David Tanqueray is Production Manager for The Tempest, coordinating all the technicians and production staff who work on making things for the show, with a particular focus on scenery. He explains how we’re using the Theatre Green Book to make the show’s scenery as eco-friendly as possible, through the materials we use.
The Theatre Green Book
This was published during lockdown and is a set of lucid step-by-step instructions for making the entire theatre process more green and sustainable, from hiring a creative team all the way through to disposing of the set afterwards. The guidance for making things such as scenery or props gives a sort of hierarchy of advice.
At the top of the triangle is to design something out; if you don't need it, don't have it. And then you don’t have to make it in the first place. The next step down is reusing something - you might reuse an old set item exactly as it is. And then you get down to repurposing, remaking, recycling. You can adapt, repurpose, cut up and remake old scenery into new scenery. You can use fully recycled materials.
And finally, there’s brand new materials which carry a hierarchy of their own from low carbon content to high: a canvas flat would be better than one made of plywood; timber is better than steel; and steel better than aluminium. At the very bottom of the hierarchy, you have high carbon virgin materials like metals, hardwoods from the Far East or worst of all – plastic.
Then there’s a matching hierarchy for when the show has finished. The best thing to do is keep your scenery exactly as it is and reuse it. You can dismantle old scenery, adapt and repurpose bits of it, or send it away through an industrial process to be recycled into brand new material. At the bottom of the list is burning it for biomass or sending it to landfill.
Trees for the stage
Trees are a key part of the set for The Tempest. In the past, we made trees by welding together a bespoke steel frame, covering this with chicken wire, expanding foam and carved polystyrene. Because these were a composite of materials that couldn’t be separated, we couldn't recycle them when the show ended.
For The Tempest we liaised with a managed local forest where there were a whole lot of full-sized trees thinned out and lying on the ground in a pile. We helped ourselves, made bases for them and added our own leaves which were a mixture of home-made canvas and bought plastic ones. Buying plastic leaves is not great but they will be kept and used over and over again in the future.
What's brilliant about The Tempest is that [Set Designer] Tom Piper has designed into the production bits of scenery that he has already had made elsewhere for other shows that have ended.
For example, there are some big timber flats (large flat pieces of scenery), from a show Tom designed at the Kiln Theatre last year. When that show finished, we sent our lorry and took away some of their scenery, which is now onstage in The Tempest. Similarly, we have a bunch of tall grass dressing and extra tree branches from one of Tom’s shows at Wilton’s Music Hall.
He's also reused a lot of our own stored scenery. There’s a whole bunch of brick flattage from A Christmas Carol which we've repainted. We're reusing Tom's show floor from The Winter’s Tale, which has already had a reuse in All’s Well That Ends Well. It was a timber-coloured brown planked floor in The Winter's Tale, then painted bright blue for All’s Well That Ends Well. Now it’s back to brown, with grass and moss and detritus all over it for The Tempest. Other reused items include the steel framework of the false proscenium arch, a prop grand piano, flats from the Mischief Festival and all the drapes and masking.
So we have a show floor from The Winter's Tale, we have flats from the Kiln Theatre and from A Christmas Carol, and we reused an old canvas backdrop by repainting it with a new image.