Tag Archives: green

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.

I am boring

A Visit to the Woodwright’s School

Last Saturday, I went with The Alamance Makers Guild to the Woodwright’s School in Pittsboro, NC. The Makers Guild is a group I discovered down here which is interested in many of the same things I am; woodworking, sculpting, fabrication, blacksmithing, science and art. Some of the members have begun designing a human-powered lathe, so the trip to the Woodwright’s School was kind of a research trip to see some of the antique human-powered tools which they have refurbished.

 

Roy and Nim look at tools
Roy and Nim look at tools

For those who don’t know, the School is run by Roy Underhill, host of the Woodwright’s Shop on PBS, which has been on the air since 1981. He showed us some of the original catalogs of these various treadle and pedal powered machines.

Roy Underhill using a foot-powered spindle cutter
Roy Underhill using a foot-powered spindle cutter

In the photo above, Roy is using a foot-pedal-powered spindle cutter. We might recognize the modern-day equivalent of a router table or shaper; the tool has a rotating blade which cuts a shaped profile along the edge of a board of wood. The blade in the machine was a bit dull, so the end of the cut got a little wonky.

Natalie on a human-powered lathe
Natalie on a human-powered lathe

My wife tried out the foot-pedal-powered lathe. She just bought her own lathe at school a few days prior to this. The foot-powered one was tricky for both of us because you have to sit down to pedal. We are used to standing up and using our hips to brace the tools and our whole body to move it along the cut. This one requires you to do all the bracing and moving with just your hands, which feels awkward at first. Nonetheless, it makes some nice cuts, and it is a lot quieter than any electrically-powered machine.

Foot-powered mortising machine
Foot-powered mortising machine

We also watched Roy demonstrate this foot-powered mortising machine. It essentially has a sharp chisel connected to a lever which you push down with your foot; several linkages give it quite a bit of mechanical advantage so the chisel just plows right through the wood like butter.

I am boring
I am boring

Roy set up a boring machine outside that we all tried out. Though it was a large auger and a fairly thick plank of wood, boring through it was no problem. All of these hand and human-powered tools reminded me that if your bits and blades are sharp, it does not actually take that much effort to cut and bore. You get a good workout as well.

Planes all in a row
Planes all in a row

Above the school is the antique tool shop where all the tools which they find and refurbish are offered for sale. Planes, saws, calipers, folding rules, router planes, augers, mallets and many more varieties of tools known and unknown were on display.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Salon on Being Green

Yesterday at Wingspace Theatrical Design I attended their salon on “Being Green.” The featured guests included set designer Donyale Werle (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Broke-ology), as well as Annie Jacobs and Jenny Stanjeski from Showman Fabricators.

A lot of the facts which were presented are better summed up in my post on a previous workshop I attended called “Going Green in Theatrical Design.” I did see something that was new though (new to me, that is): UC Berkeley’s Material and Chemical Handbook which presents some of the materials we commonly use in prop making, along with disposal instructions and safety notices. It’s specific to their college, but it is a good starting point for developing your own.

Since I didn’t take notes, what follows is more of a highlight of various points made in the discussion as I remember them:

“Being green is not black or white”; it is not an either/or proposition. Rather, every day you try to make better choices, and every show you try to do a little greener. It takes a lot of experimentation, a lot of analysis, and a lot of effort.

Do not do bad “green” design and art; it’s worse than no design. The goal is to make good design, and the goal of sustainable theatre is to do it a little greener each time.

As theatre people, we already come from a culture of sustainability and recycling. We reuse and repaint flats and drops. We take the lumber from one show and use it on the next. We borrow and barter the costumes and props from other people doing the same. But as our careers progress and the shows get bigger, we get away from that. Maybe it’s because you get to work with bigger budgets, or maybe it’s because you want to push your work to have higher production standards. Making sustainable theatre is a conscious choice and takes a concerted effort.

One of the problems, someone pointed out, was in trying to do a green production with a designer who was still in the old mindset—the mindset that everything has to be new and bought just for that show. What is the new mindset? It may mean a design which evolves from the available materials, rather than a design which starts on paper and then requires the purchasing of all new materials. Maybe it just means less design, though as Donyale pointed out, she likes a lot of “stuff” in her designs:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Thinking about more sustainable options means taking more time out of your already busy schedule, and asking others to take more time as well. Donyale pointed out that if you can do case studies on what you’re spending versus what you would spend in a more traditional production, you can convince the producers; for Peter and the Starcatcher, she calculated that they saved $40000 in materials by using recycled, salvaged and upcycled materials, but that the labor cost was a third more due to all the sourcing and processing of this material. Still, it was an overall savings; the extra labor cost was offset by the reduced materials cost. Producers like to see savings. It is also, for a lot of us, morally preferable to have more of the money to go to human labor (which is sustainable) than to the purchase of materials shipped from across the globe which will end up in the trash once the show is finished.

For artisans and production people, as opposed to designers, using more sustainable techniques means taking time to do your own experimentation and comparison of materials and techniques to arrive at better solutions. If you can come up with concrete alternatives to show your designers, it becomes easier to convince them to trust you. An example the ladies from Showman gave was using carved homasote, which is made from recycled newspaper and non-VOC adhesives, to make faux brick and stone facades, rather than vacuum-formed plastic panels. Not only is the plastic a petroleum-based product shipped from overseas, but it releases toxic fumes when heated in the vacuum former. Homasote comes from a company in New Jersey, so it only has to travel a few miles. The results look the same, and the costs are comparable. By showing the designers what they can achieve with more sustainable and less toxic materials, it makes it easier to convince them to accept them.

“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.