Archive for August, 2007



The other day I picked up a new book at the library called Brilliant! Shuji Nakamura And the Revolution in Lighting Technology, by Bob Johnstone. Along with LED pioneer and inevitable Nobel laureate Nakamura, the book is brilliant. Though its focus is understandably the residential, commericial, and architectural use of light (in fact, the only references to theater lighting I have found thus far are conversations about how many architectural lighting designers come from a theater background), the book has a lot to say about the LED revolution that is really on the brink of changing so many energy crises around the world. One lighting industry insider is quoted as describing the state of LEDs this way: “Solid state lighting is literally flailing around like a hose that you’re gripping five feet from the end.”

Aside from Nakamura’s astounding (and nearly unbelievable) lone discoveries and advancements with the technology of the future in the backwoods of Japan, the coolest part of the narrative revolves around the Lexel, an amazing new way of lighting the world around us. There are many things that make the Lexel (the name is a shortening of “ligt emitting pixel”) such a hopeful and revolutionary idea, but here is a sampling direct from Johnstone’s book:

1. it needs no warm up, and comes on instantly.
2. it does not flicker
3. “its beam can be changed from narrow to wide simply by inserting a low-cost plastic lens.”
4. it can be set to any color temperature
5. “remarkably,” Johnstone writes, “it can hold exactly that color as you dim the fixture.”
6. it’s most powerful version produces 1000 lumens.

Now all of this means very little for theater folks. Such a light is nowhere near ready for typical theatrical applications. But the idea that such a light has been developed, essentially poised to take the place of the ubiquitous Edison technology that has been the norm of the household light bulb for over a century, is great news.

In case you’re wondering what else is so great about this technology, let Johnstone explain: conventional light bulbs waste “95 percent of their output in the form of heat.” LEDs on the other hand consume about 80 percent less energy than conventional incandescent light bulbs. They also last for 100,000 hours, or as Johnstone writes, “effectively forever.”

Johnstone also makes clear what a switch to LEDs would do for us, up to our necks as we are in an energy crisis: “Since lighting accounts for around a quarter of electricity usage, replacing conventional lights with LEDs would dramatically cut our energy consumption,” he writes. “In the United States, by far the world’s largest user of electricity, energy consumption would decline by almost 30 percent.” And: “By switching to solid-state lighting, consumers might expect to save $125 billion over the next twenty years.” He goes on to explain the ripple effect of such a major switch, including the elimination of the need for more conventional power, such as coal-fired plants. This, in turn would lead to a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Want more? Okay: “In addition,” he writes, “LEDs are instrinsically environmentally friendly.” Why? They are not toxic–unlike the now popular compact fluorescent bulbs–which means they aren’t going to further pollute the planet at the end of their useful lives.

The good news of LEDs goes on and on, and I thank Bob Johnstone for writing such a fantastic book on the subject. Let’s keep our fingers crossed on this one.


The Urban Animal: A conversation with Theresa May & Larry Fried (part I)

First I am going to gush just a bit: having a conference call with Theresa May and Larry Fried for me is the equivalent of a Harry Potter crazed child getting a call from J.K. Rowling. Well, almost. But seriously, considering the niche we are in, the concerns we have for today’s theater and the work in which we are engaged, who better to have a heart to heart with than the folks that (literally) wrote the book?

The book, as you may recall from a post earlier this month, is called Greening Up Our Houses: A Guide to Creating An Ecologically Sound Theatre, and it is the only book of its kind. It examines the idea of sustainable theater and offers practical information and solutions for the theater practitioner. Its only problem is that it was published in 1994, and therefore lacks somewhat in the up-to-date department. It remains, however, an important book and a great starting point for any theater artist interested in pursuing a green approach to their art.

During my conversation with the duo, Fried posed the rhetorical question that sums up what I am trying to do with ecoTheater and what others that have appeared endlessly in this blog are trying to do as well: “What is it,” he asked, “that theater can do to contribute to sustainability in our communities and on our planet?” The question itself found its way into our discussion through a sort of back door, for I was trying to get to the bottom of what I saw as a discrepency between putting real-world sustainable practices into theatrical production versus what academics refer to as ecocriticism, or looking at the planet’s Ecological situation through the work being produced. I have long stood up and said that one (the practical implementation) is most certainly more important than the other, but May and Fried put out most of that fire. Fried continued that the answer to his question “naturally leads to the whole,” meaning that in order to truly examine the greeness of theater, one must look at both sides of the equation–the so-called practical and the artistic. The work being produced and how it is being produced. “Once you start looking into one,” Fried said, “you have to ask yourself, ‘are we really walking our talk?'” In other words, putting environmentally themed work on the boards without considering how you’re putting it there is naive, and arguably fruitless. Likewise, producing theater with meticulous attention paid to the sustainability of the implementation of the design and production without addressing the concern in any of the work also seems to be missing the point.

