Case study: Grid Iron on being flexible and green despite COVID-19

16th October 2020

2 people in a forest, around a campfire

Keith Fleming, Itxaso Moreno and Andrew Benn (Camera) in Doppler, Grid Iron. Photo credit: Janeanne Gilchrist

Grid Iron is a multi-award winning, Edinburgh based new writing theatre company which specialises in creating site-specific and location theatre. In this case study, Finance and Development Manager Deborah Crewe talks about how Covid-19 and lockdown impacted on the company’s plans to produce their most environmentally-minded show yet, and how they overcame some of the challenges.

Up until 23rd March 2020 we at Grid Iron were pretty far ahead in our planning for our August outdoor Edinburgh Fringe show, Doppler.

Choosing the site: environmental and access considerations

We had recced most of the parks in Edinburgh over the previous six months: checking for suitable sites for the show that provided easy public access, for pedestrians, cyclists and buses. We also wanted to be able to provide wheelchair user access.

Prior to setting out on the recces we had researched the weather trends for Edinburgh in August. They showed that although August was becoming a dryer and hotter month overall, the volume of rainfall remained the same but was tending to fall in just three or four days, causing major waterlogging and flooding problems. As our audience were going to be on small camping stools, we had to make sure that they wouldn’t sink once sat upon! As the show was planned for the afternoon, we also had to take into account shade from the sun for audience, cast and crew.

We visited all sites and surrounding areas in dry weather, during heavy rainfall and again the day after a heavy spell of rain. This ruled out many spaces because of the high water table and flooding that was evident. We also had to take in the surrounding topography to check if there was run off from roads or buildings, due to paved gardens or sub-standard drainage. We had to be aware of any potential for land slippage.

By the middle of February, we had decided on a site that was in a park but in a raised position relative to the surrounding land and with tree cover that provided shade and protection even in rain. It had a small car park close by for parking for disabled and older audience members; and although the site was slightly raised from the surrounding land it was easily accessible for both manual and electric wheelchairs.

Ambitions for a green show with community benefit

We arranged recce visits with the director, production manager and designer, had the agreement of the site manager to proceed, and had even identified a shared desire that this would be the start of an ongoing relationship with benefits for the local community. Plans were beginning to form, and we were delighted!

From the beginning of this project it was decided that we would challenge ourselves to produce the greenest show we could manage; this was part of the brief that all of our creative and production team were working to.

Getting power to the site would be one of the costliest in terms of our carbon footprint so we made inroads with a greener power provider, hoping to use new technology which uses a combination of battery and top-up generator.

Getting the audience to the site, which is five miles from Edinburgh city centre, was also going to be a hurdle to overcome. We wanted to ensure that lots of private cars weren’t in use, however we were just past the end of the Lothian Bus route, meaning a 20-minute walk and a bus timetable that wouldn’t allow for audience to get to us or return timeously. We began to plan to provide an eco-friendly coach to pick up our audience at a convenient city centre spot and deliver them safely to us and then back again.

Our colleagues would all be accommodated within walking distance of the site for the duration of rehearsals and the production so this would negate the need for excessive travel, with our policies encouraging public transport use. With only necessary site visits from external members of the team being encouraged we hoped to limit our travel carbon footprint.

There was already a commitment from all of our designers, set, lighting, sound and technical team, as far as possible, to re-use what we already have in our stores, and to source any new buys locally, to cut down on both delivery costs and transport.

We had decided to encourage our audience not to use paper or self-printed tickets. We would produce a digital programme, including BSL signed, captioned and audio versions, available on our website.

This was going to be our most environmentally aware show so far. Green credentials had been built into every aspect of the planning; then… COVID-19… Lockdown! 23rd March!

Adapting to the new situation

Firstly, we committed to honour all payments to our team who were contracted to work on the show, regardless of whether we were able to produce any output. We then began a series of discussions and team meetings, on Zoom of course, to debate and consider all the implications,  concerns and different options available. Only after everyone was happy did we move on to the next stage. If it was to work at all, we had to be in this together.

So after consultation and surveying our audience, our producer and director decided to continue on our schedule as best we could. Here are some of the adjustments we had to make:

  • When lockdown struck we were about to go into a week’s development work. That was immediately pushed back as far as it could be, to just before the scheduled rehearsal period.
  • In the meantime we produced home working policies and got in touch with our insurers to make sure we were still covered. We produced a ‘company journey’ which detailed team members health and safety procedures, from getting up in the morning to turning in that night, covering Zoom rehearsals, outdoor rehearsals and show protocols. We also reworked all our risk assessments and the ‘audience journey’, which was a requirement of our insurers.
  • The postponed development workshop began on 6th July, but was held over Zoom from everyone’s homes. We had to ensure that everyone had adequate Wi-Fi and equipment for home working, and we only workshopped for three hours a day to try to combat Zoom fatigue. Although everyone put on a brave face, we could tell this was frustrating at times, but at least the upside was the lower carbon footprint than face to face development work.
  • Rehearsals began on 14th July, again on Zoom, again just three hours a day.

