A Glimpse Inside with Oli Savage, Artistic Director of The Greenhouse Theatre, the UK’s first zero waste theatre

The Greenhouse Theatre, Canary Wharf, Summer 2021

At the start of August, I spoke to Oli Savage, Artistic Director of the pop-up, zero waste theatre, The Greenhouse. I have been horribly delayed in transcribing and posting the interview, but here it is at last! Apologies to Oli and I hope everyone is as inspired as I am by the amazing ambition he and the Greenhouse team have for a sustainable theatre that inspires audiences to reconnect with nature.

Why don’t we start with you, tell us a bit about yourself:

Hi, I’m Oli. I’m the artistic director of the Greenhouse. Do you want to know more about me?

Yes please

I’m a theatre director and a sustainability professional. My background in theatre is working in site specific work, using found spaces and exploring the stories that found spaces can tell and how they can become really interesting parts of shows and pieces of art. I also have worked in sustainability for the last couple of years now, but I have a long standing interest in the environment and environmentalism and our relationship with nature, and that kind of thing. And I think there is a bit overlap between my interest in theatre and in space, and my interest in the natural world in the sense that I come from a place of a real fundamental belief that …humans have more than 5 senses. We can sense things like temperature, we can sense direction, things like that. And I think that humans also have a sense of space. So when one enters a space one understands what that space is for. It might be a kitchen, it might be a living room, it might be a big theatre with velvet cushions and gold lining around the walls and that kind of thing. Or it might be a little intimate space for community and that kind of thing. I think we are very atuned to the types of spaces we are in, and we get a lot of benefit from being in natural and found, and a bit unusual spaces. So all of that interest combines into what is now the Greenhouse.

Tell me a bit about the history of the Greenhouse

In 2017 I was on a tour to a lot of rural remote locations around the British Isles. We were over in Ireland for about a month as well, which was a lot of fun.  We were doing a trilogy of shows and the projected ended up at the Edinburgh Fringe for about 2 or 3 weeks. One of the shows we were doing was a production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream and … we had sold about 80% of our tickets before we arrived at the Fringe, which was great. But as you do at the Fringe, [we were there and we were handing out flyers, and]… we printed thousands of flyers and we were there  handing out flyers to try and get people to come to the show. One day, it was pissing down with rain and … we’d sold about 90% of our tickets at that stage. I was talking to our marketing manager and I was like, “We are we doing this. It is raining and cold and I hate it” and she was like “Yes, and it’s really bad for the environment” and I was like “Ah, yes so it is”….

The Project (Greenhouse) started at the Fringe in 2019 and 2017 was my first realisation of maybe trying to do things differently at the Fringe itself… Thinking a bit more critically about how the Fringe works from an environmental, and also lots of other, standpoints. So that happened. Oh but I haven’t told this chronologically. In 2016 a good friend of mind and a collaborator approached me with an idea about a show that was all about eco-terrorism, and basically how we do violence to the planet, and we don’t really bat an eyelid, but when we do violence to each other, that is obviously a real problem.  He approached with the idea for a show, and we were very drunk, we were out drinking and having a nice time and he was like “I’ve got this idea” and I was like great. At that time, I was running a company called Boxed-In Theatre… and it was also kind of a spatial company, it was all about exploring how place and space can affect the way we tell stories. It was also an holistic company, so part of the ethos of the company was trying to basically put our money where our mouths were. If we were doing a show about … sexism we would try to find new ways to implement actively anti sexist policies in the company. From a production perspective, a management perspective, that kind of thing. So he came to us with this idea and it got the cogs moving in my brain.  Jump forward a year and all that stuff happens at the Fringe and … two things join together in my head. The no flyers and this show, and trying to take an holistic approach to it.

So I went to a close friend and collaborator of mine, and said “hey I want to do this show” and she was like “great, how do we do it in a way that is sustainable” and I was like “Well, I’m not sure that we really can at the Fringe, because a lot of the institutions and organisations and big venues are deeply unsustainable from an environmental perspective. She was like “ah that’s a shame, we maybe can’t do it then” and I was like “but what if we built a venue”. And she was like “that’s silly, we shouldn’t do that”. I went away for a week and I came back and was like “actually I think we maybe should”. And she was like “go on then” and the rest is history.

