Green Theater: How-To: Policy

My writing on ecoTheater has enabled me to work out my ideas about creating a more sustainable way to produce theater as I go along — and it’s been a rather bumpy path. My bread and butter at the moment happens to be my work for a rather conventionally run, small, but productive and largely fulfilling children’s theater. So, my writing here has also helped me formulate the steps I can take within that organization to help it inch its way toward a greener model.

Along the way, I’ve been spending a small amount of my “company time” drafting an extensive environmental policy to be introduced and fully implemented (best case scenario) at a later date. I’m fortunate enough here to be surrounded by a small, open-minded staff that (to varying degrees) supports the overall notion of sustainability. It ranges from an office manager who takes every small green step with enthusiasm and interest to a development director who has encouraged me to keep her abreast of all my writing on green theater, and would like to have me tag along on meetings with donors who have a great interest in eco-responsible action.

My position with CTM has been a blessing in many ways (even putting aside that the PAD hired me just before I was to begin chemotherapy, and accepted my frequent absence during the first production I was to manage due to the harsh realities of cancer treatment), and one of them has certainly been the way it has exposed me to the idea of breaking new ground with a group of people (in this case the six members of the theater’s year-round staff) with whom you have never worked. It is the kind of theater in which folks of varying backgrounds, interests, and talents are put together in a small room and asked to not only produce high quality theater, but also run a youth-oriented training program, and do it all on a rather small budget. What you get is a lot of ideas, and a lot of baggage (both positive and negative) inadvertently brought to the table.

What this comes down to is the need to craft policy — policy that works for everyone at the table, because forcing things down throats is not only detrimental to the collaborative nature of producing theater, but also leads to resentment. Not a good way to move forward.

So, how do we do it? Well, Larry Fried and Theresa May, in their book Greening Up Our Houses, suggest the formation of something they call a “Habitat Committee,” which can develop the areas that need to be addressed, and how to address them. The benefit of such a committee, regardless of its name, is simple: policy crafted through consensus by those closest to the areas being affected.

But to reap this benefit, the committee must be made up of the people who will most be needed to implement it’s recommendations. Otherwise, (as I’ve said already) resentment will inevitably stew in the areas of the company that most need improvement — since folks will feel forced to change the way they work by people in other departments.

According to Fried and May in Greening Up Our Houses, the Habitat Committee should be authorized to:

1. assess the environmental problems of various departments

2. produce a plan that identifies certain short, mid, and long-range goals for each department

3. provide staff training or briefings to implement and coordinate new policies and practices

4. monitor the ongoing application of new policies and procedures, incorporating feedback from other staff and assessing the success of particular efforts

5. make adjustments to the plan as needed

The trick is having the good fortune to work in an environment where the idea of sustainability in theater production goes beyond the seemingly common head nodding that goes along with most of the necessary steps toward a more eco-responsible model of production. What I mean is that most of us in the theater are met with agreement when we bring up the idea of sustainability — it’s when we start taking the actual steps that we meet resistance (“it’s too expensive,” “it sounds nice, but it’s too esoteric,” “worrying about our environmental footprint is outside our mission,” etc.).

Fried and May also provide the above flow chart (which they call a metabolic chart displaying the “theatre organism) in order to help a Habitat Committee better asses the areas for improvement within a company. By reducing the inflow, and the toxicty of the inflow, theaters are better able to reduce the amount of raw materials and energy used in operations; and by subsequently reducing the outflow, materials are kept out of the waste stream and reduce the theater’s contribution to air and waterborne pollution.

Such a chart can be enormously helpful when sitting down to assess the areas that need to be addressed within an organization.

Policy is essential to initiating any sustainable program — it is essential to accomplish any of the ideas for greening up theater that I’ve discussed in this blog previously (costumes, lighting, the front office, etc.). Of course, individual staff members and department heads can take the bull by the horns and initiate impressive change within their department; but for such action to have a real effect on the overall operation of a company, and comprise significant change, there must be cooperation, and a cohesive plan for moving forward. It seems that in larger organizations, a committee such as Fried and May’s “Habitat Committee” would do the trick nicely. For smaller organizations, it may take just one strong individual that is willing to introduce policy to colleagues and be responsible for helping it to be implemented.


1 Response to “Green Theater: How-To: Policy”

  1. June 29, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Thank you for this Mike… This is very helpful. In two weeks I will be giving a presentation on ‘how to be a green theater’ to my graduate program in Theater production design at SOU and I will definitely refer to this. I was supposed to discuss what I did on my research paper and web site, but I wrote most of the paper on why as educational institutions we should model green behavior and I did not write as much on how to do that—which is what I would like to do the presentation on. I feel so fortunate to have stumbled across your website in that whole process, for it really has helped to read about the frustrations and thoughts of others in making eco-theater happen. I have spent the last year trying to do just that in my own theater at a small community college and running into many more hurdles than I imagined. When I started out I thought the obstacles I would encounter would be about which choices to make—LED vs. compact florescent for example. In thinking back over this past year I have found that instead, all the obstacles were… people. While progress toward an end has been slow, I have learned a lot this year. My first lesson was in the difficulty for people to ‘Walk the Walk.’ Everyone in my department seemed supportive when I first presented my case, but when it came down to it, they were pretty reluctant to change. Trying to get everyone on board has been a balance of providing sound reasoning (hence the justifications in the paper) and being careful not to garner bad feelings. I didn’t want to harp on a green agenda, but sometimes you just want to, you know, freak out at all the waste and toxicity happening around you—make some heads roll. I have kept my cool though and it is fortunate because I found people eventually making the right or better choices, not for the good of the environment and our future, but because they knew I would be disappointed if they did not. They eventually also started trying new things to make me happy. Last show the set designer came to me very excited and said, “I designed the set for disassembly—we are not using any glue and we are building it in such a way that we will be able to reuse every inch of all the lumber in the set.” I was very happy. At this point in the process–what ever it takes—heck I’ll bake them all cookies every week if it helps. (That’s Plan B.) Secondly, if you are having problems, it is advantageous to try the old “think outside the box” trick. The first show I tried to collect programs to reuse this year, out of 700 people, one sole patron returned one. The next show we decided to only print half as many programs, determined that we would find a way to get people to return them. The first weekend I had the bin in the same place—right next to the front exit doors. There was a big arrow at eye level pointing to a wire bin “please recycle your programs here”. Not one was returned. I was beginning to think no one cared enough about the environment… We were desperate, so the next night we put a big ugly cardboard box on a table in the center of the lobby. That and the next two nights 95% of our patrons returned their programs! Next, it is probably not going to be easy to make change wherever you are—especially if you are working from the bottom up. If you are working in a school theater, as many know, trying to make changes usually requires you get approval from a lot of people to perhaps just change what seems to be the simplest thing—say use a new supplier, or to ok a tiny new maintenance request, etc. You also have to figure out where you are going to find funding for the change. While most schools pay for the regular paper or product out of a general fund, to buy something else requires you to pay the whole cost out of your own department budget, not just the difference. This has been the case for getting recycled paper, changing cleaning products and getting dimmable led light heads in exchange for the 100w lights we now burn as house lights. Anyway, the result has been after diligently trying to make some big changes in my theater department this year, I have only made some small ones and laid a lot of groundwork. I have big hopes for this coming school year, but I’ll keep a plenty of healthy cookie ingredients around just incase I have to enact Plan B.

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