Archive for April, 2008


Mo’olelo Announces Resident Status with La Jolla Playhouse

Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company, an original member of ecoTheater’s greenList (thanks to their comprehensive GREEN Theater Categories & Sustainable Guidelines) has announced a new partnership with the La Jolla Playhouse this week.

According to Mo’olelo’s recent e-newsletter, the organization will become the first resident company of the Playhouse for the next year. The residency was “the brainchild of La Jolla Playhouse’s Artistic Director Christopher Ashley.” And: “The resident Theater Program was designed to address the lack of available, affordable performance venues for San Diego’s vibrant theater community.”

When asked how this move might affect Mo’olelo’s green initiatives, AD Seema Sueko replied, “Our scenic deisgner, David F. Weiner, who has been leading the greening initiative on the design front, is actually the Shop Foreman at La Jolla Playhouse. So,” she continued, “we think this will actually make many of the green choices even easier to execute.”

As of this writing I have not heard any response from Weiner on the move and its impact on Mo’olelo’s eco-friendliness.


UCIRA Call for Participation

The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts (UCIRA) has issued a call for participation for their third annual conference, State of the Arts 2008: Demonstration. Originally slated to occur in May, it has been postponed until November. (Thanks to Ian Garrett for passing this info along)

From the UCIRA’s official “call for participation”:

“State of the Arts, UCIRA’s annual arts showcase/conference brings together artists, scholars, and arts administrators from across the UC system and beyond to a different UC campus each year for 3 days of performances, installations, presentations, interventions, workshops, and dialogue.

State of the Arts 2008 will be hosted November 6-8 by UC Riverside on the university campus and at their new ARTSblock facility situated in the historic downtown district centered [around] the Mission Inn. The event will showcase a broad range of contemporary artistic practice and scholarship.

In addition to catalyzing new research, arts-centered projects and partnerships across the system and beyond, State of the Arts 2008 sets out to broaden and deepen the links between people working in and on the arts within UC and the broader community.”

UCIRA is seeking proposals focused on the theme of demonstration — defined in the “call for participation” thus:

demonstrate v. 1. show (feelings etc) by experiment 2. describe and explain (a proposition, machine etc) by experiment, use etc. 3. logically prove or be proof of 4. take part in or organize a public demonstration; demonstrator n. 1,3 make evident, establish, exhibit (see also PROVE) 1,2 display, illustrate see also
EXPLAIN 1,4 march, rally, protest L. demonstrare de+monstrare; see MONSTERATE

Also directly from UCIRA:

“To streamline the review process, proposals will be considered in the following categories:

Demonstrations/Orientations: 10 minute presentations on a specific research project, approach or engagement. Topics might include, but are not limited to, presentations on research projects by faculty or students; reports on innovative collaborations across disciplines, departments or campuses; or scholarly work on any aspect of the arts. Participants should feel free to propose complete panels based on a research area or theme.

Installations: Site-specific works; networked, online exhibitions or interactive pieces; and interventions in spaces surrounding the ARTSblock facilities (located on the downtown pedestrian mall). Installation proposals should include technical specifications and location criteria.

Performances: Proposals are welcome for performances both within traditional venues and non-traditional spaces within the ARTSblock facility, or the UCR Arts Building, home to the dance, music, theatre, art history, and studio art departments. Works combining several performance disciplines, or innovative performance integrating technologies, are especially encouraged. Proposals for screenings will also be welcome under this category.”

Please check out the UCIRA web site for further information, including deadline dates (which appear to be wrong on the official call for participation) and contact information.


Green Theater: How-To: Costumes

While speaking on the phone with the costume designer of our just-closed production she said, “all of the rented items have to be dry-cleaned.” This is, of course, an expected routine but still I winced a little when she said it outloud.

The cleaning of costumes for theatrical use seems like such an easy place to make better, ecologically friendly choices that can have a significant impact on a theater’s environmental footprint.

For my part here in Madison, I have begun to put feelers out to other area theaters from whom we regularly rent costumes, asking if they would be willing to have their costumes cleaned in a more eco-friendly manner when we rent from them.

The problems:

1. Dry Cleaning

So what’s wrong with the typical dry cleaning process? Chemicals. Toxic, nasty, dangerous chemicals.

Dry cleaning chemicals most commonly come in the form of tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene, PCE, or tetrachloroethene. For the sake of brevity (and a conservation of finger energy) we’ll call it PERC, a common abbreviation, and the term used by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR). Say what? Yeah, anything listed with them should probably be considered suspect, and not eco-friendly.

