Sustainable Theatre Practices
Producing Dark Water
Last year, University Theatre's production team committed to producing David Stalling's Dark Water with an eye toward sustainability. We felt this approach would speak to St. Lawrence University's larger goal of achieving climate neutrality and would allow us to highlight some of the play's broader environmental themes.
By training and financial necessity, theatre artists learn early on in their careers how to create artistically engaging productions with scant financial and physical resources. In other words, the mantra "reduce, reuse, and recycle" is not just a catchy environmental slogan; it's a way of life in the theatre.
Despite our best efforts, we acknowledge that any theatrical production can still have a sizeable environmental footprint. For example, scenic elements and costumes are often built for a particular show and can not be reused; the traditional high wattage lighting instruments that most theatres rely on to create atmosphere and mood result in high electrical usage; consumables such as lighting gel are petroleum-based; the printing of posters, programs, and even scenic and lighting drawings use large quantities of paper.
One of the things that we are most proud of about our production of Dark Water is the way in which our team has underscored the play's environmental concerns, not only in terms of our production design, but also in terms of our production practices.
Ultimately, producing Dark Water has given us an opportunity to examine University Theatre's own environmental footprint and to consider our goals for reducing that footprint as we look forward into the future.
We've highlighted some of our efforts to create a more sustainable theatrical production below.
Scenic Design and Construction
Our scenic designer Cully Long and Technical Director Dan Gallagher worked hard to ensure the scenic elements of Dark Water met our commitment to reduce, reuse, and recycle as much of the scenic elements as possible.
Cully based his immersive scenic design around the incorporation of our stock platforming, as opposed to building new, custom scenic elements. In fact, no new lumber was purchased for this production.
In addition to our stock platforms, Cully also incorporated elements from previous productions into his scenic design for the show. You'll find that the Hurricane deck from this fall's Wonder of the World and the steel structure from last spring's Everyman work in tandem to create Gullet's lofty perch.
Cully and Dan pulled all of the set decoration from either University Theatre's prop storage or our "show barn," which allowed us to create a unique scenic environment without purchasing new materials. The set decoration visually underscores the negative impact of human detritus on the natural landscape and on other animals.
Cully and Dan also incorporated recycled materials into another major scenic (and lighting) element. We collected approximately 500 plastic bottles through donations across campus in order to create the sculptural ceiling element. All of the bottles will be recycled at the end of the show.
If you are a SLU student who would like to learn more about scenic design or would like to gain hands-on experience working on a theatrical production, consider enrolling in PCA 4045: Do-It-Yourself Theatre of PCA 103: Stagecraft this fall.
Costume Design and Construction
According to a 2016 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, leather and textile waste make up at least 10% of the solid waste making its way to landfills. Costume designer Cully Long and Costume Shop Supervisor Selina French worked together to ensure our costume design for Dark Water contributed less material to this waste stream.
Cully's designs for the show drew inspirations from the animals featured in the show in terms of texture, color, and shape. In order to bring them to life while meeting our sustainability goals, Cully and Selina made several commitments at the beginning of our production process:
1. We would prioritize pulling existing pieces from our costume stock.
While we usually begin the design process with this step, Cully and Selina redoubled our efforts in this regard, pulling items that were unusual sizes, or finding pieces that were "not quite right" but could be altered or adapted.
2. We would not purchase new fabric for the show.
Every sewist knows that when creating a three-dimensional garment from two-dimensional fabric, there are scraps and material of varying sizes and shapes at the end of the project. Several of Dark Water's costume pieces are made from scrap fabric saved in the process of constructing costumes for previous shows.
3. If we couldn't find or make what we needed with what we had in the shop, we would only purchase pieces from thrift stores and second-hand shops to ensure we weren't creating new textile waste.
Thrift stores are often a costumer's first stop because costumes are supposed to be a character's clothing, and clothes fresh from a store usually don't have that "lived in" look. In fact, "aging" clothing is a common technique in costume building. For Dark Water, Cully scoured the local thrift stores and shopped a few more while he went to NYC for spring break. These trips provided the perfect pieces that maintained the design idea and meet our commitment to eliminating new or purchased fabric and costume elements.
