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Special Report - Green My Production

Yesterday saw the convening by Julie’s Bicycle and their entertainment lighting industry partner White Light of the ‘Green My Production’ conference at White Light’s HQ in Wimbledon, south London.

It was standing room only at the event in the specially constructed theatre in the warehouse, and the event was opened by Julie’s Bicycle Chief Executive, Alison Tickell, with a stark outline of the world we now live in, where “temperature changes have exploded…in the US last year 40 heat records were broken every day…and our cold snowy weather has been brought about by arctic ice melt changing the pattern of our Gulf Stream. Far-reaching changes are happening on a moment-by-moment basis. With carbon dioxide levels now at 396ppm, they are higher than ever before, taking us into new territory, shifting us into a new climate system…we normalise – climate change is now fact and mundane [to us]…”

Strong stuff, but Alison went on to highlight the reaction that has grown up around the issues, with Arts Council England last year becoming the first arts funding body in the world to have mandatory environmental reporting, and interest in Julie’s Bicycle surging from both within and outside the National Portfolio organisations. We heard how JB are now focusing on sustainable production, and promoting a collaborative approach to a culture of resourcefulness in which we are aware of the value of our material world.

Bryan Raven, White Light’s managing director took to the stage to introduce some of their work in the area, and what got them an inquisitive mind in the area of sustainability (namely winning a green award for shipping lighting gear from London to the north of England to light some nature) and the changes they’ve instigated in their own working practices. They have more bins, and send less to landfill, saving the company £8000 a year. Waterless urinals have saved 300,000 litres of water per year around the warehouse.

He highlighted how tungsten lighting is often seen as the bad boy of power use, although in fact moving lights will use more, need lamps changing more often and like some LED equipment, continue to consume energy even when ‘off’. Tungsten fixtures are rarely run at 100%, and that increases their life disproportionately. That said, lower energy lighting can do more for the same power, despite its initial cost of ownership. Getting data on suppliers’ sustainability policies has been hard for White Light within the industry, whereas that is not so much the case outside.

The tricky trade-off of age versus efficiency came up - is it better to use a 40 year old 1000 Watt fixture, or a brand new 75 Watt one that's been shipped in from China? Even if all you need is new kit, the cost of ownership is going to vary hugely, depending on what you're going to do with it.

Bryan also pointed out that it's important to engage people - on a company and personal level - the WL staff recently completed their own Harlem Shake - sustainability extends to the social side of life, too.

Bryan welcomed a panel of guests – Robin Barton, a systems technician from the Royal Opera House, Adam Bennette, Technical Director for ETC Europe and Rob Halliday, Lighting Designer, Programmer, and developer of FocusTrack. The panel discussed the attitudes to ‘green’ in the industry – it seems to be often dictated by situations and budget – ‘spare’ lights rigged ‘just in case’, scroller gel strings populated with unused colours, production-wide decisions not made in enough time to only use what’s needed.

Adam was asked whether we are currently at a stable point in LED lighting development. He explained that since there is a theoretical top limit to the efficiency of LEDs – 250 lumens per Watt, and we currently see efficiencies of just over 100 lumens per Watt, that there is clearly room for improvement. Adam did caution, though, that this further improvement will take a lot of time, so buying now shouldn’t leave equipment ‘grotesquely obsolete in 20 years’. As such, at ETC, he said, “we like tungsten, but we like LED as well.”

Adam also cautioned against falling for manufacturer claims where stats such as 50,000 hour life expectancy are bandied about – the chips might last that long, but the hardware surrounding them won’t! 10,000 hours is more likely, but as he pointed out, that’s still a long time.

Rob Halliday finished the panel session by saying that perhaps we’re looking at the wrong problem – using equipment that uses half the energy will only delay the expiration of our finite resources by twice as long – they’ll still run out eventually. If we can sort out our power generation, then we can perhaps use whatever we like.

During the break, we got to see the various manufacturers and suppliers who had pitched stands up. The full list of contributors was albert (BAFTA’s tv carbon calculator), Arcola Energy & Youngmans (fuel cell equipment), Electric Pedals, ETC, Firefly Solar Generators, FocusTrack (lighting tracking software, with load calculation), GDS (LED houselighting), goCarShare, H-Squared (battery distributors), Midas UK (biodiesel generators), Offset Warehouse (textiles), Philips Entertainment – covering Strand, Vari*Lite and Selecon, Set Exchange, Scenery Salvage, ShowTex (drapery & fabrics) and Stack-Cup (festival drinkware).

In session 2, we heard from Simon York, a theatre scenery contractor, who has invested considerable time and energy into improving the sourcing of scenic raw materials, and to understanding their environmental impact, as well as gaining a degree in Environmental Engineering.

