Sunday, December 2, 2007

Enter a Greener Limelight

Enter a Greener Limelight
The Australian
Fiona Gruber November 29, 2007

EVERY theatre has a green room, but few are green in the modern sense. With their banks of dazzling stage lights and foyers ablaze nightly, theatres are energy-hungry beasts. Add to that the costs and waste associated with sets and props and the mountains of paper generated with every production and the world of make-believe begins to look grim.

On a scale of environmental evil, a theatre company is small fry. Its glamorous cousin, film, is much more greedy (the Californian film industry is, after the oil industry, the state's second largest polluter). Nevertheless, even a stripped-back performance of Waiting for Godot leaves a carbon footprint.

At a public forum at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre earlier this month, artistic director Michael Kantor outlined concerns and plans for improvements at his venue, including solar power, water harvesting and recycling everything from paper to the steel used in stage sets. Joining him on the platform were Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, who will jointly take up the artistic director role at Sydney Theatre Company in January. Although unwilling to be drawn on specific measures before they take the helm, Blanchett and Upton outlined their green philosophy.
"Theatre's role in any society is to be in engaged dialogue with the fundamental questions of the day," says Upton. "A person cannot simply talk about climate change, write plays about climate change and have forums about climate change; it's an issue that demands active engagement."
The forum, entitled Five Minutes to Midnight, was moderated by science broadcaster and writer Robin Williams and featured climate change heavyweights Don Henry, executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Grant Blashki, from Doctors for the Environment and Al Gore's nominated local presenter on climate change.

Faced with prophesies of doom if we continue on our wasteful path, will the theatre of the future return, as in Shakespeare's day, to daylight diversions under an open sky? With two theatres and backstage facilities at the Wharf in Walsh Bay, the Sydney Theatre over the road, and the Sydney Opera House's Drama Theatre, the STC's properties are a bit more lavish than an Elizabethan roundhouse.

This year, 22 productions played to an estimated 330,000 audience, administered by 102 full-time staff. Working with their landlords, the NSW Government, the new STC artistic directors aim to reduce energy consumption by 20 per cent almost immediately and to generate 60 per cent to 70 per cent of power requirements from photo-voltaic panels on the roof, design and authorities being willing.

The company's carbon footprint is in the process of being audited.

Although smaller, with three performance spaces in one building and a separate workshop, the Malthouse, a former centre of the Carlton and United Brewery beer-making operation, is an edifice from a more profligate era and bedevilled by its design.

"Like the Sydney Theatre Company, we inherited 19th-century buildings with heritage overlays," says Kantor. "The Malthouse was fitted out in the late 1980s with no concept of what was to come, in environmental terms."

The Malthouse has just launched its Greenlight Project, a combination of redesign, reduction in waste and a carbon offset scheme. An audit by RMIT students in the school of global studies, social science and planning found that the theatre generated 600 tonnes of carbon annually, equivalent to 2200 medium-sized cars.

"Sixty per cent of that is from theatre lights, they're the killer, and air-conditioning is whopping too," Kantor says. The convention is to keep the theatre at a constant 21C: he would like to see a greater audience tolerance for a wider band of temperature, between 18C and 25c. Lights generate a lot of heat. Lower wattage Source 4 lanterns are two to three times more efficient, and Kantor is waiting on a source of funding for them.

A new roof is planned, but it will be fixed over the original metal one, and further aims for the building do not include messing about with its mix of mellow red brick or exposed timber. "We don't want to disguise its beautiful character," Kantor says.

An appraisal of ecological sustainability by environmental architecture firm Design Inc points to possibilities including solar power and a shaded walkway in front of the building to reduce the need for artificial cooling inside as well as providing shelter outside. Project Andromeda, a company that helps other companies reduce their carbon footprint, has also come on board in a 12-month pro bono deal. Their services include the purchase of carbon credits for investment.

Unlike the Blanchett-Upton team, which has signalled an intention to reduce ticket prices rather than raise them, the less well-endowed Malthouse is introducing a carbon offset charge of 50c on tickets sold through the box office, and $2 on each season's subscription, in order to buy these credits.

The carbon credit scheme is not without contention: consumers can end up bearing the cost for a company that reaps the publicity benefit of looking green, without necessarily being so. Project Andromeda lists offset as the last resort, after all other areas of recycling, redesign and alternative sources of heat, cool and light, but it is a pragmatic step for companies at the beginning of a greening journey.

Even more ambitious plans are afoot in South Australia. The Adelaide Festival is claiming a world first as a CO2-free festival, a bold statement given its program stretches across 45 venues and 245 hours of events. A local company, Carbon Planet, will audit the March 2008 festival in order to assess the overall footprint, and while festival organisers plan to recycle and access green power wherever possible, a significant part of its carbon vanishing act will be through offset, a cost being passed along to ticket buyers, albeit on a voluntary basis.

If the audit includes the airfares of performers and visitors, freight costs for sets, and the tanks of petrol being consumed as audience members drive to and fro (which they will do, despite promotion of public transport alternatives) then the footprint will belong to a giant, but not a jolly green one.

The Carbon Planet deal is for the next three biennial events.

"We will try and neutralise as much as possible now and realistically identify those we can manage in the future," says Colin Coster, the festival's director of marketing and business development.

"Although it's a bit dangerous to put up our hand and say 'We're neutral', with so many partners and visiting companies, as far as the elements we manage, we will achieve neutrality, or very close."

Melbourne and Perth have new arts venues coming on stream in the next two years. In Melbourne, Ashton Raggatt McDougall's design for the new Melbourne Theatre Company venue on Southbank Boulevard, due for completion in 2009, will incorporate the latest range of
green features.

So will Kerry Hill Architects' new performing arts complex in Perth, also under construction. The daily battles with sun, bad natural ventilation, excessive water use and badly designed lighting systems should all be avoided. In a bold civic move, Perth is doing away with on-site parking, forcing punters and staff to rely on the public transport system or bicycles.
The MTC plans to buy bikes for its staff to cycle between Southbank and its refurbished rehearsal and administrative building 1km away.

Overseas, London mayor Ken Livingstone has pledged to reduce the carbon emissions of London's commercial theatres - which in 2006 had a combined revenue of pound stg. 400million ($943 million) - by 60 per cent, in line with his Climate Change Action Plan. The Arcola Theatre in Dalston, North London, is billing itself as the world's first carbon-neutral theatre.

With its initiatives, Australian theatre can also be a world leader. As Blanchett observed at the Malthouse forum, at its base, theatre is a cultural recycler of stories, narratives, and characters. It should also be able to recycle its hardware.