It's Earth Day! So time to think about how we use materials in our daily life, and if we should be recycling more, and like lol what is plastic is there really a trash island.
Also time to think about how we use materials in our jobs - and my job is usually building sets for theatre - and how wasteful we are sometimes. Let's talk about sets, baby.
Thinking large scale, here's what Broadway does: http://www.broadwaygreen.com
They have their own organization that helps encourage greening sets and recycling used production materials, of course! All sorts of resources are listed for Broadway shows to recycle or donate their used materials, from fabric shops to Freecycle to the trucking and disposal companies that do the best job of separating out recyclable waste. One of their committees even "established a pilot program for recycling gels from Broadway shows to regional and off-Broadway theatres" (which I'm sure Rosco and Lee aren't too happy about..) But, hey, thanks Great Green Way.
If Broadway is the hub of the theatre industry (it is), Broadway Green Alliance is the hub for the greening of the theatre industry, even hosting a competition for "Green Captains" on college campuses nationwide.
Their challenge for these captains is this:
designing theatrical productions in a greener manner (e.g. alternate materials, energy, lighting, costumes or set pieces); running the show in a greener manner (e.g. energy-efficient lighting, rechargeable batteries, or educating the cast and crew about better practices); striking the production in a way that reduces waste (e.g. re-use, recycling, or composting); or changing front-of-house operations to reduce waste and encourage greener audience practices (e.g. alternative advertising, programs, or tickets).
Nice ideas. And yet...
Most of the resources BGA lists are NYC-based or helpful for national tour tranpsortation. That all makes sense. But theatre is a large industry in at least a few other cities across the nation, so I guess it's up to artists and administrators in those cities to mimic BGA with their own types of resource/education/awareness organizations.
Because every production is a little different, I'd say the hardest part of taking steps to be green in the industry is building and striking with an eye toward reducing waste.
I don't have a statistically significant n of productions to make projections on how much material is trashed on each set that's built in Boston each season, but let's examine real-world case studies of two shows:
A small/midsize company with limited storage space. Can't save much because there's no space. Save the hardware and the high-cost items (doors!) and sheet goods (masonite that isn't too f'd up, 3/4" plywood). According to the dump scale, about 620 pounds (and close to 50% of the direct material cost for scenic) of lumber and fabric into landfill. While I feel solid about the amount of material I borrowed from sources for the production that goes back into other uses (maybe 30%), a lot of dumped material may have been reused...if I had built it to be salvaged. However, I built it to look good aesthetically and get done fast (read as, save labor money; the difference here would have been using screws versus gluing and stapling the double-sided flats).
Fringe company. Enough storage space for the size of the set! We ruined the stock walls they had with a bunch of homasote and really textured paint treatment to look like cinderblock. There's no coming back from that - all that lumber is trashed. But, hey, that wall looked AWESOME.
Just think: those instances done for 3-6 productions per season, multiplied by the 175 member organizations of StageSource (they claim 250, lets assume 70% actually produce regularly). As we say too often at brunch in the South End, "woof" - and not in the good way.
The designer's vision sets the bar to which technical directors can get creative with green practices and materials. In consumer product engineering, there's a shift in focus to designing the life-cycle of the product. That is, not just designing the product with considerations of its use, but also considering its post-use life. When your iPhone is obsolete, what happens to its parts? Believe it or not, Apple's engineers spend time analyzing the economic and environmental impact of their products' end-of-life, part by part. (https://www.apple.com/hk/en/environment/answers/). This process is really creatively called life-cycle engineering. Similarly, designers should focus on designing the life-cycle of their set, including it's death.
Great...but how? If you want a bunch of slightly peeling wallpaper on the walls of the house in 'Night, Mother, you're gonna put the wallpaper on the walls. You wouldn't sacrifice that brilliant idea of yours for the planet's sake, right? Well...
As in a previous bit in which I rambled about Cost vs. Artistic Integrity, here the problem statement just gets another variable. If you're minimizing cost, maximizing ART and also maximizing "green," your optimization problem becomes even more complex. While at least "green" is a quantifiable numerical value, it too butts heads with ART.
While aesthetically some designs will fit with a recycled aesthetic (here's an American Theatre magazine piece mentioning a projection screen made of recycled pillowcases at the tail end of the article), some don't. O.P.C. at ART was all recycled but, uh, also specifically about consumption and ecological destruction. It fit the driving idea of the show. I could scavenge a bunch of recycled bedsheets the next time a designer needs me to mask a 180 square foot area below a platform...but that would look a little silly up against the rest of Shockheaded Peter's aesthetic, for example.
How to be as green as possible and not sacrifice the artistic goal? If we quantify ART, we can set its constraints numerically and make it work in an optimization problem with our green and cost variables.
Well, we can always dream... 'til then we will just have to use heuristics and decide which variable we want to trade off for each production.