According to the ATSDR, “high concentrations of tetrachloroethylene (particularly in closed, poorly ventilated areas) can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, and death.” PERC has also been linked to menstrual problems and spontaneous abortions in women working in the dry cleaning industry. And according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) “tetrachloroethylene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.” And: “Tetrachloroethylene has been shown to cause liver tumors in mice and kidney tumors in male rats.”

This last bit of information is enough to get me up on a soap box for sure. As many of you may remember, I battled cancer last year, and it is a fate I would wish on no living creature. The number of proven carginogens we accept in our daily lives is disturbing. The fact that PERC is a known carginogen is alone enough information to provoke us toward action, for through the simple act of taking our bevy of costumes to a conventional dry cleaner we are contributing to the exposure of underpaid (and obviously undervalued) workers to a toxic substance known to cause cancer in animals, and also believed to cause reproductive problems in women (including the induction of miscarriage).

It’s also probable that exposure to PERC goes beyond the dry cleaners, including residual PERC left on the clothes that continue to off-gas once they’re back in the costume shop (and even being worn onstage), as well as contamination of areas surrounding and connected to dry cleaning establishments.

And PERC is just one problem chemical. Because so much is now known about the detrimental health effects of this common dry cleaning substance, some state governments have moved to ban it. California, for instance, has officially banned PERC as of 2023, with other states expected to follow. Of course, this leaves the dry cleaning industry scrambling to find alternatives. What they’ve come up is in many ways no better than PERC.

What the industry has started to turn to are hydrocarbons and something called siloxane. According to National Geographic’s The Green Guide:

“These solvents are labeled as greener options because they are recognized as less toxic than perc, however, both the EPA and the Coalition for Clean Air have determined that these solvents can’t be labeled safe for health or the environment until considerably more testing is done. Hydrocarbon solvents, such as DF2000 and comexsol, may be toxic or contain VOCs, and the EPA has noted concern over the high flammability of these petroleum-based chemicals. Siloxane solvents such as GreenEarth, while not chlorinated themselves, are currently manufactured using chlorine, and may release dioxin emissions. Again, as with hydrocarbon solvents, siloxane is extremely flammable. Also, the EPA notes that siloxane may be a carcinogen.”

2. Distressing/Dyeing

The processes used by costumers to make costumes look the way they want them to often involves chemicals too. This is neither good for the costumer nor the environment.

3. Indoor Air Pollutants

In Greening Up Our Houses, Larry Fried and Theresa May open the costume section of “What Can My Department Do?” with a quote from Dr. Randall Davidson (aka Dr. Doom): “It is more dangerous to work in a theatre costume shop than in a nerve gas factory.” Say what?

Okay, maybe that is a bit, as even Fried and May admit, “alarmist.” But there’s truth there for sure. For starters, Davidson knows whereof he speaks. He was a founding member of USITT’s Health and Safety Commision back in the early 1970’s and author (his latest book appears to be a serious endeavor entitled Practical Health and Safety Guidelines for School Theater Operations).

Even so, as mentioned above, PERC itself can be an indoor air pollutant, and this is not restricted to the dry cleaning facility but the carcinogenic chemical may continue offgas from costumes once back in storage, or in use by performers.

Other problem pollutants in a costume shop (and its related areas including crafts, millinery, wigs, etc.) include various adhesives, dyes, solvents, plastics and foams, and many other toxic materials. If such materials cannot be dispensed with entirely (the safest course of action), extreme safety precautions must be undertaken. See either The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater or Stage Fright: Health and Safety in the Theatre — both by Monona Rossol. Rossol’s non-profit Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (ACTS) is also a great resource — Rossol fields the phone calls herself and is a wealth of decisive information on health and safety in the arts.

4. Water & Energy Consumption

According to “Mr. Electricity,” by simply cleaning costumes in cold water instead of hot, about 1400 kWh/year in electricity (used to heat the water) can be saved. Even using the warm water setting rather than hot, you can save 700 kWh/year.

If you are in a position to do so, and your wardrobe department is looking for a new washer, consider purchasing a front loading machine. Keep in mind that front loading washing machines use 40-60% less water, and 30-50% less energy than top loaders. Top loaders might be a better pick for costume cleaning anyway, since they reduce wear on clothes by relying on tumbling rather than an agitator to clean the clothes.

