Archive for March, 2008


2009 Earth Matters on Stage Open Call for Proposals

According to a recent email I received, Theresa May and the University of Oregon have announced the 2009 Earth Matters on Stage — An Ecodrama Playwrights Festival & Symposium. May is currently seeking symposium papers and proposals of all shapes and sizes for next year’s EMOS. The symposium will be shaped, according to a recent call for proposals, by the ideas submitted and accepted, so anything is game:

“We welcome creative and innovative proposals for workshops, round-tables, working sessions, installations, or participatory community gatherings that explore, examine, challenge, articulate, or nourish the possibilities of theatre’s response to the environmental crisis in particular, and our ecological situatedness in general.”

“We encourage proposals that go beyond a recitation of ideas or positions, and instead bring presenters and participants together as they engage the driving question of how theatre has or might function as a part of our multiple reciprocal relationships within ecological communities.”

In other words, if you’ve got an idea, they want to hear it.

EMOS invites you all to submit a one page proposal and/or abstract (including type of session and title; your preferred type of space; expected time length; ideal, or maximum number of participants; short bio) via snail mail or email by January 1, 2009 to:

Earth Matters ~ Ecodrama Symposium 2009

Theresa May, Director

Theater Arts, VIL 216, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403


Sueko to speak at AIGA conference

This weekend Seema Sueko, AD of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company (one of the original greenListers) will speak at AIGA San Diego’s Seeds of Change conference as a member of a panel entitled Design For Change: Make A Difference Within Your Community. Also on the panel will be Irene Stillings, Executive Director of the California Center for Sustainable Energy (CCSE), among others.

The keynote speaker on the opening night of the conference will be uber enviro-entrepreneur Paul Hawken, whose most recent book, Blessed Unrest, was the subject of a post here on ecoTheater last year.


Does green theater demand a new paradigm — or just band-aids?

“What we need’s a new kind of theater. New forms are what we need, and if we haven’t got them we’d be a sight better with nothing at all.” – from Chekov’s The Seagull


About a year and a half ago, I wrote a short piece for Stage Directions about Portland Center Stage and their then very new space, the Gerding Theater. I opened the piece with this:

“One does not usually associate modern-day theater with ecological friendliness. In my days as a scenic carpenter, I often marveled at the amount of stuff thrown away in the wake of a strike. Theater thrives on its ability to forever begin anew, discarding much of what has already been made in the quest for a fresh, healthy start to each production.”

Two monumental understatements sandwiching timid contrition.

Nowadays, having turned back to the theater to make a living (after daydream dalliances with the notion of being a writer full time), and finding myself toiling for a sincere, but traditional theater operation, I am still contrite. And that’s because I find myself up against a wall that I only had to write about before. Urging people to take theater in a greener direction is easy when you’re sitting in a room staring at a laptop. When you’re in the trenches of a theater with limited funds and leadership that fails to see how ecological sustainability fits into the mission of a theater it’s quite another story.

And so as I wade through this green theater movement, with all of its seeming momentum — ranging from big companies building green and making sweeping changes to their organizations (granted, only a handful are doing this) to much smaller companies going green anyway they can to the encouraging initiatives being proposed and funded as I write — I must admit that I know that it’s hard to go green. To truly go green.

One of the major obstacles I hear about most is also green: money. Recently I’ve been asking designer friends, acquaintences and colleagues (via email) what they think about making their efforts more sustainable — if they’ve thought about it at all — and why or why not they think it would work and, in the end, be a good thing.

The most interesting reply I’ve received to date was from scene designer Christopher McCollum, whom I worked with in the past at a now defunct SPT in Austin, TX (he is also featured in my book — a shameful plug coming: Careers in Technical Theater). He is now the resident designer at Theatre Memphis. His response was brief, and to the point:

“I probably don’t have enough information to know exactly how going more green would affect me,” he wrote. “I would assume too that it primarily would increase costs.”

