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What is theatre made of?
by Eleanor Margolies

One of the aspects of permaculture which I most appreciate is the sense that that growing food can be part of a complex city life, not something that happens elsewhere. City-dwellers need not be mindless consumers – they can change their relationship with the material world. For me, theatres are not only part of the city ecology but also have a role in showing this interconnection. As Michael McKinnie writes, an environmentally sustainable theatre can model a ‘different relationship between theatre, audience and neighbourhood than those we are familiar with’.

In April 2008 I was invited to spend a week as an artist in residence at the Central School of Speech and Drama in Swiss Cottage, leading up to a conference called Theatre Materials/Material Theatres ( I was interested in how theatre education could be made more sustainable, looking in particular at food, and so I began by talking to staff and students, watching how the building was used and taking photographs of cake displays in the many patisseries in the streets around the college.

An awful lot of packaging comes out of the college canteens: students and staff use 300-400 take-away cups a day, take away sandwiches are packaged in polystyrene boxes, and everyone seems to carry bottled water. I talked to Matt Mackay, the college’s catering manager, to find out what happened to food waste. He is quite aware of environmental issues – tea and coffee are all fairtrade, and all drinks cups are made of recycled paper – but he told me he was limited by the local council’s waste collection policies. Paper cups cannot be collected separately for recycling, let alone food waste.

A representative from Camden Council told me they were working on a pilot project for collecting food waste, but I wondered about composting at the college itself instead. There is very little ground space free on the overcrowded site, but there are several rather bleak roof terraces. If the college started making its own compost, it could be used to support vegetable growing on the terraces, creating green spaces where students could relax in their breaks and cultivate fruit and salad vegetables to supplement their sandwiches. By showing what’s possible, it might also encourage students to think about growing and composting at home, and to campaign for good environmental practices in the theatres where they’ll work in the future.

Information from the Environmental Association of Universities and Colleges suggested that on-site composting should be legal, although surrounded by complex legislation. There would need to be a lot of negotiation with the college management – more than I could manage in a week! So I decided instead to set up a temporary demonstration wormery for the conference. I collected tea bags and food waste from the canteens and arranged a display of computer-manipulated photographs showing how the roof terraces would look covered in greenery. A quotation from Hamlet made the theatrical connection clear: ‘A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.’

The wormery was fun and attracted a lot of interest, but what impact could these ideas have on the main purpose of the college – making theatre? I focused one just one area, prop-making, which can generate lots of dust and volatile chemicals. In the past, it’s been a hazardous craft; today, practitioners have to be aware of their own health and that of others around them, and follow rules about the safe use and disposal of chemicals. However, there is still a lot of waste: countless objects are produced (often using plastics) and thrown away at the end of a run of performances. Could biodegradable props be made that would be realistic and sturdy enough for performance? I made a set of papier-mâché cakes (using flour and water glue, old newspapers and water-based paint) which were displayed in the conference bar. After the conference, some of the cakes were saved to be reused in other shows and the rest were composted. Again, the idea was to encourage people to think about the materials they use in a different way, rather than suggesting that everything has to be made out of paper from now on.

Last year, I was asked to edit a book of essays and photographs based on the presentations and discussions at the conference. The book, Theatre Materials, includes some practical information (such as a directory of websites related to the theme of ‘greening the theatre’), but its main purpose is to inspire theatre-goers and theatre-makers. It includes ideas about:

  • theatre buildings: plans by the Arcola Theatre in Dalston to build the world’s first carbon-neutral theatre, how to reduce energy consumption in lighting, and how the National Theatre’s concrete fly-tower was covered with grass by the artists Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd,
  • education: lecturer Nick Moran describes how ‘many of the best ideas come from passionate people “at the sharp end” of an organisation rather than from the boardroom – at Central, two student designers successfully campaigned for the college to change its policy and recycle sets rather than put them into landfill,
  • design: theatre designer Pamela Howard writes about scouring flea-markets and charity shops for props and costumes – for her, re-use is an aesthetic choice, not a form of deprivation, giving actors and audiences a ‘feel’ for the past,
  • theatre in the streets: a 20-foot-high giant robot made out of recycled wheelie bins by Greenwich-based theatre company Emergency Exit Arts – the bins are still recognisable, even though painted bright pink.

    These last examples show how theatre can celebrate, rather than hiding, the principle of reusing materials and combining them in new ways. There are lots of potential links between permaculture and theatre to be explored. Projects such as ‘Feast’, in which pupils from Rosendale Primary School in Herne Hill worked with theatre artists to grow and cook their own food (see, show some of the ways in which theatre artists might bring their imagination to permaculture. Ben Todd, Executive Director of the Arcola Theatre, argues that theatre is an important place to carry out experiments and test new thinking in sustainability, precisely because it is full of creative people. His words could be applied equally well to many permaculture practitioners: ‘Theatre people are incredibly resourceful and theatre has always proven that it can operate with very little money. Theatre knows how to get things done.’

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