The solutions:

1. Safer Alternatives to Traditional PERC Dry Cleaning

Probably the most popular and well-known eco-friendly dry cleaning alternative is something simply called “wet cleaning.” The process, developed by Miele in the early 1990’s, uses more sophisticated technology and customizes cleaning procedures for each individual garment — unlike dry cleaning, which treats each garment the same. The advantage of wet cleaning is that it eliminates the toxic chemicals used in conventional dry cleaning processes, and according to the EPA, the cost to the costumer is level with that of dry cleaning.

Another alternative, perhaps even better than wet cleaning, is CO2 cleaning. According to, CO2 cleaning is a process which “works by taking the gas form of carbon dioxide and pressurizing it into a clear liquid.” Soap and clothing are then added to this liquid and voila! Clean costumes. Apparently, Consumer Reports performed a comparison in 2003 and CO2 came out on top, besting PERC dry cleaning as well as “wet” cleaning and other alternatives. You can find a good (albeit probably biased) comparison chart on the various methods of cleaning here. One downside apparent on the chart is that there are so few CO2 cleaners around. is also a good resource for finding alternative cleaners in your area.

2. Construction Techniques

By purposefully selecting fabrics for costumes that are more easily cleaned, costumers can eliminate complicated (and toxic) cleaning procedures. It’s really that simple.

3. Selective Cleaning

Another solution is simply being more selective in what sort of costumes get dry cleaned, as well as how frequently the dry cleaning is done. If items absolutely must be dry cleaned and cannot be cleaned with an alternative method, try seeking out a cleaner that is ecologically sensitive in other ways.

The idea of selective cleaning should also be applied to normal laundry since we are also concerned with water consumption and waste (see problem no. 4 above). Just how frequently does the laundry need to be done? Are wardrobe personnel doing it too much just to be on the safe side — so that they needn’t worry about upsetting an actor or other performer? Wardrobe and costume crew members may want to reconsider the priorities here, and may be pleasantly surprised at a performer’s reaction when they let them know why they aren’t washing their costumes as frequently.

4. Eco-(and human)-Friendly products

It’s 2008 now. You can go down to the most conventional grocery store (or, heaven forbid, Wal-Mart or Target) and pick up eco-friendly laundry detergents and related products. Of course, as the sage Monona Rossol warned me a while back, we need to be careful about our choice of so-called “green” cleaning products, since they may sometimes be great for the environment but not very good for us. As Rossol advises, be sure to educate yourself on the types of chemicals being used in so-called earth-friendly cleaning products to be sure that they will not be toxic to you and your staff. The trade offs must be weighed carefully.


Garrett Heads to London To See How It’s Done

[been meaning to put this up for a while. busy days.]

Old friend of ecoTheater, and sustainable theater champion, Ian Garrett (who also happens to be the recent recipient of the Sherwood Award from the Center Theatre Group) has traveled across the pond to visit theater artists in London recently.

So far, I’ve heard from Ian that he had a chance to see Arcola’s hydrogen fuel cell in operation, and met with the theater’s artistic director Mehmet Ergen. He also attended Theatre Materials/Material Theatres conference last week and told me via email from London that he was rather pleased to finally be discussing the sustainability of artmaking rather than merely technology.


A New Model, part II: s m a l l

When I was a kid, my older brothers used to listen to the great standup routines of Steve Martin on the record player. One of the many bits that stands out in my mind (I mean, there are so many great bits on those albums): “One day,” Martin says, “I decided to get small.” In retrospect, having not heard the album in many years, it’s obviously a drug-related routine where Martin goes into the strange world of being small. So, maybe to get theaters to think smaller, I should send out samples of acid tabs, or packets of peyote. But seriously…

Big, Bigger, Biggest. Today, in places outside of the major cities of this country — NY, LA, Chicago (aka Nylachi) — small theater is often synonymous with bad theater. Anyone who has any self-respect as an artist accepts that to create so-called “high production value” theater, one must find work with theaters that have a respectable degree of funding (read grants, corporate sponsors, and wealthy local philanthropists that like to schmooze with “real” artists), and an ability to accommodate even the most inane design or directorial instincts. Right? Lately I’ve been receiving much more email from readers than I have previously, and one such email (from a grad student studying technical production) had a line that caught my eye: “I am still trying to figure out for myself what I believe “low tech” is…but I believe that whatever this low tech is, it is sophisticated and elegant, not cheap and trashy.”

