Sustainability In Theater Or Theater Goes Green

Aug 4, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Arts & Entertainment, Going Green, Theatre

by Ian Garrett

At the end of this article is an interview with Ian.

Any sense of alarm about the future of the environment inspires many to rethink their impact on the planet. Theater artists have an opportunity to reconsider how we do what we do. And, this opportunity is not merely a question of reducing our carbon footprint, but also a chance to bolster theater as a contemporary and relevant art form.

The Issues

Theater making brings a set of constraints that make an ecologically sustainable approach more problematic than traditional construction. “A Doll’s House” is not your house. We create facsimiles that read at a distance as the real thing. Nora’s stage kitchen may be designed to look like the one in your home, but production constraints mean the wood-finishes, tiles, marble-surfaces, and walls are likely made from lumber and paint to look like the interior they represent.

A conference CSPA co-hosted in Minneapolis this past year.

In building a home, the integration of sustainable materials and technologies can be the guiding concept of its design. Theatrical design looks to dramaturgy, and prioritizes serving the text of a dramatic work, as its central concept. You may find pride in installing recycled carpeting in your home, but no one thinks about fitting Nora’s living room with carpet made from plastic bottles, unless it serves the vision of the production.

We want our buildings to last and know that good construction now will lead to a long life. But we approach theatrical production with a sense of imminent impermanence: We only expect our shows to live for a few short weeks. Of the estimated 17,000 productions at non-profit theaters in the United States in 2009, the average individual theater production only saw 11 performances.

Sustainably-sourced materials are often more expensive and more difficult to acquire than non-sustainable alternatives. A four-foot by eight-foot sheet of Luaun plywood, a staple of scenic construction primarily sourced from the Philippines, costs half as much as a domestically harvested, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF).

Theater is a niche industry that borrows heavily from larger ones, such as construction, for many of its materials and technology. With all artistic production representing about 0.26% of GDP, theater’s relative size of the economic pie means that it will not revolutionize the way the world “makes.” Other industries must generate the demand that will adjust price. And, even with popular awareness of the ecological crisis, many artists, companies, and theater departments fear change will require too much of our small industry.

What Are People Doing About It

Lighting design provides a good case study for how sustainable practices can alter a field. LEDs consume a fraction of the power of conventional incandescent or halogen sources. Other alternative technologies offer power savings for general use, but the control and dimming capability required in theatrical lighting designs continues to necessitate the use of older, more energy intensive, technologies. LEDs may solve these issues but they require shifts in thinking about lighting and re-investment in power and data infrastructure.

Certification standards have proliferated in fields like construction, event management, and museum exhibition. Developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), an offshoot of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification scheme is a very popular example. LEED looks at energy savings, water use, greenhouse gas reduction, the quality of the indoor environment and sensitive resource management.

When it opened in 2006, it received a Platinum LEED certification. It re-used an existing building shell. The raw materials used in the project were selected for their proximity to the site, recycled content and emissions. The building is well located for public transportation with shower/changing facilities for bicycle commuters. There is rainwater harvesting, dual flush toilets and low-flow fixtures. The building is cooled with chilled beams instead of a forced air. Working areas integrate day-lighting with photo-sensors, occupancy sensors and dimming switches. While, none of the points given for the LEED certification are for production in performance spaces, these certification systems are intended to push innovation in construction and operation of permanent structures, not the specialized uses of an ever-changing creative space.

There is no certification scheme for production, many questions of what one should or can do right now are slowly being answered from many places. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), developed a certification scheme for its exhibitions that takes into consideration the temporary nature of exhibitions. In Fall 2008, San Diego’s Mo`olelo received a MetLife/TCG “A-ha! Think it, Do it” grant to create a tool to measure the environmental impact of theater and help the industry make choices that do not cause long-term damage. And, Mo`olelo’s toolkit is the foundation for many groundbreaking attempts to analyze the sustainable merits of productions. Showman Fabricators, a New York City scenic shop, uses the toolkit to experiment with case studies on their projects.

