A Green Cabaret at Central School of Speech and Drama

Introduction

In Autumn 2012, the Royal Centre School of Speech and Drama (Central) decided to trial a more sustainable approach to theatre production, using their annual musical theatre show as the first step in the process. Working with environmental support from Julie's Bicycle, Central students staged CABARET in the first week of March 2013, and this case study outlines the explorations, achievements and findings of the process to green the show.

Central had already implemented several sustainable production initiatives, inlcuding:

  • LED house lights in the Exchange Theatre auditorium;
  • 100% production waste recycling through Scenery Salvage;
  • A Bristol Water Aqua Service Unit for washing painting equipment which separates the toxic paint residue for responsible disposal and filters and reuses the water used for washing;
  • A waste vegetable oil (WVO) biofuel generator used to power the school’s studio space;
  • Partnerships with lighting suppliers to give students the opportunity to work with new low-energy lighting technology;
  • A commitment to use FSC certified timber where possible.

Participants in this pilot project were given the challenge to take these commitments and creative ideas to the next level.

The aims of the pilot project were to:

  • Raise awareness of initiatives already in place at Central to embed sustainable production practices.
  • Raise awareness of environmentally sustainable approaches to making theatre among third and second-year students involved in the production;
  • Monitor the production’s main impacts of energy, travel and production materials to create a baseline carbon footprint against which to compare future shows in the Embassy Theatre;
  • Explore more sustainable processes, materials, products and services to identify workable solutions to be rolled out across Central student productions;
  • Create a case study to share Central’s experience and findings within the school and the wider industry, to drive participation and change towards more environmentally sound production processes;
  • Ascertain needs and strategies to help with integrating sustainability into Central’s curriculum and across all student productions.

The summary achievements of the show’s greening process were:

  • Tracked company travel and production deliveries
  • Monitored lighting energy draw using FocusTrack
  • Used only house lighting stock to light the show
  • Recorded what materials were used and assessed sustainability of each one
  • Local sourcing wherever possible across all departments and minimum van delivery used
  • FSC certified timber used from construction where possible
  • Experimented with alternatives to silicone mould
  • Researched paint with lower VOC quantities
  • Costumes hired, reused and upcycled from Central and National Theatre stores, and/or constructed from fabric purchased locally
  • All set recycled through Scenery Salvage or kept for future productions in the Central store
  • Reusable water bottles used by company throughout
  • Communicated aims and objectives via policy displayed in working areas

The production's overall carbon footprint was 302.6 kg of CO2 equivalent. One of the key actions that reduced the production's emissions considerably was the reuse and recycling of 100% of the timber purchased for the show. By not sending this set to landfill after the show, the production saved over one tonne of CO2 e.

This footprint takes into account the carbon emissions of the production's stage electrics (lighting and sound) and largest material purchases of timber and steel. It doesn't include the energy use of the venue or the company travel during the rehearsal and run of the show. These are impact areas that Central will explore monitoring on future productions.

Creative Team

CABARET was directed and designed by professionals Robert Shaw Cameron (director) and Ruari Murchison (designer). Both had worked with Central before and were briefed that this production would be a sustainable pilot project from the outset of their involvement. Both took on the pilot with commitment and enthusiasm.

Both met with Julie’s Bicycle and had access to a draft of the Julie’s Bicycle Sustainable Production Guide to inform their creative process in designing the show. Cameron also made contact with Natalie Abrahami who had directed the Young Vic’s sustainable production pilot, After Miss Julie, for advice.

Murchison developed a design influenced by a minimal, “make do and mend” vintage aesthetic, capturing the more informal and darker underground atmosphere of the original Kit Kat Club - the setting for much of the musical - and enabling students to experiment with more found, second hand and recycled materials in the set, prop and costume construction.

Cameron endorsed the sustainability agenda in the white card design meeting, his model box presentation with the student production crew and meetings with the company throughout the rehearsal and production periods, which provided visible creative and practical leadership on sustainability from within the team.

Production Management

Student production manager, Daniel Starmer, was designated the project’s sustainability lead. He worked with the student production HODs to develop a sustainable production policy for the team, listing the actions that they would work towards to make the show greener. This policy was put up on the walls in the rehearsal room and production workshops, and signed by every member of the cast and production team, to show commitment across the board. These aims were:

1. Extend the LED house lighting from the theatre to the rehearsal room.

2. Send zero production waste to landfill, maximizing reuse and recycling during pre-production and after the show.

3. Recycle all paper, cardboard, plastic (and anything else that Central's recycling contractors will recycle) using the recycling bins provided in rehearsal and backstage areas.

4. Group orders together with both other departments and other shows to reduce transport emissions.

5. Make a conscious effort not to use excess energy use around the building, including

  • Not using the lift, unless carrying heavy items.
  • Maximizing natural light and turning off lights when possible.
  • Making sure “show states” are only on and used in the theatre where necessary.
  • Complete system shut downs rather than system standby.

6. All departments - sourcing from within school - costume, construction, props, stage management, lighting and sound.

7. All departments - when in school sourcing is not available - source from local and sustainable resources.

8. Lighting department to track their energy use.

9. Recycling lighting gel.

10. Digital scripting, and a5 scripting thereafter.

11. Traveling to school via public transport or walk/cycle.

12. All departments - look into new and eco versions of current products used, such as scenic art with low VOC clay paints.

13. Use rechargeable batteries and make sure optimum charging times are used.

14. Look into natural drying fabrics to take away the use of tumble dryer.

15. To be a zero PVC and gaffer tape show.

Reusable water bottles were ordered for everyone involved in the company to serve as a visual reminder of the team’s sustainability commitment, and reduce reliance on disposable water bottles.

Sustainability was a standing agenda item for every production meeting to emphasise environmental action as a priority within the production process and monitor progress on the production’s 15 environmental objectives. The production manager also implemented a system to help the other HOD’s monitor their environmental initiatives. This was done primarily by adding additional columns to budget spread sheets which enabled HODs to track, for example, transport distances for deliveries and alternative sustainable products that were researched.

Cast and Stage Management

The cast nominated a “green captain” from within the group to act as a champion for sustainability and keep the cast on track to meet their environmental aims. They used their reusable water bottles throughout the rehearsal and production periods, and were conscious to make sure lights, heating and any equipment such as hair straighteners, phone chargers etc. were switched off and unplugged when not in use. They all made conscious efforts to record how they travelled to rehearsals and walk, cycle and take public transport instead of driving and taxis.

They all took the time to understand how other members of the production team were working to improve the show’s sustainability, and contributed to the brainstorming for ideas and potential approaches during the sustainable production workshop.

Those of the cast who own a digital reading device - kindle or iPad, for example - avoided printing their scripts and read and took notes digitally during rehearsals instead.

Stage Management

All furniture and props were sourced second hand or made out of second hand and recycled materials where possible. Sourcing was done as locally as possible and when Ebay had to be used, filters were applied to show only items listed within London so that they would be picked up in person on public transport or by foot. The Brentwood chairs purchased will also be kept for the Central store for future use.

Only one van job was necessary to pick up the bed and the mattress required for the set, and there were sourced second hand from the same place to reduce transport miles.

Props lists were stored on Dropbox and calls were written on the walls of rehearsal and workshop spaces to reduce paper use.

Technical Management

Products used were assessed for their potential for use and recycling, and any new purchases were sourced locally.

Schedules and plans were not printed repeatedly and paper was reused and recycled as much as possible. Alternatives to printing used were email and sharing platforms such as Dropbox. The technical manager also used a white board instead of paper during the fit up.

The technical manager began to look into a system for combining deliveries across Central's production department to reduce transport miles both for Cabaret and the school overall. While in the end there wasn't enough time to coordinate and implement this more coordinated ordering system, it remains an ambition for the school to explore.

Lighting

The lighting department acquired the Focus Track software in order to use its Power Check function to monitor power usage throughout the performance. They also worked with someone to sub-meter the lighting rig from its power source to provide a comparative figure.

They combined their deliveries budget with other departments to save transport emissions and costs, and tried to use as much of Central's house stock as possible rather than hiring in or purchasing additional equipment. To reduce the use of PVC tape, Velcro ties were used for securing cables.

They also saved paper by being more conscious with printed material and avoiding printing new lighting plans each day.

Sound

The sound department picked up speaker hires in person on public transport instead of using a van, and used a white board to communicate during the run instead of printing.

Rechargeable batteries were used in all radio mics and portable sound equipment.

Scenic Construction and Disposal

FSC certified timber was used for all scenic construction except for the flooring, for which a more sustainable solution to MDF was not found due to time and budgetary constraints. This is something that the school is not addressing as a learning outcome from this project, and the flooring from Cabaret will also be reused on as many future productions as possible in order to maximise its value, and reducing its relative environmental impact.

Timber deliveries were combined as their supplier would only travel into London for multiple deliveries, thus reducing the relative footprint of the transport to Central.

The piano and other constructed props were reused and kept in Central's store for future productions.

The possibility of using reclaimed timber was also explored but the cost this time was too prohibitive. It will be developed as an idea on an ongoing basis.

All timber and set materials were reused and recycled after the show, saving over a tonne of CO2 equivalent on the show's overal carbon footprint.

Scenic Art

In addition to Central's pre-existing eco paint brush cleaning unit, the scenic arts team started to investigate the use of clay paints with much lower or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) content. The found suppliers based in Europe but their costs were prohibitive for this production. The school is, however, looking into making this feasible for future productions. They also researched biodegradable buckets and paint trays instead of using plastic, which are again being considered for use on future productions.

Props

The props department tried a variety of different experiments towards finding more sustainable ways to make props, and also reviewed all of the materials they used with a 1-5 sustainability scoring system, based on the Mo'olelo Green Theatre Choices Toolkit. In addition to the scores, they recorded where every material and item was sourced from. This process is not only invaluable for Cabaret’s greening process, but also provided a framework for bettering understanding about the impacts of different materials to inform the students’ ongoing work.

Examples of their sustainability initiatives include using wood scraps and off-cuts from the workshop to make handles for the telephone props, and using vinyl mould instead of silicone as it is reusable.

Costume

The costume department looked both at their fabric sourcing, costume making and also at hair and make up.

They initially tried to find British-made fabrics but were unsuccessful, and explored a variety of eco friendly fabrics which were unsuitable for the Cabaret costumes. They did, however, reuse costumes from Central's store, in particular the skirts from the 2012 music, and used Central's trim stock. They also hired some costumes from the National Theatre.

For new makes, material was sourced locally in London and collected by public transport and on foot. Journeys were documented to input into an assessment of the production’s overall transport emissions. The department were conscious about making sure machines where turned off when not in use. All new makes have been kept for future use in Central productions.

They looked into more environmental alternatives to products such as hairspray, and found a lemon-based recipe. They experimented with this but found it not strong enough to hold hair in place for this particular production, given the amount of dancing and movement involved.

Sustaining Creativity