIPA, MAST – to build tools for us,

3. sharing skills and networks and best practice,

4. writing up and publishing case studies, 

5. empowering Boards and staff teams, 

6. not judging or competing with one another but inspiring and sharing aims, finding the right fit for us, 

has taught us how we as a group can co-operate – and we are applying these six actions as a model for our priorities around workforce development, diversity and access. LTC has never been stronger as a consortium and our work on this issue has really empowered and defined us. 

Personal footnote: of the 12 theatres involved in the sustainability work, 10 of the Exec Directors were women. Round the table now, of the 14, 10 of us are women, and our LTC Director is a woman. It has felt imperative to all of us to be part of an inclusive, ambitious, dynamic, committed and generous co-operative and to impact on the wider sector. I am very proud of this gender leadership.

I also wanted to talk about my theatre, the Royal Court, and why I’m COPtimistic about my art form.

The Royal Court produces up to 16 new plays every year – every play is new and about the world now. 

We are committed to providing a platform to inform, provoke, question and imagine. Climate change, resource depletion, global social justice, species loss and energy ethics increasingly preoccupy our writers and recur in the plays we stage – implicitly or overtly. Our recent landmark work in collaboration with scientists, has included 10 Billion with Stephen Emmett and 2071 with Chris Rapley, both directed by Katie Mitchell. We are working with her to develop a third companion work. Our currently running play, X by Ali McDowell, and, in rehearsals, Stef Smith’s Human Animals both imagine a context of climate and species catastrophe in our near future.

We are unafraid of presenting challenging ways of thinking, and of division. We know that our audiences expect us to provoke and to take them on a thought journey – and we know that our work can resonate in corridors of power.

We were invited to Brussels to stage 2071 for one evening only, for free, hosted by the European Climate Foundation to an audience of up to 400 Brussels politicos. This was much more than a lecture. They understood and engaged with it as a world class piece of theatre – it cost them a lot of money to stage it for one night, with a touring party of nine, and a day and a half to get it in. They hired a major cultural space for it. 

But not only does work like 2071 contribute to a conversation about climate change – it was a very significant work for us because it contributed to a conversation about what theatre is. It develops the art form. 

I was once told that the most important thing we can do as leaders to affect change is to apply our core business to the issue of climate change – in our case, we make world class theatre – so make world class theatre about climate change. This is the most important thing businesses can do.

But what we have learned, at the Court and through LTC – is that our work in this area has changed us – our work about climate change has innovated and stretched the possibilities for our art form; and our achievements with JB have defined how we at LTC work and achieve change as a consortium. I’m a COPtimist and a Co-optimist because of this reciprocal transformation.

This blog was a speech Lucy presented as part of the panel on institutions at How to Be A COPtimist on 4th May 2016 at King's College London.

Image: Jessica Raine (Gilda) in X by Alistair McDowall. Royal Court Theatre. 
Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Sustaining Creativity