Georgia Payne takes a look at the industry’s green credentials.

As the planet heats up, green has become the coolest colour around, with more and more businesses converting to environmentally sustainable practices to save the environment and their pockets. The burning question is, can theatre go green? To consider this, firstly we must define what it actually means to be green.  ‘Being green’ is about sustainability, a slippery term, most commonly defined by the 1987 Brundtland Commission, which described sustainable developments as those that “meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Green theatre can therefore take two forms – as a production that engages in educating the audience about the need for environmental sustainability, or in the use of sustainable practices by theatre companies in their daily operation. In some cases it can be both.

So, what is actually being done in the industry? To date, the largest environmental theatre initiative in Australia began in 2008, when the Sydney Theatre Company launched Greening The Wharf. This $5.2-million project converted the old maritime wharf at Pier 4/5 into a green arts haven. Greening The Wharf is a comprehensive program outlining green practices in every aspect of the theatre’s operation, from the design process to the dump. Perhaps its greatest achievement is the photovoltaic panels that generate 70% of the energy needs for all companies at The Wharf (below). Greening The Wharf was a key component of the Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s vision when they joined the STC in 2008. Outlining their program on the company’s Green Screens Blanchett explains the necessity of their choice, “Theatre is very much engaged in the time and place in which it is made, and the greatest challenge facing us as a species at the moment is climate change. We felt as a theatre company that if we didn’t engage with that incredible challenge that we’re all facing, then very quickly as a theatre company we’d become irrelevant.”

Photo © 2010 Grant Sparkes-Carroll

The holistic nature of Greening The Wharf is represented in the multi-stakeholder approach, with funding from State and Federal Governments, as well as corporate, philanthropic, and arts sectors. The STC’s Sustainability Project Manager, Paul O’Byrne believes that this mix offered a unique approach to dealing with the challenges that presented themselves when converting the heritage-listed building. These changes have been absorbed throughout the whole company, which O’Byrne credits to the inherent ability of theatre to adapt to change. “I think theatre is an art form where it is used to parameters… so that might be size of theatre, or it might be budget… and I think [by] adding sustainability parameters into that mix, the creative teams are very used to that. I don’t think anybody doubts the purpose or intent behind it [Greening The Wharf], so people go ‘ok, well what can I do to help?’ and it just becomes a new parameter.”

For theatres wishing to undertake the greening process O’Byrne offers three key points. Firstly, an audit of the company’s energy use. Whilst this can be a daunting process, says O’Byrne, it can reveal some very quick fixes. Secondly, “concentrate on what you can do,” evidently the STC’s comprehensive approach may not be not possible for smaller companies, who “may wish to focus on one area, and that’s very valid”. And thirdly, regular communication with both internal and external audiences, “bringing them on board [and making sure they] understand why you are embarking on this program.” According to O’Byrne, opportunities can then open up from government, philanthropic and corporate sectors in ways that haven’t always been available to arts companies.

Elsewhere in Australia, other theatres are following suit. In Melbourne, Malthouse Theatre has established Malthouse Greenlight, a program that aims to reduce 2011 carbon emissions by 60% by 2015. Whilst Malthouse has adopted more of a grassroots approach than the STC, their practical measures demonstrate that being green doesn’t need to cost the earth. Michele Bauer of Malthouse Theatre explains how their “whole of company approach” was conceived through a company survey last year, with staff indicating their desire for “commitment and action” from Greenlight. This led to staff setting “little personal goals,” says Bauer, “so they’ll reuse their plastic bags, or they won’t use takeaway coffee cups.” Malthouse is also making infrastructural changes such as upgrading house lights to LED lights, but Bauer insists that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to going green, and that Malthouse is still very much in the early stages. In the future Bauer would like to see everyone considering sustainability, both at home and at work. She says people can overcomplicate climate change and think that they can’t make a difference. The challenge is therefore to achieve a shift in people’s thinking. “I know the arts are, quote unquote, a small drop in the big world wide bucket, but in the end every small drops counts. So it’s just a matter of breaking things down.”

For green theatre to be successful in Australia the message needs to be spread, as it is frequently a lack of known resources that impedes progress. The Theatre Victoria Network website states that Bauer is currently “conducting research for ClimArte, looking into creating a database of art projects (across all forms, and nationally) that have dealt with climate change and environmental issues, from 1996 through 2013.” Advocacy is one of the three key components of Greening The Wharf, whose website and interactive Green Screens contain much of the information regarding the program, including interviews with the Artistic Directors and heads of departments about how they have embraced green theatre. Similarly, Malthouse advocates sustainability through industry conferences and Greening Our Performance, an artistic alliance offering workshops focused on improving the environmental outlook of theatre.

In terms of theatre as an educational art form, companies such as Vox Bandicoot devise performances to convey their messages of sustainability and respect for the earth. Vox has toured schools in Victoria and other parts of Australia with 12 shows to “bring the magic back to the bush.” Another initiative, Sustainability Street is a “community development program, which educates and engages community members in sustainable living practices and initiatives.” Vox founder, Frank Fitzgerald-Ryan says, “For a thousand generations, theatre, dance, [and] song have been a strong authentic way for us to share and communicate to each other our culture and how it might need to evolve.” For Vox, theatre is a way of showing people how to connect with our environment and help sustain it.

When appearing on the ABC’s Big Ideas in 2010, STC Board member Sam Mostyn made a compelling argument for changing the way we view climate change. According to Mostyn we have become too bogged-down in viewing climate change very negatively, as an overwhelming problem that is too difficult to be tackled by us and is therefore left in the hands of the Government. What we then miss is “the hugely optimistic side to this debate” that allows us to come together as individuals and inspire each other “to do things that actually make our world better.” Kermit the Frog once famously said “It’s not easy being green” and although this is surely true today, I think theatre has already begun to flick the switch.