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Theatres go green

From hydrogen fuel cells to paper laundries, theatres are looking at a wide range of approaches for turning their theatres green.
London theatres, reports Kellie Gutman, are leading the way.

When the Ashden Directory went live in 2000, the tagline ‘bringing together environmentalism and the performing arts’ referred mainly to the work of artistic companies that were showcasing environmental themes. But note was often made of theatres and groups that were experimenting with environmentally-friendly technologies or practices. The Swallow Theatre went off-grid by installing solar panels and a wind generator to power its theatre lighting in 1996 and then added to that in 1998 and 2000. The travelling wind and solar-powered circus Green Roadshow produced environmentally-themed entertainment. The group Urban Strawberry Lunch used recycled materials in their productions.

greening_book In 1994, Larry K. Fried and Theresa May published Greening up Our Houses: A Guide to a More Ecologically Sound Theatre. The book was an early examination of the theatre business from scenic design to program design, art direction to cleaning supplies, to evaluate the environmental impact of running a theatre. In 2004, the same duo ran an eco-drama playwrights’ festival, at Humboldt State University in Northern California, called 'Earth Matters on Stage'. Six finalists were chosen out of 147 plays. All scripts dealt with small or large environmental issues.

Thirteen years after their book came out, the ecoTheater blog did a two-part interview with May and Fried to see where they stand now on the subject. Their insightful comments can be read here and here.

Today, there is a growing interest among those involved with theatre in also greening the physical aspects of the buildings and their production methods. Theatres are looking at a host of issues that affect CO2 emissions: transport — how actors and audiences get to the show, stage sets, recycling, efficient lighting, insulation, and new types of energy production. [See our article on 'How to green your theatre' on this website.]

London's former Mayor, Ken Livingstone, had developed a 'Climate Change Action Plan for London Theatre'. The Mayor's office had partnered with the Arts Council's London office, Theatres Trust, Ambassador Theatre Group, National Theatre, Alistair McGowan, Independent Theatre Council, Equity, Arcola Theatre, PLASA, and the Association of British Theatre Technicians. These groups have been working with the Mayor's office to make theatre a focus of energy conservation, with a goal of 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025 (relative to 1990 levels.)Confirmation whether these initiatives will continue with Boris Johnson as Mayor will be forthcoming.

Local success stories

One leader in the greening story is the Arcola Theatre in London. A new play, The Living Unknown Soldier that opened there in February 2008, could go down as the most environmentally-sustainable theatre piece to date. The Arcola installed a 5 kW hydrogen fuel cell in their foyer to power the theatre. This nearly-silent energy source produces electricity and the only by-product is water. 4.5 kW of power are consumed when staging the play and the other .5 kW powers the rest of the theatre.

Arcola fuel cell
It doesn't stop there. Dr. Ben Todd, Arcola’s executive director says they are aiming for a 'zero waste-to-landfill' policy, which involves composting, recycling and re-using. They have sourced sustainable wood for the sets and for the pulp used for the programmes. They only use energy saving light bulbs in the theatre lighting and other areas of the theatre. Even the bar area, lit by low-energy LED’s, serves fair-trade and organic refreshments.

Over the river, the National Theatre has teamed up with Royal Philips Electronics in a 'green switch' initiative to install exterior and foyer lighting, with highly efficient LED’s that will cut by 70% the amount of energy needed to light the flytower. It will save £100,000 a year in electric costs. The LED’s also allow the exterior to be awash in a constantly-changing coloured palette, making the building itself an attraction. (See youtube video of lights here.) During the five-year partnership, Philips will introduce new energy-saving schemes as they are developed.

In the West End, the Dominion Theatre has received the Mayor’s Green Procurement Code ‘Extra Mile Award’ for their many recycling programmes. One is attempting to make a dent in the one million batteries a year thrown away by the theatres performing musicals. In order to make sure wireless microphones don’t suddenly go dead during a performance, every headset has its batteries changed before each show. The Dominion Theatre has started a battery-recycling program for the 544 AA batteries they use per week. They also instituted a paper recycling program with The Laundry, a company that sells ‘laundry sacks’ for 95p each, into which employees place their paper for recycling and then The Laundry comes and collects them weekly.

