The interview was conducted during the performance of three new short plays by a selection of East End playwrights including Steven Berkoff and David Eldridge at the Arcola theatre as part of the East Festival. Cycle routes and cycle leaders were provided to marshal the audience between the shows.
NB It looks really successful, has it gone well?
AB Yes, its really good news. It’s been a complete showcase of sustainability coming together with the arts. People cycling to different venues, they get a chance to look at the highlights of Hackney along the way, they get a chance to experience what Hackney has to offer in terms of arts in a zero carbon way. So for us it’s perfect, a perfect meeting of sustainability and the arts.
NB How was this marketed, was it marketed specifically to cyclists or your usual outlets?
AB Time Out had a supplement which had the whole programme of East in it so a lot of marketing through that. Serious PR was the PR agency working on behalf of the London Mayors office to publicise it. We put it on the Arcola Energy website. Through word of mouth and information was put up around the theatre for the last three weeks and targeted (mailings) to various cycling organisations.
NB Did you get any funding tied to the cycling element?
AB No, we were just happy that the cycling element was there. Ben Todd, the executive director, a couple of years ago said we should do something like this with people cycling to various venues. It just promotes the pleasures of cycling, the ease of cycling, how easy it is to get round London with your bike. It gets people on bikes that wouldn’t think of cycling, like families, and it links theatre to cycling. For example, Arcola are installing a cycle enclosure at the end of March for staff to promote cycling and it will be open to the theatre companies that come into Arcola to create plays and to promote cycling with our audience. People can come here and know that their bikes are going to be safe.
NB Arcola’s ecological ethos is well established now. Did that start from the beginning?
AB The theatre was established in 2000. Ben established Arcola Energy in 2007. Since then we’ve installed our fuel cell and LED lighting and now have a sustainability projects manager post funded through the City Bridge Trust. I’m managing a number of projects that take us towards our ultimate goal of becoming carbon neutral in various ways and it is showcasing ways in which theatres can do that, and theatres that don’t have much money. That can be through Arcola’s roof garden which we will launch in May, through our Green Sundays Programme which is getting people to the theatre who may not usually come a theatre to talk about climate change; this has themes every month and it is exploring climate change through films, poetry, music with guest speakers. The first event happened on the 1st March with Friends of the Earth involved. We looked at the global food chain (one of FOE’s areas of focus for this year), various other projects like the mayor’s Green Theatre programme and we’re the secretariat for that. The ultimate aim of the Green Theatre Plan is to reduce theatre carbon emissions by 60% by 2025. We delighted that we are a major part of that. In my previous job I was working in the mayors office and that’s where we developed the plan and it was launched end of last year and it showed theatres the practical steps they need to take to be greener and it shows them that it is possible. What Arcola is about is showcasing what can be achieved and we’re not saying do exactly what we do but we are saying that the creative industries can be one of the most innovative players in climate change issues and we have the media power to communicate climate change to our audience.
NB When the theatre was founded, was the green ethos there from the beginning with artistic director Mehmet Erghen?
AB I think we had to establish ourselves artistically first and foremost and the structure (of the organisation) has grown out of the last two years. The theatre is one part, sustainability is another and youth and community is a third. They are all equally as important as each other. I think we are the first theatre that has such a structure and such an emphasis on green issues and community lead projects.
NB What compromises, if any, have to be made artistically to keep productions within the green vision of the theatre?
AB None and I think that’s the point. This year I am working with a production company to test the Green Theatre’s carbon calculator for one of our main house plays by working with actors to see how effective that is. So it’s about me bringing my skills in sustainability to production companies that will be able to tell me good and bad aspects of it and how it works for them, how useful it is for them but with me being there every step of the way. We’re lucky to be in a unique position where I am housed in a theatre where I am able to do that rather than being a policy maker coming along with “here’s your ten point plan”, I am working with the company to achieve that. We’re building on what happened last year with the Living Unknown Soldier (based on Le Soldat Inconnu Vivant by Jean-Yves Le Naour) Ben and staff from Arcola worked with the production company to produce a green play, and that anything from rather than printing scripts one sided, they do it double sided, but you’ve got to bear in mind that artists know what they want and some actors won’t want double sided scripts. Some lighting designers won’t want the whole play powered by less than 5Kw. It’s about us showing what’s possible, what opportunities are out there and slowly building movement. If you’re based in the theatre industry to begin with, it’s a better position to be in. A lot of production companies travel around and hopefully they will take these lessons with them.
