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With her experience of working across multiple projects, Sarah Fortescue explores how the sector can deliver what they do best, in the best way possible?

Sky at night with lights
About Us by 59 Productions

Justin Sutcliffe

Artists working in both the live and digital spheres are continuing to push for more sustainable choices, both on and off stage and screen. But with budgets getting tighter, knowing where to begin can feel daunting. 

At a recent webinar on sustainability in arts production hosted by The Space, Claire Buckley, a consultant with Julie’s Bicycle - the pioneering non-profit that mobilises arts and culture to take action on the climate crisis – advocated for a holistic approach to planning, advising artists to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. 

“It’s about a shift in our mindset – from ‘how can we do things better?’ to ‘how can we do better things?’ And why we do what we do, and the kind of impact it has. It’s not about which has the bigger or smaller impact, it’s about doing what you need to do in the best way possible,” says Buckley.

This approach may offer some comfort for those at the beginning of their journey, removing the pressure to make perfect choices and compromising the vision of artistic work before its begun. It is a strategy echoed by Lysander Ashton, one of the directors at multi-disciplinary design studio 59 Productions.

As the company’s sustainability lead, he took a similar approach, initiating the process by interrogating where the most impactful decisions would be made before getting started. “There’s so much data out there, so much good practice, what people should do. What I wanted to understand was what the magnitude of doing different things were – what things would truly make a difference.”

Which changes have the biggest impact?

“We started with an audit of what our carbon footprint that year was and broke down the estimate of all of those projects, and found that the main sources were freight, electricity usage, embodied carbon - in terms of sets and structures that were built - and team travel,” Ashton said.

“We then ranked those projects and found that almost a third of our carbon footprint came from air freight on just two projects. That was key - finding out which changes will have the biggest impact, and how we communicate this to the team and get a sense of perspective. 

“Then, when we went to produce About Us, a climate-centred show, we were able to bring on a full-time sustainability coordinator who could analyse what carbon footprint would be on each production decision – in real time – so they could feed back on design and production decisions.”

For those looking to get started, but without the means for specialist support, there are some brilliant tools and resources such as Julie’s Bicycle’s carbon calculator, or The Networked Condition, which has a number of sector case studies for inspiration. There is also the Theatre Green Book, a workbook for making theatre sustainably. 

Greening digital projects

One case study was from independent project producer Josie Dale-Jones, who documented her experience of digital vs physical approaches for her production of Me & My Bee, a family show focused on the climate crisis. 

“I’m interested in cross-artform performance – digital being one of them – as well as looking to green [my] practice as much as possible. I wondered how to do that, especially when our impact and footprint seems invisible when it comes to filmed and online work. It felt like something we needed to understand more, particularly after Covid and the surge in digital work.” 

This curiosity has further benefited the sector, as Dale-Jones went on to co-create the Digital, Hybrid and Filmed work toolkit, an extension to the Theatre Green Book. “It’s about creating a blueprint for the decision-making process with sustainability in mind, and making it as clear as possible. It covers things from guidance around encouraging streaming via wi-fi rather than roaming, downloading vs streaming, and encouraging lending and loaning of kit over buying new.”

This question of digital vs physical approaches is increasingly explored by artists. The topic is nuanced, with a host of factors at play - from the type of equipment used, chosen energy supplier and source, to securing a strong distribution campaign to avoid doubling up on audiences. 

For those working in film, Albert offers guidance and training and a certification process that encourages progression with sustainable practices, awarding 1, 2 or 3 stars based on which have been implemented. Creatives have also been successful in launching grassroots campaigns – for example, Fehinti Balogun released a Green Rider with Equity, a set of sustainability clauses that can be added to TV and film contracts such as opting for travel by trains over planes, avoiding oversized trailers, and reusing sets and costumes.

Understanding the need for change

There is perhaps an unsurprising association between the creatives and greener working solutions. Julie’s Bicycle’s rationale for working in the arts and culture sector is that the “the cultural community [is] uniquely placed to influence and inspire action and change”. And while carbon calculators and toolkits are invaluable resources, Claire Buckley stresses the importance of people power to truly get things moving. 

“With environmental action, there tends to be a focus on the practical, technical things – but don’t forget about the people. What we’re talking about is change and you can’t change things - with the best technology in the world – if the people don’t understand why you’re doing something, or how to use it. It’s about finding out who can you work with who’s open to change.”

Sarah Fortescue is a Freelance Producer and an Associate at The Space.

This article, sponsored and contributed by The Space, is part of a series spotlighting new ways of creating and distributing digital content and exploring the wealth of new technologies and platforms coming online.

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