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The Green Book: Sustainability by Design

25 March 2021

The Green Book: Sustainability by Design

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Even though theatres have been closed, it’s been a busy year for many of us as we seek to return to a sector in better shape than the one we left a year ago. One major area of work has been sustainability. Our own SBTD working group, the Sustainable Design Group, is working on various initiatives, from testing sustainable materials and campaigning for a shared costume resource, to developing carbon literacy training. (We’ll be telling you much more about these and other plans in due course, but in the meantime, you’re welcome to join us! Our email is at the end of this post.)  Meanwhile, Ecostage is at the final stages of creating its new website, with updated principles for its famous pledge, supported by a peer-reviewed guide. SiPA has published its 10 Easy Wins. And there are many other groups, all active in different ways.

The Green Book is a new initiative, started within the pandemic period, which has brought together a great many different organisations to produce a kind of sustainability bible for the theatre sector – an equivalent volume to the legendary Yellow Book; the UK’s foremost guide to technical standards in entertainment venues. The project was conceived by the ABTT and Theatres Trust, who brought in consultants Buro Happold. The whole thing is being co-ordinated by the theatre architect Paddy Dillon.

The aim of the book is to set out practical steps and guidelines for making the sector sustainable, backed up by key information and resources. It’s in three parts: Production (which covers our work as designers) followed by Buildings and Operations. The Production section is now available in a beta version for trialling, and you can download it here. 

We at the Sustainable Design Group supported the creation of The Green Book in a number of ways. Early on, our members jointly created a document that detailed the key points we thought should be included. Some members were part of a focus group. Some later also provided feedback on a draft version. Now we’re looking at the beta version and, where possible, trialling it in our work. We’re also collating feedback, which we’ll pass on to Paddy and Buro Happold.

Their aim is that the book will be finished by the end of next year, which gives all of us time, not only to give it a test drive but to use it, and the many other tools available, to make significant changes to our practices. To quote the book,

“The climate crisis is an immediate threat to our safety, equity and prosperity. We urgently need to limit carbon emissions, reduce biodiversity damage; and in doing so, achieve a just transition where people, places and communities are supported and vulnerable groups protected. Theatre cannot solve the climate crisis alone, but it can play an urgent role in addressing it. Theatre can question and challenge, provoke, entertain and surprise. It can reflect the preoccupations of generations facing a time of dizzying, frightening change. But to do that, theatre itself needs to change…”

While it’s important that designers don’t get lumbered with all the responsibility for making our sector sustainable – as The Green Book makes clear, it has to be built into organisational processes, with proper costing, scheduling and support – I do believe that we are in a place to show some leadership. In fact, many designers are already the ones blazing the trail. Within the theatre ecosystem, what we do is significant and influential (though it might not always feel recognised as such!) and we are, after all, the people in the team responsible for – and with a profound relation to – the aesthetics and meanings of material and place. Being innovative and brilliant to order, getting the most out of materials and creating worlds within limited parameters are all things we’re already experts in. And lets not forget that the climate crisis is a failure of imagination and vision, as well of politics and economics. It sounds like a terrible platitude but its true: we really can make a difference!

The Green Book: Sustainability by Design
Title: Raft, Llyn Mymbyr (Snowdonia National Park), Designer/Photographer: Alison Neighbour

The idea for the raft was to create a space for a single audience member to be tiny in the landscape and to understand their vulnerability whilst marvelling at the epic lake, mountains and sky that held them. The wood is sourced from firewood cuttings next to the lake, cut and tethered without machines, and the raft was dismantled and returned to the logstack at the end of the experience. The work was created as part of National Theatre Wales’ Egin residency in 2019.

Some people naturally have a concern about whether being more sustainable means artistic compromise. The underlying assumption – that we can opt out of being sustainable just because we don’t like it – may be wishful thinking, but I would suggest this is a false dilemma: there really shouldn’t be any reason for this new way of working to limit our aesthetics. Some designers may choose to pare down their work, for example, or foreground reused materials, as a way of demonstrating their commitment to the cause. But, with the right structures and processes in place, there’s no reason why we can’t continue to make the full range of designs we want to make, with no more constraints than the kinds we are already used to for health and safety, budget and so on.

And this is what it keeps coming down to. Just like all the other challenges we face, we’re perfectly capable of doing our job, as long as we’re given realistic amounts of time, money and technical support, along with access to the right resources. The Green Book, by providing unified standards for the sector, graded into baseline, intermediate and advanced levels to aid progress, should make this possible, as long as the sector starts using it. So do please download the beta version of the book, trial it in your work, and then send your feedback to the Sustainable Design Group: sustainability@theatredesign.org.uk. With The Green Book and all the other work on sustainable theatre that’s happening at the moment, it feels as though we’re at the beginning of a very exciting creative moment, with design right at its heart.

Paul Burgess is a London-based theatre designer working in set, video and costume. He’s on the SBTD committee, a member of the Sustainable Design Group and part of the Ecostage core team. He is also artistic director of Daedalus Theatre Company.


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