This, I believe, is the general idea that pervades conventional theater production. The idea goes something like this (as far as I can deduce): a) theater artists should not have to compromise process for anything other than budget restrictions — and certainly not for the sake of something as seemingly abstract as ecological sustainability; b) theater artists believe that incorporating eco-friendly materials and processes increase costs, and therefore will hinder their work.

“a” is a routinely encountered issue among designers. They strive to reach their vision and the toxic chemicals and wasted resources they employ to reach that place are hardly given a second thought — unless they can’t afford them. “b” assumes that the only way to design and produce theater is the dominant paradigm practiced today in America (and beyond): big, elaborate, highly detailed, every show visually distinct, so on and so forth. It is, for many, simply unthinkable that greener also means less. Less scenery, less lighting, less power draining and resource depleting equipment and all-around prettiness.

This dilemma, however, is not as much of a problem for small theater companies because they don’t have the budgets to produce such lavish work anyway. Right? Well, not really. Many small companies are chasing the same rainbow — which is to say they are largely operating with the same model of theater production. And the model itself is inherently wasteful. Shamefully so.

Case in point: after receiving the aforementioned email from McCollum, I noticed that he and his work have been featured in the latest issue of Live Design. The article, detailing McCollum’s recent design of Hot ‘N Cole: A Cole Porter Celebration!was entitled Running Hot ‘N Cole: Low-Tech Solutions For A Musical Revue at Theatre Memphis. The pull quote? “So many of us in the trenches just can’t afford high-tech options.”

I couldn’t believe the coincidence. It seemed a perfect example of how small companies are, in fact, chasing the same rainbow — even when they clearly don’t have the resources to do so.

And what about the big boys? The theaters that aren’t down in the trenches with McCollum (although they might disagree with that)? Though even I have lauded companies like Portland Center Stage and Theater For A New Audience for greening up by building according to LEED standards, there is still much to be desired when considering sustainability in their overall approach to theater. For instance, in order for Portland Center Stage to earn a Platinum rating for its Gerding Theater from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) while retaining the desired lighting rig for the two performance spaces (including over 300 instruments, nearly 400 dimmers, and all sorts of lighting gadgetry for the mainstage alone) it was necessary to ramp up other areas of the project so that the needed points could be acquired. Nevermind considering a reduction in the power needs of the facility–that simply would not do.

When doing the research for my Stage Directions article on the Gerding, I kept asking people (Heather McAvoy, the consultant on the project from Landry & Bogan, Tom Haygood, the PCS production manager, even Chris Coleman the PCS AD) about how the operation of the produciton departments were altered by the building’s adherence to LEED standards. The answer across the board was “not at all.” I kept asking because I couldn’t understand how that could be. The fact is that the USGBC simply had enough LEED point-earning guidelines to negate the need for any change in the dominant theater production model.

The bottom line seems clear: the professional theater production paradigm cannot operate in a truly sustainable manner.

Perhaps Ian Garrett’s Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts will come to our rescue by devising practical LEED-type guidelines and certification for theatrical production. It seems the biggest “green-aid” we can stick to the problem of how unsustainable theater has become. Even I’m sensible enough to recognize that the model itself will not change.

Or will it?


I’ll leave this discussion with a quote from an old book on theater in the round by Stephen Joseph that I picked up recently (which is to say its been on my shelf for a while, but I haven’t looked at it in a long time). Obviously, Joseph is making a case for his beloved presentation style, but perhaps it can be applied more broadly than that:

“The conventions of the theatre, of its literary style and content as well as its physical and architectural form, reflect the life of the time; but in our efforts to halt the passing moment we find ourselves hanging on to yesterday’s conventions. We try to turn them into precepts and rules. Of course we fail. The attempt runs counter to the nature of drama, and finally manifests itself in a quarrel between those who cling to old conventions, who want to retain the old and familiar kind of theatre, and those who are advocating something new.” – Stephen Joseph


The new (and improved) greenList

The first greenList was posted in June 2007, as I was discovering theater companies that were making an effort to green up. The list was short, containing only five theaters, but highlighted the organizations that had demonstrated a true commitment to the idea of sustainability. Most of them were on the list because they created LEED certified buildings. It seemed at the time the clearest indicator of true dedication to environmental stewardship among performing arts organizations.

