Coming out of the pandemic, Told by an Idiot were determined to do what we do best, and create a brand-new show. After two years of reimagining previous productions for socially distanced and outdoor audiences, we were ready to get in a room and think up some ideas for our new production; Would You Bet Against Us? (albeit still having to take COVID tests twice a week!). 

With the dawn of a new show, we also decided to take on a new challenge; to achieve the Baseline level of the Theatre Green Book: Sustainable Productions. We all know there’s a climate emergency, but before the first edition of the Theatre Green Book was released in 2021, best practice for the theatre industry in tackling the crisis was a bit of a minefield. As an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation, we have been recording our carbon footprint and impact on the environment via Julie’s Bicycle annually for many years. Each year, we also rack our brains to think of new, impactful, and realistic initiatives we can add to our Sustainability Action Plan. Embarking on the Theatre Green Book was taking this to the next level.  

Our Executive Director, Jenni Grainger, and I completed Carbon Literacy training with the Carbon Literacy Project in January 2022, so I felt relatively prepared to tackle the Theatre Green Book. I won’t pretend, however, that I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of leading a full team into something I’d read about but had never attempted to deliver. What’s more, theTheatre Green Book is full of information and quite a feat to read through - but the climate emergency isn’t something that can be summarised in a few words.  

Each level of the Theatre Green Book (Baseline, Intermediate and Advanced) has targets to reach and detailed guidance to follow in making steps towards net zero – the ultimate goal. 

First off, each production needs to appoint a Sustainability Champion - someone to track, guide and support sustainability efforts across the team and the production. With this being our first venture into the initiative, I felt it was important for me (Producer) to assume this position. As our Production Manager was intricately involved in the set build and tech requirements of the show, he oversaw these elements, with my focus being costume, props, rehearsals alongside having an overview on the show, including the tour, as a whole.  

Would You Bet Against Us? was a co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre who had also not previously worked to the Theatre Green Book. They did, however, have staff members with previous experience which proved very useful! As newbies, we had to accept that we didn’t know all the answers and were likely to be hit with some harsh truths regarding what needs to change in our practice. Regardless, we accepted the challenge and made our way through the checklist of what a Baseline production needs to achieve.  

The main measures for a production to achieve the Baseline standard is for 50% of the show to have had a previous life, 65% of the show to go on to have a future life, and for 100% of plastics to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable. This is calculated using an inventory, documenting everything used in the show under four departmental headings; 1) set and furniture, 2) props, 3) costume and 4) technical. To create an efficient inventory compiled across the team, it immediately became apparent that clear timeframes and communication were essential. I would recommend having the inventory as an online, live document which everyone in the company (including co-producers) can access and complete as they go along. Remembering how many hinges you used and how many pieces of fruit were required for the fruit puppetry sequence after the event, is not an easy task! Every purchase for the production had to be authorised by either myself, our Production Manager or the Rep’s Head of Production, Suzy Somerville, and each member of the team logged the items they were responsible for in the inventory. With a large team working on a show, we found this to be the most effective way of ensuring we stayed on track as much as possible. 

One of the first responsibilities as the Sustainability Champion was for me to write a Green Agreement (there’s a template in the Theatre Green Book) and have it signed by the whole team to confirm everyone agrees to work towards the relevant level of the Theatre Green Book, collaboratively take responsibility and also engage with the book itself, by reading the guidance relevant to their role. It is clear when entering this process that sustainability is not one person’s job; decisions and actions need to be embedded in every aspect of a production. This often means that longer lead in times are required to ensure items are sustainably sourced.  

Time was something we didn’t have. Slightly on the back foot after the pandemic, there was little time between confirmation of dates of the run, and pre-production. This meant that the design process was quick and decisions were made swiftly to meet build deadlines that allowed us to have the set in rehearsals – something which is absolutely integral to making a Told by an Idiot show.  

We held a ‘Green Card’ meeting ahead of the model box showing to introduce the extended team to the Theatre Green Book and start the conversation around how best to make the designers’ visions a reality in the most sustainable way possible. Our Set and Costume Designer, Sophia Clist, is brilliantly resourceful and a lateral thinker and, in partnership with the Rep team, was able to design a set which utilised a recycled dance floor, recycled timbers and the carcass of an old piano. With much of the show being set in the 1970s, the Rep’s store was a dreamland of retro dresses, jackets, props and accessories which we were able to utilise knowing they had had a previous life and would go on to be used again. Double tick from the Theatre Green Book! 

