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.


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