Chronic Insanity are Proving Theatre Can be Sustainable

Words: Eleanor Flowerday
Photos: Chronic Insanity
Thursday 04 May 2023
reading time: min, words

Theatre is a staple of our culture, a medium of entertainment that has long stood the test of time. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for evolution. Chronic Insanity, the Nottingham-based theatre-makers focused on accessibility and sustainability, show us how it can happen…


Run by Nottingham based theatre-makers, Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland, Chronic Insanity has been staging shows in the city for the past four years. With their twelve shows in twelve months format, the company have iteratively found solutions to reduce the environmental impact of their productions. Their low-impact shows, Joe explains when I sit down to chat with him, “fit into a suitcase”, and embrace digital theatre-making. Sustainability is a part of their core values - built into the foundations of the company, alongside prioritising making their theatre as accessible as possible. 

A number of factors can increase a show’s carbon footprint. You start off with emissions released in hiring a venue for rehearsals, and then with the transport for cast and crew. Costumes and props may be hired but sets will often be built for each production - that’s more resources used and a bigger impact. Sound and lighting increases it still, with traditional stage bulbs using around 575 watts of energy. When performances start, there are the emissions created in running a venue - lighting, water, heating, and use of single-use plastics. You’ve then got to transport your cast and crew to the joint, and finally the audience themselves. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rise in hybrid and digital theatre-making, which cuts out many of these emission causing factors, many theatre-makers saw it, as Joe says, as a plaster on a wound - and creatives quickly returned to normal practices as soon as auditoriums could once again be filled. Chronic Insanity does things a little bit differently. 

Their shows often take a minimalist approach, and embrace the atmospheres of their venues to spur on the storytelling. Joe cites their production Politer Guests as one such example, performed in the National Justice Museum’s basement in October 2019. Why waste resources on building a haunting set when you could simply set up production in a haunted prison? 

In a similar vein, Nottingham’s theatre goers will soon be able to experience The Void, an immersive theatre venue in the city’s caves. The Void promises more atmospheric theatre without the need to build bespoke sets. Caves also maintain temperature incredibly well, so there’s no need to use energy in heating or cooling. All the equipment will have to run on batteries, allowing them to charge via renewable energy sources to keep emissions to zero.

With Chronic Insanity’s “little yet often” approach, shows are cheaper to produce, and therefore more economically sustainable

Chronic Insanity have found their minimalist live performances and lo-fi digital productions to be particularly successful. Pared back performances have a significantly smaller carbon footprint - with fewer resources used for set-building, costumes, lighting, and sound (although live onstage music is often used). But there’s also a special kind of magic with this sort of theatre. It harkens to old ways of storytelling, gathered round the fire and relying on human connection and imagination to make the shows come alive without the distraction of snazzy sets.

It all goes hand-in-hand. A minimalist or digital performance will have a smaller carbon footprint than a high-production live performance. With Chronic Insanity’s “little yet often” approach, shows are cheaper to produce and therefore more economical, allowing for better pay for cast and crew and more affordable tickets. Their shows can therefore be accessed by broader audiences, including audience members with additional access requirements. A more lo-fi digital performance will have an even smaller impact, and be accessible to audiences with limited digital literacy or access. Everyone is included, and the environment is better off for it. “These are moral objectives to consider,” Joe explains.

Organisations like Julie’s Bicycle and, up until 2022, Staging Change, have helped along the cause sustainability on stage, and Chronic Insanity are certainly a changemaking company, but as their upcoming show with CAST, New Leaf, explores, who actually holds the responsibility to instigate change? Arts Council England’s funding policies state that environmental sustainability is a significant factor in securing funding, but a cultural change in theatres mainstream still needs to happen, and the way funding is considered can be a big kick. Joe feels that carbon offsetting isn’t enough - reductions in productions’ initial impact must be prioritised. 

The theatre industry is at an exciting point - with the opportunity to produce greener shows that make a difference, and that can be enjoyed by everybody. With companies like Chronic Insanity showing what’s possible, it would be mad not to. 


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