Michener Lecture focuses on eco-arts as a catalyst for change

Ben Todd, an engineer, technology broker and executive director of Arcola Theatre, Britain’s groundbreaking green performance venue, will give the annual Wendy Michener Lecture at York University on Jan. 14.

In his address, titled "Humanizing the Science of Climate Change: The Role of the Arts in Driving Sustainable Lifestyles", Todd will discuss the leading edge of eco-arts production and performance, and its potential as a catalyst for changing awareness and behaviour around the most compelling environmental issue of our day.

Left: Ben Todd

"While scientists tell us that we already have the technologies required to avert catastrophic climate change, policy-makers and businesses continue to seek new technological ‘solutions’. Meanwhile, global consumption and emissions continue unsustainably, with minimal abatement," Todd says.

"I believe that to change the lifestyles of entire populations, a cultural shift is required, and thus it is cultural agents which must take the lead. The past three years of work at Arcola Theatre provide examples and lessons," he says.

Established a decade ago in a converted factory in the borough of Hackney in London’s east end, Arcola Theatre has evolved into one of Britain’s most innovative, exciting and respected arts venues. It is critically acclaimed for the excellence and scope of its programming, which encompasses professional productions of new and experimental works, classic drama, music and comedy showcasing national and international talent, as well as extensive community and youth programs.

While winning accolades for its productions, Arcola has also become a global leader in environmentally responsible arts production and performance practice. With the launch of Arcola Energy in 2007, it began integrating sustainability initiatives into its core activities and embraced the mission to become the world’s first carbon-neutral theatre.

One step towards achieving this goal has been the installation of a 5-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell to power the LED lighting in selected Arcola productions and hospitality facilities. Other ambitious and innovative “greening” initiatives are underway. In recognition of its achievements, Arcola was the recipient of the 2008 Confederation of British Industry’s Growing Business Green Award and the Energy Globe UK winner in 2009.

Conceived as a hub for new thinking and cross-fertilization between art and science, Arcola Energy brings together artistic, entrepreneurial, societal and technological creativity in novel partnerships to address sustainability issues. For Todd, the common threads are creative vision and a collaborative, action-oriented approach – qualities that the arts in general and theatre in particular are uniquely well-positioned to deliver.

Right: Arcola Theatre

"Inventiveness and risk-taking are hallmarks of the arts,” says Todd. "As a theatre, we have a long-standing tradition of innovation, inspiration and deep integration and engagement with the local community. Working on the same principles, Arcola Energy integrates arts and science professionals with the community to pioneer practices that will fundamentally change the way arts organizations work."

Todd holds a PhD in engineering from Cambridge University and has worked in research & development, technical and strategy consulting on both commercial and government projects, including at Cambridge Consultants, Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems and Synnogy. As well as managing Arcola Theatre, he works as a technology broker for the Low Carbon and Fuel Cell Knowledge Transfer Network run by the UK Technology Strategy Board.

The Wendy Michener Lecture was established in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University in memory of Canadian arts critic and journalist Wendy Roland Michener. The free lecture provides a forum for discussion of crucial issues and developments in the cultural scene, past and present. Todd’s lecture will take place on Thursday, Jan. 14, at 3pm in the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre, Accolade East Building on York’s Keele campus. For more information, call 416-736-5136.