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A multiple case study is promoting new ways for theatre to make sustainable productions. Roberta Mock and Siobhan Bauer report on three companies putting the Theatre Green Book into practice.

All's Well that Ends Well production photo

Ikin Yum ©RSC

The Theatre Green Book is a published document, an intervention and an industry-wide movement committed to improving the UK theatre sector’s environmental sustainability. Led by the architect Paddy Dillon and spearheaded by Theatres Trust and the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), it was developed and researched during Covid. 

While a stakeholder consortium funded the input of sustainability engineers Buro Happold, as well as elements of its design and publication, the creation of the Green Book involved hundreds of unpaid participants in focus groups, interviews and surveys. 

It is a statement of shared and negotiated values that has been – and continues to be – shaped, informed and facilitated by an unprecedented coalition of theatre-makers, including freelancers, venues, companies and producers. 

Main principles

The Theatre Green Book comprises three, inter-related, open access volumes - all available for free download. The first, Sustainable Productions, focuses on the making of shows. Published in March 2021, it draws together best practice in sustainable theatre-making, and sets out tiered standards (Baseline, Intermediate and Advance) for achieving change in the face of climate crisis. 

Its main principles include doing more with less; spending more on people’s time and less on stuff; and reducing harmful chemicals. Everything in a sustainable show will have had a previous life and will be used again in a circular economy. 

The Book was designed as a living and evolving document. Despite its enthusiastic take-up and the subsequent knowledge-sharing by organisations such as the National Theatre, its processes and recommendations still require real-world trialling. 

This is one of the reasons why our project Transitioning to Sustainable Production across the UK Theatre Sector* has been to create case studies of theatres working with Volume 1 - the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), Theatre Alibi, and National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). 

While the RSC and Theatre Alibi were working with the Theatre Green Book for the first time aiming for Baseline standard, NTS was already using it and aiming for Intermediate standard. We didn’t find any productions working toward Advance standard. 

Case studies

Theatre Alibi’s River Land (July 2022, Exeter), directed by Nikki Sved and designed by Ioana Curelea, is our ‘small scale’ case study. The company transformed its base in an old church hall into a sensory theatre performance with live music and projection that explored the neighbourhood’s historic experience of flooding and fears for the future. 

Almost no materials were bought new (the exceptions were underwear and a pair of shoes) and, in the end, River Land produced only two bin bags of rubbish that couldn’t be reused or recycled. All members of the team had a ‘green production clause’ in their contracts and the company’s leadership team and board members all engaged in Green Book processes.

RSC’s All’s Well That Ends Well (August - October 2022, Stratford-Upon-Avon) is our ‘large scale’ case study. Directed by Blanche McIntyre and designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, this was a modern dress production, set in a social-media focused world, of a relatively little performed play. 
Its big sustainability win was the reuse of the stage floor from a previous production but there were also numerous small wins in departments like wardrobe (using an ozone cabinet more than dry cleaning costumes) which are now being implemented long term.

NTS’s Exodus (July - September 2022), directed by Debbie Hannan and designed by Alisa Kalyanova, is our ‘touring’ case study. This colourful satirical farce about political ambition and hypocritical values opened at the Traverse for the Edinburgh Fringe festival and toured around Scotland. 

One of the key sustainability take-aways of this production was the value of working closely with set builders. Glasgow’s Pretty Scenic collaborated with the production team to find solutions to problems as they arose. 

Green Book has become synonymous with sustainability

While we are still working through the data, we already know that all three productions achieved their targeted Green Book standard. This means for the RSC and Alibi shows, at least 50% of each category of materials (set, props, costumes) had a previous life and that after the show, 65% will be recycled or reused; for NTS, 75% of materials had been used before and 80% are likely to be used again. 

None of the productions cost more in materials than their budgets allowed or for previous similar shows, although (often hidden) labour costs are likely higher in some areas of production. All the companies continue to use the Green Book for other productions. However, all three are in the subsidised sector and have their own storage facilities, both of which significantly impact on their experiences.

All three case study teams said the Green Book was invaluable in helping them make their productions more sustainable. It enabled the embedding of standards, goals and communication channels within and across teams and provided clear guidelines and practical advice to monitor and audit progress. 

David Tanqueray, the production manager of All’s Well That Ends Well, even suggested the phrase ‘green book is now used instead of ‘sustainability’: “That’s not very green book” works because “sustainability lacks tangibility whereas the Green Book is measurable, it knows what it stands for and so does everybody else.”

Our findings

In addition to discussing the teams’ progress and challenges as part of this project, we’ve also organised opportunities for teams to meet, share experience and learn from each other. These included coffee mornings, carbon literacy training and a hybrid event with Low Carbon Devon in Plymouth last month. 

Here we began to pull out some of our findings. These include how being part of networks can support low carbon/low waste theatre-making and community building; the need for carbon literacy training packages specific to the theatre sector; the challenges of measuring carbon with accuracy/precision and how this has to account for circular economy principles; how freelance practitioners are sharing knowledge and expertise by moving between commercial and subsidised sectors; and how the Green Book is best used by organisations to establish and track their own sustainability goals and achievements over time, rather than to compare them with others.

Over the next few months, we will be writing several reports based on these findings. For the Theatre Green Book team, we are writing an editorial report with recommendations for subsequent editions. These are likely to concern the terminologies of milestones and roles, setting realistic expectations within a freelance workforce, performer involvement, and the enhancing of templates to create materials inventories of productions. 

We are also writing a policy paper which outlines some infrastructural, resourcing and training requirements to strategically address the theatre sector’s environmental impacts, as well as how the Green Book might be meaningfully used in accordance with the environmental principles and reporting mechanisms of ACE and Creative Scotland.

Most importantly, we are now writing up each of the case studies in detail. These will be published on the Theatre Green Book website so others can learn from the experiences of RSC, Theatre Alibi and NTS, making new ways of doing theatre visible and accessible to the industry’s community of practice. 

The main advice from Gemma Swallow, Technical Director of NTS, for those working with the Green Book for the first time, is “not to panic. It's not as hard as you think, and everything is a win compared to the old days.”

Roberta Mock is Professor of Performance and Executive Dean, School of Performing and Digital Arts, Royal Holloway University of London.
Siobhan Bauer is a digital video-maker, DJ and Researcher for the project.

@GreenUKTheatre |@roberta_mock | @BauerSiobhan

*‘Transitioning to Sustainable Production Across the UK Theatre Sector’ is a co-commission by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and Arts Council England.

Link to Author(s): 
Head shot of Roberta Mock
Headshot of Siobhan Bauer