For those of you in the regular world, happy four-day weekend! For those of you in theatre, get back to work! I have a couple of really great links for everyone this week:
The LA Times had a fantastic front page article about Film Biz Recycling, a New York City-based non-profit that rescues props and set items from finished productions, and sells them for thrift store prices. It’s the kind of store I wish existed in more places around the country; whenever I work a strike where an entire dumpster is filled with salvageable material, I can’t help but think of all the small theatres and schools where just a few scraps of plywood would make all the difference.
Volpin Props has an epic post up about a recent build for a Militech Crusher, a fictional gun from a video game series. It has a wide range of tips for working in plastics and inventing shapes and textures from scratch, as well as some really cool paint techniques.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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’ve been checking out the site Make it and Mend it lately. It does have a lot of “I turned this coffee can into a piggy bank”–type projects, but if you dig around, you can find some great and useful ideas for repurposed materials and doing things on the cheap. Even if you don’t find anything that will help you in work, it can help you in your life too, since props people don’t get paid nearly enough for what we do.
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:
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.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies