Ella Langley: Interview with Oli Savage
My role in Staging Change is interviewing pioneers of sustainability in theatre. BoxedIn Theatre go above and beyond to meet that criteria, with their new upcycled performance space at the Edinburgh Fringe - The Greenhouse. The space is going to be made out of entirely found and recycled materials. It’s located at Dynamic Earth (just underneath Arthur’s seat) and it’s supported by Fringe Conglomerate The Pleasance. We spoke to their artistic director Oli about the challenges and ambitions of the project as it unfolds.
What series of events lead you to forming The Greenhouse project?
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jethro Compton, but he’s a director from company called Belt Up. One Fringe, he had one of the rooms upstairs in C Nova, where he staged a trilogy of shows, which they cycled through every day.
As an audience member, I was going into the space feeling ready to engage with the ideas I’d associated with the trilogy. You don’t get that a lot at the Fringe because you’re running from place to place and everywhere is a makeshift performance space. I was thinking okay he had three shows and he had his own performance space: let’s do that.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was being up at the Fringe with a show. It is absolutely baffling the amount of waste you see at the Fringe. We were flyering and halfway through I sat down with the head of marketing, Grace Thorner, and asked "what would it take to bdo zero waste marketing?", and she said, "it’s funny because I’ve been thinking exactly the same thing" and she’d prepped a load of statistics about exactly what it would take. A key thing she’d pulled up is we had sold about 80% of our tickets to one of our shows before we had arrived at the Fringe. There had been no waste generated, not a single flyer.
It seemed like a very natural step at that point to be like well if we’re gonna be zero waste marketing why stop there. Why not go for a project that is completely zero waste?
That is an incredibly high goal to set. How are you finding it?
The Fringe is made for artists and lead by artists and that’s really really positive, but it also means we have more responsibility than we quite realise. By setting substantial goals as artists and by paving new ways to make change, we hope that other shows and larger venues can follow suit.
I am not a very competitive person but I compete with myself a lot. It just means I end up setting ridiculous targets for projects that I’m working on. I don’t mind necessarily failing on goals that I set. So aiming for a zero waste project, I don’t mind if we generate like a kilograms worth of waste. You’re still playing a game of football even if you don’t score. I think the fact that we’re setting that goal and aiming for it is important enough.
We’re also not going in with our eyes closed... every time any of the shows or management generate waste (which we haven't yet) our head of sustainability will record it. I think that’s really important, to document the process. It means that next time, we can deliver and delineate where it is difficult to reduce waste.
What are the biggest challenges to meeting your goal do you think?
There is so much paper used in administration for theatre. While it’s not hard to be like "okay I’m gonna circulate this via email", it sometimes goes against instinct. That’s a surprisingly big challenge.
The main thing with the project is we’re almost trying to break into the Fringe in a very different way than we have in the past and that’s always going to be difficult. Stuff we’re starting to get nervous about is Meet The Media, because we’re not going to be able to hand out press releases.
Waste is really important, not just because of its impact on the environment, but because it’s a mind-set. Once you get into the mind-set of "we can’t just be consuming and outputting and consuming and outputting and causing unfettered damage", then you can, I think, start to have a dialogue about other things.
So, it’s about changing the mind-set. Saying "okay, our mind-set isn’t let’s just print this", and making sure instead that our mind-set is "okay, let’s think about how being zero waste is marketable and does help the project in the long run".
So, in that way, do you feel it’s changing you as theatre makers and as people who exist on the planet?
BoxedIn's work pushes for what we think should be a base level. So, for example, exploring gender-blind casting, or our push on accessibility; that’s now something that we implement in our work without even thinking about it. We continue to make work that is fun and exciting and engaging with important ideas, and the sustainability becomes an inherent part of that.
There’s something like 35 of us and because everyone involved is doing so much research, we see the numbers and it’s hard to not be like I need to make a change. You realise very quickly that we need to set an example but we also need to fulfil it. We can't only talk about it, we also need to enact it.
What’s phenomenal about it is that I'm not dictating my team, “you need to live like this”, it’s the fact that they’re discovering it for themselves through the power of theatre.
What advice would you give to a company at an earlier stage, maybe just now starting to consider sustainability as an issue in theatre?
My answer would be, do it.
The barriers we see to sustainability are largely set by ourselves. The fact that the practice of flyering is the practice of flyering is because it is. I know that sounds phenomenally stupid but it is what it is... because it is. Why not try doing it differently?
The second step, is if you’re not shooting for the stars and tryna do absolutely crazy big level things, then every single change is a step in the right direction.
We’re running an initiative alongside the project which provides very small very measurable targets for companies in exactly this position. So: reduce your flyers, add a note on them that says “recycle me”. We want to use that to create this sense of community and connection to something larger, because it can be very difficult as a small artist when it feels like not much is happening. That’s important because it has an environmental impact but also because it strengthens the dialogue that artists want this sustainable change to happen.
Whose work has inspired or helped you?
Well Staging Change - we really love the work that you’re doing and the way you’re approaching it as well. The Green Arts Initiative in Scotland is fab. Apart from anything else they’re just really lovely people and really happy to help.
To find out more about The Greenhouse, click here.