Archive for April, 2008


NYTW Production Staff FIRED

Received a stunning email from Michael Casselli, production manager of NYTW, and one of this blog’s sustainable theater heroes this morning. I think it would be best to break the bad news in Casselli’s own words, so that there is no chance of misinterpretation (emphasis mine):

Dear Mike,
The entire production staff of New York Theatre Workshop will be eliminated as of May 30th, 2008. Reason for our dismissal-Board mandated a 1 million dollar reduction to the operating budget so of course who goes first? Production. Season will consist of 3 main-stage productions and an ancillary program of musicals to follow the model of the Encore series basically a bare stage and many performers remounting off-Broadway musicals. So of course production can be handled by either seasonal hires or show by show hires. People have lost their livelihood through no fault of their own and the shortsighted planning of people who really don’t understand what it is production does, we do more than shows, we maintain the theaters and provide a loyalty to the whole of the organization which in turn translates into working to make the productions here as cost effective as possible.”

What can I say? This news is simply mind boggling. And unbelievably unfortunate — for many reasons, of course.

According to Casselli six production staffers (including Casselli himself) will lose their jobs, with an estimated annual saving in salaries for NYTW of $280,000 (I wonder what the AD and MD are earning?). One of them, master electrician John Anselmo has been with the company since “before Rent premiered,” and received the news of his dismissal over the phone while on vacation.

(it should also be noted–as Casselli mentions in a comment below–that all but one member of the box office staff will also be terminated)

What may be most confusing about all of this is NYTW’s seemingly unabated plans to build new scene and costume shop facilities according to LEED standards that were to be up and running sometime next year. What’s the point of having such facilities if there is no production manager, no technical director, and no costume shop manager? “The ground breaking ceremony for our LEED certified scenic/costume shop is slated for May 14th, though now there is no staff to run it,” Casselli said. “We might have to have some sort of protest about that. It is a huge slap in the face.”

The information I have on this development is one sided at the moment, though I have no reason to doubt Casselli’s trustworthiness. I have attempted to reach NYTW’s press rep, and I will post more information as it becomes available. Since it is the weekend, I might not hear anything until Monday.



Received an interesting email last night from a TD I know:

“I just saw this on TV…Not sure how applicable it would be to theatre but would love to find out.”

He was talking about Grindzilla, a portable bulk materials mulcher, basically, that was invented to help the construction business reuse its waste materials. The garbage truck sized grinding and sorting machine pulls up to the job site, unfurls a conveyor belt and proceeds to accept wood and sheetrock (and other related materials) into its woodchipper-like mouth. It sorts out metal from wood (even pieces of wood with nails through them were put in!), and turns the material into woodchips basically, that can be used in the landscaping of the site, or for other purposes.

Naturally, this isn’t the ultimate solution for the creation of waste, but it’s a pretty interesting compromise. Would it work for theater waste? Could a group of theaters somewhere develop a mulch selling business on the side by putting their strike garbage in the Grindzilla? Hmmmm….

Check it out here and here.



Recently, a reader took a (small) bit of umbrage with my liberal use of the word “sustainability,” and thought I might find more accurate words to describe the topic of ecoTheater. It reminded me of a writing contest I noticed a year or so ago for some small literary rag that asked its readers to write an essay about the meaning of the word “sustainable.” At the time, I thought about how I might go about defining it in an essay — what it meant to me.

The recent critique of the media-friendly term has me thinking on it yet again.

So, let’s just go to the source of definitions: the dictionary. Or, let’s go to a few.

American Heritage:

  1. Capable of being sustained.
  2. Capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment: sustainable agriculture.


a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture> b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>

And, of course, the Urban Dictionary:

21 up, 8 down

Sustainability is a lens through which to view all issues. The sustainability movement encompasses environmental justice and social justice, because one cannot be obtained without the other. It means living life to the fullest without compromising future generations’ ability to do so. It respects the interconectedness of all life and acknowledges the responsibility that each person has to consider the effects that his actions have on other life forms, both living and to be born.

The sustainability revolution is begining! Watch out you styrofoam using, carbon cycle ignoring, TV worshiping members of American consumer culture.

This final definition is perhaps my favorite. Why? Because it throws off the chains we force on ourselves with words like semantics (American Heritage Dictionary: The meaning or the interpretation of a word, sentence, or other language form) and linguistics (again, AHD: The study of the nature, structure, and variation of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics), and frees us to accept the meaning of a word as we really mean it — without academic interpretation, and over-analysis.

