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The Eco-Friendly Theatre of the Future


Walter Murray, Tanya Johnson and John Tessmer in “Permanent Collection” by Thomas Gibbons at Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. Scenic Designer David F. Weiner used scrap wood from La Jolla Playhouse to create the floor, steel for the scrim walls (the scrim was saved for future use), and AFM Safecoat non-toxic, eco-friendly paints. Photo by Nick Abadilla

The Eco-Friendly Theatre of the Future

“Greening” operations can reduce your carbon footprint while still delivering stellar productions – and help keep your audience and staff healthy


By Mike Lawler


According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for 72% of electricity consumption, consume 40% of our raw materials, spew 38% of all CO2 emissions, create 136 million tons of construction waste, and use 15 trillion gallons of water per year in the United States alone.

Green buildings, on the other hand, consume 26% less energy while emitting 33% fewer greenhouse gases. The USGBC also estimates that if “half of new commercial buildings were built to use 50% less energy, it would save over 6 million metric tons of CO2 annually for the life of the buildings—the equivalent of taking more than 1 million cars off the road every year.”


Now take a deep breath – because those are significant numbers that should give us pause. But it does not mean we should all go out and start looking for a green architect and a wealthy donor. Not yet, anyway. Rebuilding from the ground up is not the first step. Efficiency and green building experts agree that the first and most important thing you can do is improve conservation and efficiency within your current operation and facility.


What Makes It Green?


“An ecologically responsible theatre is one that does more with less,” explains Michael Crowley, Producing Manager of 9Thirty Theatre Company in New York City, one of the only companies in the country to be founded on the principle of green theatre  practices.


While Crowley’s idea of a green, eco-responsible theatre company is direct, what makes a theatre green remains a complex question. “We’re still working on defining it,” says Seema Sueko, Artistic Director of the eco-friendly Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego. Mo’olelo received a grant from Theatre Communications Group (TCG) this year to pursue their green mission and to “research and develop a tool to measure the environmental impact of theatre, helping the industry to make choices that do not damage our communities.” They are partnering with Brown & Wilmanns Environmental Consulting on the project to develop a “Green Theatre Choices Tool kit.” “Hopefully,” Sueko says, “this will help us answer that question.”


Ian Garrett, Executive Director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, has a very clear idea of what a theatre can do today to move toward a green future. “The best thing a theatre can do to go green right now is just to record what they use,” he says.  According to Garrett this relatively simple and routine effort can go a long way by informing a theatre of what needs to be reduced in the first place. “It can be very enlightening to know what you’re using today before you look at what you are going to do tomorrow to use less.”

An excellent example of the many ways performance facilities can go green is Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Without building a new facility, the company has taken dozens of steps toward more eco-friendly operations, beginning with the creation of an environmental policy board, or Green Committee, during the 2007-08 season. In order to keep the eco-responsible efforts a part of day-to-day operations, the committee is made up of staff members from several departments.


“We have always been a globally conscious organization, and our primary commitments have not changed,” says Terence Keane, Berkeley Rep’s Director of Public Relations, when talking about how the move to greening operations has affected the overall organization. “Several of our departments—most notably our prop shop—had made sustainable practices a priority long before it became an organizational mandate,” he says. “As a result, many of the big picture changes that we’ve incorporated on an institutional level have very quickly become second nature. What has changed is that environmental awareness is now a core organizational value.”


Their Green Policy commits the company to sourcing materials from local vendors, implementing waste reduction and pollution prevention practices, encouraging audiences to use eco-friendly transportation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, overhauling the menu of the theatre’s café to focus on local, organic, and sustainable food and drink, and advocating within the arts for more sustainable practices.


“Everything is greener,” says Keane, “the food, the drink, the napkins, the cups, the lights, the responsibility to sort one’s trash appropriately – and the fact that it goes into a bio bag without you even knowing it.”


But us “knowing it” is an important part of the movement toward greener practices in the arts. Berkeley Rep knows this, and you should too: the potential for audience education is large, as is a theatre’s ability to highlight their green activities in their marketing and outreach. It’s not about putting forth a green front without taking action to back it up (frequently referred to as greenwashing), but rather taking advantage of the opportunity to extend your policies beyond your own operations by being a responsible member of your community and encouraging your patrons to take similar steps.


Keeping the public informed about your green policies means being honest, too.  “We strive to be transparent about the choices we make since there are tradeoffs along the way,” explains Mo’olelo’s Sueko. “By being transparent, we hope we’ll learn from others so we can make better decisions in the future.”


