What is Material Sustainability Within Theatre?

By Sadie
Published July 2021

How many shows have we been a part of where everything just ends up in the trash? Theatre is often called a disposable artform, because most of it usually ends up in the trash after a show is closed. As a scenery and props designer, I deal with the materiality of a production, creating the physical world that actors activate. I’ve always tried to incorporate sustainable elements into my design.

However, the pace and budgets of theatre don’t always accommodate that kind of creative incubation period. We’ve all been there, too many shows, too little time. Many of us have already moved onto the next show before strike even starts. I think we then have to ask a bigger question of why. Why do I feel pressured for time to use these unsustainable materials and practices? Why did we get to this place where throwing so much away is ‘just the way it is’? If you can approach the process with questions, you will find more solutions.

We’ve all had time to think over this last year. While it was unanticipated and abrupt, it may have been our main opportunity to step back and really look at our industry. We are usually moving too fast to take the time to question if what we are doing is really how we want to do it. How sustainable is theatre? It’s hard to define sustainability, it can mean so many different things. For this article, I will stick with material sustainability.

Our world is filling up with trash and we have to take an honest look at how much we contribute to that. Generally speaking, every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists in the world. It makes me take pause and think about my process. Is my design choice good enough to justify using something that will end up in the trash and sit in a landfill much longer than the actual production ran for? Wood is becoming more expensive, do we really need to be making new flats and platforms for every production? The more we can lean into stock scenery choices, the more trees we save.

I don’t believe there is a silver bullet answer to just being more sustainable. I think you have to interrogate your own process with more questions;

  • Is there stock scenery, paint, or props that I can make choices from and still achieve the story telling of a production?
  • If I’m purchasing something, what kind of packaging does it come in and what am I going to do with that packaging?
  • Can I purchase materials at a reuse store or Craigslist rather than purchasing new? Are new materials the most eco friendly option?
  • Are my budgetary choices aligning with my belief in sustainable choices?
  • If I am generating waste in the creation process, where does that waste go?
  • How much transportation time am I using that is contributing to car emissions?
  • Do I know where my materials came from to understand the environmental impact of larger supply chains are having on our planet?
  • What is happening to your materials after the show is done? Can someone else use them? Can they be stored for future shows?

We have to question a value system that says that throwing a set out is cheaper than breaking it down to properly dispose of it. Do we know the real long term cost on our environment of generating trash? Trash is convenient because it goes away and we don’t have to think about it, but it is still having an impact on the environment. What if our roles as designers and crew leads is to help edit back so that the material choices we make in a production truly elevate and refocus the story telling of a production with a few very intentional choices? 

A Life Cycle Analysis is a method of assessing the environmental impacts with all stages of a product or service. Sustainability is also about knowing what goes into making the raw materials of our products, not just knowing where they are disposed. Other industries have begun to identify the chain of production to know where raw materials come from. A foodshed is a geographic area that produces food. A watershed is the geographic area of the drainage of water. A clothingshed is identifying the production chain that created clothing. What is our theatreshed? Can we identify the geographic area of where your building materials come from? Attempt to do a life cycle analysis of the products you use. Formal processes exist to do the life cycle analysis of buildings or products, but an introductory level it starts with three questions:

  • Where are my materials coming from?
  • How and why am I using my materials?
  • Where do my materials go after I have used them?

If you ask these three questions, you’ve inherently done three acts closer to being more sustainable. You aren’t just mindlessly using, you are consciously consuming. Every production and design is different, so if your process is grounded in asking questions, it will help you solve the unique recycling challenges and choices of each design. 

Small actions lead up to cumulative differences if you integrate and normalize them into your process. Instead of a Call to Action, this is a Call to Question. Question your own process. Question why you’re doing a show. Question your own definition of sustainability and the impact that is having on the world. It is easy to focus on the negative of what you aren’t doing to help sustainable efforts, so focus on the positive choices you are making. The more you focus on the positivity, the more you will lean into finding more ways to integrate those positive choices through your own process, and hopefully a production team as well. What are the alternative choices we can explore to create less waste?

With new choices, also come questions around new unknowns:

  • If I brand myself as a sustainable designer, are productions going to be willing to pay me for the extra time required to shop around?
  • Are directors going to be willing to make sacrifices to(/adapt) their artistic visions?
  • Will audiences be challenged to change their expectations if I’m making eco-friendly design choices? 
  • What safety assumptions do I need to rethink if I’m using recycled materials? 

There is no single correct answer for these questions. These are only a few questions outlined in this article, and because there are so many questions a few scenic artists and designers have come together to start a theatrical reuse store and the Minneapolis Chapter of the Broadway Green Theatre Alliance. Here we will be able to collectively ask and solve these questions together to incrementally change and improve our industry. If you are interested in getting updates or getting involved in the theatrical reuse store and, or the Minneapolis Green Theatre Alliance, please send me an email, and let me know your level of interest or involvement. 

Below are a few websites I’ve used to self educate myself. If you also have green resources you’d like to share, send them my way at sadiekward@gmail.com!

Resources:

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