From there we went through a few iterations of what it would look like and what it could be.  We started with a shipping container, and they’re expensive and hard to transport and maybe visually not the most pleasing things in the world. So then we built a theatre instead, out of wood and other things. That is kind of the history of it.

Is it almost like wooden lego? How do you put it together? I’m trying to visualise it, as I haven’t been.

It is carpentry. The purpose of the project is that Greenhouse is the UK’s first zero waste theatre. Everything that we do, from our marketing to our shows to the building is created using found and recycled materials, found and recycled surplus, anything that was basically going to end up in landfill. We are never the first point of purchase, is what that really means for us. And then, when we are done using the things … we keep most of the things we use, but when we are done using them we will mostly donate them, and as a very last port of call we will recycle them.  Most of the stuff we don’t use we donate to other organisations. So in 2019 we weren’t sure if we’d be able to do the Greenhouse again after we’d finished it. It was a pilot project so we weren’t sure and we didn’t have the money to spend on storage. So that whole venue was stripped down and donated to a charity in Edinburgh that basically uses surplus wood from build sites to train at risk teenagers in carpentry skills, and that kind of thing.  Yeah, so that should give you an idea of what we do.

At this point Oli showed me lots of structural pictures of the Greenhouse, and talked me through them, but this isn’t the easiest to share in an interview format, so here are the Facts and Figures about the structure and the venue from their website:

  • Octagonal wooden structure, supported by a square of lighting truss, with a clear apex roof.
  • Lighting truss skeleton for the structure is modular — it can form a cube with sides ranging from 5m up to 8m. It therefore has a footprint of a square with sides between 7m and 9m.
  • Images on this page are from the Fringe 2019, when the cube we used had sides of 6.5m. It had a footprint of a square with sides of 8m.
  • The venue is 2m tall at its lowest point. At it’s highest point, it is 2.5m tall.
  • The venue has a capacity of between 30 to 55 people.
  • The venue is completely electricity-free, as it is totally naturally lit. That means no pesky amplified music, and no flashing lights.
  • We prioritise ensuring level access at the venue and make provision for many other access requirements

Now back to the interview, where I’ve just asked Oli, if given their focus on using natural light, if they are always planning to be focused on Summer programming

Yes and no, we’re hoping in the next 5 years to have a permanent space, so the goal is to be around forever.  Can’t get rid of us. We’re exploring ways of delivering light and electricity in a way that is deeply environmentally friendly. And there’s some challenges there, but it’s very exciting… We haven’t implemented that right now. We’re in the process of exploring it further.  And also we’re not precious about the time that our shows are on, you know, especially if we want to be making family shows. With shows for young people, they can always be on during the day, or during school holidays and that kind of thing. At the moment, we’re … focused on not winter, just because the venue isn’t insulated yet. So it’s going to require another big capital project to insulate the venue and to make it properly weatherproof but yeah, that’s all in the journey.

Cool. I’m now distracted by the idea of having tickets that are super discounted for au audience member who cycles to work the lights

Ha, maybe. No…. We had a collaborator a few years ago, they were a freelancer hired by one of our sponsors, and they were an engineer. And long story short, solar panels should do the job.

You’ve talked about not worrying about going during the daytime because of more family friendly programming, what does inform your programming? I know you’re doing As You Like It, plus a couple of pieces of new writing. I remember one is related to folklore, because I was really annoyed to be missing it. I love anything to do with folkore, but I can’t remember the second one now

The other one is a romantic thriller exploring the connection between language, relationships and climate.

Ah that sounds amazing, so what has driven those choices?

We put out an open call out for shows. I picked As You like it a while ago as I think it’s a great play, and I think it fits really well into the venue as well.  We don’t programme shows that are about climate change. We don’t programme shows that are about the climate crisis. We don’t programme shows that are about global warming… We’re not in the business of that. The fundamental thesis of the Greenhouse is about… well… depending on who you ask, about 80% of people in the UK are worried about the impact climate change is going to have on their lives. People know, climate change deniers are a tiny, tiny, tiny minority … 80% is only people who are actively worried, so …of the remaining 20%., even the majority of that percentage believe climate change is happening. If you know what I mean… The point being, the vast, overwhelming majority of people in the UK are worried and are aware that the climate is changing.  We don’t need to tell them. People know.  And in fact, they’re kind of sick of hearing it.

And Eco Anxiety is a real issue

Exactly

And if you make them feel guilty they’ll go into denial. It’s fascinating stuff.

It is really interesting.  And the thing is, we know from the last 20, 30 years of climate activism that at the end of the day, the data and the facts and figures are really important, but they don’t work. They’re not a useful way of making people act. I lecture occasionally, and … the first opening five minutes of the lecture is an exercise that demonstrates basically humans are really, really bad at imagining numbers. And somewhere between about 8 and 15, we lose the ability to picture a number in our head…. In a human brain there isn’t really a difference between 1000 and 1 million, those numbers are largely the same. One is big one is bigger,

Unless it’s money

We’re not, even with money.

Yes, but I can do a lot more with a million, than a thousand pounds. You say a million and I’m already imagining what I’d spend it on.

Yeah, interesting, I suppose you’re not really imagining money though. You’re imagining the impact of it right?

Yes, I think our relationship with money is wonky in terms of the fact it isn’t a thing in and of itself, it’s a gateway. Unless you are a billionaire in which case it is about the money. Billion is a number I absolutely cannot fathom.

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, so most people .. really struggle with numbers can’t imagine them, so we don’t programme work that’s about climate change.  What we do is we make work that helps people build personal and emotional connections with the environment, with the climate, with the world around them. So that they feel, in building those connections, they start to understand and recognise the impact that they as an individual human being can have on the world around them, and on the natural world, while also forming a closer relationship with nature. We’re working with the London School of Economics at the moment to study exactly how impactful that is. And in terms of the scale of what that means, for how it actually changes the way people behave. The headline is, early data shows that it’s effective, and it’s a much better tool of actually getting people to change their habits then just trying to chuck numbers at them. And I think that’s a real problem with contemporary eco theatre, a lot of theatre makers are like… and this happens a lot in other areas…they get up on their high horse and start preaching and telling people what is right and what isn’t right and all the data and what they need to do. But in reality, by doing that theatre makers lose what is the most powerful tool in their arsenal, which is just storytelling and actually connecting with people on a personal level. So, our programme is guided by the idea that we want to see shows that makes the bit that help people build genuine, personal soft connections with the natural world.

One step removed from that we tried to put together a programme that has a range of approaches. So As You Like It, it is a very joyful, collective social piece of theatre. But it’s also all about magic and wonder of the natural world. 12 is more hard hitting, it’s much more intimate, it’s about a couple and how their relationship changes over a 12 year period. And it’s much more hard hitting, it’s much more about what do we have to lose by losing our connection with the natural world. Again, not necessarily in terms of everyone’s going to drown, but in terms of losing a personal connection to the natural world. And Hjem again, is a much more kind of family focused cup of warm milk. It is much more about the inherent connection that we build to others through our connection with the natural world. And all together, I think it makes quite a cohesive programme that puts forward the argument that we all should spend more time in nature and love the world more. In the least hippie dippie way possible.

Cool, it sounds lovely. And I agree. I think the Eco movement could learn a lot from the mistakes made by the smoking cessation movement. Guilt for example, you stress out a smoker about smoking, make them anxious about the fact they are going to die from cancer, and the first thing they are going to do is light a cigarette.  You overload people with information and data about everything, tell them they’ve destroyed the planet, and they are going to feel anxious, overloaded and shut down. It’s a natural response.

There’s an academic, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, called Timothy Morton from Rice University…it’s in the US somewhere. And he created this theory of hyper objectivity, which basically identifies, it is similar to the super wicked problem theory … climate change is so multifaceted, so big, and so trans spatial, that it is much like numbers, essentially impossible for any individual human being to understand. And that means the natural response to it is to close off, and to not think about it. Because it seems so big and so scary if we can’t understand it, and if an individual can understand it, an individual definitely can’t do anything to change it. And he identifies this as a problem. And he suggests the solution to that problem is that art and philosophy need to help people process that thinking so that they can understand their place within it, and understand their place within a collective whole that can make a difference.

