Why School Climate Strikers Want to Stop BP Funding the Arts

We spoke to a 16-year-old activist about why she’s co-signed a letter threatening to boycott the Royal Shakespeare Company

Young people protest BP in the British Museum, 2015. Courtesy: Natasha Quarmby

Young people protest BP in the British Museum, 2015. Courtesy: Natasha Quarmby

School climate strikers in the UK have sent an open letter to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) threatening to boycott its productions unless the theatre company drops BP as one of its sponsors. BP sponsors a GB£5 ticket scheme for 16-25-year olds which has been described as a ‘stain on the RSC’ by the school strike movement, who say BP is using the scheme to target their age group through sponsorship.

The open letter, written by an 18-year-old organizer from Oxford and co-signed by 26 other young representatives, references the RSC’s hit show Matilda the Musical, which made the theatre company GB£3.46 million in surplus last year. The RSC receives GB£375,000 a year in sponsorship from BP. The RSC ‘needs young people far more than it needs BP, with children and young people making up the bulk of the audiences of your hit show Matilda the Musical, which has made you a financial surplus of millions. In comparison, BP provides less than 0.5% of the RSC’s income, and yet is allowed to put its logo on tickets,’ the letter reads.

The letter describes BP as ‘jeopardising the futures of these young people they apparently care so much about, by continuing to extract huge quantities of oil and gas, and actively lobbying against the climate change policies that we school strikers are pushing so hard for.’

If the RSC does not drop BP as a sponsor, the strikers have pledged to boycott RSC, encourage their friends and families to do likewise, and lobby schools to avoid school trips to their productions. The letter ends with a request to meet three senior members of staff at the RSC – artistic director Gregory Doran, executive director Catherine Mallyon and deputy artistic director Erica Whyman.

In a statement sent to frieze, Catherine Mallyon, RSC executive director and Gregory Doran, RSC artistic director said: ‘We welcome the conversation around this issue and will respond once we receive the letter.  We recognise the importance for a continuing, robust and engaged debate, we acknowledge the climate emergency and recognise the strength of feeling especially amongst our young people. Our work with over 500,000 students annually means their feedback and opinions are very important to us.’

Earlier this year, the RSC came under pressure to drop BP after leading Shakespearian actor Sir Mark Rylance resigned from his position as associate artist in the company in protest against the the theatre company’s sponsorship deal. Over 60,000 people have signed a petition calling on the RSC and other major cultural organizations to cut ties with the oil giant.

We spoke to 16-year-old Chloe Hawryluk, a key organizer of school strikes in her town who attends Shakespeare’s former school in Stratford-Upon-Avon, to find out more about the campaign.

frieze  What made you so passionate about these issues?

Chloe Hawryluk  It’s such a beautiful earth that we live on and I hate to see people ruining it. I’m part of an organization called the UK Student Climate Network; we focus on system change, instead of individual change. A lot of people think we can change the environment by, let’s say not using plastic or never using electricity again, which is true, but I just really want to be able to help people understand the real problems with our climate.

frieze  Why is it so important to drop oil funding from the RSC?

CH  We want to go the theatre, we want to go have affordable tickets to see Shakespeare’s plays, but we don’t want to support an oil company just so we can see a play. I think [the RSC] should look at other ways of getting affordable tickets [BP sponsors a 16-25 reduced rate ticket scheme], other sponsorships. It’s unfair for us, if we just want to go see a show, we have to support one of these horrible companies.

frieze  How will your campaign achieve this?

CH  We are sending a letter to the RSC tomorrow [26 September 2019] and we have told them that if they do not take action and do not remove BP, we will stop visiting the theatre. We’ll tell our schools, we’ll tell our theatre companies, we’ll tell all of our friends and family not to come to the RSC, not to buy these tickets. Obviously [teenagers are] their main audience [for RSC shows such as Matilda the Musical]. I think word of mouth is the best way of getting this message across, and this campaign is going to help more people to know about [the sponsorship deal]. Hopefully the RSC do drop BP so that we can enjoy the theatre.

frieze How did this campaign come about?

CH  We’re working with the organizations BP or Not BP? and Culture Unstained. They have been contacting school strikers around the country, I think from eleven different cities. We’ve all signed a letter against the RSC. Obviously, because I go to school in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I feel very strongly about [the campaign]. We’ll be delivering the letter tomorrow and we’ve asked to meet with the three directors of the RSC to discuss this more.

frieze  Why do you think so many other young people are involved in these school strikes?

CH  The organization I’m from, what we try to do is make climate activism easier for teenagers. Before the organization was created, I was very passionate about the climate, but the only thing that I could do was get involved in eco groups, or maybe join the Young Green Party. We feel like lots of young people are getting more invested in this because it’s been made easier for them. Greta Thunberg has been making a lot more teenagers aware of this. Schools are also starting to tackle climate education, and it’s been [added] into a lot of courses. I think there’s a raised awareness about it, especially in the media.

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