Building it Green


Portland Center Stage, Theatre For A New Audience, and Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta have all taken the big step. Each of these companies work in what are known as LEED certified facilities. LEED – or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a certification program managed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The program works on a point system, with points awarded for things as diverse as proximity to public transit to how efficiently the building uses (and reuses) water and electricity. Depending on the number of points earned a building can receive one of three levels of certification from Silver to Platinum, with Gold in the middle. Theatrical Outfit, for example, produces in a renovated historical building with a LEED Silver rating and was the first performing arts facility to be LEED certified in the nation. Portland Center Stage also renovated a historical building in the heart of Portland, earning a Platinum rating from the USGBC. Their facility includes such eco-friendly features as a rainwater collection and reuse system, natural ventilation, extensive use of natural lighting throughout the lobby and administrative offices, and radiant heating in the lobby. The building also reportedly uses about 30% less energy than code requires.


It is also important to keep in mind that LEED is a system designed for conventional commercial buildings and is not set up to deal with the vagaries of a performing arts venue. “LEED is intended for permanence in a way,” Garrett reminds us. “So, it’s hard to balance what we do with their priorities.” He cites the PCS project as an example of how certification can lead to complex compromises, too. “They were looking at equal points for brush off grates at their entrance and a solar array on the roof next door,” he says. “The solar array would have been 10 to 20 times more expensive – so guess what they didn’t do?”


LEED is also not the only rating system for green building out there. Green Globes, BREEAM, and the Minnesota Sustainable Building Guidelines are a few alternatives. The differing systems are essentially similar in method and intent, but do vary in some ways, such as cost. If you are considering pursuing a green facility, look carefully at every system of certification out there – but keep in mind that LEED seems to have gained a foothold in name recognition, lending itself to a stronger marketing and branding opportunity.


Another drawback of pursuing a green-built facility with LEED certification is the simple economic considerations of such a venture. “It’s expensive,” Garrett says, “and I would hate for that to deter theatres from making progressive changes.” 


Green Business = Good Business


In the end, greening your theatre in a disciplined and focused way is just plain good business. In an increasingly difficult economy funding has become sought after with more fervor by yet more organizations, and donors and granting agencies are seeking arts organizations with a plan to weather the storm in creative ways. Add to that the shift toward a green economy under the Obama administration and avenues for the green theatre of the future have become clearer.


“Going green is about maximizing your resources,” says Garrett.  “It’s as much about economy as ecology – if you use less you spend less,” he says. By combining the principles of reuse and conservation, a company can reduce its budget constraints while conserving energy and promoting the well-being of both staff and audience. “If you use less power for lights, you use less for HVAC,” Garrett continues. “If you use zero VOC, untreated, and nontoxic materials you have a healthier crew, and with day-lit offices you have happier staff and pay less for lighting.”


“Encouraging artists to explore using recycled and found materials can save money and our country’s dwindling natural resources,” 9Thirty Theatre Company’sCrowleysays. He also advocates partnerships with other green businesses that can both provide for the theatre and give audience members greener choices. “We are able to provide our patrons with green concessions which they may then choose to purchase in their home or business lives,” he says. “But eco-responsible theatres should also take an active role in the environmental issues facing their local communities.”


“If you want to compete in the future arts market place, greening is going to be a necessity for your budget,” Garrett says.  “You can reinvest your budget into more and more green materials,” he says, “then you have insured you can sustain your company, and you can be proud that you’ve done your part to heal the earth, too.”


[sidebar] Stimulating A Green Economy – Where Do Theatres Fit?


The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, or stimulus package, includes billions of dollars for green projects. As the programs within the new bill – just signed into law by President Obama on February 17 – become clearer, more opportunities for arts organizations are bound to appear. Among the possibilities that have made themselves known already:


  • ·         $3.2 billion to the U.S. Department of Energy for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, which will provide funds to make existing commercial buildings energy efficient and green.
  • ·         Increased benefit levels enabling employers to offer tax-free benefits for transit.
  • ·         $1 billion to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for community development block grants, which may go toward greening cities and communities.
  • ·         A $2.4 billion increase for qualified energy conservation bonds for the targeted reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, financing building retrofits, and “green community programs.”


“All of the stimulus money for the arts is going through the NEA,” explains Ian Garrett, Executive Director of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. “They’re doling it out to two types of entities: those they have given money to before and to approved state re-granting organizations like the California Arts Council.” Garrett advises theatre companies to check with arts councils at the state level to see where the money is going and how it’s going to get there.  “To date I don’t know of any funds specifically for greening in the arts,” he says. But Garrett doesn’t think arts organizations looking for funding for green initiatives should be discouraged. “A lot of local arts commissions and councils are looking to make an impact in the arts and environment and are looking for people to come to them with ideas.”

[sidebar] Q & A with Green Theatre Initiative


Gideon Banner, a New York City-based actor, founded the Green Theater Initiative in 2007 in order to create a resource and consulting center for performing arts companies that want to green their operations. I recently asked him a few questions about green theatre.


What is the most important step a theatre can take to go green?