NB Do you think people are on their best ‘green’ behaviour when they work with you?
AB No, because I think once you start doing green things, you find it saves you money. I would hope that people take those practices with them and that’s the new way that they do things rather than being tokenistic for one or two plays in this theatre. I think the creative industries have started to engage with this issue, not just theatre but music and film, the green screen and the music festivals. That work’s being built on year on year.
NB How do you deal with superstar demands, such as a limousine has to be sent and return again with one passenger.
AB I think in the theatre we’re lucky that I haven’t had to deal with those sorts of demands. In film I think it’s a bigger problem. You can’t tell artists no, but you can give them alternatives. That’s what the whole green movement is about. It’s not about reducing the quality but giving alternatives. You could get a taxi here or take the tube here but with our bicycle enclosure we are making it easier to take your bike here. I think that is the way forward for everybody. Once you’re in that movement, you meet other people with similar objectives. Where we get our organic food from, they recommended that I go with Mozzo coffee http://www.mozzocoffee.com so through partnerships that you’re making you are sharing information and it’s all quite a small world the green world. Even if you don’t have a dedicated sustainability manager, there are ways in which you can make easy changes. There are ways you can develop these things without any money. For our roof garden, we are members of Freecycle Hackney and there’s lots of gardening tools available on Freecycle.
NB Is this coffee more expensive?
AB I don’t know about exact costs but we’re not losing out on our margin.
NB What’s the hardest thing you’re finding with the people-side. Is anything failing right now?
AB Staff engagement is very important. The last thing I wanted to do when I started here was storm in to the kitchen and say you can’t source flapjacks from there but slowly make changes but communicate why we’re doing that to staff and how we’re going to do it. Because if people feel left out when you’re making those changes then you’re struggling, you are not getting past the first hurdle to reach your audience. There can be communication issues. I have a monthly newsletter that I give around the staff. It does a number of things including saying what changes we’re going to make but it is also asking what suggestions they can make. Our Waterhouse Restaurant www.waterhouserestaurant.co.uk relationship shows it’s all a bit of a learning curve for us. Before we were serving packaged foods that lasted a long time but now we’re serving fresh foods. It’s a challenge for our staff to prepare and serve it and a challenge for us to break even from the food but the relationship we have with the Waterhouse is valuable because of their excellent sustainability credentials so that is why we wanted to partner up with them.
NB How do you engage new hires in being green?
AB We’re quite lucky in that we are a small team. I meet with all the staff, and through the newsletter, just by talking to people. I now get a lot of people coming up to me and saying we should do this, it’s mainly one to one communication and through staff meetings. I think having a dedicated sustainability officer means that they know exactly who to come to and I then liaise with senior management if someone suggests a project we should do. We give staff feedback all the time on why we’re doing this. So for a small team I don’t see that as a problem. For a bigger organization, I remember when I was at City Hall we had on each floor an environmental champion who would monitor the recycling, check that people have turned their monitors off, so I think it depends on the size of the organization. We are also lucky because the interns and volunteers that come here are young and enthusiastic and often knowledgeable about green issues so they come with a lot of suggestions anyway. But it is translating that knowledge into practical actions is what you can do. In 2009 I want to start green staff packs that would look at what we are doing as a theatre and what we can do in the theatre and what people can do in their own homes.
NB Can people shower when they cycle to Arcola? Do they have a dedicated locker area?
AB They can shower backstage. We don’t have lockers but there are safe places to leave your stuff. I think it is about making the most of the space you have and not being too prescriptive about it. There’s positives and negatives about smaller and larger organisations. At City Hall we had a shower room on every floor.
NB Give me an example of an unexpected human problem.
AB I think one of the problems I have found is the constraints with what I can do within the infrastructure of the theatre building. I would love to get a biomass boiler from the Carbon Trust but they don’t have match funds for that kind of project so I think it’s those kind of big things, when you haven’t got the money, that’s frustrating. On an individual basis I can’t think of one. The staff here have been excellent and my postings have been welcomed with open arms. I’d love to more with the building. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you are doing something.
NB Do you think all your staff are eco warrior or have you had to educate some of them?
AB I think many have grown and developed and become more aware about the issue. Key for me was not coming in and ramrodding everyone “you’re all crap because you are not being green”. I think it comes down to ways of managing relationships and it’s not me taking the higher moral ground as the sustainability person, it’s more from me learning about the theatre and learning what works.
