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


8 Responses to “Does green theater demand a new paradigm — or just band-aids?”

  1. March 24, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    As I’m sure you know, creating routines of sustainable business practices in any industry take time to develop. As we settle into our new LEED facility at Portland Center Stage, we have been seeking ways to build sustainable practices into our daily routines- from a telemarketing department that has just gone paperless to the high recycled content we print our postcards on.

    As the resources for de-construction and rebuilding become available in Portland (like the recently opened Metro construction recycling center) we are seeking ways to integrate those services into our production management practices. But it is a process, just like teaching a household to separate their trash is a process. The important point is that we are committed to the goals of sustainability and open to constantly and incrementally increasing the alignment of our sustainable goals to the practical processes of running a business (and a theater). It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is happening.

    I would also suggest that many ‘traditional model’ theaters engage in a high level of sustainable practice that they may not even recognize. After all, I’ve yet to meet a props designer who doesn’t start first with what they can borrow, recycle or scrounge. The very budget constraints you are talking about inspire creative reuse constantly throughout the theater system- co-productions, borrowed furniture and rented costumes even speak to that tradition.

    On the construction (and deconstruction side of the equation) I think you will find that when the appropriate market infrastructures are developed to make it possible for companies to pass the wood of a set on to people for other uses (like re-building centers and wood reclaiming centers) that theaters will be highly likely to participate in those programs.

    Similarly, as LED technology advances to the point that instruments become available that use significantly less power to achieve the same effect, theater companies will find it entirely practical to align their sustainable ambitions with the practicality of budget. The technology isn’t there yet, but it will be. And probably sooner than we think.

    Meanwhile I would be careful not to make a false distinction between high production values and sustainable goals. To be green does not need to mean being dowdy, low tech, or unsophisticated. If anything it means leveraging technology to create beauty and scale with a higher level of efficiency than ever before.

  2. March 24, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Having just completed a TCG Observership grant to visit both Portland Center Stage and Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta (First LEED-certified green theatre in the U.S.), I feel I should respond to Mike Lawler’s posting. Production Managers Tom Haygood (PCS) and Scott Bowne (Theatrical Outfit) are both actively searching for more sustainable alternatives in terms of production materials and processes. I too was hoping that these theatres would have already discovered the answers, which I could then take back to New York Theatre Workshop, where we are building a LEED-certified scenic and costume shop. While I didn’t find all the answers, I did find staff members at both theatres who are dedicated to discovering more sustainable practices in daily operations. While it may be a while before we find cost effective alternatives to Styrofoam and lauan, it is important to implement sustainable practices in areas outside of production – recycled office materials, paperless newsletters, double-sided printing, eco-friendly cleaning products, etc. Tim DuRoche at PCS created a committee of PCS employees that will work toward gaining LEED “EB” (Existing Building) certification – a laudable goal. And because theatres do work on such tight budgets, I think we are actually doing more than we realize to “be green.” I know at NYTW, we recycle many of our scenic elements by donating pieces to smaller theatre companies or listing items on craigslist. We are also going to be moving toward using recycled steel rather than plywood in set construction. Personally, I am glad that the conversation is happening, and hope that we can continue to work together as a field that’s based in collaborative efforts to share alternatives and best practices with each other.
    -Heather Cohn, New York Theatre Workshop, and recipient of a 2008 TCG Observership grant to visit Portland Center Stage and Theatrical Outfit’s LEED-certified green theatres.

  3. March 24, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    First off, let me say that I’m thrilled to have people representing PCS and NYTW commenting on my blog. I have discussed the green theater movement with folks from both organizations (including Michael Casselli, Chris Coleman, and Tom Haygood) and recognize that they have both made some serious strides toward a more sustainable theater in the U.S. That said, however, I wouldn’t be here (blogging on green theater, that is) if I didn’t feel the need to push the conversation forward.