[Cue tangential debate regarding where the lion’s share of the responsibility for changed behaviours sit, which I won’t include here]

So you are running until mid-August (2021, yes that is in the past, and I’m posting this very late, but in my defence they were already sold out). Do you have plans for next year?

We’re hoping to be back in Canary Wharf next summer, which will be very exciting. And we’re just, at the moment we’re keeping our eyes out for other partners. We’ve got a couple of things possibly lined up towards the end of this year, which would be good. But we’re just trying to be up and open as much as we can. We’re hoping to have a permanent space by 2026 ish. 25/26 ish and that’s what we’re working towards. So right now we’re just excited to be exploring partnership opportunities and working with as many organisations as we can to be present across the UK. I also come from a bit of a touring background. And I like travelling, it’s nice to be in different places and to reach people who you know aren’t normally reached by theatre performance.

Given your love of found spaces, and your history of working that space I was quite surprised when you were talking about a permanent home.  This is quite a beautiful nomadic concept

It is purely a logistical thing. Because if we have a permanent home, it makes it easier to have… I think of it like Thunderbird Three, it is three? I think three is the little one, maybe it’s four. I think of it like the small Thunderbird. That is, we’ve got a Greenhouse, which is a permanent space, but then we’ll have a pop up one that can travel. And that can tour while we’ll be making work but then we’ll be regularly programming tours around the UK. But having a permanent space makes it easier to attract funding and makes it easier to attract regular audiences. It just means if we want to be touring and reaching more places, it’s easier to do that by kind of settling down.

Wow, well I think that is everything I had to ask you. Is there anything else you want people to know about the Greenhouse Theatre?

Not really. I think that was everything. I think that’s that’s all I have to say.

Yeah, I think very important question is there a bar,

There is a bar nearby. And we are hoping to have a bar next time. We have a partnership with a bar just around the corner and you get 10% off if you’re coming, which is nice. Yeah. … we had been working on a sustainable bar for this year, but it hasn’t quite come to fruition. But we should be able to hopefully next time we’re open to have … we’re gunning for a zero waste bar, not sure how achievable that’s going to be. But that’s the goal.

The Greenhouse Theatre interior shot, Canary Wharf, Summer 2021

Looking at the pictures, The Greenhouse looks quite accessible, so no issues there?

We’re very lucky, obviously, because we build the building from scratch, we can literally build all the things we want to build into the fabric. So yeah, it’s level access. We have been working on other questions of accessibility as well. So we will have captioned performances next time, we’re open as well, which is very exciting. It’s unfortunately early days, we kind of scrambling a bit, but we’re moving towards even more, more than just physical access. And also, it’s free, I should say tickets free at the moment, because they’re being very generously funded by Canary Wharf. So also financial access, which is nice.

Oh, wonderful. So all tickets are free?

At the moment, all tickets are free, because this projects funded by Canary Wharf, yeah.

Oh amazing, and is there a limit to how many tickets an individual can get?

Is there a limit? I mean, no, but we are, we’re sold out. But there are always tickets available on the door. So they’re usually about 10 tickets each night available on the door. 10 to 20, depending on the day. So yeah, come down

That is brilliant, I love that. Great for the local community as well

Yeah. It’s been crazy. We’ve been engaging with loads of people, who’ve literally never been to a theatre, in the middle of London, insane. Truly insane. Because it’s in quite a, Canary Wharf is obviously very affluent, but it’s in … an area with a with a low socio economic bracket.

And was that a deliberate choice? Or is it just where the space was

We were specifically looking at places that had that dichotomy. Places that, to be blunt, had enough money to pay us, but also were nearby, like other places that we’d be able to engage with, that maybe typically don’t have a chance to go see shows.

That is amazing. Sounds so cool. Well, thank you so much for your time Oli, I really appreciate it.

Interviewer is Stephanie Ressort

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