Julie’s Bicycle, one of the most important organizations in this field of sustainability and the performing arts, takes another approach. They run a certification scheme called Industry Green, which now encompasses festivals, offices and venues, having started modestly with CD packaging. Julie’s Bicycle provides Industry Green scheme participants with a yearly report measuring their greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint and recommendations for reduction. Participants are certified with an ‘IG mark’ for proven reductions. Having built a strong position in the music industry, theater is now a central priority of Julie’s Bicycle.

Additional American initiatives are also tackling this issue. The Broadway Green Alliance, made of commercial theater producers, has partnered on a “Touring Green” program and is using the power of Broadway to communicate the importance of sustainability. Arizona’s Childsplay Theatre received a MetLife/TCG “A-ha! Think it, Do it” grant to research sustainable staging techniques, which has resulted in a survey of 40 non-profit theaters in the United States.

Some Things You Can Do

More importantly than enumerating all of these initiatives is the growing network. Every organization recognizes the limits to their individual impact. Theater prides itself on collaboration, and there is lots of room for more partners. Where do you fit in? While one of our obstacles may be our own conventional thinking; if we get enough people making theater differently, we can embed new conventions. Here are some places to start:

• Documentation. You cannot use less of something if you do not know how much you are using in the first place.
• Stage time is bright but short. The Green Theatre Report from the Mayor of London’s Office shows that stage technology only accounts for ten percent of emissions. However, 35 percent of emissions came from front of house and 28 percent came from heating and cooling rehearsal spaces.
• Design things to be taken apart. Use screws instead of nails and glue. What you may lose with speed, you gain in reusable materials and savings (which you could investment in greener materials or skilled labor to build and deconstruct sets).
• Share. Theaters are very adept at extending their budgets and the life of materials that they can find room to store. So, the next step is to build infrastructure for sharing to extend the life of materials across community partners.
• Full houses can create offsets. Don’t get hung up on making the most sustainable piece of theater unless it is good first. Congregating people has a powerful effect on mitigating emissions.
• Consider transportation. Transportation accounts for 30-40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Many theaters have driving directions on their websites, but do you have public transportation directions? Accommodate bikes? Offer incentives for those who do not drive?
• Communicate. Make sure people know what you are doing and why it is important. This can appeal to new audiences and sympathetic theater artists.
• Every show is an opportunity to remake theater making. There are so many resources available, that it is less about what we do and more about the choice to do it.

Ian Garrett is a producer, designer and administrator, dedicated to innovative arts infrastructure. He is the co-founder of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA) and Assistant Professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University. He has designed over 100 productions and, as a producer, his work includes the premier of Richard Forman and Michael Gordon’s What to Wear at REDCAT. He received dual MFAs in Lighting Design and Producing from CalArts, and has a BA in Architectural Studies and Art History from Rice University. More info and a portfolio of his work is available at and the CSPA’s website.

Interview With Ian Garrett About the Center For Sustainable Practice in the Arts

Interview by Lorie Ham

Lorie: What is the purpose of your organization?

Ian: The CSPA was founded originally to create an umbrella under which a number of projects about arts and sustainability [would be] together under one roof. It primarily serves as an information and communications hub for issues, artists, and projects that work at the intersection of sustainable development and the arts. Additionally we further support artists in the realm through research, funding and consulting initiatives.

Lorie: What is your position and your background?

Ian: I’m one of two directors, along with Miranda Wright. I have a varied background as an arts administrator, producer, theatrical designer, and technology and infrastructure consultant for the arts. Really I typically explain what I do as “Not performing on stage”… aside from public speaking, but I do just about everything else to support and create art, especially time-based art and performance. I originally trained in architecture, which is what I studied at Rice University, along with Art History. But, I left that field pretty quickly to work in the arts and went to graduate school at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in both Lighting Design and Producing programs.

Lorie: How and when did your organization come about?

