“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
“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