A new model, part I: Localization and Self-Sufficiency

[First a homegrown definition: in ecoTheaterLand, Self-Sufficiency means the ability to keep all aspects of production in-house, and close at hand, especially for the sake of minimizing energy and resource needs. This idea can also apply to the model known as “co-production” or theater co-ops, whereby a group of small theater companies pool resources in order to reduce the over-production of the basic needs of the individual organizations, such as scenery, lighting and sound equipment, and other essential items.]

Lately, I’ve been hearing from some of my readers and they have been asking what this new “model of theater production” is that I’ve been talking about. The fact is, I don’t know. I am slowly assembling the parts of this new model, and have found myself relying a bit on another blogger, Scott Walters, for inspiration. I will be disseminating bits and pieces of this notion of a new paradigm as I find my way.

On his blog, Theatre Ideas, Walters lists five main principles to which he is devoted in creating a new model of theater: Decentralization; localization; artist-audience relationship; positive contribution; and revision of business model. It is the idea of localization that I am concerned with today.

As I struggle to conceive of ways to bring more eco-responsible processes to the theater company for which I am the production manager (and my hope to do so dwindles), I have taken a step or two back to look at the big picture of the organization — especially the areas over which I have some control. One troubling area that stands out is the sprawl of our model: a costume shop on the west side of town, a storage and shop facility on the east, offices downtown, and performance venues located in Madison’s centrally located performing arts facility, the Overture Center.

Though we are in the slow process of closing down the existing costume shop and moving it into the existing storage and shop facility on the east side, we still face the perennial problem of not having our own performance space — thereby leading to constant transport of all equipment and goods needed to produce a show: scenery, props, costumes, and even some lighting equipment. This means at least one big diesel engine truck rumbling around town, and in some cases (such as the show we just opened last weekend) a truck hauling scenery from Milwaukee, a good 75 miles away, since the company has not had a functioning scene shop in years (another ongoing project of mine).

This is not considered a problem for the company, however, because we are one of only a handful of companies in town that are considered resident companies of the Overture (including the Madison Symphony, the Ballet, the Opera, and Madison Repertory Theatre), and the facilities are excellent. It gives us, I think, a much more professional air than if we were operating out of a smaller venue of our own. It is prestigious, in a way, for us to be one of these companies, and the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages for our leadership.

So, this is one area that will not go away for the company — probably ever. I find this hopelessly unfortunate. So much conservation can be accomplished with the simple advantage of staying in one place, eliminating transport and making it easier to rely on stock scenic elements. Such self-sufficiency also makes it easier for a company to keep an eye on repeat waste offenders, like electricity and water use as well as HVAC concerns.

At the Children’s Theater, for instance, we have no say over the management of our performance facility since we are only preferred users of its space. In our own space, we could tackle the idea of green power and conservation all day, every day.

It is my experience with CTM that reminds me just how crucial true localization (an idea that goes a bit further than Scott may intend, in that I mean keeping the facilities of a theater company in one place) is, and how self-sufficiency in terms of facility use can make a big difference where a company’s environmental footprint is concerned.

So, this much seems clear: self-sufficiency is as important as, and may be considered part of, any concept of localization in a model of a new theater that considers eco-responsibility or sustainability as part of its mission.


4 Responses to “A new model, part I: Localization and Self-Sufficiency”

  1. April 9, 2008 at 10:23 am

    I would be in total agreement with your belief that the facilities should be in one place. My post on “A Theatre Space” (http://theatreideas.blogspot.com/2008/03/theatre-space.html) puts the scenic and costume shop on-site, and it never occurred to me that it might be otherwise. Good stuff!

  2. April 9, 2008 at 11:22 am

    You may be missing an important “plus” in your current situation. If each of the performing companies, including yours, had their own performance spaces, that would mean at least 5 buildings: each one using electric (and presumably gas) every day for power, heating, and cooling. That’s additional staffing and audience needs, such as parking lots. An single venue in use all the time is more efficient than 5 or more sitting unused over 1/3rd of the year. Building/getting your own all-in-one theatre/shops/office building does not get rid of the existing venue.

    One thing to look into is sharing shop space with another company that uses the venue. If you are all sharing it, not everyone is likely to be using their shop space all the time. Ditto lighting storage and gear.

    The current prestige-location issue may be a large factor in putting your company where it is today in terms of financial stability, which in turn allows it to continue to produce shows, and also employ its staff. Removing that from the company’s list of “pros” may make it more environmentally sound, but could also result in a drop in audience, which in turn hurts the company. The hope of making a theatre more environmentally sustainable is only possible if it can be done without detriment to the theatre.

    I think a good situation to work toward is getting a single site that houses scenic, props, lighting, and costume shops/storage, as well as administration offices. Not only does it use less space and commuting than is being used now, but nearly all meetings between departments can take place at that location. The only shipping that needs to be done is taking the show to the theatre and taking it back out.

  3. April 9, 2008 at 3:25 pm


    You make a good point. However, there are some basic assumptions made that might not work out as well as you imagine: first, the financial “stability” of my company is anything but stable — ditto the financial situation of the performing arts center itself, which made front page news recently as a result of its own sinking finances. I honestly believe that my company would be better off with its own small space, scaling everything back — there seems to be a push for growth everywhere (see my post “Unending Growth” for more on that), when in fact many companies would benefit financially and artistically by staying small, or even moving toward a smaller, simpler operation. That’s a huge topic, however, best left to a future post.

    I think you are right too about the shared shop space. My understanding is that my company did share space with Madison Rep years ago, but as the Rep grew and strained toward the standard regional theater model, and my company stayed small and community-oriented, they parted ways, and it will never happen again. The idea thing, I believe, would actually have been to have designed shop facilities into the Overture Center. I have been told that the facility used to have them, but when the Madison Civic Center became the Overture Center for the Arts, they were designed away. That would be ideal — because your point of having more than one company sharing space is one that certainly has merit.

    Now if only the Overture Center had been built green.

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