London's Dominion Theatre
Using the services of Loop Recycling, the Dominion installed glass, aluminum, plastic, and cardboard recycling containers in the bars of the theatre as well as can-crushers throughout the building. Over 200 fluorescent light tubes have been recycled through Lampcare, and purchasing has increased the percentage of recycled products that they buy for the theatre.

In December 2007, the Cilgwyn Theatre presented an eco-friendly version of The Faerie Queen at the Lillian Baylis Studio Theatre. The sets and costumes for this puppetry show were all made from recycled, reclaimed or reusable materials. The company worked with Lawrence Barry & Company, to source the recycled materials for the costumes; the sets were vintage props and recycled furniture. The spare sets were manoeuvred around by the cast of six, who were also working the puppets, in a striking example of ‘less is more’.

This April, the Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre (CETT) will hold a two-day conference: 'Theatre Materials / Material Theatres', which will explore the spaces, objects, architecture and economies of theatre and there will be a roundtable discussion on ‘Greening the Theatre Industries’.

Beyond the UK

Right now, London may be the leader in greening theatre, but the idea is spreading.
Mike Lawler has been blogging on ecoTheater since May 2007. In July of that year he published his first 'greenlist' of theatres that were 'going green' in the United States. There were 5 on the list. In March 2008 he published his new (and improved) greenlist. This time fourteen sites made the list, mostly on the east and west coasts.

As Mike says, 'The ecoTheater project is concerned with how, as theater artists, we can strive to create theater without sacrificing the environment and the long-term health of our communities.' His blog is a wealth of information about this field.

The Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne is buying locally to reduce transportation emissions, changing and recycling light bulbs, buying green power with a carbon-offset surcharge on tickets, and planning to install photovoltaics on its roof. Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, new co-directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, who are re-doing their own house to make it more energy efficient, have promised to green the STC as well: invitations to their season launch were printed on brown paper.

The small Furious Theatre in Pasadena, California has installed two bins in its theatre: one labeled ‘recycling’ and the other labeled ‘landfill’, and their wine glasses are made from cornstarch, not plastic. (See their youtube video on greening their theatre here.) In Philadelphia, the Stagecrafters Theater have added a ‘green subscription’ option, which costs $2 more per ticket, half of which goes to purchasing green energy and the other half toward other energy-saving efforts. Two-thirds of their online ticket buyers have chosen the green option.

The New Victory Theater in New York City has done a major switch in lighting, inside and out reducing the annual bill for their exterior kinetic light sculpture by 80% a year, saving $50,000. And the Portland, Oregon Center Stage moved into a rehabilitated Armory building, on the National Register of Historic Places. It is among the first performance spaces in the United States to reach the ‘Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’ (LEED) platinum level from the U.S. Green Building Council.

And in Berkeley, California, the Shotgun Players have created the first solar-powered theatre in the US.

For more information on green theatre in the States, check out ecoTheater's new greenlist. (See box.) While London leads the field, the rest of the world is not far behind.

The race is on.

Kellie Gutman

published in 2008

'What we’re going to see in future are smaller venues, which are easier to heat and light, and lots more of them, so that people have to travel less. Productions are going to look very different, less bright, less real. And it simply won’t be as comfortable for audiences.'

Mark White, chairman Associaton of British Theatre Technicians


'It is extremely encouraging to see the key players from across the theatre sector showing real leadership and commitment to reduce emissions and tackle climate change.'

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London


'Theatre’s in a unique position to lead the way. It’s relatively independent, and historically, it has always united hugely creative and cutting-edge technical thinking. And in times of crisis, our greatest resource is imagination.'

John Hartley, Arts Council England


'I don’t think that there is a great crevasse between the practical side of theater and the artistic side. I think they really come together and, of course, where they come together is on stage. What we use on stage is a way to demonstrate that we are accountable to our relationship with the planet.'

Theresa May, author, Greening Up Our Houses

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