Sustainability from the start: We talk to Oscar Brennecke-Dunn, Theatre Manager of the new outdoor Thorington Theatre nestled in Suffolk woodland. They launched the venue with Ticket Tailor as their ticketing platform of choice and we’ve enjoyed seeing the venue come to life.
Established in 2021, Thorington is a theatre like no other. This hidden gem makes use of a natural amphitheatre (a result of a WWII bomb!), and was constructed with the smallest carbon footprint possible.
This focus on sustainability didn’t stop there. The team at Thorington are committed to looking after the environment and are starting a journey to track their carbon emissions. Keep reading to see how sustainability is the backbone to their business, not just a tick-box.
If there’s one learning you take away, it’s that sometimes you have to choose the road less travelled for greater rewards.
People didn't start working in venues or setting up events because they’re climate scientists, it’s because they've got a passion for live events. So don’t put too much pressure on yourself to become carbon neutral.
Cost and time are the main barriers for smaller venues trying to work out their emissions and how they can become more sustainable.
It can be helpful to calculate your emissions using an online service like MyClimate. But don't take these numbers at face-value. Instead use them as a guide to see which areas of your business contribute the most to your carbon emissions.
It’s easy to feel like you don’t know where to start, so why not begin by chatting with your suppliers to understand their approach to sustainability and carbon emissions.
Little steps can make a world of difference, whether it’s switching to a green energy supplier or offering recycling at your venue.
What does Thorington Theatre do in a snapshot?
Thorington is a 350-seat theatre nestled in woodland on the heritage coast of Suffolk. Putting on a magical line up of varied entertainment from award-winning stand-up comedy to classical opera and, of course, plays.
We only opened last summer, but the first season took off, and we really want to build on that momentum to grow the theatre's reputation.
We host at least three shows a week during our season, which runs from late-May to the last weekend of August. And naturally as the season goes on, we get busier and busier with school holidays, as well an increase in tourists coming to visit the Suffolk coast throughout the summer.
From the construction of the site through to the local food and beverages we serve, there’s always been a strong sustainability focus. But we’ll talk more about that later!
What was the inspiration behind Thorington?
I think it’s fair to say that Thorington was an unplanned project and is the result of good timing. Locals had always felt that the landscape - which features a natural amphitheatre situated in beautiful woodlands - was crying out to be transformed.
Along came the pandemic, and everything came together. Some local carpenters had time, the farm it’s situated on had chestnut trees that needed coppicing, and there was rising demand for outdoor venues.
Tell us more about the construction.
Using local skilled carpenters who loved the landscape naturally built an ethos of being as sustainable as possible from the outset. The design was carefully crafted to flow around existing trees and protect the habitat, not take away from it.
Due to the natural crater, no excavation took place in the process. And local chestnut trees were coppiced to provide wood for the structure. Coppicing is a woodland management technique of repeatedly felling trees at the base, encouraging new growth. So not only was the wood supply sustainable, it also contributed to increased carbon storage.
Similarly, all the footpaths take a route that limits habitat destruction as much as possible.
What logistical challenges do you face situated in the middle of a forest?
It’s not as difficult as you may think. Once the amphitheatre was built we brought in electricians giving us the capacity to put in lighting rigs, sound equipment or anything along those lines for production. And we use an electric buggy to transport things around the site and bring in supplies.
Getting water to the theatre was fairly straightforward too. We syphon the water supply of a stables around half a km away. And because they’re further up the hill, it’s gravity fed, meaning we didn’t need to install any pumps, just piping.
We’ve also just installed Wi Fi which is a win!
Tell us more about the team.
It’s very small. It originally started with someone who lived on the estate where the theatre is based and had the idea for a long time. They raised it with the landowners who were keen. So he led a team of four carpenters who built the frame based on some simple sketches. More broadly, the core team is now made up of the owners, Mark and Lindy, myself as the Theatre Manager, Joey who heads up marketing and contracting with the touring companies, a front of house and a bar team. And then we bring in external help as and when it’s needed.
You host a wide range of performances. How do they all adapt to making the most of the space?
Yeah, it's really, really diverse. I'd say the bread and butter is probably touring outdoor theatre companies – we tend to have at least one play a week.
This week, for example, we've got a live band performing today. Tomorrow, we've got an opera evening. And then over the weekend, we've got Midsummer Night's Dream, doing a Saturday evening show and a Sunday matinee.
It's really interesting to see how each of those different organisations - touring companies, stand-up comedians and musicians - adapt to the space. You have a backdrop of birdsong, crickets and wind whistling in the trees. And we’ve seen performers embrace that atmosphere, take advantage of natural acoustics and interact with it during their sets.
It sounds seriously impressive. How do the audience respond to this unique setting?
We’ve created quite the oasis. When you arrive in the car park there’s a little sign pointing you through a small clearing between two-metre-high bracken and ferns. You can’t see anything, so people don’t really know what to expect. Once you walk along the small forest path, birdsong starts to fill your ears, natural light floods in, and you suddenly emerge in this impressive natural space. The most common response is that it’s a beautiful escape.
A lot of work must go on behind the scenes. How do the team work together to put on a show?
Lindy and Joey are responsible for the pre-show setup, liaising with touring companies and organising the schedule. I take over once the companies arrive on site, making them feel comfortable and helping them to adjust what they’re doing to fit the space. If it’s a theatre company that’s been touring outdoor venues it tends to be pretty simple. Whereas if you’re bringing in a band that’s used to indoor venues, they tend to need more hands-on support. But everyone that’s been coming in has used the space fantastically, and often just goes with the flow.