    Let me also state that I was careful not to mention NYTW in my post “Does green theater demand a new paradigm — or just band-aids” because they are, in my mind, uniquely approaching the idea of greening up their operation. By building LEED certified shops they are taking a big step — in a direction that no other theater has taken. They are also blessed with production manager Michael Casselli (whom I have praised endlessly on this blog). He is the type of PM that a theater needs to go green, and he is broad in his vision of how to get there. He is also quite lucky to have leadership that backs him on his efforts to improve sustainability and seem to have an open ear toward his ideas.

    The only comment that sort of rubbed me the wrong way was this statement by Trisha Pancio: “I would be careful not to make a false distinction between high production values and sustainable goals.” I will flatly say that I do not believe I have made such “false” distinction, and would offer that one artist’s idea of “high production values” very well may not be the same as another’s. In fact, the very term “high production values” stinks of elitism. Pancio continues on to lump the adjectives “dowdy,” “low tech” and “unsophisticated” together — this is something I would be careful not to do. Low tech is not unsophisticated, nor dowdy. It merely is a way of working which theater artists across the country adhere to, and I do not believe they consider themselves either unsophisticated or dowdy.

  4. March 26, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Sitting in the PCS lobby when writing, on the coat tails of Heather, I have to say that the green building has an invisible, but significant impact on the culture of the company. Some notes:

    I just saw someone come out of tech with bottles for beverages and sort them into the cafe’s receptacles.

    A cafe which uses real cups and plates that it washes with captured rain water (though sometimes that tank runs dry, they switch it back on today due to recent rains.)

    And it’s a very active lobby, a public space with a nice flow of people. The LEED presentation keeps getting used and if I didn’t think better of it would think it’s annoying.

    General Manager Creon Thorne spent the morning first with a community theater’s ED from Indianapolis to talk about the Building, after which the head of campaign committee for the building talked about re-evaluating some activities in the lobby and then we met. I think it’s significant that days get devoted to expanded the practice of operating in a sustainable way.

    The ergonomics of the building are pretty fantastic, the only issue is the quick growth that the company has experienced with the new facility, a nearly doubling in annual budget and increase subscriber base with sough after younger demographics.

    All biodegradable cleansers, RIT dyes, recylced and low VOC paint, reclaimed lumber where applicable. They don’t think of these things apparently, its part of the culture and infrastructure of portland and extended to the company and the building at PCS.

    Lighting is still the issue though.

  5. March 26, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    Another point just as I finished the previous post, while marketing is meeting with what sounds like a paper or design person, that recycled paper was specifically request to fit with the image of the LEED building.

    Also the website has employee profiles, which provide an amazing level of transparency to the orginization.

  6. March 26, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    For the first time since beginning ecoTheater, I feel like I have stumbled upon a reaction from my readers, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I’m pleased that people are thinking about the subject I’ve been writing about. On the other, I don’t want to create an unfriendly atmosphere among those of us who have essentially the same goal in mind: ecologically sustainable theater production. As I said in the closing of my Stage Directions article, “the environmentally sound practices being observed by PCS in realizing their dream of a better facility is a good sign for the theater of the future.” There is no doubt that, as Dorothy Ryan of TFANA told me, PCS is the leader in green theater.

    The point of the post, however, was to lead us to think about how we create theater, and perhaps how a reliance on technology and a continuation of the status quo just with greener materials, might be only one way of approaching the problem of sustainability.

    The reaction seems to be one of defensiveness — which puzzles me a bit because it is not PCS, nor NYTW or even TFANA that should really be defensive. It is the hundreds of other theaters in this country that have taken no steps toward a greener theater.

    I am, it should be made clear, on your side — the side of those making the move toward sustainability.

  7. April 11, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I believe it was this comment that made me think there was a dichotomy being presented between high production values and sustainability:

    “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.”

    Greener means less prettiness. That, for me was the implication that I would like to question. I couldn’t agree more that gorgeous shows can be created with a bare minumum of scenic effects. It was more that gorgeous shows must not be green that caught my notice.

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