Ariana Cook and Ken Bernstein Discuss An Eco-Friendly Undermain


In Part Two of our look at the environmental impact of theatre, I interview Undermain’s Operations Manager, Ariana Cook, and Technical Director, Ken Bernstein, about steps Undermain has taken to reduce waste.

Stephen Foglia: What is Undermain doing to reduce our energy use in the office?
Ariana Cook (Operations Manager): We use the basement to our advantage, so in the summer it’s actually cooler here in the office than in most places, so we try not to run the AC.  We have newly-installed ceiling fans in the office and now in the lobby and kitchen.  Those helped us through the end of summer.
SF: What about paper?  I know we go through a lot here.
AC: We try to reduce paper usage as much as possible by keeping information on our digital database.  We’re in the middle of a slow process of moving a lot of our files online and recycling that paper.
We buy recycled paper, for the copier/printer and also for things like paper towels.   We recycle batteries, all our printer ink, all our bottles.  We re-use a lot of our office materials.  Folders, notebooks, binders.  If it can be used again, we don’t throw it out.
SF: Anything else?  You had a lot to say about this last week when I brought it up.
AC: Oh, here we go, we use glasses for our wine, that we wash.  And coffee mugs for our coffee.  That’s not only for our office, but for our patrons as well.  No paper or Styrofoam.  I personally take home some of our wine bottles, and decorate them, and use them for plant-watering.
We hang dry a lot of our costumes instead of using the dryer.  When we repainted the office walls, we made sure to buy our paint from Green Living, it’s a more eco-friendly paint.
We grow our small garden outside, and I know you don’t think that counts, but every little bit contributes.  You might not notice it, but I do.
SF: What about in the theatre itself?
AC: Well, we make a lot of cuts on this side [the office] to try to make up for that side.  We do re-use props frequently.  We have rehearsal lights – people might not know that.  It’s just like two lights on until tech week.
We try our best.  We really do.  If it costs us an extra penny here and there, we’ll do it, and we’ll raise the money elsewhere, so people know, when they contribute, that we’re not buying cheap, terrible products, that damage the earth and don’t deliver any more satisfaction on the other end.
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Stephen Foglia: Tell me about some ways we use up energy and materials in theatre and some things Undermain is doing to reduce that.
Ken Bernstein (Technical Director): In your main article you addressed reducing energy consumption on lights, which is one of the biggest drains you’ll find in technical theatre.  The new technology is great for that, LEDs and CFLs* are great for reducing energy use, but they’re terrible for throwing away.  CFLs contain mercury, and when they break they pollute the air and affect the ozone layer, and LEDs have a lot of lead in them.  If you throw them out with your normal trash, they end up in one of Texas’s land fills, most of which are on top of water sources, and in Texas all water sources are man-made, and they all feed into town water supplies.  A small drop of mercury can pollute a whole lot of water.  While it’s good to reduce energy-use, you have to watch out for stuff like that on the other end.
*editor’s note: CFL = compact fluorescent light/lamp.  The most recognizable version is that helical home bulb that looks like a spiraled waterslide bent back on itself and gives off a hideous but admirably efficient light.
SF: OK, so then scenery-wise…?
KB: As far as building scenery goes, as you know, we consume a lot of wood.  Using a lot of wood means destroying a lot of forests.
There’s one product we use that I really like – a cabinet-grade 1 X 12, C-select piece of lumber, molding grade – no knots in it, a smooth finish on four sides.  Kinda looks like butcher-block.  Comes out of South America.  Short lengths of lumber that are glued together under high-pressure, that creates a finished board that is ready to paint.  When it first came out, the major problem was when you ripped it down to a small board, what you’d grip would tend to twist, but they’ve solved that problem.  Now the biggest problem is the thickness varies from shipment to shipment.  I’m sure as more people complain they’ll fix that, too.  It’s also very hard to get.
We are fortunate in Dallas in that the lumber company we deal with – Wheat Lumber Company – which I’ve been dealing with since I came to the Dallas area 26 years ago, they’ve built themselves as the dealer to scene shops in the area, and they’ve got this product.  Not the cheapest thing in the world, but you don’t have a lot of waste with it.  And it’s a manufactured product, so you’re not cutting down as many trees with it.
SF: So there’s a market problem, to some extent.  The best products are still rare and expensive.
KB: Looking at other green building materials, which are becoming more available, they’re still not plentiful enough to reduce the prices to make them reasonable for theatres to use.  I expect in the next ten years, those market prices will come down.  There’s a particle-board that we could replace plywood with.  It’s made of wheat, I think.*  There’s one company up in Iowa that makes it.  It’s expensive just to start with because of shipping, and it’s out of the range for most theatres currently, but there are other exciting products like that coming down the road.  It starts with people concerned at home, using different materials in their house construction, things like that, and it changes the market and filters down to the arts.
*editor: Particle board made from agricultural residue or waste is a growing industry with profound implications for both the farming and wood markets.  In addition to wheat-straw, boards can be made using cornhusks, rice plants, and the waste of other crops.  A few days after our interview, Ken happily informed me that wheatboard is far more available than the last time he investigated.
SF: How about other areas of scene construction?
KB: The theatre industry almost exclusively uses latex paint, which is low-VOC*.  Plus with latex you can clean up with soap and water.  Little impact going down into the city’s water source.  When I started 40 years ago, pretty much the pre-mixed paint business was just starting, vinyl was still really big.  Aniline dye – death in a can – was used a lot.  For coloring.
*editor: VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound.  VOCs sublimate and thus are the source of most of the smells we tend to associate with paint.  Not all VOCs are toxic, but in the case of solvents commonly used in paint, many are toxic and damaging to the environment. 
SF: What else?
KB: Let’s see.  What are the three?  Reduce, reuse, recycle.  Re-use: given our limited storage space, at the end of any show, we weigh what we can save and what we have to get rid of.  For Birthday Party, I consciously built the set out of a large series of 4-foot wide walls, with the plan all along to save those and give us a stock of walls.  We now have a stock that for the foreseeable future we can pull out and use whenever we need a wall.  Unfortunately we have to throw the other wood-products in the dumpster.  But most of that is going to rot away, and it’s been treated with non-toxic stuff here, so when it rots it won’t cause as much damage.  I’m constantly on the lookout for new products, and I’m really excited about what’s coming along.