“I don’t think that there is a great crevasse between the practical side of theater and the artistic side,” May told me. “I think they really come together and, of course, where they come together is on stage.” And how they come together on stage, she reminded me, is vital. “What we use on stage,” she said, “is a way to demonstrate that we are accountable to our relationship with the planet.”

And so Fried and May demonstrated once again that there cannot exist a disconnect between what we do and how we do it. “Theater has the potential to disemble that false boundary between ecology and human culture,” May said. Fried also articulated that he believes theater, and its uniqueness as an art form, offers an ideal way to approach the subject of environmental justice, providing a platform for scrutiny through its ability to propose new ways of thinking and living without directly, or immediately, imposing them on people. Environmentalism and environmental justice, by the way, are not mutually exclusive ideas, argues May. “To care about people really is to care about the planet, and to care about the planet is to care about people,” she said.

She supported this notion by citing the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. “[It] really demonstrated that all of the social justice issues come into play along with all of the environmental policy that was behind taming a river in that way.” In other words, the hubris of what John McPhee has called “the control of nature,” does not merely affect the planet, or some intangible nature aesthetic, but instead will inevitably affect people too.

So, what does this have to do with an “urban animal?” Well, alright, if you must know: At one point in our chat, May made the somewhat obvious though entirely revealing observation that we theater artists tend to be, you guessed it, “urban animals.” “Cities are incredible places to forget the dirt and the land that lies underneath it,” she said. I found this thought quite intriguing, and not just because it seemed like a good header (though, come on, good headers matter). It seemed spot on, and I immediately began thinking about all of the times I found myself wishing I was somewhere in the mountains or the desert with my pack strapped to my back instead of sitting behind a light board, or staring at cue light waiting for it to go off. I also recalled my time at American Players Theatre, an outdoor classical theater about an hour into the country from where I live now in Madison, WI. In my two years with that company, I used to think I’d found the perfect combination of the outdoorsy life, and the theater–for I was able to work in theater while outside in the woods, basking in the sun and playing in the rain. So, May’s point was well taken by me, and I think it points to yet another reason why so many theater practitioners around the world have a hard time accepting nature and the environment into their work, and perhaps more significantly, into how they think about their work. I think it’s time we “urban animals” venture out into the wilds, and reclaim a little bit of that heritage in our souls. Maybe then we’ll be able to see it just that much more clearly.


Looking Beyond the NOW; or, how I learned to think outside the eco box

My focus–or perhaps I should say my understanding–has begun to shift slightly recently. In my discussions with more and more people about this idea (what can we call it? Eco-Theater? Green Theater? Sustainable Theater? It is all of these things, and more) I have found myself speaking with folks whose knowledge base is vast. And these people tend to not be those in places of what we might call power. Their talk, their attitudes, their commitment, and integrity seems on a different plane than those holding the purse strings, developing the seasons in America’s theaters, and guiding artistic missions. What seems crucial to point out at this stage is the concept of what I will call Life-Cycle, and that has been referred to as Cradle to Cradle, or Dust to Dust. It is a way of viewing the world, and our place in it, that requires more thought than most of us are willing to invest. It also ties directly, I believe, to the concept of “Solving For Pattern,” the Berry-inspired notion that I spoke of in an earlier post.

The other day, I was made aware of CNW Research and their “Dust to Dust Automotive Study.” Let me tell you, it’s an eye-opener in many ways. The study aims to take the longest look possible at the lifespan of an automobile from the design, manufacture, and assembly of each of its parts to the day it’s towed to the junkyard. Following this process, analyzing each step and its requisite energy usage, CNW then assigned a dollar value to each of the hundreds of models of cars included in the study that is designed to represent the “Energy cost per mile driven,” which eventually ranged from over $11 (the Maybach) to under 50 cents (the Scion xB) per mile.