The show weaved together two narratives, that of our Artistic Director, Paul’s, childhood and his subsequent journey into showbiz, and Aston Villa’s journey of becoming European Champions in 1982. Luckily, with Paul being an avid Aston Villa supporter, he was able to provide some of the costumes, including football shirts and scarves. Sourcing vintage football strips was slightly more problematic, however, and did involve some online orders. Whenever possible, we borrowed items from stores or bought locally. Inevitably, Amazon did come to the rescue (or not, as the sustainability case may be) once or twice, particularly during the last-minute stress of tech week.  

Following the run at Birmingham Rep, we toured the show locally around Birmingham. Local touring = less miles, another tick! Although the Theatre Green Book encourages users to consider transport, the Baseline level does not require transport to be monitored or tracked. This threw up an interesting conversation in our evaluation meeting – if we courier a second-hand rug to use in the show from Winchester to London, is it really sustainable, or is a new one, from a local shop in Birmingham, more sustainable overall? How about if the courier is transporting many deliveries at the same time, so it’s not a solo trip? Is that better than buying new, locally?!  

Through the whole process of striving towards Baseline we realised that (just like the questions above) there are a lot of nuanced judgement calls to make, and the Theatre Green Book doesn’t claim to have all the answers. It acknowledges that it is an evolving initiative which aims to give a framework and standards to work towards net zero but that there are in-the-moment decisions for the Sustainability Champions, with the production team, to make throughout, which aren’t as clear cut on sustainability – there’s many grey areas too.  

In relation to transport, initially, I had considered touring in an electric van. However, after reading Fuel’s blog on doing so and us failing to find a transport company local to Birmingham who would hire out one of their electric fleet for less than 6 months, I admitted defeat and instead worked on a schedule that would require the least amount of driving between local community centres. Hopefully as electric transport continues to develop, and petrol and diesel vehicles are phased out from 2030, this will become much more straightforward to implement! 

The moment I was nervous about, but also looking forward to, was finalising the materials inventory and working out if we had reached our targets. It’s important to be as truthful in the reporting as possible. Trying to pass a chair off as a prop rather than a piece of furniture as a way to achieve targets for both props and set defeats the purpose. What’s much more fruitful (although perhaps difficult to accept!) is concluding what you managed to achieve and then the main improvements that need to be made for next time. Achieving all the targets on a first attempt is unlikely, but the conversations that are triggered as a result of the process is what makes the Theatre Green Book a great initiative.  

The Theatre Green Book recommends, where possible, to log set, props and tech equipment by weight, and costumes by amount of material. Finding these measurements when they are not readily available, however, (such as the weight of a piece of timber, of the amount of material in a jacket) takes a significant amount of time and people power. Other than the set, where weighing was slightly more straightforward, we predominantly relied on measuring each ‘unit’ of the show and then calculating percentages of each unit - which were recycled, and which would have a future life etc. As the Theatre Green Book explains, this inventory method is not fool proof. You need to decide as a team what quantifies a ‘unit’. Does a hat stand and a tea set both individually equate to ‘one unit’ of the show, or is one prop worth more ‘units’ than another? Similarly in measuring the show by weight, should an item that is twice as heavy as another really have twice as much influence on the percentages achieved? I’ll leave you to discuss! 

All this aside, we were really pleased with our results which I’ve included below. These calculations proved a great basis for our evaluation. They have clearly indicated the areas in which improvements are needed and have sparked internal and external conversations and actions going forwards, now from a much more informed viewpoint.  

A snapshot of the questions we will continue to ask ourselves after completing this Baseline experiment are: How can we make a bespoke set even more sustainable, without overly affecting the creative process? Is putting the show into storage with the intention of reuse really enough to say we are giving it a future life? Is buying second hand items online and therefore incurring delivery, better than buying new items locally and in-person?  

Ultimately, we found the Theatre Green Book to be a brilliant initiative to encourage conversations and problem solving around sustainability. The process helped change our mindsets to fully prioritise working in a sustainable way – something which needs to become the industry standard. We thoroughly enjoyed the collaborative spirit it created across the team -including producing, design, production, cast, designers, stage management. We were clear from the outset that Theatre Green Book Baseline was something we all needed to be passionate about achieving with the show and everyone got behind it, 100%.  

 

Learning to take forwards 

  • Invest in some Carbon Literacy training, and acquaint yourself with the Theatre Green Book as early as possible, then use it as a reference point throughout the process 
  • As soon as a production is confirmed, hold a preliminary Theatre Green Book meeting to talk the team through the process, agree timelines and future meetings, and ensure everyone is committed to the initiative 
  • More time, and often more money, is needed to source sustainable items, so allow for this as much as possible 
  • Organise a trip to set / props stores for designers as soon as they are on board, so they know exactly what is available before any purchases are made (this can spark their creativity too!) 
  • Have an online, live inventory which everyone in the company (including co-producers) can access and complete as they go along 
  • Include a section for notes in the inventory. If an item was purchased second hand but was couriered, this affects how sustainably we are working – This should be noted in the inventory and taken into account when evaluating our performance 
  • When items are purchased, think about how they can be reused. If they can’t – how integral are they to the show? 
  • As ideas come up in the rehearsal room, don’t act on them straightaway as the idea may be cut a day or two later. Use a makeshift prop in its place, until you’re certain (or almost certain!) it’ll make its way into the show 
  • Consider whether extra staff is needed at points. We had the DSM in rehearsals from the beginning, but the TSM joined from week 4 of 5. In hindsight, an extra pair of hands propping at the beginning would have been useful – especially considering everything should be from sustainable sources, and this takes extra time 
  • Put the Theatre Green Book on the agenda for all production meetings. Alongside specific Theatre Green Book meetings, this ensures that its being integrated fully into the production process
  • Don’t expect to know all of the answers. Be open to brainstorming sustainability ideas with the team and deciding on the best ways to proceed together 
  • Look at the Theatre Green Book as an exciting and creative restriction, rather than something that limits creativity. We found this mindset really liberating!   

 

Our results 

Set 

% having a previous life  

Target: 50%  

Our result: 66% (target met) 

Notes: A large amount of the set was recycled from previous shows or bought second hand. Some of the heaviest items had not had a previous life, which lowered the percentage achieved. This included paint, as the Rep did not have specific colours left over from other shows, plywood which was needed in certain dimensions which was not available second hand, and Aqualac (lacquer), which again, was not already in the Rep’s stock. In future, with more lead in time, we could speak to partners and nearby venues or local websites to see if used paint and Aqualac is available elsewhere.  

 

% having a future life 

Target: 65% 

Our result: 95% (target met) 

Notes: We are hopeful that this show / set will have a future life, and so the set is currently housed in Told by an Idiot’s set store. Certain elements (masking tape, spirits for cleaning) are items that cannot be reused, or were used up during this show, reducing the percentage slightly. 

 

Costumes 

% having a previous life  

Target: 50%  

Our result: 53% (target met) 

Notes: Football shirts were donated by TBAI’s Artistic Director and the Rep’s store had a brilliant array of 1970s clothes to borrow. More specific items needed to be made or bought, so had not had a previous life. In future, with more lead in time, we could put call outs on social media for specific items or more extensively search in charity shops, but we did not have that opportunity with this show due to limited time. 

% having a future life 

Target: 65% 

Our result: 100% (target met) 

Notes: All of the Rep’s costumes were returned to their store and everything bought for the show is in the Told by an Idiot store with the view to reuse for research and development, future life of the show or in other shows. 

 

Props  

% having a previous life  

Target: 50%  

Our result: 42% (target not met) 

Notes: Numerous lightweight, plastic footballs were required for the show and without the time luxury of being able to find them second hand, purchases were made online. In future, more time will allow us to find as many of these kinds of items second hand as possible. Certain bespoke props were made specifically for the show, including intricately crafted puppets and accessories, including a heart, puppet football strip, and a personalised car number plate. We could not have found these second-hand as they were bespoke to the puppets made for the show (including one made to impersonate Paul’s dad) and therefore these are the few prop that we feel can be justified for not having a previous life. 

% having a future life 

Target: 65% 

Our result: 97% (target met) 

Notes: All of the borrowed Rep’s props were returned to their store and everything bought new for the show is in the Told by an Idiot store with the view to reuse for research and development, future life of the show or in other shows. A small amount of perishable props were not suitable for reuse, e.g. fruit. 

 

Technical 

% having a previous life  

Target: 50%  

Our result: 94% (target met) 

Notes: There were a few items that needed to be bought, as the Rep didn’t have them in stock including bell wire cable and LED tape. However much of what was used, however, was reused from other shows or came from the Rep’s technical stock. 

% having a future life 

Target: 65% 

Our result: 97% (target met) 

Notes: All items either remain with the set in Told by an Idiot’s store, or were returned to the Rep for future use – including switches, plugs, tape, lamps and cabling. 

 

Plastics: 100% of plastics used were reusable, recyclable or compostable (target met)