But for the most interesting information on the term, we may look to none other than the ever-controversial open source encyclopedia, Wikipedia:

“One of the first and most oft-cited definitions of sustainability, and almost certainly the one that will survive for posterity, is the one created by the Brundtland Commission, led by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Commission defined sustainable development as development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ The Brundtland definition thus implicitly argues for the rights of future generations to raw materials and vital ecosystem services to be taken into account in decision making.”

And so, the term sustainability remains one that I feel lends itself to the mission and goals of ecoTheater. While it may remain a word that is hard to pin down, I think my readers know what I mean when I use it regarding theater production: the goal of taking into account “the rights of future generations” when considering how we create art.


The Garrett Lighting Calculations Sheet

Last week, in the midst of hell week, I received an email from Ian Garrett presenting a very cool project he was working on. In his words, “What we have here is information that has been at times used by myself and others (looking at you Lawler) to talk about the ecological impact of theater.”

“What [the sheet] does is compute a number of factors in looking at theatrical lighting and figures out equivalents,” he said.Input the Average or Max load of a show (you can get the max load from Lightwright and extrapolate the other from your utility), the average hours your system is running and the number of times you have it running.” Then, the sheet computes the cost per hour from conventional power grids, as well as that of the solar array needed to offset the power use. It also calculates the number of pounds produced per hour by conventional power means, the BTUs (Thermal Gain) of the lights per hour, and translates this information into several equivalents, including:

- Metric Tons CO2 per hour and year

- Equivalent Passenger cars per hour and year

- Equivalent Barrels and Gallons of Gasoline per hour and year

- Equivalent Household electrical use per hour and year

- Equivalent Household total energy use (gas/electirc/etc) per hour and year

- Number of trees needed to sequester the CO2 per hour and year

- Acres of Pine and Fir that store CO2

- Acres of resultant deforestation

- Tons sitting in a landfill as opposed to being recycled

- Equivalent number of coal fire power plants

You can have a look at Garrett’s handiwork here. I have provided both a screenshot example of his form, as well as a download of the usable excel sheet with a separate file of Garrett’s explicit instructions. I’ll keep you posted on Garrett’s updates, and please, please, please, if you use this sheet in your research or other work please credit Ian Garrett. Bad karma if you don’t.


A new model, part I: Localization and Self-Sufficiency

[First a homegrown definition: in ecoTheaterLand, Self-Sufficiency means the ability to keep all aspects of production in-house, and close at hand, especially for the sake of minimizing energy and resource needs. This idea can also apply to the model known as "co-production" or theater co-ops, whereby a group of small theater companies pool resources in order to reduce the over-production of the basic needs of the individual organizations, such as scenery, lighting and sound equipment, and other essential items.]

Lately, I’ve been hearing from some of my readers and they have been asking what this new “model of theater production” is that I’ve been talking about. The fact is, I don’t know. I am slowly assembling the parts of this new model, and have found myself relying a bit on another blogger, Scott Walters, for inspiration. I will be disseminating bits and pieces of this notion of a new paradigm as I find my way.

On his blog, Theatre Ideas, Walters lists five main principles to which he is devoted in creating a new model of theater: Decentralization; localization; artist-audience relationship; positive contribution; and revision of business model. It is the idea of localization that I am concerned with today.

As I struggle to conceive of ways to bring more eco-responsible processes to the theater company for which I am the production manager (and my hope to do so dwindles), I have taken a step or two back to look at the big picture of the organization — especially the areas over which I have some control. One troubling area that stands out is the sprawl of our model: a costume shop on the west side of town, a storage and shop facility on the east, offices downtown, and performance venues located in Madison’s centrally located performing arts facility, the Overture Center.

Though we are in the slow process of closing down the existing costume shop and moving it into the existing storage and shop facility on the east side, we still face the perennial problem of not having our own performance space — thereby leading to constant transport of all equipment and goods needed to produce a show: scenery, props, costumes, and even some lighting equipment. This means at least one big diesel engine truck rumbling around town, and in some cases (such as the show we just opened last weekend) a truck hauling scenery from Milwaukee, a good 75 miles away, since the company has not had a functioning scene shop in years (another ongoing project of mine).

This is not considered a problem for the company, however, because we are one of only a handful of companies in town that are considered resident companies of the Overture (including the Madison Symphony, the Ballet, the Opera, and Madison Repertory Theatre), and the facilities are excellent. It gives us, I think, a much more professional air than if we were operating out of a smaller venue of our own. It is prestigious, in a way, for us to be one of these companies, and the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages for our leadership.

