Tag Archives: Broadway Green Alliance

Chairs as far as the eye can see.

USITT 2013 Wrap-Up

This past week was the 53rd USITT conference in Milwaukee. This year’s conference featured a lot of things for props people. I couldn’t get to them all, but I saw a lot of them. I took notes which I may go through later, but since I’m writing this on the flight home (and have to work first thing in the morning), I’ll just give the highlights.

First off, there was the Expo floor, filled with companies, organizations and universities peddling their wares. Wonderflex World had plenty of samples of their products, including a sneak peek of a new product coming out soon that is pretty exciting.

Smooth-On had their usual cool booth with all the rubber monsters and foam cinder blocks you can make with their products. There’s a possibility I may start getting samples of their new products to test out for this blog. That would be neat.

StageBitz had demos of their props management and inventory software. I first tested them out about two years ago, and it’s almost completely different now (in a good way). You can do a 3-week free trial of their software from their website, which is really the only way to start discovering how easy and seamless this can make propping a show, from letting the designer share images and research with you, to letting you send the designer pictures of items in your stock, to keeping up with changes in rehearsal, creating to-do lists to send to your artisans and shoppers, maintaining a budget, to finally adding all the props to your stock when the show closes.

RC4 Wireless Dimming had tiny wireless dimmers. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how these little devices act so seamlessly to let you control any sort of battery-powered light or motor from your theatre’s lighting console. I also attended a session called “Wireless Light and Motion for Propmasters”, where a couple theatres were showing off various ways they used the RC4 units.

One of the last sessions of the conference was on sustainability in design and production led by Donyale Werle. It included the exciting unveiling of the College Green Captain Toolkit, based off of the already-successful program which every Broadway show participates in (I’ll post a link when it appears, or you can contact the Broadway Green Alliance for more information). Jacob Coakley from Stage Directions Magazine live-blogged much of the session.

An earlier session on “Reimagining Theatre with Green Ideals” also featured information about sustainability and the Broadway Green Alliance. Once again, Jacob Coakley live-blogged the whole discussion.

“Grave Matters” was a session with a lot of good tips and tricks for making gore and corpses. One of the speakers, Gary Benson, has his presentation online , including step-by-step photographs of how he made some skulls.

“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” was a bit disappointing since 3 of the 4 presenters could not be there. However, you can check out the handouts on firearm safety that they had. You will also find a link for a survey they are running to discover how various theatres deal with guns on stage (and off). I’m not sure how long that link will last, so you should download those files rather than bookmarking them.

I got to check out the Young Designer’s Forum, which had some great work. I was also able to meet two of my future coworkers this summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

The Milwaukee Rep props shop hosted a SPAM get-together at their space, though it was nice to see plenty of non-SPAM props masters and prop makers there as well. I wrote about their shop for Stage Directions this month, but to actually see their work space and storage facilities in person was a great treat.

Chairs as far as the eye can see.
Chairs as far as the eye can see.

Oh yeah, I also sold out of my book by the end of my signing. The response has been overwhelming so far. I am ecstatic that so many people are excited about this book, and I can’t wait to hear back from those of you who use it or teach from it.

Did I forget anything about the conference? Was there something I missed? Let me know in the comments what you saw at USITT that excited you.

Tony Awards 2012

Congratulations to Donyale Werle for her Tony Award win last night! The whole design team of Peter and the Starcatcher came away with Tonys as well. Congratulations to the whole team as well, including Paper Mâché Monkey, as well as the Broadway Green Alliance. I’ve written about all these people and groups here in the past because I’ve worked with them previously, and I love what they do. Here is Donyale’s acceptance speech from the 2012 Tonys:

Here is a video showing the set for Peter and the Starcatcher as it is built in the shop:

Happy Belated Earth Day

Almost a month back, the Guardian had an article titled Classics for a New Climate: how to produce a low-carbon-footprint play? It examines how the Young Vic, over in London, has been trying to cut back on its environmental impact while still producing quality theatre. The comments to the article follow the same pattern that many such articles see; so-and-so attempts to be “greener”, but since they still emit some carbon or produce some waste, they are scolded for not being green enough; as if a “better” solution should be ridiculed because it is not “perfect”. It is impossible to be fully “green”, whatever that means, but it is always possible to take steps to become a little more sustainable and a little less wasteful. Some of the commenters seem to make the claim that just doing theatre is not environmentally friendly, because the people are emitting carbon as they watch the show; do they disappear into a state of complete environmental harmony upon exiting the theatre?

But I digress.

About a month and a half ago, Mike Lawler published an article at Drama Biz Magazine called The Eco-Friendly Theatre of the Future. It lists what some US theatres are doing to improve their environmental impact. The article mentions Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which specifically states their prop shop as being one of the leaders of their various green initiatives. Other lists, such as the 50 Things You Can Do Towards Being a Green Theater, have good general tips though they do not mention the props shop in particular. Broadway Green Alliance’s Better Practices for Theatre Professionals is a bit better in that regard. They have also given workshops which focus on the set and props departments; luckily for you, I attended one of these a few years ago and took copious notes. I also attended an event a few months ago where thoughts on going green in theatre were discussed.