What was most surprising to folks (myself included) is that a Hummer H3 actually ended up with lower per mile cost than all Hybrids currently on the market! Do I need to repeat that? Here are the numbers, according to CNW’s study:

Hummer H3: $1.949
Toyota Prius: $3.25
Honda Civic (Hybrid): $3.24

Not one Hybrid beat the Hummer H3, let alone appeared on the top ten list:

1. Scion xB ($0.48 per mile)
2. Ford Escort (0.57 per mile)
3. Jeep Wrangler ($0.60 per mile)
4. Chevrolet Tracker ($0.69 per mile)
5. Toyota Echo ($0.70 per mile)
6. Saturn Ion ($0.71 per mile)
7. Hyundai Elantra ($0.72 per mile) <– the car my wife and I are buying. whew!
8. Dodge Neon ($0.73 per mile)
9. Toyota Corolla ($0.73 per mile)
10. Scion xA ($0.74 per mile)

Okay, okay, what’s my point, right? What does the auto industry have to do with sustainable theater? Think of it this way–if you had not yet learned of this study, and regardless of whether or not you wholly except its science and thus its premise, would it ever have occurred to you that a Hummer would leave a smaller footprint on the planet than new Hybrid technology? If so, you’re smarter than I am. Because it never occurred to me. While I may have questions about what this study is really (and I mean really) telling us about buying (or not buying!) a car, one thing is for sure: it is a prime example of thinking outside the “eco box,” and demonstrates how critical it is for those of us who purport to truly care to take a closer look at our day to day decisions. Are we really making the best choices by buying compact fluorescent bulbs and hybrid cars? It also opens a discussion that is so needed among greens about the life cycle of stuff.

(As it turns out, the trouble with hybrid technology and the reason it receives such a relatively poor “energy cost” rating has to do with the batteries. The nickel used in the batteries must be mined and transported. They must also eventually be discarded.)

It applies here to ecoTheater in many ways, and I’m sure you’ve figured them out by now. As I have written before in different ways, you cannot have ecological diversity and stability without taking a long view–without thinking about the important things that may lie beyond a direct link to what we may call environmentalism. Social justice, human rights, supporting local (and thus more sustainable) economies–all of these things tie in to one another.


I promise that my next post will be more focused. In fact, I can just about guarantee that it will deal with a rather inspiring conversation I had recently with green theater activists and scholars Theresa May and Larry Fried…


Green Theater: How-To #1

With this post I commence the first attempt at expanding ecoTheater: the practical guide for the theater artist. That’s right, How-To green up your theater.

The Critical Elements of Change (in no particular order):

(keep the word REDUCE in mind while scanning the following items)

1) The building —
The buildings that house the performing arts may be the most detrimental to the environment of all. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), commercial buildings are responsible for 70% of the electricity load in the United States. Furthermore, the USGBC estimates that “if half of new commercial buildings were built to use 50% less energy, it would save over 6 million metric tons of CO2 annually for the life of the buildings—the equivalent of taking more than 1 million cars off the road every year.” Those numbers are staggering.

But remember, rebuilding from the ground up is not where you start. Efficiency and green building experts agree: starting with simple conservation methods are where it’s at. This means first contacting your local utility and asking for an energy audit. They probably won’t know how to think about your performance lighting and power usage, but they can certainly help take a look at other parts of your operation and provide some useful (to use a popular political term, actionable) information.

It may also be important to point out that LEED (or any other green) building certification doesn’t necessarily mean that a building excels in energy efficiency. Since LEED takes so many factors into account, giving the certification system a broad application potential, energy concerns may not be at the top of the list–a likely scenario for performing arts facilities. For true energy efficiency to be rated, organizations must turn to the U.S. government’s Energy Star program, which has devised a system for doing just that–and that’s all they do. They don’t care about where your site is, or the materials you used to construct it, or anything else. They will rate only your building’s active energy performance. I use the word active because they focus on both design and operational use. As of last summer the program had rated nearly 30,000 buildings, with only about 10% earning the Energy Star label.

For more information on how to conserve energy for your shows and rehearsals, see the next entry.

2) The lights —
Chris Coleman of Portland Center Stage (PCS) admits that the necessary lighting equipment for the new LEED platinum rated Gerding Theatre made it difficult to meet the USGBC’s highest standards. Other areas of efficiency and “greeness” were ramped up significantly on the project in order to offset the amount of energy required by the desired system. While theatrical lighting companies, such as Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc. (ETC), have made moves toward efficiency (witness ETC’s ever popular line of Source Four equipment), they have a long, long way to go.

So, what can we do in our theaters to cut back? Ian Garrett, a lighting designer and MFA candidate at CalArts in Valencia, CA, is actively involved in promoting the idea of sustainable theater and makes his views clear: “We have to start thinking on a smaller scale.” Once upon a time Garrett ran some numbers to try to wrap his head around creating designs that could be made more sustainable by calculating how much money and materials would be needed to power one of his typically-sized designs strictly with solar power. His conclusion? “Not feasible,” he says. The numbers he came up with were, to put it uncreatively, astronomical and completely unrealistic. This led him to the idea of scaling back production. And why not? Certainly grand scale spectacle has its place from time to time, but is it done too much? Can we simply tone it down, use fewer lighting instruments and act more wisely when we power them up, keeping them on only as long as needed? (I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent sitting behind a light board punching keys, programming shows for LDs that could have been cued much more efficiently. But that’s a story more adequaetly addressed through LD training and education, as the LDs in my book Careers in Technical Theater make clear.)

