Sustainability in theater. An interview with Deborah Siebenhofer

Ki Culture
7 min readMar 30, 2023

by Valentina Bianchi

Ki Culture had the pleasure of talking to Deborah Siebenhofer, Ki Champion working as a producer in the live arts. Deborah talked to us about the Grünes Theater initiative at Schauspielhaus Graz, which has just been certified with the Austrian Ecolabel for Theatres as the second ever theater in Austria, and the challenges and opportunities of sustainability in theater.

Ki Culture: Deborah, it’s a pleasure to get to talk to you. It’s also thrilling to be interviewing a professional from the world of live arts, since up to now our blog posts have been focusing mostly on museum practitioners and artists.

To start off I would like to ask: when did you start thinking about the environmental impact of your own practice and of the operations fulfilled by your organization?

Deborah Siebenhofer: I think there are two levels to my environmentally conscious attitude. The first level is personal: I remember that even as a small child I would be taken aback if someone littered the streets and I would write about it in my diary. I was always fairly conscious, thanks to my parents. As for my professional life, when I started working at Schauspielhaus Graz the sustainability initiative was already in place and I joined it full force thinking it was an important and in the field of performing arts fairly unique project.

An imposing off-white building seen from a slanted angle.
Schauspielhaus: © Lupi Spuma

K.C.: Joining a well established sustainable initiative is probably quite different than conceiving one from scratch, and we are going into what that means in your case shortly. But first I want to ask what it means to bring sustainability in the live arts. What is specific about them in terms of issues and opportunities?

D.S.: In theater the artistic staff and the technical staff are two areas that are often seen as separate. The artistic aspect is of course of prime importance in theater; it’s through our artistic vision that we try to change the world for the better. Directors and stage designers decide how to make a visual impact and then it’s our job to realize it in the most sustainable way possible. A common view of the matter entails sticking to minimal and modular set design, that way only a certain amount of elements have to be reused and there is less space for any kind of creative vision because of the limitations dictated by absolute sustainability. This approach seems difficult to implement. Another more feasible way to go about it is circular scenography, by which we ask: how can things be reused and built so that they are easier to disassemble? Can there be a database where all theaters can see what is available and what can be recycled or upcycled? I think that is the big challenge theaters face: how to get the artistic vision onto the stage in a sustainable way. There is also the question of the audience, for whom we want to set an example, both in what we show and by encouraging them to implement good practices like using public transports to get to our theater.

A group of actors on a stage with a metal structure and a tree as scenography.
Das Reich: Hospital der Geister: © Karelly, Lamprecht

K.C.: Indeed, theaters can be a bastion for education and awareness for audiences as much as museums. I think it’s time to dive into the initiative you briefly referred to: Das Grünes Theater at Schauspielhaus Graz. What does it entail and how easy was it to insert yourself in an already established system?

D.S.: Das Grünes Theater was initiated by the artistic director and general manager Iris Laufenberg in 2020 and started after a research period in spring 2021. The idea was to make Schauspielhaus Graz ecologically and socially sustainable. A project manager was appointed to reach this goal and instead of having just a bottom up or top down approach, they went for a sort of hybrid — bottom up with support from the top — which I think is the ideal way to go. The project manager did extensive research by visiting other theaters and educating himself in all types of sustainability projects. He then developed a model that is a pilot in Austrian and maybe even European theaters that involves task groups and projects. There is a steering group — of which I am part — that helps coordinate and have an overview, and that tries to find cooperation within the theater but also with the outside. The task groups are made up of employees of the theater that come together according to their areas of interest and share their expertise and experience. We have groups called “diversity”, “health and well-being”, “family and children”, and “sexism and racism” which are more focused on social sustainability. Then there are also groups more focused on ecological issues like “mobility and guest performances” which is a crucial aspect of our activities because we often host performers and directorial teams that come from afar. At the start of the project we did a lot of evaluations. For mobility, for example, we asked how often people traveled, by which means, or if they necessarily needed to travel that much at all. We also discussed how to communicate about our initiatives to the public that comes to the Green Theater and about our choice of repertoire. To recruit members of the task groups we sent out an invitation to all employees and we are proud to say that a third of all our staff are now active in the groups. The project also allows people from different departments a chance to meet and discuss topics they otherwise wouldn’t have the time nor the chance to tackle together.

K.C.: It seems to be a common concern of organizations to find time to meet and discuss sustainable solutions, so that sustainability isn’t applied to limited, small tasks, and it can become a shared philosophy that leads the whole team. Getting into more technical aspects I would like to know: looking at the average Western theater, what are the main areas that can be tackled to make a difference? Where did you start?

D.S.: I would like to first come back to the problem of finding the time to meet. We noticed it was quite a struggle for employees at first, so the management created the possibility of a one and a half hour meeting every two weeks solely dedicated to the task groups which are counted as regular working hours. It’s important to allocate time for that.

To get to what can be changed in a theater, I would start from the basics. Use photovoltaic systems, rain-water systems, a water dispenser… These are all things we also thought about immediately but could only partially implement because of the restrictions our old building dictates. However we do use 100% green energy. When we talk about the specificity of theater of course we have to get into the productions themselves. It’s about striking a balance. We have to find ways to reduce mobility but keep doing it enough to engage in cultural exchange. The set designs need to be visionary but still sustainable. These are the greatest challenges. There are no ready solutions: I do understand both sides but I think that in the end we will have to find answers to be as green as possible, it’s the only way to achieve sustainability on a large scale.

A sketch of a façade of a building with plants and green foliage covering its surface.
A sketch for a green façade. tSkizze Fassadenbegrünung: © Monsberger Gartenarchitektur

K.C.: What do you hope to achieve in the future, also thanks to Ki Futures? How are you measuring the difference your solutions are making?

D.S.: Something that Ki Futures taught us is to establish baselines and make results quantifiable. There are different levels to this. On one level we calculate our energy efficiency, our use of office material or cleaning products, and so on. And then we have the artistic level in which we strive to use modular scenography and different platforms to make everything circular. I do think there is a lot of freedom in constraints, they force you to be creative and to find innovative solutions. We have to commit to creating inspiring visions for the audience on a sustainable level, and I don’t know how that can be measured! The success of social sustainability can be measured, I think, by seeing content and communicative employees that are happy to go to work every morning. Ultimately social sustainability can mean to make your institution an even better place to work in. We should also find a balance between what’s ecological and what is socially sustainable, especially in the long term. To give you an example, aluminum is not really eco-friendly but when building scenography we also have to think about the workers that will have to lift it.. We need to consider our employees’ health as much as our environmental concerns.

Ki Futures also made it clear for us how important it is to find the right people to talk and how to connect. You need to establish a clear structure and baselines at the beginning. And of course the Theatre Green Books are really valuable, especially for establishing where we are positioned in relation to the standards. But maybe the best thing about the program is the connection. Getting to know people from other theaters and experts on an international level and learning from each other.

You can find more information on the Grüne Theater initiative at Schauspielhaus Graz on their website and you can join Ki Futures via our website

Valentina Bianchi is Brussels-based curator working with local and international organizations in the field of contemporary art in connection with science and sustainability.



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