“There is no more powerful tool in the world to spread an idea than performance.” This is how BoxedIn Theatre’s artistic director, Oli Savage, introduces his motivation behind the company’s next project. ‘The Greenhouse’ is a shiny new venue at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, focusing on sustainability and the environment. Everything from the rehearsal process to the marketing campaign to the venue itself promises to be conducted, run or built in a way which maintains the best possible relationship between theatre and the planet. Eight shows will go up in the venue, six days a week throughout August, and the range is huge: from dance shows to verbatim pieces to musicals, ‘The Greenhouse’ has it all. The goal is to turn the venue into a space for discussion, and to get other artists talking about, and putting into practice, ways of making theatre a sustainable art form.
The Fringe has a terrible reputation in terms of its sustainability. As the press release for ‘The Greenhouse’ informs us, the Fringe recommends that each of its 3500 shows “think in the low thousands” regarding the number of promotional flyers they order. Even at a conservative estimate of 1,000 flyers per show, flyering alone produces around 22,000 tonnes of paper waste. This doesn’t take into consideration posters, plastic cups, cutlery and crockery often provided by the Fringe-affiliated bars and cafés, or any of the set and props required for the shows. Of course, it’s all for a good cause and it’s vital that we keep the Edinburgh Fringe central to British arts culture, but BoxedIn Theatre Company believes that theatre and sustainability can go hand-in-hand, and they’re ready to prove it through ‘The Greenhouse’.
The idea for the project began with Oli’s commissioning of a play about eco-terrorism, by acclaimed student writer Henry Roberts. From this starting point, the project grew into a full programme of art dedicated to raising awareness of environmental issues. But, as this idea developed, Oli realised that the project would have to corroborate its own messages of sustainability, or else it would be entirely hypocritical. “It is not enough that we make shows about sustainability,” he says. “We must act in a sustainable manner. If I want to make work that changes hearts and minds, I have to make the change myself first.”
The project is already proving that anyone can make great art without producing tonnes of waste. When I asked Oli whether he could give some examples of substitutions or changes that the Company have made to their artistic process so far, he couldn’t think of anything more significant than exchanging paper audition sides for extracts published online, in order to reduce paper waste. After a long pause during which he tried to come up with something else, he replied, “I can’t think of another example, and I think that’s important. It demonstrates that this really isn’t hard. We’ve made changes but they have been incredibly small.”
The greatest challenge, he believes, will be marketing the plays during the Fringe Festival itself. ‘The Greenhouse’ have committed to a zero-waste marketing campaign – that means no flyers and no posters. Participating in the Edinburgh Fringe goes hand-in-hand with accepting the endless hours spent wandering on the Mile, shoving scraps of paper in the helpless faces of passers-by, trying to convince them to come and see your show. The Royal Mile in August is like nothing else. It’s crazy to comprehend marketing a Fringe show without flyering – so I asked Oli how on earth BoxedIn would sell their shows. “Flyering is not an effective way of advertising,” he bravely claimed. “Our show (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) last year sold 80% of its tickets before we arrived. The act of handing out a flyer is not an effective method of communication – but what is effective is the connection you make with someone in that moment, when you talk to them and ask them personally to come and see your show. We want to find a way to distil that and deliver the message without the flyer.” ‘The Greenhouse’ teams will have a physical presence on the Mile and around Edinburgh: they want to do everything involved in the process of flyering, but without the piece of paper. As well as this, they will be relying on online reviews, word-of-mouth and making connections with other artists, in order to promote their shows.
These connections will be formed by turning ‘The Greenhouse’ into more than just a theatre venue: they want to create a community. Louis Catliff, the Creative Director of ‘The Greenhouse’ and a recent graduate of St Andrews University, talked a little more about this community. “We’ve got a detailed plan mapped out to engage, educate and entertain the masses at the Fringe. We are going to host a series of workshops over the month, looking at how we created the shows and the venue itself. Hopefully these will help put a friendly face on the project and inspire people to make theatre that is a little different and a lot greener.”
So, not only do the rehearsal processes, set, props, costume and tech have to be as zero-waste as possible, but the venue itself is going to be constructed from scratch by the BoxedIn team, and will be made entirely out of recycled materials. Caelan Mitchell-Bennett, working as a co-builder of ‘The Greenhouse’ with Creative Producer Lucy Reis, told The Saint: “Lucy and I are in charge of getting this thing physically off the ground – no small feat when we can’t really use anything new. We’ve split the work between physical structure and aesthetic design, but both jobs have had us combing through every scrap of recyclable material up for grabs. Digital models and schematics only go so far when you don’t know what you’ll find in the next trash heap.”
‘The Greenhouse’ aren’t slacking when it comes to keeping things zero-waste. But why is theatre a particularly appropriate tool for communication of the environmentalist message? According to Oli, it’s all about keeping things personal and implicit. “If you consider the inherent vehicle of theatre, it’s’ people watching people. There is something so personal about that, which is different from anything else. But we can’t afford to enter into discussions about sustainability where we’re seen as preachy or one-sided. Theatre has the peculiar power to invite discussion whilst putting forward a viewpoint. But the viewpoint always stays below the surface.” In other words, the shows have to strike a balance between entertainment and education: an audience should leave ‘The Greenhouse’ feeling like they’ve learnt something almost by accident. Arguably, that’s the feeling that every theatrical experience should try to cultivate in its audience members – but that’s a discussion for another time.
But what it ultimately comes down to isn’t even a desire to communicate these messages efficiently – it’s a need. ‘The Greenhouse’ often remind us, through various forms of publicity, that the United Nations have predicted we have twelve years left to enact real change. Twelve years before it’s too late to save the planet. And there’s still a stigma surrounding climate change discussion; it’s still viewed as ‘odd’ or even radical to life a low-waste, sustainable lifestyle, to make changes such as leading a plant-based diet or using homemade skincare recipes in order to avoid buying plastic-packaged products. Oli used the word ‘discussion’ over and over again during our interview, because he believes that sparking discussion is the way to defeat this stigma, and to make people realise that living sustainably isn’t really an option anymore. “I think the fact that some people don’t believe the climate crisis is real… is stupid. Those people are stupid. And discussion is particularly important because those people will very quickly realise they’re wrong when they enter into a discussion.”
As Head of Music and part of the events team, I cannot stress the importance of ‘The Greenhouse’ enough. We want to create a space where artists at the Fringe can come together to talk about, and work towards, a more sustainable future for the arts. Composing soundtracks and creating a music schedule for a venue with no mains electricity, and whose acoustics won’t be optimal, has proved challenging but incredibly rewarding. When I asked Oli about his absolute end goal for the project, he told me that he wants to have created the first ever zero-waste venue at the Fringe. “I want a more sustainable future for the Fringe, I want tangible reduction in the amount of waste created by artists, and I want to create a community of grassroots artists who are making the Fringe a more sustainable place.” With 22,000 tonnes of paper waste produced just by flyers, there’s a lot to be done – but ‘The Greenhouse’ promises to get the ball rolling.
If you are interested in finding out more about the project, come along to the Launch Event on Tuesday 26th January at the Adamson bar. Additionally, as part of our fundraising drive, we are asking for book donations. If you have any unwanted books which are in a readable condition, please put them in the box at the front entrance of the Union.