Unending Growth

As a theater artist whose primary training and professional experience is as a technician I am acutely aware of the obsession with technology and gadgetry that many theater techs, managers, artisans, and designers hold close to their hearts. Of course, I can think of at least a few techs I know that prefer low tech solutions (Jim Guy, all-star props man for Milwaukee Rep, for instance: “low tech is best tech”). But, what is low tech exactly? It’s a very subjective term. Low tech for Milwaukee Rep (with LORT A, B, and D spaces and an annual operating budget running over $9 million) may mean something much different than for a bare bones storefront theater in Chicago.

In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, Steven Stoll takes a look at three books (Deep economy: the wealth of communities and the durable future by Bill McKibben, The age of abundance: how prosperity transformed America’s politics and culture by Brink Lindsey, and The moral consequences of economic growth by Benjamin Friedman) that deal with, as the subtitle puts it, “the specter of a no-growth world.” Now what, you might be asking yourself about now, does such an essay have to do with low-tech solutions in theater production? An excellent question…

At the risk of encouraging harried comments from those unwilling to see the future of a new theater — one that shifts its focus to producing theater in a manner more fitting with its times rather than relying on technology to solve its problems so that it may continue down the same self-indulgent path — I will tell you how Stoll’s essay spoke to my ecoTheater ear.

Stoll writes that “economists tend to assume that every problem of scarcity can be solved by substitution, by replacing tuna with tilapia, without factoring in the long-term environmental implications of either.” He goes on to state that economists imagine “that only energy and technology place limits on production. To harvest more wood, build a better chain saw; to to pump more oil, drill more wells; to get more food, invent pest-resistant plants.” But, what of the finite resources, the non-expandable ecosystem of the Earth? Scarcity is not something that can be invented away forever — and so, at some point, it seems, we must accept the limitations of our world.

And it is hear that I saw a connection to the somewhat obscure focus of this blog: there seem to be two camps — one, advocating the use of better technology to help theater practitioners reduce their energy consumption and wasteful use of resources; and two, those pleading for a new model, one that does not rely on the ideas of substitution and continuing growth, but rather accepts certain limits — in fact, embraces them — and allows them to drive, rather than stifle, creativity.

Now, let me be clear: it is the intention of ecoTheater to encourage both approaches as the theater moves forward, hurtling along with the rest of civilization deeper into the the 21st century and therefore deeper into the vast well of so called progress. Though I personally have always been one to lean towards the hope of developing  a new model, I am at heart a realist (read cynic), and understand all too well that any real hope for change lies in convincing theater artists to curb their appetite for reckless energy consumption and waste creation both in their private lives as well as in the implementation of their art. It is, for all of us, the best hope: conservation.

Conservation in art, however, can be a scary notion for many artists. It screams “Limitations!” to them, and they (we) tend to wince, and turn away from it, often moving all the quicker in the opposite direction. I say don’t let conservation (of all possible resources — from electricity to building materials) act as a scary limiter, but rather as creative challenge. After all, just how much technology is needed to tell a story?


3 Responses to “Unending Growth”

  1. April 8, 2008 at 6:39 am


    In line with your thoughts on low-technology storytelling, there is a rather incredible post on Arcola Theater’s blog providing careful detail as to how they managed to use significantly less energy to power their production of “Enemy of the People”:


    I think their efforts could be truly inspiring to designers, electricians, and production managers — not only are they saving themselves a fair amount on energy costs (and perhaps on rental costs for instruments as well), but they are managing to use their limitations as a creative challenge.

  2. April 8, 2008 at 8:21 am

    Thanks for the link, Gideon! It’s a great post — probably the most useful and practical on theatrical lighting that I’ve seen. I haven’t been keeping up with Arcola very well, but since this post is new today, I don’t feel too bad for having missed it (plus, that’s the beauty of this loose community we’ve created — we keep each other on our toes).

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