I do understand the point being made here (especially from a technician’s point of view), but I wonder still why the idea of low tech seems to conjure images of par cans made out of coffee cans and cardboard scenery slapped together with duct tape for so many people. For me (though I have yet to read Carlisle and Drapeau’s Hi Concept – Lo Tech) it means scaling way back, designing simpler spaces, and reducing the constant regeneration that leads to high amounts of waste. It doesn’t mean jerry rigging an old space with tie-line and 80’s era Leko’s — and it certainly isn’t the sort of thing we came up with in the backyards of my youth using warped plywood from our father’s garages, paint techniques that seemed to rely on dripping edges, and yes, cardboard scenery (though cardboard does have its place!).

Low tech simply means minimal tech. It does not mean poor tech.

The founding principles here are straightfoward: keep it simple, and change it minimally between productions. Having spent a couple of seasons working for an outdoor classical theater that truly works “in rep,” I am acutely aware of the fact that rotating repertory theater does not always hold to this principle. Having a bare stage for most theater artists is, well, unbearable. And I can understand that — which is why I’m not advocating that. What I am advocating is designing a space that can be easily (or relatively so) adapted between shows, and which enables differing productions to share at least some elements of the playing space. The most effective aspect of the classical rep theater I worked for (okay, it’s no secret: American Players Theatre, where they do great work that would qualify with most theater snobs as having “high production values”) is the rep light plot, which remains the same throughout the six month season, utilizing a handful of show specific specials and color changes for each show. Naturally, the ideal sustainable theater would require far less lighting equipment and power than is used at APT, but the notion of a standard plot that does not go up and come immediately down whole hog between each show as is the convention in today’s theater would certainly lend itself to simpler production methods, requiring less energy (of both the human generated kind as well as whatever means are employed to generate electricity).

There is more to this smallness than just an attempt to achieve sustainability. It is also about allowing the work to flow mostly unencumbered by considerations of spectacle. Naturally, as a veteran theater tech, I am as aware as any that tech can provide visual and auditory stimulus that sometimes is, in and of itself, worth the price of admission. But, I say, leave that type of production to those who can afford to go down that path, and have the ability to pull it off well (that is, instead of the majority of theaters striving for this, allow it to be the minority that it is destined to be while the rest of us serve our communities by telling stories that matter and are accessible). The self-indulgence in theater production can be overwhelming.

And when I say, “those who can afford to go down that path,” I especially mean those who can afford to do so in an eco-responsible manner. Of course.


Sustainable Design Ideas

Today I was chatting with my co-worker Terry Kerr — someone who has deep ties to a very famous institution in these parts, the Frank Llyod Wright established Taliesin School of Architecture — about sustainable theater design. The conversation really got me thinking beyond LEED and more about what the most sustainable theater operation would entail.

Would it be built new from the ground up using green materials, or be a renovated older building? What else would be required to make it both functional and sustainable, aside from energy conservation, sustainable water use, proximity to public transport, and other ideas established through LEED? And what about Scott Walters tribal idea of self-support? How could a “side” business be incorporated into the design — and what about storage and other self-sufficiency issues inherent in a sustainable theater model? Would there need to be special considerations made in the design in order to accommodate unconventional lighting systems — such as LED fixtures that can’t make long throws — and how would the size of the performance space be determined? How could an organization’s entire operation be housed under one roof without creating a monster facility, with a large physical footprint and therefore a large carbon footprint?

These questions have been reeling in my head lately anyway as I contemplate what it would mean to start up a truly sustainable theater here in Madison.

So, let me know what YOU think: what would a sustainable theater be — from the ground up.


Where Was I? NYTW and ecoTheater

While I’m glad that I was able to get the word out on the trouble at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) over the weekend — and flattered that people (bloggers are people too) have actually used the phrase “scooped the NY Times” to describe my original post on April 12 (twice) — and amazed that views of my site have been absolutely through the roof this week (on Monday I had hits equaling nearly 15 times my previous record) — the fact remains that I’m not a news blogger per se.

While I’m bothered immensely that NYTW fired six hardworking tech theater artists, I have to admit that what bothers me most about the whole affair is the loss of Michael Casselli and what he could have done with those eco-friendly shop facilities that NYTW is about to build. He was, by far in my estimation, the single most green theater practitioner that I know of. That is, while there are plenty others out there making moves in the right direction, most are doing so theoretically (such as yours truly), and while many have had a hand in various acts of sustainability, Casselli was committed to the idea, and committed to doing everything he could to make NYTW the most sustainable theater operation in the country.

