Sustainable Theatres Australia (STA) is the brainchild of Clemence Williams, who has brought together a small group of theatremakers and administrators united by the mission to make the Australian theatre industry more sustainable. Founded on the cusp of the pandemic, we soon realised that the rupture and change of COVID was perhaps perfect for launching this venture, framing sustainability as an opportunity for the future that can be planned for now.
Since the outset, our focus has been on making sustainability accessible as a mindset and framework across the independent and mainstage sectors. Every artist should have the resources and tools to green their practice and we’ve focused our efforts thus far on a set of resources to make this possible. This started with our introductory Green Guides, released on our website with our public launch in November 2021.
These guides target independent artists and are designed to kickstart their theatrical sustainability journey. Each of the guides target a different stage or department in the production process and are full of tips, provocations and frameworks to encourage thinking around reducing a project’s environmental footprint. The guides are ever-growing and we’re working hard to collect and consolidate industry-relevant knowledge so they remain easily accessible.
Of course, there is then a big leap to take between theory and practice. You could read the Green Guides and think – now what?
This is why the next step in our resource rollout is a series of case studies, profiling different indie theatre productions that are putting these Green Guides into action. We’re hoping these profiles will give people real-world examples of approaching sustainability in their practice, and we’ve embarked on this process with the new production, The View From Up Here.
Creating a sustainable production
The View From Up Here is a new work about family, legacy, sisterhood and survival by Melbourne playwright Fiona Spitzkowsky. Set on a property ravaged by bushfires, and featuring third-generation farmer Maggie (Emily Tomlins) and her two nearly-estranged daughters (Brigid Gallacher and Chanella Macri), this production has its world premiere this week at Theatre Works.
The View From Up Here is presented by VIMH, an indie theatre company run by Liv Satchell (dramaturg on the production and co-author of this piece) and Julian Dibley-Hall (its director). We are a tiny outfit of two, producing original work and community gathering opportunities for Melbourne indie artists. The production’s Sustainability Consultant is Christian Taylor (this article’s co-author), a theatre-maker who is currently studying a Masters of Environment. We are not experts, but we care about sustainability deeply and are continually working towards it. All three of us are founding members of STA, which is why The View From Up Here felt like the perfect choice for our first case study.
Our sustainability journey with this show started with a lot of discussion about the team’s expertise and priorities to work out what we could achieve. These conversations were the foundation of a Sustainability Plan; a six-page document that outlined the show’s key goals and the specific actions to be taken. This included everything from transport emissions and marketing, to procurement, disposal, and a list of materials we wanted to exclude.
Once we had a draft, we discussed the feasibility of our goals. We wanted to reduce the team’s carbon intensive transport usage by 50%, but would this be manageable for everyone? We also wanted to source 80% of our materials second-hand and locally, but would the design team be able to find what they needed? People need to be a high priority when thinking about sustainability; any actions taken shouldn’t come at the cost of access, inclusion, safety, or mental health. Our focus was on what we could realistically do, and do well.
This document became the lynchpin for our production’s sustainability. It gave us measurable goals and timelines to keep us accountable. Once the show wraps, we will debrief and report on our goals, what worked and what didn’t, and brainstorm ways to do it better next time (because it’s all about getting a little bit better each time).
Change happens on the fringes
Now, we’re not going to sugarcoat it. Significant work was needed to identify the key sustainability concerns for this show, and how to address them. The good news is that hopefully we’ve now done a lot of that for you; we’ve compiled lists of nationwide eco-friendly suppliers, sustainable disposal sites and sustainable material options on the STA website and we are planning to post a template of our Sustainability Plan for others to make their own.
Sustainability is one of those ideas that can feel overwhelming, monolithic even. We know this. We’re all artists at the beginning of this journey too. ‘What difference will my home recycling make?’ is in the same ballpark for artists as ‘What impact can I make, compared to projects and companies with six-figure budgets?’
What you have to remember though is that change happens on the fringe. It’s independent artists and small to medium arts companies that are nimble enough to test out more sustainable materials and processes in real time, taking the ones that work and putting them into effect immediately. It is the fringe that streamlines new models and methodologies before they’re adopted by the centre.
It can feel difficult to think about sustainability when you’re already doing so much just to get your work produced. It’s worth mentioning then how quickly factoring sustainability into your logistical and creative decisions becomes the new normal. This was what The View From Up Here showed us – the entire team transitioned seamlessly to these extra tasks and procedures. Imagine if this became the case for every show. We could affect a paradigm shift, where sustainability in practice is an opportunity and the starting point for creativity.
Optimism is one of STA’s core values. We choose to believe that change can happen. Every recycled set, every cable tie that isn’t used, every tram ride to rehearsal – every single one of these is a sustainable action. Our best piece of advice is to try out what you can and see what works for you. It all counts.