Theater Arts Sustainability: Part I


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I was out of the country when Angelina became known to the circles I move in. When I came back to town, I was told that I “had to meet her”. It would actually take quite a while for us to do more than pass in the hallway, and I’ve been kicking myself for the lost time. Thorough, methodical, observant, and smart, Angelina is a veritable font of knowledge and skill, and with her considered and considerate position on sustainability, I knew that if we were going to ask someone from the community to write about sustainability and theatre, there was a natural and obvious choice. -Wu Chen


Slowly but surely the planet is realizing that our way of living over the last century has been destroying the environment in ways that may or may not be reversible now. Reports of the Great Pacific Garbage patch that’s twice the size of Texas and videos of sea turtles with straws wedged up their noses are finally getting the attention of the media that they deserve. I’ve been seriously and intentionally exploring ways to minimize my eco footprint and cut out unnecessary waste from my lifestyle in the last two years. Many of us have done the same with switching to LED lights in our homes, bringing our own coffee cups to cafes, or remembering to bring reusable grocery bags to the store. The more sustainable I try to be at home, the more I realize how wasteful working in the arts can be. In this two part essay, I’d like to explore what it may mean to be an environmentally conscious theater artist as well as ways everyone can be a little greener.

First of all – what is sustainability? The UN defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is understood that resources are finite and thinking long-term is a priority. The slogan “Reduce, reuse, recycle” comes up if you Google “sustainability”. The order of those words is very important. A lot of folks think that recycling is sufficient and enough to be green. I hear it a lot: “I’m doing my part in saving the environment, I recycle!” Many don’t know that a lot of materials can only be recycled once and those materials become items that will not be recyclable again. Not using the materials in the first place is much more environmentally conscious. Can this slogan, in that order, be applied to theater production? Is sustainability compatible with creative process?

Simple backdrops used in a dance show still give a sense of place along with costumes.

Simple backdrops used in a dance show still give a sense of place along with costumes.

Minimalist set for Sound of Music still sets the tone.

Minimalist set for Sound of Music still sets the tone.

Reduce. If a show is not touring, its run will be over in a few months or less and its scenery probably in the dumpster, costumes returned or stored for the future, lighting rehung for the next production. Can shows be done simply with less? Less scenery, fewer costume changes, less electricity used for lighting or the building itself? Theater started as a genre for storytelling, often the locations and actions were described by a chorus or written into the dialogue itself. King Lear’s famous lines about the storm “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” were performed midday in the open air, probably with a help of a thunder machine backstage to give the illusion of a storm above. The audience had to imagine the rest of the rain, the lightning, and the chaos of that scene. Does that play still hold up without the modern day spectacle and technology? I think so. Those plays survived the centuries. It’s an interesting debate to have whether modern audiences expect spectacle and realism. People pay a lot of money to be wowed by high tech automation and stage tricks, stellar lighting or atmospheric elements. I wonder if today's society would still be as interested in doing the work themselves and challenging their imagination, rather than being taken along for a ride through spectacular scene changes or dazzling backdrops. Have we become too addicted to binge watching TV shows and abandoned reading books because it’s more work? There are some plays and musicals out there that seem impossible to do without a big budget, detailed realistic scenery, effects or costumes. Occasionally, even I become concerned that the audiences could be missing out on important points of the shows without the expensive elements, but then a play like Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime comes along. As a huge fan of the book, I got a ticket to see the touring production. The spectacle did not disappoint. The show had a huge video wall cube, automation tricks in the walls and floor, probably a hundred moving lights, and of course, a live golden retriever puppy. There seemed to be no other or better way to tell that story. How do you show an expansive mind and world of a kid? How do you relay the reality as seen through the eyes of someone on the spectrum? Video walls and magic tricks, of course! A few months later I learned that Mixed Blood would be doing that show too. Deeply curious how they would manage it, I absolutely had to see it. I was surprised how much of the story and emotions for these characters I missed watching the Broadway tour. The play was the same story, but it felt different, more nuanced and more focused on the experiences of the characters rather than the experiences of the audience. Lets take a look at some other popular shows, like Sound of Music. Can it be done without a realistic grand staircase? Or the walls of the kids room or the trees in the garden? It can. There is however a fine line between a show looking theatrical and intentionally abstract and just low-budget/poor. Classical ballet has always been minimal in scenery. The dancers’ need for space to move doesn’t feel like an artistic compromise with scenery. A small bench in front of a painted drop seems to be sufficient to set a location. I’ve seen Nutcrackers with bulky realistic sets that felt overbearing. All the stuff made the world of discovery and imagination a lot less magical. And if all the stuff around them becomes landfill garbage after a few short weeks of shows, is it worth it?