Ian: We founded the CSPA in 2008. I had started teaching a course on sustainable theater at CalArts, had received funding to study sustainability in theater, been consulting on technology for resource efficiency, working with artists to calculate their carbon footprint, and had started a wiki on sustainable practices and practitioners. My business partner, Miranda, was involved in some of these, but also was working on building a producing portfolio based in art that was connected to social justice and international issues. We had this thought that all of this was tied together and could be brought together in one organization. In April of 2008, we were invited to a conference in London, which we were able to get funded, on Theatre Material…which included some of the early ground breaking research in the UK on the impact of creative industries on the environment. That was the first event at which we used our name.

Lorie: What all does CSPA do?

Ian: The center piece of our communications, or what we refer to as our knowledge network, is our website at We keep all of our work documented there and post a new article about sustainable practice in the arts daily. We also send out a monthly newsletter and have a quarterly journal we pull together. Additionally, we often present at conferences ranging from the national conferences for the Theatre Communications Group and DanceUSA, to more field specific [ones] like the Earth Matters on Stage Symposium and York University’s “Staging Sustainability” conference last April. We also host our own convergences, which tend to be smaller gatherings focused on action around a large one. For instance, during the 2011 Prague Quadrennial we organized an auction of the materials from the exhibition to be redistributed to local artists. As part of our membership we offer opportunities to participate in all of these initiatives along with funding opportunities to support work that addresses sustainability topics through our CSPA Supports program (a granting program). Finally, much of this is connected to research which we conduct on surveying the field of sustainability in the arts, the carbon footprint of artistic production and the like.

Lorie: Future goals and hopes?

Ian: We’ve just been spending a lot of time laying our next steps out. Our research is expanding and we’re working with a wide consortium of partners to really push this aspect of our organization forward. There isn’t a whole lot out there, and it’s a bit piecemeal, so we hope to see this expand for us and others. Additionally, we have some more concrete efforts which we’re working on, and which we hope to accomplish in the next year. One of these is an interactive map cataloging the people, practices, and resources involved in this arena. That’s a big order, especially to keep up and make sustainable. Another is SHOPLAB, an effort to create a cooperative shop and reuse facility for the Los Angeles theater community which we’re working on with the LA Stage Alliance.

Lorie: How can people learn more and get involved?

Ian: The first step is to go to our website at We’re constantly adding resources there. There is a record of all of our projects there and a newsfeed that features at least an article a day about someone working in this field, or an event being convened, or opportunities. We also link to all of our key partners who are also making progress in this realm like Julie’s Bicycle and EcoArtSpace. For those who want to get even more involved, we offer a membership which directly supports the CSPA and includes a subscription to our Quarterly, and funding, convening and publishing opportunities.

Lorie: Why do you feel this is so important and how did you get involved and why?

Ian: There are two parts to this. One is that I think our future, living on this planet, resolving our conflicts and giving everyone an opportunity for a future is dependent on a sustainable approach to how we live. I don’t mean that in any hyperbolic sense, but to sustain ourselves we have to be conscious and smart moving forward. There are a lot of people on the planet, there are only so many resources, and we share those with each other and every other living thing. So if we want the human race to continue into the future, long term, we have to plan for that within the limits we can now readily see. This is really just a big math problem, to be over simplified. As a designer at heart, my approach is always to look at how to most cleverly and effectively seek solutions to big problems.

The second part continues in that theme. It is one thing to be where we are, objectively, to see the parts per million of particulate, the temperatures rising, extreme weather, conflicts over resources, and populations living with threatened water sources, or no access to economic participation. The facts are there, but if we want people to change, people need to know AND feel and understand and share and be able to communicate how drought has changed living in Australia (or any number of places) or what we’re losing when Pacific Islands will dip below rising seas. And that’s where the arts are essential, that’s their purpose, to reveal and help us understand what’s happening.

And I feel this needs to be supported.

Lorie: Anything you would like to add?

Ian: I encourage people to be in touch with us. We’re always open to knowing more about what people are doing and what people are interested in. Ultimately it’s about growing the network and getting people involved.

You can also follow CSPA on Twitter @theCSPA and find them on Facebook.

Lorie Lewis Ham is our Editor-in-Chief and an enthusiastic contributor to various sections, coupling her journalism experience with her connection to the literary and entertainment worlds. Explore Lorie’s mystery writing at Mysteryrat’s Closet.


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