How can dance performance be sustainable?

Words by Hannah Draper.

The black and red riso-printed posters for Burnt Out are striking – Penny Chivas’ hand clasped over her mouth with the other arm stretched overhead – a call for help, a signal of danger, and a gesture of protection from breathing in noxious air. Created in collaboration with photographer Brian Hartley, the hand process of riso-printing created a different result in each print.

This tailored approach bleeds through into the wider plan for the 2023 sustainable Scottish tour and ethos of Burnt Out. Created in 2021, Burnt Out is a solo dance theatre piece made and performed by Penny Chivas, instigated after the devastating Australian wildfires in 2019-2020. Three years on, Penny is touring the show in Scotland after a successful Fringe run last August. Before this, the work will be performed at Dance City in Newcastle after the organisation’s continued support of the work through residences and rehearsal space and a work-in-progress sharing.

The tour has been organised with Katy Dye as Sustainability Advisor and with Sheena Miller from the Rural Touring Agency. Running since 2017, the organisation helps companies in Scotland tour work to rural areas in Scotland. The organisation formed to fill a need to help artists bring work to rural areas and bring high quality touring work to underserved areas.

Burnt Out will be the first production to tour on public transport only, bringing with it a host of new logistical considerations for the team. Penny will travel by train and ferry across rural Scotland, including the Orkney islands, supported by the Creative Scotland Touring Funding for Theatre and Dance. I spoke to Penny and the production team about organising Burnt Out’s sustainable Scottish tour later this year.

Space and Place

Sheena spoke with me about the common misconception of needing different performances for different areas, and the idea of rural versus urban audiences. She says that “anything you can perform in a central belt you can perform in a rural area” while emphasising the strong connection with live performance in rural Scotland given the long history of live music traditions. What is different, Sheena tells me, is how you connect with rural audiences compared to in the city, and the additional considerations.

While the touring team will be travelling on public transport, audiences will also be encouraged to travel in this way. In rural areas this will be more difficult with factors like the long, dark nights in Scotland in November, meaning some performances will be in the afternoon instead of the evening, while buffer time has been added in around ferry trips to allow for the not unlikely chance of poor weather conditions.

We’ve worked in a way that challenges the influence of consumerism…

Within this planning, Sustainability Advisor Katy tells me that, “greener ways of working can exclude people of different abilities without thinking of the needs of all the individuals taking part. So as a team we have tried to think about how to work sustainably in an inclusive way.” Working with the Theatre Green Book, Julie’s Bicycle, and considering The Equity for a Green New Deal manifesto has helped the team craft a holistic approach to the tour, while working with venues to help them meet these sustainability goals.

While relationship to place has been important in considering tour locations, how people relate to their environments is also hugely relevant for how Burnt Out’s subject matter of Australian coal has become a direct mirror to a story and discussion about Scottish oil. After last summer’s record temperatures in areas across the UK, and the increasing need to reckon with our countries’ fossil fuel histories and continuing industries, it seems that Burnt Out’s message is becoming more, not less, relevant over time.


Sustainability demands the need for time – something which feels counter-intuitive in the race against the quickening changes in our climate. Time for making decisions that inform longer-working processes. Making thinking sustainably go beyond a ‘tick the box’ exercise. 

Katy highlights: “it has been interesting to think about sustainability as another creative choice. How can the ethos of working sustainably enhance the content/aesthetic and audience experience of the performance? In this way working sustainably doesn’t feel like a limitation, but opens up a new and refreshing way of working which challenges the influence of our disposable/throw away culture of consumerism and excess.”

While Burnt Out was originally made as a black box performance, it will now be performed in a range of venues including village halls, only using the technical equipment already in these venues. Although this can be argued as a limitation, it actually challenges ideas of how theatre can and should be presented and seen.

Penny describes the need for people to have a chance to use and utilise the time we have now to consider different ways of living and how to tackle this crisis in our communities before we are in a situation of having to respond, rather than reflect.


‘Where is the average person’s emotional feeling around the climate crisis?’

This question is a guiding thought for Penny through this tour. Pre-show workshops and post-show discussions have been designed to engage with local people’s stories and how communities are experiencing the climate crisis, such as visual artists and local nature walk leaders. The workshops will focus on inclusive movement practices, breathwork and ways of dealing with climate anxiety. The tour model prioritises an engaged and embodied interaction with audiences, enabling an exchange of ideas and working methods to explore how people are working and exploring these issues, both through direct action and ways of experiencing pleasure and enjoyment in nature.

Sustainability is a huge buzz word right now, with many claims to it falling flat upon inspection. However, the Burnt Out team is committed to interrogating what sustainability means in terms of broader conversations around how the work is experienced. By allowing audiences the space and time to experience and explore emotions of upset and anger around the climate crisis before, after, and during the show there is an effort to prolong and ensure a mutual meaningful engagement between the performance team and communities, working towards what Katy identified as “one unified voice for our actions to be effective.”

Katy hopes that these practices become normalised: “I’d like to see less expectations put on individuals to make green decisions which may financially punish them/put a lot of effort on them. We need laws to be made that make it an incentive for us as makers/citizens to practice our work sustainably and live more sustainable lives.

Image by Lorna Sim.

This tour of Burnt Out could and should be a model for other small touring companies, joining a growing number of artists in Scotland such as Hazel Darwin Clements’ Maya and the Whale (toured on two bikes with panniers) that are committing to new ways of delivering theatre and proving there is a different way of doing things which needs to happen now and for the future.

Burnt Out is being performed at Dance City, Newcastle on 16 June 2023. Book here. Dates for the Scottish tour tbc.