Reuse. The beauty and the curse of theater arts is that every story can be told and interpreted in so many ways that no production of the same script is ever the same. A designer’s job is to create a custom look and feel to fit each of those interpretations. Would forcing designers to reuse elements of past productions impede the creative process? Is repainting or re-upholstering elements a poor design compromise? The greatest way to affect sustainability is during the design process. Broadway Green Alliance was established a decade ago and it seems to be making some progress in encouraging designers to use recycled or upcycled materials as well as helps manage what happens with the stuff after the show closes. Several notable reuse victories are sets for Peter and the Starcatcher and Little Mermaid. The shows do not look like they are made from trash up until you come up very close. I’ve also seen several shows at Theater Latté Da, and I have this suspicion that the main platforms and raised pieces of staging are all the same, just painted differently for each show. It’s a suspicion because those elements worked for completely different narratives and never distracted. Props, painted drops, and costumes are a lot easier to reuse and share between companies, but there are challenges in storing them. It may be impossible for small companies if they do not own a space. Years may go by until a certain size dining room set will be needed again! A lot of the sustainability responsibility also rests on the shops. It’s up to technical directors and costume shop buyers to research and maintain contacts with surplus stores, lumber liquidators, textile centers, Habitat for Humanity ReStores, facilities managements, and salvage yards. One of my college design professors once told the class that as a designer you cannot be limited by lumber sizes or standards or materials easily available or handy. If you draw a something that is 4’5/8” x 8’2” then that is what the shop must build even if they already have a 4’x8” platform in stock. On one hand, I see his point about art and unrestrained creativity, but on the other hand, is it worth it? Is there art in figuring out creative ways to reuse and repurpose something modular or standard in size? Is it wrong to be teaching young designers to think about sustainability as part of creative process? Sustainability and reuse of materials could be a challenge for designers, but it doesn’t have to negatively affect the final product. Out of sheer budget constraints, many dance companies rely on rented or borrowed painted drops, costumes ,and special props - like the headpieces for the mice and the Nutcracker himself.

Perhaps subconsciously I’ve always appreciated lighting aspects of the theater because of the reuse of the equipment. Most of the gear is expensive enough that people value, maintain, and keep using it for decades. At the same time, theatrical incandescent lamps only last for 300 hours or less, produce a lot of heat driving up the energy consumption of the HVAC, and the gel is not recyclable (probably never will be due to several types of plastics and dye sandwiched to make it). A great recent invention by ETC was a retrofit cap for their fixtures that converts an incandescent light into a white LED in a matter of seconds. That technology seems to be working fine for architectural applications, but it hasn’t gained much traction as stage lighting. In the last decade lighting technology has gone very far in the theatrical color changing LED world. The high end fixtures are now dimming well, have good color rendering, and can compete or outperform in brightness to their incandescent predecessors. LED lighting seems to cover the “reduce” and the “reuse” parts of the equation. LED fixtures like Lustr2s don’t only open up almost infinite colors for designers to use, they eliminate the need for gel, reduce the electric bill, the amount of cabling, the weight of gear hung or transported, the power consumed and the heat emitted making it easier for the HVAC to handle. However, as I write this, the EU has proposed new standards for LED, tungsten and arc lamps and fixtures that would dramatically affect the performing arts industry. The Association of Lighting Designers has been ramping up their efforts to #SaveStageLighting ahead of the September deadline for a vote on the new rules which would make European theaters literally go dark. The EU proposal is long, but in essence it is a mandate for more energy efficient lamps and fixtures in the warm white to cool white spectrum. The rules have been tightening over the years, making it increasingly difficult to get tungsten and halogen lamps.  The proposed new rules, if implemented, would ban products that do not meet the 85 lm/W standard. This means that the 800W HMI lamps widely used for moving lights will not be available. A 575w HPL lamp for a source 4 outputs 7489 lumens, or 13 lm/W. The ETC LED Lustr2 with all colors at full outputs 5882 lumens and draws 160W. The math adds up to 36.7 lm/W, which still doesn’t meet the minimum requirements. An LED moving light equivalent to a Martin Viper also is 20 lm/W. The new regulations also limit the power a fixture can use to 0.5W when in standby mode and the lamp is not lit. It seems highly unlikely that in the near future a moving light will be able to remain actively listening to DMX or complete a move in dark for the next preset while only using 0.5W. The new rules have good intentions to push the technology, save a lot of power by 2020, close the loopholes the manufacturers take advantage of and improve the quality of the LED sources. Up until now theatrical and studio gear was exempt. If the rules pass, once the stockpiles of lamps or parts run out the fixtures will become scrap metal as no second-hand market can be created. Such regulations could be an end to theater companies unable to purchase all new light fixtures, dimming, and infrastructure. Sometimes an aggressive push for reduce and reuse is catastrophic for making art and this is a great example of it. This push for the “reduce” is completely overpowering the value of the “reuse”. The EU by 2020, North America by 2025?

It seems that the most environmentally friendly way to do theater is to stop doing theater, but there are many ways companies can adjust to have a greener impact. That and the “Recycle” part of the equation will be covered in part 2 of this post in September. 'Till then!