Sustainable Theatre with Rhiannon Irving

Over the last twelves months sustainability and global warming have been at the forefront of our minds and the media but what does this mean for the Theatre? In a notoriously disposable industry how can we play our part in reducing our environmental impact.

Melbourne Shakespeare Company is one company that takes the issue seriously and always has. They have always been environmentally responsible but this year took it one step further by appointing a Sustainability Champion onto their board of directors.  We spoke to Rhiannon Irving the companies costumier who volunteered to take on this new role.

Photograph of Rhiannon Irving

What is the role of a Sustainability Champion?

To educate and assist every person involved with the production to consider and reduce the environmental impact of their actions and involvement – from the cast, to the crew and even patrons. A big part is educating about the impact and providing systems and infrastructure which help people more easily incorporate sustainable practices without feeling like they have to make a massive change in the way they work.

What changes are you making within the company?

We are focusing a lot on waste reduction and appropriate disposal. We have a sorted bin system for both backstage and audience members to separate food/organic waste, recycling, soft plastics and landfill. Hopefully, this also encourages people to follow through with the same systems at home and show them how easy it is to implement. We are also looking at what aspects of the show require power and how these can be replaced with battery or solar options rather than relying on diesel/petrol generators. To have as many items as possible that are re-usable, however, this involves a bit more of a process to use up or dispose of current single-use items and replace with easily managed and maintained reusables that don’t make people feel they are at a disadvantage in using them.

What are the challenges you have faced when trying to improve practices?

Facing large scale issues at outdoor events, such as rain, means almost every audience member will request a single-use poncho. Finding alternatives for this will require extra thought in how to cover the audience as a whole, large umbrellas, marquees etc. I’m also working with another costumier friend who’s upcycling unwanted waterproof items into ponchos and similar.

As many people on the forefront of sustainability will say, at a local, societal level it’s not so much changing the processes themselves that present the challenge but instigating habit and attitude change in people. Even if one-quarter of those people involved, took one sustainable idea to their next show, one person taking small “meaningless” action would eventually become a huge improvement for the entire industry. Making these changes is really about having a positive, encouraging attitude, and getting people to understand and care about how even their tiny actions really can add up – with time and consistency people will catch on.

Photograph from The Taming of the Shrew

Can you tell us how these new practices have impacted your design concept for your current production The Taming of the Shrew?

When I  came to Jen [Director Jennifer Sarah Dean] with the proposition that I want to try and transition my personal freelance design and construction practise to be as sustainable as possible she was so encouraging and she actually suggested that the aesthetic for the show be quite a “Maria-Von-Trapp” making clothing out of curtains feel. This is handy for this first test of a 100% reclaimed materials show as I can get away with using things that are obviously bedding and furnishing materials (and even some actual plastics). There is a costume in the show that utilises actual recycled soft plastics, which is obviously taking it to the extreme!

I feel like in costume we have an even greater opportunity to utilise reclaimed and alternative materials because we are not usually dealing with the same scale and mass marketability as the fashion industry – we can tailor our designs and processes a bit more to include use of “unconventional” materials. As practitioners, we should be looking more at how we can take advantage of our skills and creative approaches to do this, and reduce the impact of our area of the textiles sector.

What are your future goals?

I’d love to see and help the industry get to the stage where the go-to solution when creating new items is to utilise excess materials from elsewhere and look at what already exists. I think more open communication between all production wardrobes, whether for big main stage companies or freelancers is crucial in creating a more sustainable industry. When there are large quantities of old costumes or materials needing to be disposed of, especially from the larger companies, I’d love to see a way that these could be made known and available to the smaller productions and freelance practitioners, to get a second life when they can no longer be kept for their original purpose.

I also feel there’s more scope than is currently being utilised for productions (and workplaces in general) to become vessels for assisting with “difficult to recycle items”. For example, after I bump out a production I try to collect any damaged tights to send to a specific tights manufacturer who extracts and recycles the fibres and I would be happy to do this for performers own items to make the most of shipping. Terracycle is another program that helps links consumers with brands who collect and recycle many types of packaging, makeup and toiletries being most applicable to theatre, however as an individual collector it would take a very long time to fill up one collection box, it would be great to see more companies do group collections like this at the conclusion of shows.

The Broadway Green Alliance in New York appoints a Green Captain to oversee sustainable practices for each production running and there is definitely a greater potential for us to do something similar here.

Photograph of Rhiannon making costumes

How can other theatre companies/practitioners get involved?

For this particular production, we are running a workshop on sustainable and upcycled costuming. This will be partially a bit experimental/ wearable art in terms of utilising unusual upcycled materials and partially practical in terms of Upcycling existing textiles into new costumes and creative techniques that can be used to make the most of materials.

I’m also wanting to encourage a network of costume practitioners to pool resources between each other to help reduce our overall impact through reducing our use of virgin materials as well as more effectively utilising each other’s waste materials after production.  I’m trying to coordinate regular meetings between costumiers to discuss where we are all currently at in terms sustainability on an ongoing basis, what challenges we may have faced on recent projects and the solutions we are looking at to try and help each other solve these. I would love to hear from any other costumiers currently taking the same approach so we can all join forces.

Tickets for Rhiannon’s Sustainable Sewing workshop are free of charge and available using the following link:

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