Theater Arts Sustainability: Part II



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

Part 1 can be found here.


Welcome back to the discussion about how to be more environmentally conscious while doing what you love! Previously I touched on applying the motto “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle” to help analyze your everyday workflow. In this part of the article I will dive deeper into some specific things that can or already are being done by local theater organizations from the very beginning of creating a performance through what happens after the show closes. The list is in no way comprehensive and I encourage you to dig deeper and seek more information that fits your creative area and your geographic area.

Concept design/Load in

I once worked as an assistant to a lighting designer who was fully digital. There was no paper at the tech table, not even a notepad. I called focus by scrolling around and marking a PDF of the plot on my iPad with Lightwright open on my laptop. All paperwork was digital, including the score. To be honest I was concerned that the technology will fail. What’s worse than losing your script with all cues pre-marked in it mid tech? The designer however was used to that workflow and had tricks to backup a lot of the data. The show went up without a hitch. Of course I had to print paper copies to hand out to my spotlight operators, but can you imagine a time when they would have a tablet as part of their light and it would sync to the tech table and reflect changes in real time? Another lighting designer I know has developed the Cuelist app that makes a show script a shared editable online document between the designers and stage management. The app provides environmental benefits as well as simplifies communication.

Theater folks are always resourceful when it comes to finding set pieces or furniture. We are great at making something out of nothing due to budget/time/personnel or other constraints. When my school participated in the Edinburgh Fringe festival we traveled with an inflatable couch and arm chairs. I made fabric covers for them to pass as “real furniture”. We also had to have a big boulder that the two actors building an Egyptian pyramid in a David Ives skit could sit on. Luggage size constrained a lot of options and I ended up making a clever foldable cardboard contraption. Having a hard time finding affordable materials or furniture? Check out this huge list of MSP area thrift stores.

Minnesota arts market seems like a one stop shop for all sorts of things, but I believe you need an account to see the listings.

The Twin Cities Theater Community facebook page is a random compilation of job postings, general information and show promotions. It may also be a way to connect with local folks who may have rentable props or scenic pieces. I believe a few years ago several high schools and community theaters were doing Shrek and getting a dragon puppet was a challenge.

If it’s an obscure item or something normally very expensive, Craigslist and Goodwill online may help. A recent feature on Facebook called Marketplace functions like Craigslist. One can set a distance they are willing to travel to get the item and it limits the search results. Another similar service is Freecycle Network.

As far as lumber goes, it may not always be possible or convenient to use reclaimed wood. Sometimes “new” lumber is required. If such is the case, the origin of the lumber can be considered as minimal transportation saves other resources. Forestry Stewardship council logo also ensures that the trees were cut down in a manner that brought the least disruption to the forest as well as the animals. A local business called Wood from the Hood has a wide selection of lumber they harvest from the area and transform into flooring and furniture. They may be a good resource for specialty lumber that didn’t travel very far.

I’ve touched on modular sets before. Standard pieces that can be rearranged to create a new look may still not work for every show. Construction methods can be key to making the most use of the lumber. Screws and metal fasteners make things easier to disassemble than wood glue.

Odds and ends as well as occasional lumber can be found at one of the local ReStore shops:

They also have a selection of Amazon recycled latex paint. (Not affiliated with the mega giant Amazon internet store)

University of Minnesota Reuse Program is open to general public on certain days and they usually have a plethora of normal office furniture as well as quirky things like science tools, sports gear, fake plants and an occasional lighting instrument or a piano.

Costume mockups can be constructed out of thrift store sheets. While bamboo and organic cotton fabrics are the most sustainable, new they are not economically feasible for theaters. There’s no simple answer to fabric dyeing either. Some dyes are considered natural, however the chemicals used to set them can still be harmful. MSDS sheets are critical in showing employees the dangers they may be exposed to as well as educating how to properly dispose of the substance.

The future of incandescent lighting is a little clearer but still uncertain after the EU has made some progress in figuring out which lamps it will ban since I wrote Part 1.  Just the other day I saw an article that outlines a ban on halogen fixtures, which means MR16s will stop being made in Europe starting September 1st making fixtures obsolete. Some Par 56s are also being phased out everywhere. The latest updates on what is happening in the lighting scene in Europe can be found on Save Stage Lighting site. How soon with this be affecting the US?


