Royal Shakespeare Company cuts ties with BP after school students threaten boycott

Written by By Lianne Kolirin, CNNLondon

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has said it is dropping its long-term sponsor, BP, a week after British school students wrote to the theatrical organization threatening a boycott.

Signed off by “The Youth,” the letter — hosted on a website for the UK Student Climate Network — called upon the RSC to end its partnership with the oil giant and threatened to stage a protest if action was not taken.

BP has been sponsoring the theater company’s discounted £5 ($6) tickets for 16-25-year-olds since 2013.

The letter stated: “These sponsorship deals allow BP to pretend that it cares about young people by giving them ‘the chance to be inspired by amazing live performances and kindle a lifelong love of theater.’

“In reality, BP is jeopardizing 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.”

Dozens of signatories threatened to assemble in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace and home to the RSC, “to make a scene of ourselves” if action was not taken. They also pledged to boycott productions and to lobby their schools to follow suit.

In a statement on the RSC website, artistic director Gregory Doran and executive director Catherine Mallyon said the decision was taken after many months of “careful and often difficult debate” with staff, audiences, artists and others.

“Central to our organizational values is that we listen to and respond to the views of young people,” they added. “Each year we actively engage 500,000 children and young people with Shakespeare’s plays.”

The statement continued: “Amidst the climate emergency, which we recognise, young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message.”

Tim Minchin and the cast of the RSC's hit musical 'Matilda' on stage at the BBC Proms in London's Hyde Park on September 10, 2016.

Tim Minchin and the cast of the RSC’s hit musical ‘Matilda’ on stage at the BBC Proms in London’s Hyde Park on September 10, 2016. Credit: Jo Hale/Redferns via Getty Images

“It is with all of this in mind that we have taken the difficult decision to conclude our partnership with BP at the end of this year,” they added. “There are many fine balances and complex issues involved and the decision has not been taken lightly or swiftly.”

BP executives said they were “disappointed and dismayed” at the “premature end” of the partnership, according to a statement on the company’s website.

“Over the past eight years our sponsorship has enabled 80,000 young people to see RSC performances at reduced rates,” the oil giant said. “Our support for the arts more broadly in the UK has provided access to world-class events to millions of people over more than 50 years.”

The company said BP is acting to change, saying: “We’re dismayed because we share many of the concerns that apparently contributed to the decision. We recognize the world is on an unsustainable path and needs to transition rapidly to net-zero in the coming decades.”

“Ironically,” it added, “the increasing polarisation of debate, and attempts to exclude companies committed to making real progress, is exactly what is not needed. This global challenge needs everyone — companies, governments and individuals — to work together to achieve a low carbon future.”

Earlier this year, Mark Rylance, one of the RSC’s biggest stars, resigned over the partnership. Writing in The Guardian newspaper at the time, the Oscar-winning actor said: “I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesman or anyone who willfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn. Nor, I believe, would William Shakespeare.”
Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance cut ties with the RSC earlier this year.

Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance cut ties with the RSC earlier this year. Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

The RSC’s move was welcomed by Chris Garrard, co-director of Culture Unstained, a campaign organization that “aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture.”

Garrard told CNN: “The Royal Shakespeare Company’s decision to drop BP as a sponsor years before the partnership was due to end is a clear sign that — in a time of climate emergency — fossil fuel funding is just too toxic. This seismic shift is testament to the actors, activists and school strikers who have powerfully shone a spotlight on BP’s business and how, even now, the company remains 97% invested in fossil fuels.”

But more remains to be done, Garrard said.

He said: “It’s now time for other BP-sponsored institutions such as the British Museum, Royal Opera House and National Portrait Gallery to step up and follow the RSC’s ethical leadership.”

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