Case Study: Theatre Green Book 

Sustainability in theatre -turning commitment into concrete action

by Paddy Dillon (Theatre Green Book Co-ordinator)

Do you remember the first covid lockdown? For anyone working in theatre it was the time theatres closed, and we all discovered something called ‘zoom’. No one was able to make shows. People talked instead, and discussed how we could ‘build back better’.

Not all of those dreams have been realised – far from it. But one of them has: the Theatre Green Book.

That was our lockdown initiative to move theatre towards sustainability, and it’s been one of the few silver linings to come out of covid. We’ve all known for years that theatre needs to change. In the context of the climate emergency, everything needs to change. Covid, for all the terrible hardship it caused, gave us the opportunity to figure out how.

The problem wasn’t a lack of passion or commitment: most theatre-makers wanted to change. Some, indeed, had been practicing sustainable theatre for years. Organisations like Julie’s Bicycle and Creative Carbon Scotland had generated awareness, commitment and understanding.

The challenge was how to turn commitment into concrete action. The gap, we realised, wasn’t in imaging a better future – there was no lack of visionary thinking about. It was in taking the first steps. What could a theatre director do, or a set-builder, a catering manager, a box office lead, to move the sector towards a more sustainable tomorrow?

What no one needed to ask was why. We need to change because theatre will only survive and thrive if we learn how to work within the parameters the climate crisis places on us; because theatre can only play its part in the conversation about humanity’s crisis if we make theatre itself sustainable; because the climate emergency will change everything we do, from how we travel to how we heat our homes – and theatre is no exception.

Through dozens of zoom calls and emails, the Theatre Green Book became a collective answer to a simple but essential question: how can we make theatre sustainable?

We divided the challenge into three: Sustainable Productions would provide guidance on making shows sustainably. Sustainable Buildings would tackle the problems of uninsulated buildings with ancient boilers and single-glazed windows. Sustainable Operations would set standards for catering and box office, workshops and back of house, travel and waste.

We knew what we needed: guidance everyone could share. So we brought together theatre-makers of all kinds, working at every scale, on shows and in companies of all sorts, in every part of the UK.

We needed guidance that was practical. How do we start? What can we do to make shows not perfectly sustainable in 2030, but more sustainable today? What can an individual do, whether they’re a carpenter, a stage designer, or a head of marketing? And whatever that advice was, we needed it to be meaningful: not just suggesting recycled coffee cups, but promoting a genuine shift towards a sustainable future.

‘It feels,’ one technical director said early on in the lockdown, ‘as if we’re all waiting for something to be invented.’ But there’s no rocket science about sustainability. We need to use less material and less energy, avoid harmful substances, and switch from linear theatre-making (raw steel and plywood thrown in skips after the show), to a circular practice of reuse and recycling. The challenge was applying those basic principles to the unique process of making theatre. So the Theatre Green Book put together sustainability exports – the global consultancy Buro Happold – with theatre-makers and operators of all sorts. That way we could identify the systems changes, the shifts in practice that would enable sustainable outcomes. And out of that conversation came guidance and standards everyone could understand.

People started using the first volume, Sustainable Productions, almost as soon as it went online. The National Theatres of Scotland, National Theatre Wales and the National Theatre in London; most of the large companies; numerous medium and small-scale theatres have been using it ever since. So we know sustainable theatre-making is possible. Great shows are right now being made in a meaningfully sustainable way.

Sustainable Buildings, the second volume, was launched in November 2021. It guides theatre owners, operators and managers in making the UK’s dilapidated theatre infrastructure more sustainable. A ‘Home Survey Tool’ will allow building managers to enter data about their building, and generate, without cost, a Sustainability Plan for the journey to zero carbon.

The final volume of the Theatre Green Book, Sustainable Operations covers everything else a theatre does: running front of house operations like marketing, communications, catering and box office; running back of house workshops and offices; operating the building sustainably; managing travel for audiences, staff and visitors; limiting waste; and planning relationships with third parties from cleaners to maintenance contractors. Like Sustainable Productions, Sustainable Operations sets three standards, to match the Baseline, Intermediate or Advanced shows on stage. Available now on the website at, Sustainable Operations completes the initiative, and provides theatres with the final guidance they need for a sustainable future.

There’s plenty still to do. A Touring group is working on better guidance for touring productions. An Education group is expanding sustainability in theatre education. On the other side of the Channel, Theatre Green Book translations are underway for theatre-makers across Europe, who see the Theatre Green Book as the practical tool they need to shift towards sustainability. Conversations have begun with neighbouring sectors like music and festivals to align thinking and share best practices. ACE and the GLA have commissioned a variant of Sustainable Buildings to work for cultural buildings of all types.

With the Theatre Green Book, theatre-makers have worked together to produce shared standards which many are seeing as an exemplar for sustainability across the arts. The last two years could not have been tougher – but at least we’ve given ourselves one ray of hope for the future.

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