The current list has been expanded to include companies that have made efforts consistent with the size and limits of their organizations–in other words, we can’t all expect to build or renovate a new facility, let alone up to LEED standards. But, we can contribute. And this greenList reflects that.

A couple of the organizations listed are not strictly theater companies either. But they are included here because they are performing arts venues that face many of the same challenges that producing theaters must deal with.

Geography also seems to play a role in the list I’ve compiled. It calls to mind Scott Walters non-too-long-ago diatribe on the centralized nature of regional/professional theater in the U.S. That is, most of the theaters on the list (11) are either on the west coast or in NYC–which means, I think, little more than most of the theaters in this country seem to be either on the east or west coast, with smatterings of dominance in the midwest via Minneapolis and Chicago. Anyway, just something (more) to think about.

greenList – Spring 2008

(in alphabetical order)

1. 52nd Street Project – New York City

A non-profit with an extraordinary mission: The 52nd Street Project (The Project) is dedicated to the creation and production of new plays for, and often by, kids between the ages of nine and eighteen that reside in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City. The Project does this through a series of unique mentoring programs that match kids with professional (and volunteer!) theater artists.

The Project has plans to move into a new facility that aims to earn a silver LEED rating through the use of “efficient mechanical and lighting systems” and the use of nontoxic buiding materials. Also, “the core and shell incorporates green systems and materials and includes turbine- generated power produced on-site.”

2. Electric Lodge – Venice, CA

You know you’ve found a green company when a line in their mission statement reads “to be a home for world ecological change.” The “lodge” is a community driven multi-use arts facility and has been spoken of in connection with the recently proposed Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA).

3. Furious Theater – Pasadena, CA

With the help of Green, Of Course the Furious Theater began making small changes to their small operations last year to make themselves more eco-friendly. Just watch the video below to see the steps they took (in the right direction).

4. Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company – San Diego, CA

Perhaps the most publicly devoted (to sustainability) small theater troupe in the nation. Headed by Seema Sueko, Mo’olelo has devised what it calls GREEN Theater Categories & Sustainable Guidelines to help the company find its way through the often confusing issues that need to be addressed if an organization hopes to stay as green as possible. Sueko has also planted herself in the middle of the green theater movement and will be holding a “webinar” on the subject via Drama Biz online with scene designer David F. Weiner (700 Sundays) in April.

5. The New Victory Theatre – New York City

According to Kellie Gutman, writing on the Ashden Directory, NVT has “done a major switch in lighting, inside and out reducing the annual bill for their exterior kinetic light sculpture by 80% a year, saving $50,000.”

6. New York Theatre Workshop – New York City

Unlike the others on the list, NYTW is in the planning stages of building new green shop facilities–costume and scenery–the only such project of which I am aware. This is significant because scene shops in particular contribute in a very big way to the sustainability problems of theatrical production. They will focus their efforts in sustainability on reducing waste, reusing or donating materials, and switching from working with wood-based scenery to using recycled (and recyclable) steel construction.

In addition, NYTW is blessed with a production manager committed to promoting and advancing sustainability within the organization: Michael Casselli. “I think people need to take a more long-term look at what’s going on,” he says. “We just have to start thinking differently.” And Casselli has certainly been on the leading edge of theatrical managers thinking inside the eco-box. He tries to consider all aspects of production in greener terms–an approach that can make a much bigger impact than recycling programs and other small gestures theaters sometimes make. For instance, Casselli is known to encourage designers to consider greener building materials, and actively seeks to donate materials from shows that are coming down, estimating that he donated about 80% of the materials from last year’s production of All That I Will Ever Be.

Casselli and NYTW have also been looking into securing alternative forms of energy, including participating in Con Edison’s Green Power Program.