I have come to believe that the most important step a theatre can take is simply to take on the challenge of going green, to make a public and private commitment to sustainability.  It doesn’t matter if that means throwing a lot of money at it or just replacing a few light bulbs; it doesn’t matter if that means building a new LEED building or just staging a play for kids about recycling.  The important thing is that the theatre throws its hat in the ring and says, “We’re going green.  It may not be easy, we may make some mistakes, but, as leaders in our communities, we want to stay ahead of this curve, and we want you to follow us in our quest to create a sustainable future for our children. 


 Why is going green a good business decision?


It’s a good business decision because audiences look to theatres as leaders in their communities, as organizations that are staging the stories on which society’s dilemmas and challenges are played out in dramatic form.  And, as leaders, those theatres that make serious efforts to go green will significantly increase their standing as leaders in their communities, and audiences, local governments, and foundations that provide funding will flock to that theatre.


There are a number of additional business benefits.  Going green inspires a theatre’s own employees, as they feel themselves to be working for an institution whose values they (most likely) wholeheartedly support — so employee turnover will decrease, and theatres will be able to attract more talented designers, directors, and actors.  Decreasing local toxins and pollutants will also improve employee health and satisfaction.  And, of course, many of the steps taken to go green will save the theatre money in both the short and long run; in some cases, lots of money.  Just turning off office computers at night can take a big chunk out of a theatre’s energy bill.


Is there funding for green theatre projects?


Funding for green theatre projects will undoubtedly be coming down the pipeline, but it remains to be seen how that will pan out.  The recently passed stimulus bill included a significant amount of funding for energy efficiency and weatherization projects, and although that money was earmarked primarily for government buildings and low-income housing, the states and municipalities that will be administering the funds have a great deal of latitude in how they distribute the funds.


It is for this reason that I believe the American theatre community has an incredible opportunity to make the case that, as leaders in their communities, as creators of the narratives that define who we are and inspire us to craft a better society, theatres are ideally positioned to be recipients of those funds.  Moreover, as so many theatres already receive some level of funding from their local governments, they can quickly and efficiently utilize those channels to set up public-private partnerships that will create green jobs, make buildings run more efficiently, improve the health of local communities, and inspire audiences to join together to create a new green economy.


From what little I know of it, it seems that the model that Justin Yoffe has created with the Arts/Earth Partnership in L.A. is an ideal model that can and should be emulated by other local theatre communities across the country.


What are the core elements of an eco-responsible theatre?


The absolute core element, as I said above, is the commitment to working toward a sustainable future and inspiring the theatre’s board, management, staff, and audience to join with the theatre in those efforts.  Theatres are powerful educators and can truly inspire their communities to join them in traveling down the green highway.


The other, more practical, core elements of an eco-responsible theatre are: nurturing and producing works that deal with climate change and the environment; ensuring that lights and equipment are shut off when not in use; creating a recycling program; working to use fewer toxic chemicals in shops and on sets; reducing water usage; conducting a professional energy audit to determine where energy is being wasted; encouraging audiences to car-pool and use public transportation; considering the installation of a high-efficiency or renewable energy source such as cogeneration, geothermal, wind, or solar; reducing paper usage (including programs); using recycled elements in sets and seeking to find homes for elements of sets when they are loaded out; using sustainably-harvested wood; partnering with local environmental groups; encouraging designers to use fewer materials and less energy in their designs; employing videoconferencing as often as possible for design meetings; and publicizing these efforts in lobbies, on Web sites, and via local news outlets.


What about LEED?


It’s important to keep LEED accreditation in perspective. Although an important and rigorous ecological standard, it is not the be-all and end-all of sustainability, but rather one step of many.  It certainly has been useful for theatres that are building a new facility or renovating an old one, in that it provides a number of benchmarks towards which an organization can aim and often encourages the management, planners, and architects to come up with innovative, outside-of-the-box solutions to meet those benchmarks.  It also provides a well-regarded and strictly-measured seal of approval that demonstrates to a theatre’s community its commitment to sustainability.  And, of course, many of the steps needed to achieve LEED accreditation can significantly reduce a facility’s environmental footprint and improve the health of audiences and employees.


However, LEED generally measures a building’s footprint and does not significantly measure how operations are conducted in the building once it is built.  Therefore, theatres considering working toward LEED status should remember that getting accreditation does not mean they have reached some ultimate environmental goal — they still can work to green their operations in a variety of other ways. For example, LEED standards, although they are strict when they consider most of a building’s lighting, don’t take stage lighting into account at all.


And it should be remembered that building a new building, even one that is as green as it can be, still has a large environmental impact and that the inefficient old building, if it remains standing, is still sitting there and having the same environmental impact as before.  Most theatres can have a much greater environmental impact by taking a number of simple steps in the facilities in which they currently operate.

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