NB If there was some bloody-minded person who didn’t put the paper in the recycling bin, how would you deal with it?
AB I would ask them how I would make it easier for them to recycle. Is that we need more bins, do they need to be better labelled? Is there any confusion about what can be recycled? But there is only so far that you can go to change behaviours. After that I can’t. People are powers unto themselves.
NB Sometimes people don’t want to raise the topic with their co-workers, even though they are seething that their co-worker doesn’t recycle. How is that dealt with?
AB To be honest I haven’t come across that problem so I am only thinking hypothetically. Some of the ways to persuading people to be green is everyone else doing it. So if 99% of the organisation is doing green things would hopefully influence the other 1% into doing it. There are people who won’t change but that happens in all aspects of life. If people have the knowledge, they have the way and it’s easy for them and they are still not doing it, then I’m sure there’s not much more you can do about that, maybe advertising more the benefits.
NB I notice you have paper towels in the bathrooms. Have you done a complete eco audit to make that choice?
AB Yes, we wanted to get a Dyson Airblade but they are too noisy. So again, there’s other kind of restraint within a building. First and foremost it’s a building where people are entertained but we hope we can source our paper towels from sustainable sources.
NB You are branded the ‘eco’ theatre. Do you ever want to move out of that?
AB No, I think we want to develop that branding. Arcola Energy is well known within the industry, we want to get that out to the general public. Theatres (and the like) contribute only 2% of London’s carbon emissions but it’s a message we can give the audiences. Theatre has a powerful role in getting out the message about climate change.
NB Do you think the eco badge has some baggage, you can be dismissed as a bunch of hippies?
AB I think that’s changing. The green movement is moving away from being seen like that because businesses, such as BSkyB, are taking it on. I think the huge spectrum of organisations taking it on and the Obama effect, now people don’t see greening as hemp shirt wearing, they see it as practical and, in the credit crunch, being green is saving money. There is logic behind it.
NB Does green have any say in the artistic or literary choices?
NB In the production process, do the producers feel they have to be on their best green behaviour to work here?
AB When I meet with production companies that are coming in, I find people are happy to work with me but in all aspects, people find it hard to change their habits. But with support, it makes it easier to do. I understand they want to create an artistically excellent play and in no way do I want to get in the way of that. We can usually meet half way. The theatre world is quite small, if they pick up one or two tips, they take that on with them. Every little helps. I don’t think our green credentials puts people off, quite the opposite. It’s a new way of thinking about theatre and theatre’s role.
NB Have you noticed any change in theatre practise that has been taken away from here?
AB People have come to appreciate you can be experimental about climate change. People have this fear that if an organization puts out its dirty washing about its carbon footprint, people are going to be critical of them but all what we’re trying to do is turn the tide a little bit. We not afraid to say we have an aim to be a carbon neutral theatre but we’re not there yet but we have the aim and the long term aim really helps.
NB What has changed in the last few years?
AB More arts venues are getting carbon audits. More are engaged in the issue and linking up with other creative industries. Our relationship with Julies Bicycle is extremely useful. The changes music venues are making are those theatre should be doing. A lot has changed in a very short time. A few years ago we would have been throwing away props that we weren’t going to use again, now we put them on Freecycle. Just demonstrating the use of LEDs that you can read by makes a difference and counters what people read about them in the Daily Mail.
NB What’s your priority now?
AB I think communicating carbon. Get people involved in the issues that wouldn’t be involved otherwise. People from the community around in Hackney, get them down here talking about the environment, not to lecture them but in an informal social manner, making Arcola a hub of community activity.
NB Describe the steps in implementing a new green initiative?
AB My first port of call is the front of house staff. I have to change the waste collection from once to twice a week, so if they’re not going to put the bags out or do that the extra work, it’s not going to work (Arcola had to arrange for its own collection after the council moved the recycling bins they were using down the road) but no one’s said “we’re not going to do it”. I have to establish they can come and talk to me about anything like that. It can be difficult, people in theatre have little time so I’ve got to be careful not to bother people but when I actually approach them with an idea for a project, I’ve got to know exactly what I’m talking about.
NB Anyone else I should talk to?
AB You should contact Julie’s Bicycle and talk to Andrew Howarth at Live Nation.