NYTW plans to break ground on the project this year and have the facility in operation some time in 2009.

7. Portland Center Stage – Portland, OR

In 2006, PCS opened the doors of the Gerding Theater, arguably the greenest, most sustainable performing arts facility in the country. But, in the eyes of PCS artistic director, Chris Coleman, the decision to build green was made with initial relunctance.

“I was resistant because I didnt’ get how it would fit with what we were trying to do in the building,” he told me last year. “I had to figure out how making it a showcase for sustainability [would help] PCS accomplish its overall mission.” He struggled to find the link between producing interesting theater and building green. “For a while,” he said, “I couldn’t see it.” But with a city tax incentive urging him toward LEED certification, Coleman took a tour of an existing green building in Portland. “I liked that the building felt like it was doing more than just housing the organization,” he said of the trip that changed his outlook on the idea of building sustainably. “That field trip was a turning point for me.”

Even then, he had still not found the real link, the justification for dedicating PCS to such a unique undertaking. “Finally,” he said, “I realized that one of our goals was to reinvent our relationship with community.” He was also hoping to connect with a more diverse, younger audience. What better way to do this, Coleman thought, than to embrace Portland’s well-known love of all things green? He had hit upon the link he sought–the link that would lead to stronger community relations, and hopefully stronger performance at the box office.

And when I last spoke to Coleman, the numbers were certainly proving that the link he hoped for had come to fruition: attendance had shot up 35%, ticket sales to both students and the under 30 set had doubled, and 43% of all ticket buyers were between the ages of 25 and 40. What regional theater wouldn’t love box office numbers like that?

8. Shotgun Players – Berkeley, CA

At the end of 2007, Shotgun became (as far as I can tell) the first theater troupe to take their productions off the grid by installing solar panels for their performance space. With a price tag of $120,000 this small company stepped fully up to the plate and committed itself to sustainability.

9. Solar One – New York City

It’s this kind of thing that sometimes leads me to wish I lived in NYC. Solar One, a Green Energy Arts and Education Center is located in Stuyvesant Cove Park (NYC’s only native plant park), and utilizes solar panels to fuel performance of all kinds, including dance, theater, and live music. Solar One also plans to break ground this year on Solar 2, “an 8,000 square foot 100% green-powered education and arts center that is slated to be New York’s first Platinum LEED educational facility.”

10. Stagecrafters Theater – Philadelphia, PA

With their Green Campaign or Green Initiative (depending on where you look on their site), Stagecrafters has embarked on the uphill climb toward sustainability. They have so far only officially announced their Green Subscriptions campaign, which offers a “green option” to ticket subscribers. By paying an extra $2 for their tickets, subscribers will help the theater buy into renewable energy (in this case wind) and contribute to “other energy-saving projects, including insulation, high-efficiency lighting and appliances, and setback thermostats.”

11. Theatre For A New Audience – New York City

With a building designed by the superstar team of Frank Gehry and Hugh Hardy, TFANA will have as its first permanent home a green building of the first rank. But, much like Coleman and PCS, TFANA’s leadership was initially reluctant to pursue green building for their new space. With the passage of NYC’s Local Law 86 (stipulating that buildings that accept 50% or more of their funding from the city be required to earn at least a LEED silver rating), however, they were encouraged to take another look.

“We came to this party because we had to,” Dorothy Ryan, TFANA’s managing director admits. “But the really good part of the story [is that] this is something that our team has really embraced in a very genuine way.”

Says Hardy: “Theaters, by nature, consume large amounts of energy. Working with TFANA has challenged us to create an environmentally responsible design that incorporates sustainable design methods and utilizes the latest in energy efficient systems. Our aim is to reduce the overall use of energy, making TFANA one of the first LEED certified theaters in the country.”

TFANA’s new space is set to open some time in 2009.

12. Theatrical Outfit – Atlanta, GA

A small theater company, Theatrical Outfit acquired an historical building and renovated it in 2006 to earn them a LEED Silver rating. I have previously (and I still believe correctly) annointed them as the first performing arts organization in the United States to become LEED certified.

