Caring For Our Little Corner Of The World: On Theatre And Environmental Impact

[Originally posted 06.12.2012]

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Theatre is an art of community.  Since performances do not properly exist until you have people in the room to watch them, no theatre gets far by neglecting its place in the community.  Companies design seasons and productions with their audiences in mind.  They (the companies) build relationships with local businesses.  They give to and draw from nearby schools.  They rely on newspapers and magazines in which hometown critics may shine light on their work with positive reviews.  Being part of the community, though, is more than just establishing your place in it.  Good citizenship means participating in making the community better, rather than just benefiting from it.  Baking the pie, not just eating it.
One area where a lot of us are learning to be better citizens now is environmental impact.
Theatre, as an industry, faces significant (and, in some cases, fairly unique) challenges in reducing the use and waste of non-renewable resources.  You can probably guess some of the problems.  Powerful tungsten-halogen lights run through power-sucking dimmer racks and light boards.  Massive sets  are constructed for a three or four week run, then never used again.  Elaborate heating/cooling systems regulate temperatures in massive, cavernous spaces where the number of bodies may vary between a dozen during rehearsals/warm-ups and hundreds at show time.

Lest you think these are idle concerns, check out July’s terrifying Rolling Stone article on the math behind global warming.
You back?  OK.  So what do theatres do to become better citizens and combat our natural wastefulness?  Some companies choose to leave leave the theatre itself.  Groups like Bread And Puppet Theatre, Cornwall’s Minack Theatre, or many of the regional Shakespeare festivals hold their shows in open-air.  Their sets and lighting are generally simpler than housed theatrical events.  On the more extreme wing, you find companies like New York’s Green Theatre Collective that eschew sophisticated lights and sets entirely.  One thinks of Grotowski’s theatre in simple, ad-hoc spaces in the Polish country.  Or Brook taking his Conference Of The Birds on a tour of Africa, using rugs for scenery.  Creative companies willing to brave the elements can leave footprints soft as shadow.
Encouraging work is underway for large, house-based operations, as well.  In 2008 London launched a program called “Green Theatre: Taking Action On Climate Change”.  The plan, which you can read here, contains a thorough diagnosis of the theatre scene’s then-current wastefulness (50,000 tons in carbon emissions each year – at the time equivalent to 9,000 homes) including detailed breakdowns of where the energy-use was coming from, followed by extensive, user-friendly guides to improvement.  The goal, according to Mayor Boris Johnson, was to reduce carbon emissions 60% by 2025 (that is also his goal for the entire city).  “The power of the theatre industry to set an example in the fight against climate change is immense,” Mayor Johnson said, in announcing the plan.
One big take-away from the study: 35% of the energy used by London theatres in 2008 came from front-of-house operations, including heating and cooling.  So a lot of the excess is different only in degree, not kind, from what we deal with in our houses/apartments every month.
Here in the U.S., the Broadway Green Alliance (also born in 2008), works to promote energy efficiency on our biggest, brightest stages.  Their website includes tips for professionals and fans wanting to slim down their footprints.
A conclusion reached by both the London program and the BGA, is that clever design can obviate the need for further waste.
LED lights, which have historically been problematic, are now becoming more common.  LEDs are far more efficient and have added benefits in removing (in some cases) the need for gels and nearly erasing the infamous heat of stage lighting.  Unlike fluorescent lights (another problematic eco-friendly workaround), LEDs can be easily dimmed.  They are, of course, still far more expensive than traditional tungsten-halogen Source 4s.  Plus there’s the (significant) issue of LEDs being less powerful than incandescent lamps and unsuitable for a variety of effects common to stage lighting. But witness RadioheadIn Rainbows tour, for which Andi Watson created a carbon-neutral design using spectacular hanging LED fixtures.  If theatre lighting is typically baroque and inefficient, it’s nothing next to that of arena concerts. Inspired design can go hand-in-hand with developing technologies to push us all into a better future.*UPDATE: Kenneth Bernstein has suggested to me that LEDs still have significant drawbacks in terms of composition and disposability.  For more, look to our upcoming interview.
Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager