Philips Entertainment and the Sydney Theatre Company Prove It Is Easy Being Green

05 April 2011,

Home to the iconic Sydney Theatre Company, the Wharf in Walsh Bay has been in the news a lot of late, largely due to the 'Greening the Wharf' programme, which aims to reduce the theatre's carbon footprint by as much as 70%.

Established by Co-Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton and three years in the planning, Greening the Wharf entered the implementation phase late last year. It is a demonstration of how simple changes can increase the sustainability of buildings; even older, established and heritage-listed properties, which have long been considered more difficult to address than new developments.

While the major media focus has been on the installation of the second largest capacity roof-top solar energy system in Australia and the introduction of a comprehensive rainwater harvest, storage and reticulation system, Greening the Wharf extends company-wide and asks that every aspect of the theatre's operational and production decision-making be considered in terms of environmental impact reduction.

As Head of Lighting at STC, Graham Henstock (left) was charged with exploring the viability of 'greener' theatrical luminaire alternatives. Over a twelve month period, Graham researched and experimented with emerging lighting technologies before providing recommendations. Part of his proposal was the installation of Philips Selecon's revolutionary PL1 LED luminaires.

"Of the fixtures I saw during my research, the PL1s stood out as a unit that was particularly appropriate for use in a theatrical setting. Specifically, they combine a significantly higher level of output with the flexibility of focus and control that we require at the highest level of professional theatre" says Henstock.

Renowned for issues with colour shift when dimming, LED fittings have hereto been regarded with skepticism by lighting professionals, particularly in theatre and gallery applications, where colour, value and saturation are all critical elements of a design. The fully tunable high output LED light engine of the Philips Selecon PL1 supports colour temperatures from 3000K to 5600K and full RGBW colour mixing, with a maximum output similar to that of a 500W Fresnel or PC. Simply put, the PL1 gives you more bang for buck and Graham concurs.

"I have been happy with the performance of the PL1s and have enjoyed experimenting with how they can be incorporated into theatrical productions. I have been pleasantly surprised by their usability and impressed by both the smooth dimming curve and the level of colour saturation that can be achieved as part of the colour-mixing process" he says.

The perceived restrictions of LED lamp and luminaire technology in a theatrical setting are not limited to colour alone. Henstock nominates some other issues that can arise, "The PL1 is one of the very few fixtures I saw that managed to avoid the majority of problems that are common to LED fixtures. They produce a single, crisp shadow, which meant both an absence of chroma-shadowing and that their barn-doors actually work! There is an impressive evenness to their field of light."

While colour and output are clearly concerns, noise generation and size are equally important considerations in hushed theatrical settings, where new luminaires need to co-exist with previously-installed equipment. "The onboard fan of the PL1 is mercifully quiet. In addition, the unit is relatively compact, which means we had no trouble incorporating anything into our existing lighting rigs" Henstock explains.

Greening the Wharf is no mere numbers game, it is more a philosophy than a simple calculation of energy reduction. That being said, the numbers are impressive, as it is estimated that the Wharf will realise substantial annual savings under the programme; over 1.5ML of water, 624,000kWh of energy and 555 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. Achieving these goals requires a concerted effort across the board.

According to Graham, this represents a shift in day-to-day thinking, as opposed to a series of purchase decisions, "Rather than being satisfied with reaching specific targets, I approached Greening the Wharf with the aim of reducing power usage as much as possible, whenever possible" he says. "This is not a once-off event, but an ongoing approach to the way we create theatre. As such, it involves a constant assessment of how the company is utilising power and whether or not the same effect can be achieved in a less power-intensive manner. As a flexible, low wattage-lighting fixture, the PL1 is one of the tools that help me reduce the company's power usage".

The creation of theatre requires an element of magician-ship; to fabricate a world-within-a-world, to transport an audience to another place or time. The resulting illusion is the handiwork of the creative team; sets, sound and lighting all combine to construct an ambience unique to every production and to do so with an eye on environmental impact is a relatively new approach. Greening the Wharf extends beyond the Company's immediate environment and permanent staff, as productions are often staged at other Sydney venues, or tour to other regions.

In the case of STC's run of "In the Next Room or the vibrator play", being staged in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House then touring, Lighting Designer Hartley T A Kemp (right)outlines his view on striking the balance between an aesthetically pleasing production and reduced energy use.

"I think that we all have to be responsible about energy usage. STC offers guidelines to designers for productions at the Wharf in terms of kilowatt usage, but on the basis that these are guidelines, rather than inflexible restrictions and I think that is the right balance" he says. "It is important to serve the production well. Art comes at a cost, so seeking to reduce energy use is important and there are many ways in which this can be done without compromising the end result."

"In the Next Room or the vibrator play" is set in the late nineteenth century, in the home of a doctor pioneering the use of 'electrical therapy' (vibrators) to treat hysteria. Hartley explains the inspiration for his design. "Electricity, electric light, candlelight and natural light run through the core of the play, which explores the links between the power of electricity and the power of love. It's been a fantastic piece to light, as there is so much material in the text to work with and expand on in bringing the production to life. The set designer, Tracy Grant Lord, has created a brilliant set filled with electrical lights and gadgets – there are practical lights and light switches everywhere – while the actors turn lights on and off throughout the piece. Emotion and electricity have really inspired the lighting design" he says.

"Graham introduced me to the PL1s and I'm really pleased to have been able to use them" says Hartley. "Most of the rig we are using for In the Next Room comes from the theatres hosting the show, which in itself helps reduce the carbon footprint of the production. Additional equipment comes from the STC's central pool of floating stock, so the PL1s and other specialist units will tour. I've found the PL1s to be both versatile and invaluable in bringing this show to life. The ability to replicate nearly any colour in the swatch book, to create colours by free mixing and to fade between colours seamlessly makes a big difference to the production."

As an international lighting designer and theatre consultant, Hartley's experience extends from Broadway to London's West End and in theatres and arts venues across Europe, North America and Australasia. It's fair to say he's worked with just about every theatrical luminaire available. "I will always try to find the best tool for the job, regardless of who makes it. The PL1s are the first LED fixture that I have found that can replicate much of the work of a Fresnel or PC. I'd love to see them in more venues".

In a world where "green-washing" is becoming the norm and the public tires of corporations striving to prove their green credentials, STC has implemented a programme for change. A subtle shift in thinking brings an awareness of environmental impact to the business of creating entertainment.

According to Graham Henstock, he made the logical choice when selecting Philips Selecon as the preferred luminaire supplier, "I was drawn to Philips Selecon's products because I could see that the company was paying considerable attention to the environmental impact of their business. Their focus on incorporating recyclable materials into their fixtures, as well as their commitment to developing luminaires that utilized lower-wattage light sources, demonstrates a philosophy that nicely complements that of the STC's ambitions."

Here's hoping this thinking is not restricted to one Company and venue alone, but heralds the way forward for the entertainment industry.


Full Equipment List – Sydney Theatre Company Greening the Wharf

10x PL1s
20x PL TR1 White Floodlights
with accessories and spread lenses
50x SPX 15-35 Zoomspots
30x SPX 25-50 Zoomspots
30x Rama High Performance Fresnels
10x Acclaim Fresnels

Photo captions & credits

Header image: Helen Thomson, Jacqueline McKenzie and Sara Zwangobani in Sydney Theatre Company's In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. © Photo by Brett Boardman 2011.

Content image: Jacqueline McKenzie and Josh McConville in Sydney Theatre Company's In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl. © Photo by Brett Boardman 2011.