But that hope has been dashed along with others in the last week.

Another admittedly self-indulgent disappointment of mine during this NYTW affair has been the realization that while I have increased my readership (albeit probably briefly) in a flash, none of the increased traffic has anything to do with my purpose here on ecoTheater: to promote eco-responsibile, sustainable theater production practices. My hope is that while many of the NYTW gossip hounds were here, they managed to have a look around and see what this ecoTheater thing is really all about.

If, in fact, you are one of those readers, here to see what all the fuss is about over NYTW, and have never thought about what sustainable, green, eco-friendly theater means, I’d suggest you check out ecoTheater’s greenList, or take a look at this post on theatrical lighting in all of its power hog-ness, or this one about how London’s theater scene seems to be way ahead of the U.S. in greening up their operations, or this entry detailing part of a conversation I had with Larry Fried and Thersa May, co-authors of the book Greening Up Our Houses — or, check out their book! Those posts are just a taste of what I’ve been trying to get American theater artists to discuss since I started this blog last summer.

Soon, I will get back to the task at hand and put up some useful posts that I was working on when the NYTW news broke in my email-box. For now, to all of you new readers, I hope you enjoy the blog, and please do let me know what you think.


Elevator Repair Service’s John Collins on NYTW Prod. Dept.

Yesterday, while compiling the piece I wrote for Stage Directions on the troubles at NYTW, I attempted to contact John Collins, the director of The Sound And The Fury, which begins previews at NYTW tonight. It just so happens that the production department was in the middle of teching the Elevator Repair Service show the day they were called behind closed doors and told that their department was being “eliminated.”

After the meeting took place, they couldn’t just go home and decompress — they had to stick around until midnight and work on the show. So, I asked Collins about how that went, and what he thought about the firings. I did not hear back from him until this morning via email.

This is some of what he had to say:

We were all very surprised. I got the impression from the production staff that all their positions were being permanently eliminated in favor of hiring freelance technicians on a project-by-project basis. On the surface, that seems to set NYTW way back. It’s hard to imagine a space running as well as that one does without a qualified permanent production staff.”

And what about how the staff conducted themselves after receiving the news? Again, Collins:

Those guys are all pros and they did not miss a beat where work on our show was concerned. They’ve all done exceptional work for us. They were all upset, but they didn’t let it affect work on our show at all. I have no complaints about the work they’ve done. It’s been great and continued to be after they all got the bad news.”


NYTW Report

I recently completed a more reporterly piece for Stage Directions, slated to appear in its upcoming May issue. You can find it online here in the magazine’s online “Industry News.”


An Open Letter from Michael Casselli

Below is a letter that Michael Casselli, production manager for NYTW (until the end of next month), sent to the staff of the theater in the wake of his recent firing, as well as the firing of his staff, and other employees of the theater. It contains some intriguing information about the way in which the firings were handled by NYTW and I think Casselli’s ire is worth being exposed to:

It is sad that an institution like the Workshop has devolved in such a way. I am angry, sad and more than a little bitter at the treatment the whole of production has been put through. What is even more enraging is that none of the individuals responsible for making this decision were present at our termination – Artistic Director Jim Nicola, Managing Director Billy Russo and Heather Randall. These were the people who, according to their messengers, were responsible for this decision. All of us in production are bearing the brunt of an organization which lacks the ability to enforce any thing resembling fiscal constraint with respects to the work that occurs here, as well as an organization which cannot effectively self govern its own desires. It is disgraceful that an institution such as the Workshop, with its mission and its presence within a community which prides itself on inclusion and diversity, would act in such a way as to cut off those very people which sustain it. Any pretense of progressive agendas with respect to issues of politics or social/cultural/artistic concerns should be discarded right now. This action is a clear indication of the lack of concern for those people who give their all to this institution and it insults those who believed in the Workshop as an example of an organization that could function as something resembling a family. Obviously that family doesn’t include us. I will miss many of you but not all of you.”

“For an institution that imagines itself to be a leader in the Off-Broadway community and a model for a not-for-profit theater institution, to treat your employees with such disregard is shocking,” Casselli told me recently via email. “We were a family, an organization that prided itself on this very fact.”

Here at ecoTheater I have been reeling from the attention this piece of news has generated, and continue to encourage all of my readers who are bloggers and writers to keep this out there in the public eye. What went wrong at NYTW? How did they stumble upon such a bone-headed solution to their problems — and why did they end up with problems that would lead them to such drastic and unfair solutions?

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April 2008