Running a show

I’m having a hard time convincing my coworkers to use reusable plates, cups and silverware while at the theater. We work in a building with adequate access to kitchen sinks and community dishes and forks yet the disposable silverware is easy to grab and toss minutes later.  I have found takeout food containers online the same size as the throwaway ones at our café. It’s been over a year and the same containers (plastic, but #5 Recyclable) are still going strong. Using my own cups and the containers I can speculate I have prevented several large garbage bags from making it to the downtown incinerator. I’ve reached out to our café about a 5 cent discount on coffee with a reusable cup. They are considering it.

This spring we did a show where for every performance I had to use two 9v batteries. The rechargeable kind didn’t last as long as the show needed so I ended up with a pile of used up disposable batteries. Minneapolis has collection sites for small batteries. Lead acid batteries are the hardest to deal with but some metal scrap yards take them and may give you a few cents for them. Batteries Plus takes them too. Through all my research I couldn’t figure out exactly how much of the material gets recovered. I remembered seeing a battery collection bucket backstage at the Ordway, which prompted me to do more research about places that can recover 100% of the material. Battery Solutions in Michigan claims to do just that and it also employs a lot of human sorters. Their services are not free, but they make the logistics of collecting and mailing back as easy as possible. Even though they process tons of used up batteries, the overall recycled quantity is much smaller than what ends up leaching chemicals in landfills.

Dry cleaning process is considered a hazard to the workers who operate the machines and can cause respiratory and neurological issues. After use the chemicals have to be transported offsite or processed on site. Accidental or intentional release of chemicals into the environment has been reported all over the country when the chemicals show up in groundwater. Is it possible to design costumes that do not require dry cleaning? Can maintenance of the garment be as important as the look and function?

I’m constantly reading environmentally centered articles and it took me a while to get to the nitty gritty of microplastic pollution of water sources.  By now most of the world is aware that microbeads in shower soaps are horrible for the ocean, but not everyone connects the dots that just by washing a fleece sweater we dump a million synthetic (plastic) particles into the water. Treatment facilities are not able to filter them out because they are so small. They end up in our lakes, rivers and eventually in the ocean causing algae blooms and killing fish the whole way there. I’ve purchased a couple Guppiefriend washing bags for my synthetic clothing. They really do work. The lint accumulates on the inside of the bag and I can dispose of it in the trash rather than water. The price tag may not be for everyone, but it’s a worthy investment for frequent laundry.

Audiences these days are so careless with their free programs and playbills. I’ve rarely wanted to hang on to mine after the show, so I usually recycle. Many people just leave them on the floor by their seats along with other garbage. I’ve seen LatteDa set out baskets marked with signs to place programs into at the exit. It seems like these days audiences need some extra education when it comes to etiquette. You can be spending a lot of money to see Hamilton and the people next to you are eating loudly or ignorantly playing on their phones the whole show. If you don’t ask your audience to be mindful of the physical resources or the time it takes to clean up the auditorium after a show, they may never even have a second thought about it.



Most regional theater isn’t destined to tour. A question of disposal of props and scenery is inevitable. If the items cannot be donated back to where they came from, they must find a way to disappear, as storage space is too expensive. The Guthrie Theater has been using Atomic recycling for about 7 years now. This local service costs a little bit more than the dumpster that would end up in a landfill. Atomic manages to separate out and recycle about 72% of mixed construction garbage they receive. There is an opportunity to receive some money back if you are disposing of steel or other valuable materials. No hazardous waste is accepted.

Local collection sites accept a huge variety of materials for recycling, including pollutants and toxic chemicals. City of Minneapolis provides a disposal guide:

Hennepin county website is also a great resource to figure out what to do with common items including textiles, wood and appliances.

The site mentions that “the county collected nearly 130,000 gallons of paint for recycling in 2017” and that paint was made available for purchase through the Amazon Paint program.

Do you have something in your theater or office that stopped working and you don’t know how to fix it? Before tossing it, check when the next Fix-It clinic is on the Hennepin Environment site Volunteers who specialize in troubleshooting household items may be able to find the issue. The next one at the time of writing is September 8th noon-4 at Brookdale library. Not all broken items are trash!

There are a lot of resources out there to help manage waste. I am a strong believer that no matter how good we are at disposing of or recycling materials the best option is always to reuse or get creative enough to use less in the first place. No recycling process is waste free.  While creating I urge you to ask how does each piece contribute to telling the story. And if there’s no sure answer, is that thing worth using our limited resources?

Create art, not waste.