Sustainable Practice and Independent Theatre

I did a little research the other day. I poured through the websites of as many state and main stage theatre companies or collectives in the country as I could and what I found was really concerning. Of the thirteen companies that I examined, only four had sustainability criteria for their productions, or environmental impact counter-measures: STC, Malthouse Theatre, Black Swan Theatre, and La Mama Theatre. In their 2016-2019 Strategic Plan, QTC gave some vague goals for their “ambition to be more environmentally sustainable”, but failed to give any specific measures they would be implementing. And the rest of the companies? I could find nothing. From what I can gather it’s not that these policies aren’t public. It’s that they do not exist.

Which got me thinking about independent theatre and what our response as independent theatre practitioners should be. We contend with insufficient budgets, tiny performance spaces with inadequate lighting, and limited rehearsal time somehow slipped in-between two different jobs so we can pay the rent and fund our art. These are givens. They come with the territory. Yes, it would all be so much easier with more money and more time. But easy is also, more often than not, boring. Without obstacles, we would be lazy artists.  The best independent artists among us, find ways to stop thinking of such things as restrictions and think of them as a chance for collaboration, resourcefulness, and outside-the-box solutions.

Production still from 'How Can You Sleep At Night', Melbourne Fringe 2016. Photo credit: Rebecca Taylor

Production still from 'How Can You Sleep At Night', Melbourne Fringe 2016. Photo credit: Rebecca Taylor

So I wonder.  Should we be treating sustainability in the same manner? How can sustainability inform rather than restrict our art? I can’t speak for everyone. That is up to your individual practice. I merely want to pose the notion that if we choose to, we can treat sustainability as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

The first step in thinking about this, is to put in place some parameters for how you work. Which can be overwhelming - where do you start? 

For your reference, below is my personal sustainability policy when it comes to my artistic practice:

1.        Environmentally Friendly Marketing

When it comes to publicity we generally think more is better. But this is not the case. Particularly when it comes to print marketing. How many times have you been involved in a project that has printed hundreds of business cards or promo flyers, only to have been left with piles leftover at the end? My advice: don’t use them. I for one have never seen a show/exhibition/event based off a A6 postcard I saw in a local café. But let’s be honest. Digital (read: social media) advertising is where it is at. Or even better, explore some guerrilla and viral marketing techniques.

The most effective form of print marketing is street posters which give you much more bang for you buck, and massively reduce wastage. And if you do go down the poster path, most print advertisements producers offer a range of recycled and biodegradable paper stock and plant based pigments. Companies like Print Together specialise in such products, and also allow ‘collective printing’ where multiple customers share a printing press to cut down on wastage and energy. Other companies like Plakkit offer similar, but less extensive ranges of products, however also offer distribution packages on their exclusive public display zones.

Print ads in newspapers and local bulletins are also good ideas as they are an existing medium, and would be going to print without your business anyway.

Also think about whether you need to print programs to be handed out to every audience member throughout the season, or if it can be a single set of bios and director's notes outside the theatre door that can be read before the show. Except your mum. Always print a program for you mum.

2.        Carbon Offset

There are some unavoidable environmental impacts that we create in the course of our art, but also some very easy ways to mitigate them. Greenhouse Gas Emissions are rather difficult to eradicate entirely, even if you don’t drive a car - think air travel, whitegoods, food production, and waste disposal to name a few other sources.

Carbon offset involves buying ‘credits’ from particular companies who then use that money to plant trees, sea grasses or other greenhouse gas guzzling goliaths. These plantations are protected by law, and therefore guaranteed to remove a certain amount of emissions from the atmosphere in their lifespan.

First step is to calculate your emissions. I suggest the user friendly Australian Greenhouse Calculator from the EPA:

My personal GGE annually is roughly 10 tonnes. But as best you can, adjust your answers to the survey to fit your rehearsal and performance spaces.

The next step is to find a Carbon Offset organisation. You want to make sure that the company who choose is reputable and has strict protection policies in place for their plantations. I have used Greenfleet in the past, and used their ‘per tonne offset’ option, for roughly $15/tonne. They are an Australian based organisation who invest in biodiverse forests and your offset credits count at tax-deductible donations.

These calculations are based of annual figures, so it can be difficult to compress them down to an eight-week rehearsal/performance period. But I take the number of people involved in the show and multiply that by the time frame to get a percentage of the year, and then use that as a guide to adjust the annual estimate you have. For example:

6 weeks  x 7 creatives  =  42 weeks
42 weeks  =  81% of the year
My personal GGE estimate (10 tonnes)  x 81%  =  8.1 tonnes

8.1 tonnes of GGE equates to $121.50 towards Carbon Offset. If this means adding a few hundred dollars extra onto your crowdfunding campaign, or increasing your ticket price by one or two dollars, I reckon it is worth it.

In my experience being able to pitch the project as a carbon neutral holds a lot of traction with both funding bodies and potential audiences too.

3.       Zero Waste

Zero Waste is something to aim for, but again is very difficult to actually do, especially if you are an artist who needs to experiment with different materials, ideas or resources. It is more about waste minimisation. When it comes to production design, the focus needs to be on sustainability, and your rules to follow (in order of preference) are these:

Refuse. Reduce. Reuse. Repurpose. Recycle.

What we actually need to mitigate is our consumption rate. So purchasing props and the like with the good intention of just recycling them is not ideal. Avoid buying new products wherever possible. That should be your last resort. Borrow lights, equipment, props, materials etc. from friends and family or even generous businesses in exchange for making them publicity partners. Upcycle from hard rubbish, reverse garbage centres, or wrecker’s yards (with approval). And then if you aren’t going to keep your scenic elements, recycle them, donate them, sell them, or give them away. This does require some pre-planning from a design perspective, to ensure as much as possible is able to be recycled or used again.

Zero Waste also brings your own lifestyle choices into consideration whilst (and hopefully long after) you are involved with a project.

The first thing to go? Disposable coffee cups. With long production meetings, double show days and development intensives, the theatre industry’s lifeblood is caffeine (…among other things…), but it results in a lot of unrecyclable waste. Life hack: buy a Keep-Cup or travel mug and keep it at the theatre.  

Another major aspect to reconsider is paper usage. Request that script readings utilise electronic devices rather than print off multiple copies of a 60-page script that will change dramatically within two days. Or suggest to your venue that no tickets be printed by the audience, and instead opt for a similar system to La Mama who simply mark off names on a check-in list before the show. If you’re using paper based props, or paper as rehearsal material, scrounge through those recycling bins you find next to office printers (which are generally fair game in public or university libraries).

4.       Audience Incentives

Some curated venues and festivals are now offering audience incentives to make their way to their show via environmentally friendly transport. Notable examples include Next Wave Festival and Darebin Arts in 2016. The idea operates on an honour system, whereby audience can buy slightly cheaper tickets, in exchange for the promise that they will travel to and from the show via public transport, bicycle or on foot.

I believe that art by its definition must be for someone. It must engage an audience, actual or potential for the betterment of collective social good. The bad news? This change in practice probably isn’t going to come from the top down. The good news? Independent theatre is great at filling the gaps in the industry; seeing a need, a cause, a perspective that has been neglected and stepping up to the plate. Some might argue this is all another thing to think about, and for independent theatre practitioners trying to self-fund and self-produce work, it is a lot to ask. Maybe that’s true. But, like I said, it’s also an opportunity. And for good and bad, this opportunity isn’t going to last forever.