So, this is one area that will not go away for the company — probably ever. I find this hopelessly unfortunate. So much conservation can be accomplished with the simple advantage of staying in one place, eliminating transport and making it easier to rely on stock scenic elements. Such self-sufficiency also makes it easier for a company to keep an eye on repeat waste offenders, like electricity and water use as well as HVAC concerns.

At the Children’s Theater, for instance, we have no say over the management of our performance facility since we are only preferred users of its space. In our own space, we could tackle the idea of green power and conservation all day, every day.

It is my experience with CTM that reminds me just how crucial true localization (an idea that goes a bit further than Scott may intend, in that I mean keeping the facilities of a theater company in one place) is, and how self-sufficiency in terms of facility use can make a big difference where a company’s environmental footprint is concerned.

So, this much seems clear: self-sufficiency is as important as, and may be considered part of, any concept of localization in a model of a new theater that considers eco-responsibility or sustainability as part of its mission.


Arcola lighting solutions

Today on the Arcola Energy Blog there is a great post, “Lighting fit up for ‘an enemy of the people’ – Power Saving” that is probably the most useful piece on theatrical lighting and its implementation for the conservation minded that I have yet to see. Check it out. And thanks to Arcola for providing ongoing info about how it strives for sustainability.


Unending Growth

As a theater artist whose primary training and professional experience is as a technician I am acutely aware of the obsession with technology and gadgetry that many theater techs, managers, artisans, and designers hold close to their hearts. Of course, I can think of at least a few techs I know that prefer low tech solutions (Jim Guy, all-star props man for Milwaukee Rep, for instance: “low tech is best tech”). But, what is low tech exactly? It’s a very subjective term. Low tech for Milwaukee Rep (with LORT A, B, and D spaces and an annual operating budget running over $9 million) may mean something much different than for a bare bones storefront theater in Chicago.

In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, Steven Stoll takes a look at three books (Deep economy: the wealth of communities and the durable future by Bill McKibben, The age of abundance: how prosperity transformed America’s politics and culture by Brink Lindsey, and The moral consequences of economic growth by Benjamin Friedman) that deal with, as the subtitle puts it, “the specter of a no-growth world.” Now what, you might be asking yourself about now, does such an essay have to do with low-tech solutions in theater production? An excellent question…

At the risk of encouraging harried comments from those unwilling to see the future of a new theater — one that shifts its focus to producing theater in a manner more fitting with its times rather than relying on technology to solve its problems so that it may continue down the same self-indulgent path — I will tell you how Stoll’s essay spoke to my ecoTheater ear.

Stoll writes that “economists tend to assume that every problem of scarcity can be solved by substitution, by replacing tuna with tilapia, without factoring in the long-term environmental implications of either.” He goes on to state that economists imagine “that only energy and technology place limits on production. To harvest more wood, build a better chain saw; to to pump more oil, drill more wells; to get more food, invent pest-resistant plants.” But, what of the finite resources, the non-expandable ecosystem of the Earth? Scarcity is not something that can be invented away forever — and so, at some point, it seems, we must accept the limitations of our world.

And it is hear that I saw a connection to the somewhat obscure focus of this blog: there seem to be two camps — one, advocating the use of better technology to help theater practitioners reduce their energy consumption and wasteful use of resources; and two, those pleading for a new model, one that does not rely on the ideas of substitution and continuing growth, but rather accepts certain limits — in fact, embraces them — and allows them to drive, rather than stifle, creativity.

Now, let me be clear: it is the intention of ecoTheater to encourage both approaches as the theater moves forward, hurtling along with the rest of civilization deeper into the the 21st century and therefore deeper into the vast well of so called progress. Though I personally have always been one to lean towards the hope of developing  a new model, I am at heart a realist (read cynic), and understand all too well that any real hope for change lies in convincing theater artists to curb their appetite for reckless energy consumption and waste creation both in their private lives as well as in the implementation of their art. It is, for all of us, the best hope: conservation.

Conservation in art, however, can be a scary notion for many artists. It screams “Limitations!” to them, and they (we) tend to wince, and turn away from it, often moving all the quicker in the opposite direction. I say don’t let conservation (of all possible resources — from electricity to building materials) act as a scary limiter, but rather as creative challenge. After all, just how much technology is needed to tell a story?

what’s in a color?

"It should be about different kinds of symbols than the color green—wind farms, solar, renewable-energy laboratories, those things that are symbolic of the new energy economy. People think that we overuse the concept of green, and it could become trite in its expression.”
“This idea about green in a lot of people’s minds still conjures up this notion of a fringe or something that’s out-there. It doesn’t inspire this notion of a new America. It just seems more substantive than a color.” - Colorado governor Bill Ritter, Jr. in The New Yorker
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