From LED bulbs to living plants: German theatre tackles climate crisis on and off stage

<span>Your Palaces Are Empty at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam probes the wounds of a shattered capitalist world.</span><span>Photograph: Thomas M Jauk/Thomas M. Jauk</span>
Your Palaces Are Empty at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam probes the wounds of a shattered capitalist world.Photograph: Thomas M Jauk/Thomas M. Jauk

A handful of Spanish conquistadors fight through thick undergrowth to emerge in the ivy-clad ruins of a fallen civilisation during a rehearsal of Austrian playwright Thomas Köck’s Your Palaces Are Empty.

Premiered last month at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, south-west of Berlin, the bleak and unforgiving drama probes the wounds of a shattered capitalist world that has exploited its people and the planet’s resources.

But it is not just the dystopian play that is embracing the subject of the climate crisis.

The production itself has been declared climate neutral under a €3m pilot project launched by Germany’s federal ministry of culture. The project, called Zero, is sponsoring the Potsdam theatre and 25 other cultural institutions across Germany, from dance companies to libraries and museums, to completely restructure their creative modus operandi.

“It leads to restrictions,” says the director, Moritz Peters, crouching on a wooden stool on stage as he takes a break from rehearsals. “But it also forces greater creativity.”

No aspect of the process of making a play has been left unturned. From the lighting (switching to LED bulbs) to reducing travel (rehearsals are longer but less frequent to cut down on journeys) “everything has come in for scrutiny,” says Marcel Klett, the managing director.

Swapping to a green source of electricity in 2022 had already improved the theatre’s carbon footprint, reducing its annual 661 tons of emissions, or the “equivalent of 66 households”, by more than 10%, but did not go far enough, Klett says. No less challenging is tackling a change in attitude. “Nurturing a sense that we all – from the set designer to the theatregoer – have a role to play and have to ask ourselves: ‘what can I concretely do?’” Klett says.

The costume designer, Henriette Hübschmann, says she initially struggled with having to abandon her usual task of creating new costumes from scratch. “At least half of the costumes have to come from the existing collection of props and costumes now,” she says, on a tour of the wardrobe in the theatre’s underbelly. “The rest should be from recycled, easily recyclable or renewable materials.”

Plastic sheeting that forms the backdrop of the set was found in a storeroom, the ivy is a living plant provided by the local biosphere, which needs to be watered, but is more sustainable than any alternative. Wooden stools, built for the production, will be recycled afterwards.

An inventory of its resources forms the basis of the theatre’s first climate impact report which it is in the process of compiling.

It states that wood makes up half of the 41 tons of raw materials that the theatre used last year, but is responsible for only about 1% of the emissions produced, while just four tons of steel and aluminium used in productions made up almost 30%.

“The obvious conclusion is that we’ll use wood as far as possible,” Klett says. Other forms of stage-set building are also being experimented with, such as growing constructions out of the organic building material mycelium. The potential use of this in other areas, such as exhibition architecture, is already being explored.

According to statistics from the culture ministry, less than a third of state-funded theatres in Germany produce a climate impact report. However, most, from a certain size upwards, will be required to do so from next year, under EU legislation that will treat theatres the same as all big commercial enterprises.

Klett is hopeful of a knock-on effect among audiences and theatre staff as well as from other cultural institutes joining in.

“The more the merrier – the greater the ideas and resources we can share amongst ourselves and with other institutions, the better,” he says, acknowledging that its contribution still remained a “drop in the ocean”.

He is appealing to local politicians to embrace the project by sponsoring the erection of solar panels on the theatre’s roof and allowing the space – a former Prussian military stables – to be insulated, which is currently not allowed because the building is listed.

The success of the project, though, will largely depend on the audience and the way they choose to travel to the theatre.

Even though 20% of its theatregoers already arrive by bike or on foot, travel remains the theatre’s single biggest polluting factor, contributing to about 50% of Hans Otto’s emissions. In response, theatre tickets will double up as public transport passes in the three hours before and after the play, under the campaign slogan: #OhneAutoInsTheater (Car-less to the theatre).

Your Palaces Are Empty is dystopian, vicious and bleak, and though not endlessly pessimistic, says the director, Peters, it offers little consolation.

It ends with uplifting pop music and children “offering a somewhat hopeful note”, Peters adds. “I’d like to think the audience leaves, saying: yes, the situation is serious, but we should keep going nevertheless at the same time as taking it very seriously.”