ETC TGB: How to Make Sustainable Productions Without Storage Space

Young Vic

The Young Vic is a mid-scale theatre in the heart of London. We have a main stage with 420 seats, one studio space for 150 people, and another space that sits 70.

We started working with the Theatre Green Book (TGB) in January 2023. After six months of testing and trials, we made our first big in-house show to sustainable standards, Beneatha’s Place. We were aiming for ‘Basic’, but in the end the production scored ‘Intermediate’. We now make all our shows to at least Basic level.

The challenge

There is a complication for our theatre: unlike many colleagues around Europe, we don’t have an in-house storage space for sets.

According to the ETC Theatre Green Book, for shows to be classed as baseline, 50% of everything on stage must be reused or recycled, and 65% must be stored or used again afterwards.

A change in design principles

The first solution is to re-use materials on stage in upcoming shows. We usually do five shows each year in the main house. As there is not enough time to dismantle a show and use the materials in the next, we try and use as much as possible of what is in ‘Show 1’ in ‘Show 3’. And we use the same principle for ‘Show 2’ and ‘Show 4’.

Back in the day, all the scenery would be painted and filled, and all our screw heads painted over, and nothing could be reused. Now a lot our work is huge flats of timber that we can reuse. We’re looking at new techniques, working with sustainable builders and being clever with paint finishes. We’re now at
the point where we might not build something for a show if we don’t think it’s reusable.

The Green Book has really put the ‘creative’ back in ‘creative industries’. We can’t just go and buy a solution off the shelf and fix something, like we used to before. We have to sit down with the designers and figure something out instead.

Sharing materials through Facebook Groups

Everything we don’t use again needs another home. One of the biggest resources is Set Exchange. What we do is upload photos of the materials, press photos from a performance, and say ‘you’ve got 6 weeks, who wants this?’ All of these conversations are happening much earlier now than they used to.

We were initially worried about one production, The Homecoming, because the materials were painted to give them an old effect. And I was thinking, this is all so heavy, it’s been painted to look a certain way, no-one is going to take this.... But in the end, the furniture went to a Theatre in Education (TIE) company doing performances in schools, and we also managed to give a huge carpet to a commercial company for a ‘chillout space’ in an office block. There are more and more industrial companies joining these sites, offering and taking materials.

So the creation of that show wasn’t looking great from a sustainable point of view, but when it came to the end of the production, we were able to ‘catch up’ and make Basic by finding a home for all the materials.

Partner with local theatres and artists…

Luckily, the set designers we work with often also collaborate with other theatres in London, so they’re thinking in a sustainable way across their own shows. Often, they’ll say: “I’ve got this piece which is currently in a show at the Royal Court Theatre (another similar-sized venue in London), and I can use this for the design in your show.” That’s a lovely change in the space of one year, and even set design companies are starting to try out new sustainable materials and show them off to us.

We also work with large organisations like the English National Opera and the Royal Opera House, as they have a lot of storage space. We’ve got stuff there and we let them use it, and vice versa. Our costume store is quite large, but we don’t hire these out: we lend them out on the proviso that we get that storage in return.

…but remember your theatre is unique

When we started, we tried to apply the ETC TGB to productions like risk management or health and safety guidelines. That didn’t work. As Renew Culture has made clear, our theatre is very different to other theatres in London, or across Europe. We’re a venue with a workshop on site. Others aren’t. We’ve got multiple venues, so we can do things in the main house and then put them in the studio. But we have no set storage.

In the end, the ETC TGB is a document to start with. You have to build your own processes and find your own way. The most important thing is to keep filling it out. When we’re costing up a show, we’re filling it out, and going, ‘Okay, it’s not going to hit the ETC Theatre Green Book. Do we want to redo now?’

Remember what you CAN do

In Summer 2022, lots of us went to the National Theatre in London for a big conference on sustainability. We came away a bit despondent, thinking ‘theatres of our size can’t do that.’ But as soon as theatres like The Young Vic did start implementing the TGB, there was this sudden shift in mindset. We’ve now got this whole network, and it went from slowly taking off to absolutely skyrocketing.

It’s important to focus on what you have done, not what you haven’t. Two years ago none of us were doing any of this work in this way. Even if you’re hitting close to basic all year round, but not actually reaching it, that’s so much better than not even trying. We know a lot of theatres that are doing that, and it’d be a shame for them to not carry on because they’re not getting
a certain level of certification in the ETC TGB.

Everyone cares about sustainability

The final thing we’d say is that audiences and staff really care. They like noticing when a part of the set was used in a different production. Renew Culture are good at reminding us that audiences think that we should be working sustainably, so we owe it to them. We can put more effort into broadcasting what we are achieving publicly.

And for our technical team, they’re really into this. This work has given them a big seat at the table to say: ‘I know how we could achieve these sustainable goals the organisation has.’ Everything is less competitive, more collaborative now. We hope it lasts.

By Craig Tye, Technical Director, and Lucy Davies, Executive Director at the Young Vic/UK

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