Tom Key, TO’s artistic director, may have been the first green theater leader who knew from the start that building green was “the right thing to do.”

13. Wild Project – New York City

The Wild Project recently renovated a 99-seat house that includes recycled glass tiles, bamboo plywood, low flush toilets, rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient glass windows. The green idea extends to the lobby too, where concessions use recycled paper products and sell organic beer and wine.

14. Wolf Trap – Vienna, VA

In oder that they might “create a culture of environmental responsibility” Wolf Trap has created both a Staff Environmental Task Force as well as its own National Advisory Council on the Arts and Environment. The performing arts organization has also taken up plenty of practical measures in order to green up, including reducing waste and conserving energy use.

Says Terrence (Terre) Jones, Wolf Trap’s President and CEO: Music, dance, theater and the visual arts cannot magically reverse the environmental degradation or enact policy change. But what the arts can do is inspire… our collective creativity serves as a gateway to understanding the essence of the natural world, and in turn our understanding of one another.”


If you know of an organization that you feel should be on ecoTheater’s greenList, please contact me. The list will expand as I learn about more green and greening organizations, so don’t hesitate to help me keep it up to date. And thanks for reading!


Green Theater Initiative

A brief addendum to yesterday’s post on the sustainability competition from coast to coast: I did not think, at first, that I should post the still in progress Green Theater Initiative web site’s location; of course, it’s been let out of the bag anyway, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Check it out at

Kudos to its founder, NYC-based actor Gideon Banner.


Garrett takes aim at growing the green; Banner keeps up in NYC

The other day I got an email from Ian Garrett:

Hi Mike,

Big news coming out of LA right now, well it’s not news really because nothing is official, but it’s a big step and I would like to talk to you about it. Is there some time you have to chat on the phone?


I love emails like this. What could it be, I wondered? Who was going to announce their expansive green initiative? What was it? What was it? I looked for Ian’s phone number everywhere, but couldn’t find it–we hadn’t spoken on the phone in months. I immediately emailed my number to him and told him to call anytime. My curiosity was running rampant.

And then I heard nothing. Not an email, not a peep, from Ian. Until Thursday.

“We’re looking to create an organization…called The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts,” Ian wrote after a long explanation involving names of lawyers, artists and others that were going to help make such an organization (and its mission) possible. Among the primary goals of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA) would be creating a theatrical LEED standard, developing an educational curriculum for sustainable methods in the arts, maintaining an online resource guide, and holding an annual CSPA conference.

At first glance, the idea seems to cover all the bases, from addressing the needs of today’s producing theaters, and helping them green up, to (and this is what I think may be even more crucial) examining the educational status quo of theatrical production (which routinely imbues tomorrow’s theater artists with bad, bad, “get ‘er done” habits), and creating a curriculum that can lead academic theater down a greener path–a course that would inevitably lead to a greener professional theater.

Of course, Garrett and his west coast crew does have some “competition” from Gideon Banner and his developing Green Theater Initiative, which he has spearheaded sans the endorsement of such big backers as the Center Theatre Group, or CalArts–but rather by the sweat and blood of his conviction. (Wait–I’m not demeaning the work of Ian Garrett at all here, just pointing out that I’d like to see both of these visions succeed, and Banner has been at it for quite some time now, pounding the pavement searching out those hard-to-find funding dollars.)

On the east coast, Banner has made some progress too. His start up organization, which will focus more heavily on assisting theaters take a more sustainable approach to their work and the consulting necessary to do so, already has a skeleton web site up and running (since the site is not in full swing, I won’t divulge its location–and for those resourceful web surfers out there, I don’t think you’ll find it via a google search either!). “Hopefully I’ll have something ready to go by early April,” Banner told about the GTI web site recently. Already the site is nothing if not practical, and has all the signs of being one of exceptional usefulness for theater artists looking for help in this area.

