this article is reprinted with permission from the Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts

Any sense of alarm about the future of the environment inspires many to rethink their impact on the planet. Theater artists have an opportunity to reconsider how we do what we do. And, this opportunity is not merely a question of reducing our carbon footprint, but also a chance to bolster theater as a contemporary and relevant art form.

THE ISSUES

Theater making brings a set of constraints that make an ecologically sustainable approach more problematic than traditional construction. A Doll’s House is not your house. We create facsimiles that read at a distance as the real thing. Nora’s stage kitchen may be designed to look like the one in your home, but productions constraints mean the wood-finishes, tiles, marble-surfaces, and walls are likely made from lumber and paint to look like the interior they represent.

In building a home, the integration of sustainable materials and technologies can be the guiding concept of its design. Theatrical design looks to dramaturgy, and prioritizes serving the text of a dramatic work, as its central concept. You may find pride in installing recycled carpeting in your home, but no one thinks about fitting Nora’s living room with carpet made from plastic bottles, unless it serves the vision of the production.

We want our buildings to last and know that good construction now will lead to a long life. But we approach theatrical production with a sense of imminent impermanence: We only expect our shows to live for a few short weeks. Of the estimated 17,000 productions at non-profit theaters in the United States in 2009, the average individual theater production only saw 11 performances.

Sustainably-sourced materials are often more expensive and more difficult to acquire than non-sustainable alternatives. A four-foot by eight-foot sheet of Luaun plywood, a staple of scenic construction primarily sourced from the Philippines, costs half as much as a domestically harvested, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF).

Theater is a niche industry that borrows heavily from larger ones, such as construction, for many of its materials and technology. With all artistic production representing about 0.26% of GDP, Theater’s relative size of the economic pie means that it will not revolutionize the way the world “makes.” Other industries must generate the demand that will adjust price. And, even with popular awareness of the ecological crisis, many artists, companies, and theater departments fear change will require too much of our small industry.

WHAT ARE PEOPLE DOING ABOUT IT

Lighting design provides a good case study for how sustainable practices can alter a field. LEDs consume a fraction of the power of conventional incandescent or halogen sources. Other alternative technologies offer power savings for general use, but the control and dimming capability required in theatrical lighting designs continues to necessitate the use of older, more energy intensive, technologies. LEDs may solve these issues but they require shifts in thinking about lighting and re-investment in power and data infrastructure.

Certification standards have proliferated in fields like construction, event management, and museum exhibition. Developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), an offshoot of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification scheme is a very popular example. LEED looks at energy savings, water use, greenhouse gas reduction, the quality of the indoor environment and sensitive resource management.

When it opened in 2006, it received a Platinum LEED certification. It re-used an existing building shell. The raw materials used in the project were selected for their proximity to the site, recycled content and emissions. The building is well located for public transportation with shower/changing facilities for bicycle commuters. There is rainwater harvesting, dual flush toilets and low-flow fixtures. The building is cooled with chilled beams instead of a forced air. Working areas integrate day-lighting with photo-sensors, occupancy sensors and dimming switches. While, none of the points given for the LEED certification are for production in performance spaces, these certification systems are intended to push innovation in construction and operation of permanent structures, not the specialized uses of an ever-changing creative space.

There is no certification scheme for production, many questions of what one should can do right now are slowly being answered from many places. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), developed a certification scheme for its exhibitions that takes into consideration the temporary nature of exhibitions. In Fall 2008, San Diego’s Mo`olelo received a MetLife/TCG “A-ha! Think it, Do it” grant to create a tool to measure the environmental impact of theater and help the industry make choices that do not cause long-term damage. And, Mo`olelo’s toolkit is the foundation for many groundbreaking attempts to analyze the sustainable merits of productions. Showman Fabricators, a New York City scenic shop, uses the toolkit to experiment with case studies on their projects.

Julie’s Bicycle, one of the most important organizations in this field of sustainability and the performing arts, takes another approach. They run a certification scheme called Industry Green, which now encompasses festivals, offices and venues, having started modestly with CD packaging. Julie’s Bicycle provides Industry Green scheme participants with a yearly report measuring their greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint and recommendations for reduction. Participants are certified with an ‘IG mark’ for proven reductions. Having built a strong position in the music industry, theater is now a central priority of Julie’s Bicycle.

Additional American initiatives are also tackling this issue. The Broadway Green Alliance, made of commercial theater producers, has partnered on a “Touring Green” program and is using the power of Broadway to communicate the importance of sustainability. Arizona’s Childsplay Theatre received a MetLife/TCG “A-ha! Think it, Do it” grant to research sustainable staging techniques, which has resulted in a survey of 40 non-profit theaters in the United States.

SOME THINGS YOU CAN DO

More importantly than enumerating all of these initiatives is the growing network. Every organization recognizes the limits to their individual impact. Theater prides itself on collaboration, and there is lots of room for more partners. Where do you fit in? While one of our obstacles may be our own conventional thinking; if we get enough people making theater differently, we can embed new conventions. Here are some places to start.

  • Documentation. You cannot use less of something if you do not know how much you are using in the first place.
  • Stage time is bright but short. The Green Theatre Report from the Mayor of London’s Office shows that stage technology only accounts for ten percent of emissions. However, 35 percent of emissions came from front of house and 28 percent came from heating and cooling rehearsal spaces.
  • Design things to be taken apart. Use screws instead of nails and glue. What you may lose with speed, you gain in reusable materials and savings (which you could investment in greener materials or skilled labor to build and deconstruct sets).
  • Share. Theaters are very adept at extending their budgets and the life of materials that they can find room to store. So, the next step is to build infrastructure for sharing to extend the life of materials across community partners.
  • Full houses can create offsets. Don’t get hung up on making the most sustainable piece of theater unless it is good first. Congregating people has a powerful effect on mitigating emissions.
  • Consider transportation. Transportation accounts for 30-40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Many theaters have driving directions on their websites, but do you have public transportation directions? Accommodate bikes? Offer incentives for those who do not drive?
  • Communicate. Make sure people know what you are doing and why it is important. This can appeal to new audiences and sympathetic theater artists.
  • Every show is an opportunity to remake theater making. There are so many resources available, that it is less about what we do and more about the choice to do it.