The photos to the left offer a glimpse into how these commitments played out in the design and construction of specific garments.
If you are a SLU student who wants to learn more about costume design and construction, consider taking PCA 4045: Do It Yourself Theatre this fall. Students enrolled in this course will collaborate with faculty and one another to take a produce a play, taking it from concept to final performance.
Lighting Design and Electrics
Our resident lighting designer Dan Gallagher spearheaded our efforts to make Dark Water more energy efficient through practical upgrades to our inventory and his innovative lighting design.
For our 15 house lights, Dan replaced the 500W lamps (a.k.a. light bulbs) with 13W LED lamps. This change allowed us to save a significant number of kilowatt hours for this production, resulting in lower electrical usage and total fossil fuel emissions.
Dan prioritized using LED lighting instruments in his lighting design. Again, this prioritization allowed us to save total kilowatt hours. The color mixing technology of LED lighting instruments also allowed us to eliminate some use of traditional lighting gel, which is used to create different colors of light. Theatrical gel is considered a "consumable" item because it has a limited life-span and must be replaced when it "burns" out and fades. Given that gel is a petroleum-based product and that our geographical location requires us to have these items shipped from larger urban centers, limited gel usage allowed us to lessen the show's environmental impact.
In addition, we invested some of the production budget for Dark Water in making future productions more sustainable through the purchase of 14 new LED PARs, which use about 1/3 of the wattage of traditional PARs. These lighting instruments will be featured heavily in the spring 2018 dance concert and will help University Theatre move forward toward a more sustainable future.
If you are a SLU student who would like to learn more about theatrical lighting design and sustainable lighting practices, consider taking PCA 303: Lighting Design with Dan this upcoming fall. Students enrolled in this course will have an opportunity to experiment with this new lighting technology when designing for our DIY Theatre production of Pains of Youth and the dance concert.
University Theatre's Sustainable Future
Here are some things we hope to do going forward to continue University Theatre's participation in St. Lawrence University's campus-wide goal of reaching climate-neutrality:
Train SLU students to be sustainably-minded theatre artists and practitioners through courses such as our seminar "Theatre, Sustainability, and the Natural World" and through incorporating units on sustainability in our design and tech courses.
Continue to improve our sustainable production practices by looking for ways to reuse materials for multiple productions, store and maintain our current costume and scenic stock, and incorporating zero waste practices whenever possible.
Expand ongoing collaborations and develop new partnerships with local universities, high schools, and theatre organizations to share resources and recycle production materials whenever possible.
Replace our current dimmer system (the electrical system that controls the intensity of theatrical lighting instruments) with a contemporary system and replace our remaining conventional lighting instruments with comparable LED instruments, resulting in fewer kilowatt hours used per production/event.
If you are interested in learning more about any of these goals or projects, please contact Dr. Angela Sweigart-Gallagher.
Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet. United States Environmental Protection Agency, November 2016. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-11/documents/2014_smmfa…. Accessed 1 April 2018.
Sustainable Theatre Resources
Arons, Wendy and Theresa J. May. Readings in Performance and Ecology. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
Fried, Larry K. and May, Theresa J. Greening Up Our Houses: A Guide to a More Ecologically Sound Theatre. Drama Pub, 1994.
Jones, Ellen. A Practical Guide to Greener Theatre: Introduce Sustainability Into Your Productions. Taylor & Francis, 2013.
Lavery, Carl. Performance and Ecology: What Can Theatre Do?. Focal Press, forthcoming April 2018.
Broadway Green Alliance http://www.broadwaygreen.com/
The Center for Sustainable Practice and the Arts http://www.sustainablepractice.org/
Earth Matters on Stage https://www.earthmattersonstage.com/
The Green Theatre http://www.thegreentheater.org/the-green-theatre-or-teaching-sustainabl…