Volume Three: DIGITAL THEATRE, THE SOLUTION
FOR SUSTAINABLE THEATRE?
in conversation with Hetty Hodgson
This week, we’re allowing you to drop in our conversation with Hetty Hodgson, from Pigfoot Theatre.
A carbon neutral theatre company known for finding creative ways to power their shows, whether that’s using bicycle generators or a dance mat that turns the kinetic energy of a footstep into electricity. Despite a global pandemic, Pigfoot have managed to be incredibly busy. First releasing Lockdown Green Up, a festival of conversations with other climate makers, then digitally touring their award winning show How to Save A Rock and undergoing a half digital, half in person R+D for their new show HOT IN HERE: A Carbon Neutral Dance Party.
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In almost every conversation we have had throughout The Future Project, at some point, someone has mentioned the hope that digital theatre can help reduce the theatre industry’s carbon footprint. When asked about the validity of these statements Hetty was quick to point out that, "there are many reasons being digital isn’t sustainable", but the problem is they are often invisible. Take streaming for example. Pigfoot's tour of How To Save A Rock, like so many other shows in 2020, pivoted from an in person show to a streamed affair. They worked out that the cost of each person streaming was 6 grams of carbon. That’s far less than each audience member jumping into a car to drive to a theatre, but it’s more than an audience walking/ cycling. Put simply, streaming is far from perfect. Pigfoot choose to offset the carbon produced but even that "again, isn’t perfect".
So what are these invisible structures that are emitting those 6 grams of carbon? Besides from the power used by each audience member to power their computer/ tablet. "It’s all to do with data centres. Because every time you access something, it's sent to the data centre and then sent to your screen. Right now, my face in this zoom call is going through a data centre, which is coming back to your screen. It’s that data centre, which has a huge impact". The world’s Data centres are reported as having about the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry (x).
It would be possible to extract from the above, that making sustainable theatre is a mathematical calculation; asking which scenario emits less carbon. But for Hetty it’s not always so black and white: "You have to weigh up the impacts, the changes that you think that people would make in their lives if you have a live show, versus what they do with digital. What we are trying to do is inspire change, and it might be that we can have a greater [longevity] in person."
When asked if Pigfoot will continue to make digital work, she says (very firmly) that she doesn’t want to stop making live theatre, because for her "having a group of people together in a space, to create that feeling of being part of a community, is so important for climate action and what Pigfoot wants to do."
It is here that she circles back to my first prompt, is digital the solution to making sustainable theatre? Challenging that notion, she asks "why can’t we find ways for making [in person] theatre more sustainable?" instead of abandoning in person theatre and just moving online.
Digital theatre will continue to play a part in Pigfoot’s life. Gushing about the liberations that a digital work in progress gives you,“I’m not changing that ever again... it's really allowed us to upscale because we've had conversations with venues we can never get into our shows before”. It allowed them to invite the ‘gatekeepers’ who so often won't travel for a 30 minutes scratch and receive immediate feedback from their audience. (For HOT IN HERE’s R+D they streamed a filmed recording of their work in progress on zoom, with the audience encouraged to message feedback into the chat as they were watching.)
But it is their distribution and audience reach that has been the most transformed by digital work. “The total best thing about it was being able to stream it to local schools, in each of our partner venues’ areas. It can be hard to engage young people in the theatre… but with a digital tour we found that you can just engage them like that. It reached over 2000 kids, which has always been our aim with the show, to allow it to reach more kids and by doing a digital tour we were able to do the thing that we had always wanted to achieve. So I wouldn't change it for the world.”
As thoughts turn to their future tours and new shows, I ask Hetty what changes she would like to see from within the theatre industry. To start with “a deeper and [more] accessible interrogation of the climate impacts of the theatre industry because there have been several done but none super recently and super, super clear. And for that to include things like audience transport; whether it's better to bring shows to people, or whether it's better to work out ways that people [either don’t] commute, or ways that we can make that transport more sustainable.
“A clearer way of sharing sets and props, so they're not destroyed, and that goes into having more funding, because that means that things cost more. Every theatre building and theatre company having someone who's in charge of sustainability because I think that is so important. Having someone there whose literal role is to hold everyone accountable. Just questioning and interrogating every single part of the process will allow buildings and companies to hold themselves accountable to reach a certain standard.
“And working out how that improves each year. I just think figures are so important and (as with any climate issue) the more that you know, the more you can drive people to be part of the change and monitor any improvement.”
To anyone reading the above statement, saying to yourself, I want that future for our industry but how can I make it happen? Head over to Pigfoots’ website where they have documented their process of becoming carbon neutral alongside compiling very useful tools for others to use. You can also keep up with their future projects on their social media here.