When I spoke with folks at ETC, the discussion at one point turned to lamp life. They believed that the life of HPL lamps also made the Source Four a greener product, and they stated that most designers don’t run the lamps up to full intensity, which makes them last even longer. When I pointed out that keeping every lamp dimmed may not be so great, considering that when you dim lamps you are in effect making the system even less efficient, the concern was readily dismissed.

Where does this leave us? Waiting on technology? Yes, I think in many ways, that’s true. But Garrett’s idea of reducing scale is one that can be implemented today.

3) The other systems —
Though it would appear that lighting systems are by far the cause of greatest concern for their energy consumption, there are plenty of other hogs in theater production. Chief among them are audio systems. But we should also not ignore projection and video systems since they are becoming increasingly common in theatrical design. For much of this type of equipment, even Energy Star certified professional grade stuff can be found.

This is an area that I need to explore more fully to be sure. If you are a technician, designer, programmer, audio engineer, or someone else who knows…talk to me.

4) The waste —
This is a subject that has come up time and again on ecoTheater. The fact is, theatrical production revolves around a process of creation and subsequent destruction–and time between the two is frequently a matter of weeks. So much effort is devoted to imagining, designing, and building theatrical scenery, and yet very little (or so it would seem) goes into what happens to all of it once the final curtain has fallen on a production. And even those who do consider the demise of scenery, allowing it at times to weigh heavily on their minds, can only do so much. Remember, reuse and recycle come after the all important reduce. This must become the central word in theatrical production.

Part of the problem may be our fear of limiting the artistic process. No artistic director in the world wants to tell his or her creative teams to limit themselves in order that they may reduce the waste generated by their productions. But, is there a time that artists must step forward and play a role in change, rather than merely using what they may to comment on it? Reducing the use of non-recyclable materials alone would go a long way in reducing a theater’s waste. Conceiving of a way to reuse and store (safely–perhaps off site) scenery would be another.

Michael Casselli, production manager for New York Theatre Workshop, does not hesitate to approach the subject with designers. When he is confronted with a design that specifies materials that he has found to be undesirable in terms of their sustainability (he is careful to consider the life-cycle of the products he uses) he will work with the designer and creative team to come up with a better solution if at all possible. A leader or manager who acts according to such a guiding principle can make huge impacts on the future sustainability of theater in America, for Casselli influences not only the decisions of NYTW in this way, but also the future thought processes and decisions of the designers he questions.

5) The toxic stuff —
Just have a look at the ecoTheater entry from April 27, and you may begin to understand the often toxic stuff that we theater artists work with on a regular basis. Actually, that entry doesn’t really go into detail, but suffice it to consider these fields: scenic carpentry (welding, working with foam of all sorts, adhesives, stains, finishes, et cetera), props (ditto), and costumes (including wigs, makeup, millinery, crafts and dye–all using a myriad of toxic chemicals).

Of course, there are laws and regulations in place that dictate the safe use of these materials, as well as their proper disposal, but guess what? According to Monona Rossol of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (ACTS), most theaters don’t abide the law. As has been written here before, simply acting in accordance with OSHA and EPA regulations would help reduce harm to both the environment and the theater artists themselves.

It’s also important to consider alternative materials. By reducing the amount of toxic and non-green substances, we’ll have gone a long way too. When thinking about this it might be helpful to consider Rossol’s view on just what green is. She makes an excellent distinction between what is safe for people and what is safe for the planet. They aren’t always the same thing.


Okay, now take a deep breath. Remember that was just an overall introduction. Future How-To posts will focus in more depth on particular subjects and ways in which you can create a more sustainable, healthy environment for your theater. And I promise they’ll be more to the point.


School for the Sustainable Arts

Who’s game?

For those of you who don’t know, I have a few projects in the fire at the moment besides ecoTheater. Probably the most dominant is my first book, Careers in Technical Theater which was released from Allworth Press earlier this month. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of my time sitting on my butt in front of the computer trying to promote the book in any way I can imagine (seriously, this isn’t just a shameless book plug), and one of them has been to target schools for the performing arts across the country to try to interest them in using my book both as a reference or library book, as well as in the classroom. It’s a lot of work.

