Bleed Greener: Greening the Arts, Sustainable Theatre at the University and Beyond

Katie Wood is a fourth-year Drama student at the University of Exeter who has a particular interest in creating sustainable theatre at the production level. In this interview, we discuss barriers to sustainable theatre, as well as what steps have been made within the university to mitigate student theatre’s impact upon the environment.

AW: From my experience and research, it seems that many of the biggest, long-running West End shows have a strong sentimental tie to tradition, and that this may be a barrier to the introduction of new technology and practices that would mitigate the shows’ environmental impact. Is this something that you have also found, and, if so, can you conjecture why this is the case?

KW: Yes, definitely. A lot of the shows on the West End are copyrighted to the original designers, who make a lot of money from them. With productions like The Phantom of the Opera, the original lighting designer has made millions of pounds off that one show. They also want to stay true to the original production, and almost create a time capsule into the 80s when this new technology was just starting to develop. So, when they keep these shows running in the exact same way, they’re trying to cling onto this idea, this feeling of when they first saw that show. They still have people going to the shows each year, and making sure that they’re running in the exact same way.

AW: And so, this sense of nostalgia is what’s preventing changes and updates that would be better for the environment?

KW: That’s right, but there are some shows that are moving towards incorporating LEDs, [a more efficient form of light] Billy Elliot is one that I’ve noted – in their touring shows. However, when you compare the environmental impact of a touring show, is it really making much of a difference when you take travel into consideration? Transporting all that set and equipment, that has a carbon footprint as well. Anyway, Phantom is the main one that hasn’t changed; they still use the same lanterns that were used in the 80s.

AW: Speaking of lighting, the Guardian has published a list of tips to help theatre companies produce more sustainable theatre, and the most impactful of these is to “design energy efficient lighting rigs”. To what extent do you think that this is feasible, in the light of the competing priorities of making money and staying true to the original production?

KW: The problem is, LED lights cost a lot of money; they’re much more expensive than traditional Tungsten lighting. So, even if there’s a huge push towards more sustainable lighting, not every rig in every theatre in the UK is going to have access to the money necessary to replace all of their perfectly working Tungsten lights. And this poses the question, is it really sustainable to just throw out all of this traditional lighting when it works perfectly fine?

AW: It seems like the best solution is to wait until the existing lights inevitably fail, and then replace them with more energy-efficient alternatives. But seeing as the pandemic has caused the theatre industry to take a huge financial hit, will this even be possible?

KW: Right, and one of those LED lights could be a show’s entire lighting budget for the year – just one lantern.

AW: And how many lanterns does a show typically need?

KW: If it’s a small theatre, you’d probably need twenty… At the university, there are discussions about switching their rig to an LED rig, but that’s going to cost them upwards of £30,000. And they don’t use those lights often enough to justify the cost.

AW: Staying on the topic of big theatre companies, the National Theatre has said that they’re attempting to reduce 75% of their commercial waste and 49% of their production waste by 2022. Do you believe that the most prominent UK theatre companies and shows have environmental issues as enough of a priority? Or, is this more of an example of greenwashing than anything else?

KW: Yes, I think this is a major example of greenwashing. They’ll talk about doing things like this, but is it enough? In most of cases, the answer is no. They don’t produce that much paper in a year that it really makes a major impact; what they need to focus on is other areas, such as reducing their energy output.

AW: So, you spoke a little about the university’s drama department, and I’m interested in hearing about the situation there. Considering student theatre, particularly within the drama department and the societies that make up Theatre at Exeter, would you say that environmental matters are factored into big decisions?

KW: No, I wouldn’t. It’s only very recently that people are starting to think about environmental concerns in relation to theatre. In the show that I’m doing currently, Into the Woods, I briefly mentioned the idea of having a greener show because of the theme, because it’s set in a forest, and I felt that it needed to have that aspect. However, in all of the major decisions it comes down to cost…and how much these greener decisions are going to cost student productions. For example, will it cost more to use the Northcott’s LED lanterns? Will it cost them more to be zero waste? Will it cost them more to go for more sustainable materials when they’re building sets, making costumes? And the answer is, it usually does cost more. And with student productions especially, they have very small budgets.

AW: Do you see any route forwards into more sustainable student theatre? Or for now, do you think that the cost of shows and the tightness of student budgets is going to be a massive barrier to any productive efforts towards sustainability?

KW: I think it’s fully dependent on the theatres that [students] continue to perform in. If these theatres don’t switch to LED rigs, or if they try to charge extra for them, then there’s nothing really that students can do. Yes, they can try to push the theatres, but at the end of the day, we’re paying these theatres to go and perform in them – and there are only so many in Exeter that we can perform in. We can go to ‘found spaces’ [unconventional performance locations for theatre productions, such as bars, gyms, and churches], but we have to take lights to those places anyway…

AW: And finally, is sustainable or ‘green’ theatre something that is impressed upon drama students, the theatre practitioners of the future, by the university’s drama department?

KW: I think that they’re taking steps in that direction. A couple of years ago, when I was doing a module on technical theatre, LED lanterns weren’t popular at all. We were told that they were rubbish, and that they didn’t really work in the same way. A lot of designers preferred Tungsten lanterns because a few years ago, they were just better. However, with the technology that’s available now, there’s more of a push towards the idea of LED lighting – and I think that this is reflected in the syllabus. A lot of the lecturers are in favour of sustainable theatre. For example, in the module I’m taking now, I feel like there is more encouragement to use LED lighting, and to put on sustainable theatre. It’s still very early days, but there are still steps being taken in the right direction.

AW: Do you have any advice to future students at the university, to help them make theatre that is more sustainable?

KW: I think that they just need to research what makes sustainable theatre. A lot of the students at Exeter, they just don’t really know enough about it. They’re stuck in very traditional ways of performing. And, so, the more they research and the more they look into these different methods, it’s more likely that their theatre is going to become more sustainable.

Alice Walters

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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