Banner was also recently on a panel on sustainability at the most recent conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) in NYC, and reports being pleased with the number of interested people in the audience. The leader of the panel was Terre Jones, of Wolf Trap (see the upcoming new greenList for more on Wolf Trap). Banner is certainly making in roads, and his GTI seems to be on the verge of breaking through–let’s just hope the funding comes together for him.

So, here I sit in the midwest, drooling a bit at the hard work these two coasters are tackling. I envy them in a way, but I’m just pleased to be on their list of contacts–and happy to report such progress to all of you out there trying to get greener in your own small (or big) corners of the world.




Keeping Up

I’m such a bad blogger. Real bloggers are crazy, even manic, about their blogging–daily rants about all sorts of stuff that keep their readers coming back for more day after day after day. Okay, I tell myself, work with what you’ve got: intermittent inspiration/information. I hate to climb up onto my blog podium without something interesting and meaningful to contribute–and in all honesty, I frequently find many blogs (even those I think are fantastic resources and deep wells of wisdom and practical information) sometimes take it all too far, ranting endlessly on fruitless topics, sometimes in the interest, it seems, of merely picking a fight.

The thing is, I envision ecoTheater as a useful tool more than anything. A place where interested, curious theater practitioners can come and find out how to make their operations more sustainable as well as what areas of theater production are in most need of improving.

So, today I thought I’d relay an anecdote about how hard it can be to “green up.”

Our offices at the Children’s Theater are very small. About 350 square feet for five year-round staffers. Until this week, they were painted two shades of blue, with some red highlights on exposed conduit. It felt like working inside some kind of circus igloo, and it had to change–especially because of the natural light situation in the space. We really needed warmer colors to bounce some of that light around our cramped quarters. So, the search for a paint bid fell in my lap. I dutifully solicited three bids from conventional painters, and then contacted a local guy who runs a small outfit called Eco Painting.

His bid, of course, was the highest, but I knew that I wanted him to get the gig–for several reasons. I offered him a trade in the form of program advertising to see if we could get his bid down to a level closer to the other bids. He agreed to a $150 cut in his fee for an ad in the program for our next show, in April. This still didn’t make him the low bid. There were two other very attractive bids. The problem was they entailed putting paint on the walls that not only would not be good for the environment, but were really going to suck for those of us working in the office–especially for the foreseeable future.

The Producing Artistic Director of CTM understood my position intellectually, and agreed with it on the grounds that the decision would impact the health of the staff and any visitors (including kids) to the office or the classroom/studio in the next room. But she had a hard time agreeing to the higher ticket price, since she was brought on board in the Fall in part to keep the company solvent–something it had a problem with in the past.

Eventually, she came around, and I kept my fingers crossed. See, I had sort of gone to bat for this guy and his eco company, and hoped his product would live up to the boss’s standards.

As it turns out, the office looks great now, and the painter did a great job (even though he ended up charging a bit more than his bid!). But when I think about how much effort it took to see this non-production project through I wince a little when considering the issues ahead in my battle to green up theater in my little corner of the world.


In other news, I was contacted recently by a man named Thomas Davis, who runs Greensleeves Garment Care on Long Island. He says: “I am a committed environmentalist from way back, having been at the first Earth Day, and started Greensleeves with the belief that we can provide superior cleaning without poisonous chemicals and with minimal impact on the environment.” Sounds like a good idea to me. And it is an area of theatrical production that I am aware of as a problem, but not one that I have addressed here on ecoTheater. Graves admits that he is trying to drum up business among NYC’s costumers, and that he is “trying to get the word out to wardrobe supervisors, producers, etc.” But there are some marketing ploys that I can go along with. Imagine if those of us in the entertainment industry started taking our work-related business to companies that not only care about the state of the environment (not to mention social justice), but whose business model actually makes a difference in pollution, ecological degradation, and human health? Green costume cleaning is certainly in that category, and seems a simple enough way for all of us to take a small step in the right direction. Graves also maintains a blog. If you’re in NY, check it out–if not Greensleeves, than a similar green cleaner at least.

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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