Yes, well, you say, good luck with that, Mike, but how does this relate to ecoTheater? I’ll tell you: yesterday I had a great chat with Ian Garrett, who seems to be popping up a lot on ecoTheater lately, and two things struck me most: introducing the principle of sustainable theater production–or, for that matter, sustainable arts–to the curriculum of theater programs everywhere seems increasingly imperative. And why stop at such a progressive institution as CalArts? The notion of making this topic part of the common dialogue in the classroom would address the larger ecological concerns as well as those of Monona Rossol about the health and safety of the artist or practitioner. Such training would necessarily include the type of information that Rossol has proven to be so lacking in a typical theater education in the U.S. This, I think, just may be where the green theater revolution really needs to be cultivated.

The second thing that struck me was why not have a school, perhaps a high school, dedicated to promoting not only the arts, but a sustainable approach to the arts? It could be a showcase for not only sustainable theater, but all fields of art. It would take a lot of talented minds to pull it together, first addressing the concerns of each area of study–because, naturally, not all fields are created equal in this regard.

Okay, maybe this is a half-baked entry. But I thought I’d throw it out there. And please, if something like this exists, let me know. Alternatively, if this sounds new and exciting and you decide to kick start the idea, don’t forget where you heard it.

I promise my next post will be more filling. 🙂


‘a revolution in process’

Back in April I spoke with Monona Rossol. That conversation made a big impression on me, and she raised several excellent points about the difficulty in going green in theater without a community of theater artists grounded in a solid theatrical education–both in the artistic sense, and the practical sense. She was emphatic about the awful lack of practical education, especially for tech theater students. The trouble, Rossol warned, is that so many college educated theater artists have not been properly trained in the safe handling and use of all the dangerous things encountered in the theater. And so, it is this lack of practical training that comes to mind and gives me pause when I think about Ian Garrett’s attempt at developing a course on sustainable theater at CalArts.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for his plan. But I fear that it will be disproportionately grounded in theory–in the idea, the feel-good idea, of sustainability–rather than the practical nuts and bolts of making it really happen. I don’t know that this is fair or accurate as of yet, but I want to make a point: if we are to really aim at sustainable, green, ecologically sound theater production, then we must–must, must, must–approach it from a practical standpoint rather than a theoretical one. I have a feeling that Garrett is with me on this, and I’m sure if he reads this before I interview him on Monday he will be disappointed to see that I have doubted his efforts. (Sorry, Ian, I’m not really doubting, just thinking on the page)

Anyway, Garrett is in the process of developing the course, and you can view his efforts here.

He has a lot of good ideas, and I have high hopes for the course too. One thing he has going for him is that he is an MFA candidate pursuing both lighting design and producing. His background in lighting will certainly help him look at the problem from a technical standpoint. “We’re trying to look at sustainability in theater as a revolution in process,” Garrett says. “There is the Cradle to Cradle slogan that ‘less bad is still bad,’ and so we want to explore to see how we can change all of our production processes from the ground up.” But Garrett knows that at the end of the day, it is still just a classroom experience. “Will we implement them,” he asks. “I hope so,” he says, “but thats the hardest part, isn’t it?”

Yes, I suppose it is. But, it’s also the most important.


Sustainable Southern California

I grew up in Southern California–spent the first 20 years of my life there, so I know of what I speak when I say that Southern California is the last place I think of when I think of living in a sustainable fashion. Let’s face it, there is nothing sustainable about the way folks live there. The twentieth century saw a desert transformed into an agricultural and just plain cultural mecca, but plenty of ecological tolls were collected in return, not least of which is the awful air pollution and water woes found in the land of the perfect weather.

Most of my family still lives down there, so I am there usually at least a couple of times a year. I can’t stand it. I’m just trying to be honest. But here we are, working on ecoTheater, and out of the woodwork come Mo’olelo and CalArts, two Southern Californian institutions–one very small, very new, and the other much older and very big; one strictly about performance, the other about many things, but primarily the education of tomorrow’s cutting edge artists. The other day I received an email from Ian Garrett, an MFA candidate at CalArts, letting me know that he and the associate dean of the School of Theatre Leslie Tamaribuchi, are developing a class on sustainable theater for CalArts. Wow. That’s very good news.

I am waiting to set up an interview with Garrett, and will post more on this development when I can. Another exciting side note is that I have finally managed to make contact with Larry Fried and his partner Theresa May, co-authors of the one-of-a-kind book Greening Up Our Houses.

Greening Up Our Houses, by Larry K. Fried & Theresa May

I am frantically working on setting up an interview with them as well, since they are truly pioneers in the field–their book, for instance, was published in 1994! They were ahead of their time, which is a bit sad to think about. Global warming (no, not climate change, as those trying to play it down have managed to dub it in the media and collective conscience of the public) and scores of other environmental concerns were well known even in ’94.

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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