Obstacles to our green ambitions

The next challenge was to find a suitable space for outdoor rehearsals that was accessible for everyone and allowed us to follow all of the Scottish Government guidelines.

We were delighted to begin outdoor rehearsals on 20th July, but unfortunately this is where our green credentials had to be compromised. We booked a large house with a large garden, which was big enough for our production manager, technical manager and stage management to form a household bubble there. Attached to the house was a conservatory with a studio flat which had a living room and separate toilet/shower room and bedroom. This space, along with the gardens, was designated an official workspace. Two metre physical distancing was observed at all times and each team member had a designated spot for their personal belongings, including individual tents in the garden! A one-way system was implemented with no-one outside the bubble having access to the main house. Full PPE and disinfecting and sanitising products supplied (unfortunately mostly in plastic packaging). A dirty table and clean table system was designed for passing of props etc between company members and everyone had their temperature taken on arrival.

Cast members travelled in, although we rented a self-catering flat within close walking distance for one cast member who lived too far away. It was company policy because of COVID-19 that team members would not use public transport nor car share. We hired two cars for cast members to be able to travel across the central belt, one from Paisley and one from the other side of Edinburgh. Again, this affected our green targets. For other team members who were only visiting sporadically, we used Central Radio Taxis who are carbon neutral through offsetting; we knew this would still produce more carbon than public transport, but since we didn’t have that option, a taxi company that offsets its emissions was the next best thing.

Because of Scottish Government guidelines there had to be increased provision of disposable equipment. Although we asked all of our team to bring and use their own water bottles etc; we provided disposable face masks, nitrile gloves and sanitising wipes. We tried as much as possible to find biodegradable options. We asked our costume department to make everyone two material face masks which we gave to everyone on day 1, along with a personal PPE pack.

Since our usual suppliers were closed or suffering long delays due to lockdown, we had to use Amazon and other large, non-local websites for many supplies. Only two of us are full time with Grid Iron and one of us is vulnerable, so we were unable to visit local suppliers even when they opened. I’m afraid, on top of the delivery footprint, this also resulted in a lot of cardboard boxes (which were recycled!).

3 people in a forest, the one in the middle holding out his arms to the side

Itxaso Moreno, Keith Fleming and Sean Hay in Doppler, Grid Iron. Photo credit: Janeanne Gilchrist

We also had to rethink our provisions for our audience. We would no longer be able to provide a coach, as audience members couldn’t be so close together, so audience members would have to use their own personal transport. We knew this would result in an increase to our carbon footprint, but maybe not by too much since our audience capacity would be no more than 20, if social distancing remained at two metres. More signage would be required, and hand sanitising stations provided.

The big concern that came out of our audience survey was the provision of toilets, and it became apparent that we would have to provide our own toilets and implement sanitising procedures after each ‘visit’. We investigated how to sanitise the set and audience seating after each use, in a safe and environmentally friendly way. We didn’t want to do anything that might compromise the ecosystems in the outdoor areas we would be using.

Adapting to the new situation: again

Opening night was scheduled for 14th August 2020. We just had to get the go ahead from our landlord and licensing, and we needed the relaxation of lockdown by the Scottish Government. All of our paperwork was in place, so all was looking favourable… But unfortunately the Scottish Government decisions didn’t come in time for us.

After yet more discussions and consultations with our team, we moved on to Plan H (who says theatre people aren’t adaptable!).

So much work had been done on the show, so we decided to make a record of where we were and how we got here. The difficulty was finding a space that we could use to film. It was evident that we needed a private rather than a publicly run space.

Fortunately, we had a contact for Gifford Community Woodland Trust. The committee were fantastic and welcoming, and gave us access to their beautiful woodland, which was perfect for filming. Of course, we had to relocate lock, stock and barrel to Gifford in East Lothian. Again, this hit us on the travel emissions front. Although Gifford is only half an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, we decided to find accommodation there for everyone, to minimise travel. There is a small hotel and a pub with rooms in Gifford, and we took full advantage of both! All of the production team, cast, creatives, director and producer relocated; along with our new film and sound recordist.

2 people and a dog, in a forest, the woman looking upwards

Itxaso Moreno and Keith Fleming in Doppler, Grid Iron. Photo credit: Janeanne Gilchrist

We have the film in the can, as they say, and are currently editing, adding interviews and adding content from our many Zoom meetings and rehearsals. We are now (I think it is Plan M?) going to publish the finished documentary online as soon as it’s ready; with the full live production of Doppler going ahead August 2021, during the next Edinburgh Festival Fringe!

We would like to say that our team’s comfort, safety and well-being must always be our top priority. What an amazing team they are; we couldn’t have contemplated any or all of the above if our brilliant team weren’t 100% behind us; and we deeply appreciate it.

Onwards to 2021 (or thereabouts)!

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