And now, jumping into sustainability! Beyond construction, how do you run Thorington as sustainably as possible?
Thorington was consciously-built to have the lowest footprint possible. And we want this sustainable approach to apply to our daily operations. We’re still in our early stages, so we’re figuring out where we go from here.
This season (which is only our second year), we’re going through a carbon calculation to understand our operating emissions. This is where Ticket Tailor comes in, as we’re working together to gather data on how far our audience travels to reach the venue, so we can accurately calculate the total emissions of hosting events.
Once we’ve created a baseline and properly understand where our audiences are coming from and how they’re getting here, we can look at partnering with local bus or taxi companies, as well as carpool initiatives to reduce emissions. But at the moment, we don’t have the data to work out what’s possible.
Until then, we try to limit emissions and work with local organisations as much as possible. For example, our bars stocked with beers from local breweries, local organic wine and British sparkling wine from Kent. Similarly, our ice cream is from a local producer and comes in compostable packaging, which goes back to the farm, where it helps grow their fruit trees.
So the process we’re going through now is how do we actually measure our emissions beyond niceties and supporting local. Then at the end of the season we can assess what’s working and how we can reduce our emissions based on our calculations.
Is your focus on carbon reduction or carbon offsetting?
Our priority is how we can reduce what we’re already doing. In reality we have emissions, be it from our own energy usage or the broader scope three emissions (these are emissions outside of our control like the transport of our audience). And while we’re committed to reducing them, a short term solution can be to offset emissions. But not all offsets are equal. It’s fairly complex and is going to require more research once we know our carbon calculation.
When we look at the broader events landscape, you often hear about large music festivals, or even events like COP doing their carbon calculations. These kinds of events attract thousands of people. So how do smaller venues, like Thorington, do this?
That’s where I come in. I have a masters in sustainable destination development from Uppsala University. So I have the knowledge and background on how I can start our carbon calculation. But sadly, not everyone is in this position, and it often comes at a high cost, particularly if you’re looking for eco-certifications or actually bringing in external expertise.
When working with a range of organisations on my masters, it became quite clear that there is little support and expertise readily available. And that it's not only cost prohibitive but time intensive too, because unless you know what you're doing, you need to dig into these things. Even if you just want to choose an external consultancy, the time it takes for you to work with them, to connect them with your supply chain, and to really drive that process is not available.
What advice would you give to another small or medium scale venue that wants to be more sustainable, but doesn't really know where to start?
Start by using a simple online tool like MyClimate to get a snapshot of what your main emissions are. As far as online calculators go, MyClimate is relatively transparent about how they do their calculations. And they use the ecoinvent database, which is a life cycle analysis database that looks at around 18 different metrics.
My advice would be to always use your calculation as a guide, rather than an exact figure, as there will always be a nuance with your specific venue and often they use global data, as opposed to data specific to your location.
However, as a small time-poor business, it can be really useful to see your main sources of emissions. And then start working on them one by one. Remember, no one's asking you to snap your fingers and be carbon neutral or to reach Net Zero. But small changes like switching to a green energy supplier, promoting recycling at your event, or even starting conversations with your suppliers about their approach to emissions can make a difference.
What other challenges do you face when it comes to reducing your emissions?
We're a rural venue. So however we approach it, people will have to drive, or be driven, to reach us. It’s likely to be a problem we always face, and even more so as we grow and attract more people. So, it’s a case of trying to balance our growth as a venue with our goals to reduce our carbon emissions. And I'm sure that audience transport will always be a challenge for any venue that relies on people driving to get to them.
And to flip that around, what has been your biggest success?
Well, one thing we’ve celebrated recently with Ticket Tailor is hitting 5,000 ticket sales! And another success for us was having a company design their set, and their whole tour, based on wanting to perform at our venue! Seeing theatre companies and outdoor performers thinking about our venue as part of their tour is how we measure success. And we hope we can continue building this reputation as a unique place where people want to perform and audiences want to engage.
Does your reputation draw in customers by itself, or have you been heavily marketing the events?
We got great media coverage when the venue was first built, purely because of the concept! It was very timely, as well, with the pandemic and a demand for outdoor venues. We’ve complimented this by promoting events with paid advertising on social media. And we benefit from performers shouting about their events too.
However, our growth has mostly been very natural. Word of mouth is huge in the local community, and this is where we expect to get the most loyalty. We’ve found that as soon as someone discovers our venue, they tend to want to tell people about it and bring friends along, which is great.
What role does sustainability play in attracting customers?
If I'm honest, I don’t think our approach to sustainability draws customers in. But the visual markers of sustainability like the natural environment, compost toilets, trees we purposefully left on site, locally-produced beverages and food at our bar, to name a few, help to create this forest oasis, this great escape. Combined with our welcoming, warm front of house staff and the excellent performances, it creates a space you want to keep coming back to time and time again.
And finally, why did Thorington choose Ticket Tailor for their ticketing?
Ticket Tailor has been so easy. We’ve had great hands-on, helpful support from George and the team while growing our organisation. And we share a vision of caring for the environment, so when we started thinking about how we could measure where our audiences were coming from, Ticket Tailor we’re keen to help. We now feel supported in reaching our ambition of an all-encompassing carbon calculation.