The biggest issues in scenic construction are timber and metal – working with the Royal Court, who get through a similar amount of scenery in a year as Simon himself builds, he calculated that scenery alone was creating as much as 5% - 15% on top of the Court’s annual 500 tonne energy usage footprint.

The embodied carbon is as much of an issue – which includes the delivery and disposal. We heard that virgin steel’s carbon cost is 6 times greater than that of recycled steel - then working out how much of your steel is recycled makes even choosing what to assess difficult.

Simon said that timber is much harder to quantify, and that it would be fair to say that even within the timber industry there is no agreement - many within the timber industry will claim that timber is carbon negative, but that just can’t be true. Disposal is equally tricky. What is crucial is the source – even being careful with apparently sustainable sources such as replanted woodland. The carbon footprint of hardwood from recently cleared forest is greater than steel – that from long-established woodland is 6 times better.

Ultimately there is lots we can do, Simon says – it just requires thought – ie using screws to fix timber to metal, not gripfill – 'build to recycle' should be the mantra, it seems.

Next up, Sholeh Johnston, JB’s Performing Arts Co-ordinator spoke to set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour about her work, and how and why she works that way, and why she felt moved to create a Practice Statement (download PDF), which outlines her studio’s approach to sustainable theatre design.

That’s not to say it isn’t challenging – especially when working impermanently with organisations and companies, as you end up working to their agenda, not the other way around. Each theatre and workshop specialist has their own way of doing things. Even so, the look of her shows often reflects the provenance of the things within it – 90% of the costumes for the production of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios came from the Mind depot in Dartford, army surplus and the like, rather than from Primark and Peacocks. Being freelance is clearly difficult at times, as the designer is always under commercial pressure – it’s about building relationships.

Interrogating the supply chain is essential , but not always easy. Stationery supplier Paperchase used to carry lines of recycled cardboard, but now no longer does so, leaving Soutra looking for other sources, especially when trying to avoid the use of unrecyclable products such as foam board when making model boxes.

The aesthetic though can still be the ultimate drivers – she admits that in the past she has sacrificed set elements to save money for something aesthetically, but never has in order to guarantee a sustainable solution. One of her memorable lines was how you are ‘always having to renegotiate with yourself’.

Laura Pando presented next, from her perspective as Sustainability Manager for Festival Republic. They are in a sensitive position as all their events take place in empty green fields, with no connection to the electricity grid. It was realised as long ago as 2007 that they needed a sustainability manager, a position which is now full-time.

The biggest issue for their festivals is audience travel and power generation, and they are starting to make inroads by partnering with travel companies, car-sharing schemes, etc. The priority car club guarantees a parking space close to the site. There also shuttle buses and dedicated coaches. Cycling-to-the-festival events have raised £500,000 for charity, and this year sees the introduction of a Tour de Latitude.

As regards power generation, they have been working with Firefly Solar and Aggreko to create hybrid generator systems that can run from solar-charged batteries when there is lower power demand. They are also increasing use of biodiesel, but at twice the price of standard diesel, that’s a big issue (they got through 350,000 litres last year).

Waste is another problem – 1500 tonnes of it was generated at their UK festivals last year alone. About 35% to 45% has now been diverted from landfill. Shockingly, 20% - 25% of their landfill stream is equipment such as tents and wellies that are left behind by festivalgoers. Some of this abandoned equipment is now cleaned up and given to charities such as Scouts groups.

Data collection is what it’s all about for Festival Republic - the old adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure is absolutely on the money here.

Lastly, we heard from Lucy Doherty, Director of Milk Presents, a theatre company from York. They have been staging shows that have used bicycles to power the lighting, creating  a very direct link between the physics of electricity generation and the show itself – even using the noise of the onstage bicycles as incidental ‘music’ – speeding up at moments of tension, slowing down at moments of sadness.

Unfortunately for some members of the casts, the discovery of how much sheer physical exertion is required to power even 40 Watt light bulbs was all too intense – one actor missed a curtain call because they were busy throwing up back stage. With some advice from Electric Pedals, they have improved their generation capacity, although the bicycles don’t feature in the current tour.

A Q & A wrapped up the event, in which it became clear that most felt more should be done to communicate achievements to the end customers – theatregoers and festivalgoers.

The panel gave way for the excellent White Light house band Fanny & the Electrics, the discussions continued, hydrogen powered Lego cars were built and raced on the Arcola Energy stand, and networkers networked. All in all an excellent half day – really stimulating talks and debate. Talking to host Bryan Raven at the end of the day, he pointed out that unlike previous similar events, this time he only knew 10 % of the delegates, indicating that a whole new audience is being reached, which can only be a good thing…

For more information:     www.juliesbicycle.com     |     www.whitelight.ltd.uk

Pictures 2 & 3 © White Light Ltd.

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Tags: green my production, julie's bicycle, lighting, production, stage lighting, sustainable, theatre, white light

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