The Green Theatre Choices Toolkit from the Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company remains one of the most valuable tools for making more environmentally-conscious decisions. It looks at broad categories of materials, such as paints, textiles and plastics, and rates the various choices according to their environmental impact.

The Broadway Green Alliance has a list of set-recycling options, including sources in NYC where you can buy reclaimed and re-purposed materials. Down here in North Carolina, we have the Scrap Exchange, which collects industry discards and sells them to artists for extremely low prices. Many towns and cities offer similar services if you look hard enough.

Good Links for Friday

I have some good Friday links for you this week.

Movie Scope Magazine has a nice interview with Grant Pearmain, the master designer at FB-FX Ltd. They are a UK-based shop making props and costume pieces for some pretty big films. Some recent projects include the upcoming Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman. Past films include John Carter, Kick Ass and Prince of Persia. It’s a great article. I wanted to highlight one quote in particular, dealing with why props will still be needed in a world of CGI:

“So we were supplied with CG models that were the same as what will be in the film—and those are milled out by computer, and then those milled models are finished off by sculptors here, who put all the fine details on, all the skin, and put a bit of expression into them. And then they’re moulded and cast out here and painted up to be completely lifelike so that then we have some very lightweight but very convincing aliens that can be picked up and moved around on set under the lighting, and positioned where they need to be for eyelines.”

Playbill has a great video up showing designer extraordinaire Donyale Werle going through the variety of found objects and repurposed materials she and her team are using to upgrade the set of Peter and the Starcatcher as it moves uptown to Broadway from its successful run at NYTW last year.

Drama Biz Magazine has an article by Mike Lawler on “The Eco-Friendly Theatre of the Future“. It is a good summation of some of the pioneers of sustainable theatre practices, as well as where the industry is (or should be) headed.

Speaking of eco-friendly, the Broadway Green Alliance has a Pinterest of upcycled crafts they’ve found on the Internet and pinned to their Pinterest pinboard.

I have also been hearing about Arboform, which is a biodegradable thermoplastic made from wood by-products and other sustainable natural materials. I put together a Storify about it, called “Liquid Wood.” Today is all about using hip websites, I guess.

“Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props” Workshop

Updated 12/14/10 – See Below

Last Wednesday, I attended a “Going Green in Theatrical Design: Set & Props” Workshop, organized by the Broadway Green Alliance. As you may infer, the BGA is an initiative to spread information on more environmentally-friendly and less wasteful theatre practices. The workshop featured presentations by several people at Showman Fabricators, Donyale Werle, as well as representatives from companies making greener products for building sets and props, including theatre-specific ones like Rosco and Rose Brand. I absorbed a lot of material, much of which deserves their own articles, but I thought I would present a basic summary of most of my notes first.

The first half was on “reduce, reuse and recycle”. I missed the “reduce” part because my train broke down on the way there. Donyale led the presentation on “reuse”, talking not only about Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but also on Broke-ology. Bloody Bloody is, of course, a cornucopia of reused elements; we gave them our two horses from Kicking a Dead Horse and parts of the body from Bacchae. That’s just a small percentage, as the show also includes a chandelier made of cat food cans, and assemblages of broken umbrellas and jujubees. Our props shop takes advantage of reused materials frequently; I built the furniture in Slave Shack with pieces of the floor from the Brothers/Sister Trilogy, and all of the rehearsal furniture for last summer’s Merchant of Venice was constructed from pieces of the floor from the previous summer’s Bacchae which I had set aside. Finally, of course, a prop stock room itself is a commitment to reuse.

New York City has a number of organizations which collect and redistribute building materials and theatrical sets, such as Build it Green (which I wrote about as well), Materials for the Arts, NYC WasteMatch and Film Biz Recycling. The BGA website has even more links. Like many other theatre professionals, this is the reason I began getting interested in all this; it’s absolutely heart-breaking when you see a show or exhibition close, and all of the set and props head straight to the dumpster, even if the show only lasted a few days. It’s even more heart-breaking if you’ve worked in low-to-no budget theatre where just a tenth of those materials would help you achieve your design.

Showman Fabricators discussed recycling next. I learned the difference between Post-Consumer Recycled content, Post-Industrial (or Pre-Consumer) Recycled content, and Total Recycled content. “Post-Consumer” is when a manufacturer takes items that have been used and reforms them into new material. This is where your bottles, cans and paper goes after you put them in those blue bins. “Post-Industrial” is when a manufacturer takes the scraps and waste from their own processes and turns them into other products. For instance, MDF is made from the sawdust at lumber mills. It’s the “we use all parts of the cow” approach. “Total Recycled” content is the combination of Post-Consumer and Post-Industrial content.

