Reducing the environmental cost of The Cost of Living22 Mar 2023
We asked writer, dramaturg, arts journalist and Cardiff University academic, Hari Berrow to venture backstage at Swansea Grand to meet with the production team and learn all about how following the Theatre Green Book has shaped the creation of The Cost of Living. Here's what she found out:
As with most theatre practitioners, I went into the arts because I believed they could make the world a better place. Theatre can educate, it can summon up vast amounts of joy, it can create connections between different groups of people where one never was before. It’s become increasingly apparent, however, that all the good theatre does for the soul often translates into harm for the planet.
With the support and persistence of Head of Production, David Evans, NTW has worked to become a leading figure for sustainability in the British theatre industry. The Cost of Living’s production has been no different – a hugely ambitious production with sustainability at its heart. I spoke to David, as well as costume supervisor Amy Barret and design associate Luned Evans about the process of making the show as sustainable as possible.
The Theatre Green Book is a document that offers practical advice to individuals and organisations within the industry about how to approach making productions as environmentally friendly as possible. For The Cost of Living, the entire set was repurposed from The Bridge Theatre’s production of Straight Line Crazy which ran in London and New York last year.
‘We normally have a white card and a final model stage. Now we have a green card and a final model stage, because it is about sustainability and the environmental consequences of the set,’ David tells me. ‘This set is perfect because it was a pre-existing set. There’s very little stuff that’s virgin material, and that is absolutely the ambition.’
Luned had the role of dressing the set with items that were also repurposed. ‘Almost all of what you see in terms of set dressing is second-hand,’ she explains. ‘I did a lot of internet buying, and even going to people’s houses and picking stuff up. For instance, the cleaner trolley came from Abergavenny. We’ve been trying to source relatively locally, checking things like Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree to keep it close to either Swansea or Cardiff.’
Amy’s role also centred on dressing the characters with as many second-hand materials as possible. ‘A lot of it I was able to get in charity and there are a few specific things that I’ve bought new. There are a few things that I’ve hired, but they didn’t want to hire too much in case they put the show on again.’
Several organisations, including NTW, have committed to following Theatre Green Book’s guidelines across their practice and for every show they do. This comes with its own challenges, as well as its rewards.
Time was Luned’s biggest challenge on the project. ‘Because time is so limited, that usually restricts what you can source. Research itself takes weeks sometimes, just starting conversations – for instance, on Gumtree – sometimes people don’t answer you for days or weeks so you can’t just get it there and then.’
David admitted that taking an environmental approach takes longer. ‘One of ways of dealing with that is having those conversations sooner. If you say “we’re gonna do this” and then you hand that over to somebody and say “solve it”, that’s no good, but if they’ve been in the conversation from the beginning then it’s really easy.’
‘For this show, it’s been very doable, but for previous shows where the design’s been more specific and that thing just doesn’t exist in the world or exists but not in exactly the colour the designer wants, it has to be made,’ Amy reflects. ‘It can always be sustainable; it just depends on how flexible the designer is willing to be and the nature of the designs – whether they’re things that are readily available second-hand or can be hired.’
The show’s designer, Cai Dyfan, has taken a whole-hearted approach to sustainability. This is a feature that runs across his whole approach to theatre design.
‘The last job Cai did with us, On Bear Ridge, was another example of a very sustainable set.’ David says he valued the way Cai worked with the other creatives on the team. ‘By communicating directly with the Production Manager and the set construction company, he expressed his desire and intention rather than just the fact of the set’s existence. Other designers, you ask them a question and they say, “it’s in the model”. We need to move beyond that.’ (David wrote about the set in Spring 2020’s Sightline)
As well as giving creatives more time to work, offering collaboration across all levels of the company seem the key to making theatre sustainable.
‘Making shows sustainably is very difficult if you don’t have buy-in from all levels. Because we’re a hierarchical industry, that starts with the director. Fortunately, our artistic director has bought in, he’s committed the whole company to doing it and it’s part of his thought process,’ David explains
Both Amy and Luned have found the support from the company invaluable in ensuring sustainability remained their focus throughout. ‘I think the fact that the company’s so on board with it, it’s part of the process. With other companies who think about it less, you might be tempted to just cut corners because “well no one else is worried about it so, this makes it easier and cheaper for me”, Amy shares.
‘The more people that know where to find things, how to buy things, how to source these things, the better,’ Luned agrees. ‘With technology now you can send stuff so easily, it makes so much difference because you don’t just buy loads of stuff and bring it just in case. You can go “do you want this thing or this thing?” and they can answer straight away. Communication is a very important aspect of it.’
David wants Wales’ theatrical community to become an example for the rest of the world.
‘Sustainable practice needs to be woven through it all. Just as we don’t make things now which are racist because the idea is abhorrent, we need to be in the same mindset for environmental damage. The problem is people are taught that art is sacrosanct and art excuses everything – it doesn’t excuse anything. It’s like “the show needs this, it’s art, it’s worth it” – it’s not worth it, find another way of doing it, try harder. A lot of creatives have their own riders, and they’re requiring sustainability as part of their process. By the same measure, we need to be the same.’
As part of their commitment to reuse, NTW’s storage is available for any Welsh artist to borrow at any time. By the same token, David is keen for NTW to share their knowledge and expertise in this area, and to give other Welsh companies and artists the chance to do the same.
‘We’re holding three conferences this year, one in Newport, one in Bangor and one in Aberystwyth. The idea is to show best practice. That’s why we’re doing it in three different places: you get local people to come about what they’ve been doing, their successes and failures.’ He smiles. ‘If Wales can really engage with it and build it into our theatrical DNA then we can be an example to the rest of the world. We’re close enough to do it.’