Next, he discussed the embodied energy of materials. Embodied energy is how much energy it took to create a material. Thus lumber has less embodied energy than plywood. To make lumber, you need to cut down a tree, drive it to a sawmill, cut it to size, dry it, and ship it to the store. For plywood, you need to do the same things as lumber, than also cut it into thin strips, glue them up, sandwich them together, cut veneer, and lay that over top. Thus, it takes more energy to create a sheet of plywood than it does to create an equal amount of lumber. We looked at a chart that showed some common theatrical materials and their embodied energy; I didn’t copy it down, but it looked very similar to this one I found online.

The embodied energy is not the only aspect you need to consider. For instance, steel and aluminum are both infinitely recyclable. Wood, on the other hand, is not. Maybe you can turn old wood into particle board, and after that, it might (though rarely) get ground down into some kind of composite material. So while it may have less embodied energy than steel, you have to keep creating more wood and growing more trees, where the same chunk of steel can be used over and over and over again.

The embodied energy chart can also be misleading because it goes by weight. Paint has a high embodied energy, but you only use a thin layer on the outermost portion of your set; a whole set can be painted with just a few cans. You use far more steel and wood by weight to construct your set. You should also remember that different materials have differing strength-to-weight ratios. Aluminum has a higher embodied energy than steel, but a structure constructed out of aluminum would weigh far less than one out of steel while being just as strong. Thus, an aluminum structure could potentially use less embodied energy in its materials. It’s a lot of math on your part though.

They told us of a number of waste management companies in New York City (also found on the BGA website) that will take your set away, recycle and reuse as much as possible, and tell you how much was kept out of a landfill. The idea is that when a show closes, rather than calling for a dumpster, a truck shows up and you load everything in their. In many cases, they can reuse and recycle 80–90% of your garbage, and it can sometimes end up costing less than a dumpster. A green alternative that costs less and doesn’t add additional labor? That’s gold!

The most important lesson is to make it easy. If you place bins for recycling next to all your trash cans, than it’s just as easy for an employee to toss his or her recyclables into the correct receptacle. If, however, you make your employees walk out to the loading dock to throw away their off cuts of steel, then more often than not, they’ll toss them into the regular trash “to save time.”

The second portion of the evening was headed by manufacturers touting their wares. Rose Brand talked about their Repreve yarn polyester fabric, which is made of 100% recycled fabric. Chad Tiller of Rosco (a friend of this blog) talked about their Iddings deep color (soy-based paints) and Roscoleum flooring (made from cork).

The other manufacturers had a whole range of green products typically used in more architectural settings: agri-fiber boards such as Kerei Board, NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde) MDF, Dakota Burl, Wheat Board, Paper Stone (recycled paper thermoset with a phenolic resin) and American Clay, to name a few. These are all interesting products, but for theatrical use, they still remain out of the price-range; a sheet of bamboo plywood costs about $200 as opposed to a comparably-sized sheet of construction ply for around $48. The exception is NAUF MDF, which is becoming more and more commonplace.

Finally, the scenic charge at Showman Fabricators had some closing words of wisdom. She pointed out that it is hard to switch products when time, money, and your reputation are on the line. You need to be able to depend on the materials you use, and you can’t just switch to a new “green” material in the middle of a project. You need to be constantly sourcing, requesting samples and testing new products on a small-scale and in between projects to find the least damaging solutions. One way to do so is to be open and share your solutions and experiments with everyone: your employees, your employees, and other shops. Being green is not proprietary. If you find a great new alternative to some product, tell other shops. It shows you are open to sharing, and if they find an alternative to another product, or a new way of organizing their shop for better “greenliness”, they will share that with you. Read my article “On Sharing and Secret Knowledge” to learn more about this philosophy.

Update – 12/14/10

Bob Usdin of Showman Fabricators, one of the presenters, emailed me and shared what I had missed from the beginning of the workshop:

The only things I would add are from the beginning (which I know you were delayed for):

  • In reality you can never be truly green. Instead, we are making efforts to be greener.
  • The single most useful thing you can do is REDUCE, particularly by optimizing your designs and engineering. If you can do the same scene with less scenery or build the same platform with less structure and still achieve the same effect (and safety), then you are being greener regardless of what materials you are using. I feel that the first “R” is often overlooked.
  • The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) greening advisor is a great resource for getting green tips on a host of subjects. They are also a major supporter of the BGA and its activities and knowledge base.
  • In trying to be greener, it’s important to go beyond just the materials and techniques that go into a show. Looking at the facility and operations and how green those are can be as much of a contributing factor to greening the production. Energy consumption, renewable energy sources, water usage, location and connection to the community, materials, paper consumption, indoor environmental quality, and vehicles can all be a major part in greening the operations.