Greening Up Their Act
by michael todd
photography by mike ford
If you’re a budding ecoholic, today’s theatre scene should strike a chord. Why? Because there’s a green revolution going on that’s all about lessening the environmental impact of theatrical productions while upping the artistic ante. Solutions include converting to energy-efficient LED lights, sourcing sustainably managed wood for building sets, using environmentally friendly dry cleaners for costumes and putting more eco-conscious makeup on actors. In fact, artists from many disciplines – not just theatre – are beginning to reconsider their processes. Visual artists are rethinking the kinds of materials they use, seeking out less toxic paints and glues, and theatres are working to put more bums in seats to lower their carbon footprint per production (a full house being the most environmentally sustainable in terms of energy use). The York University Magazine recently spoke to theatre Professors Ian Garrett and James McKernan about green initiatives in the arts, and in theatre at York in particular
After graduating with dual MFAs in producing and lighting design from the California Institute for the Arts, Garrett became fascinated by the environmental impact of theatre. He is now cofounder and director of the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, and he has designed ecologically minded productions in Canada, the U.S. and England. One such production was Vox:lumen, a dance choreographed by William Yong for the Toronto Harbourfront Centre’s 2015 World Stage event. The show marketed itself as being “green,” and it delivered – so much so that the audience was responsible for powering the lights for the performance by pedalling electricity-generating bikes.
McKernan teaches stage technology and explores leading-edge and traditional methodologies. He works in the area of ecological responsibility and sustainability. Before he arrived at York, he was a carpenter and construction coordinator in the entertainment industry, working on award-winning productions such as the Juno Awards and Rhombus Media’s feature film production of Stormy Weather. He was also a set designer for the company’s production of Opera Erotique, where the goal was to produce the opera with as little impact on the environment as possible.
The Magazine: What sparked your interest in sustainable theatre?
Garrett: I’m from the States and grew up in Los Angeles and had parents in the entertainment industry. At one time, I thought I wanted to be an architect, so I went to architecture school at Rice University and during that time I became interested in theatre design. In my architectural courses, I got a lot of training designing sustainable buildings and a background in sustainability in general. So my interest began independently as I researched these topics. While I was working on a Thomas Gibbon play in 2006, I found myself thinking about how much energy our lights were using and whether they could be powered by a solar array and, if so, how large would it have to be and what would it cost. I gradually became more and more interested in theatre’s role as a space for public debate on environmental issues, theatre’s ecological impact and how we could mitigate that – if we could.
McKernan: Before I started at York, my wife and I were taking a pretty serious look at the environment and what we should and shouldn’t be eating. The more we looked into it, the more other environmental issues also popped up, and when I started at York it seemed like a natural process to get into the whole issue of sustainable theatre.
The Magazine: What is meant by “greening the arts”?
Garrett: I think theatre probably seems, to most people, an unlikely place to start thinking about ideas around sustainability. But that’s what makes it interesting to me. In performance we’re dealing with time, with impermanence, as opposed to a building which is standing for a long time. A play usually runs for several weeks.
McKernan: If you only look at the performance in terms of time in a particular space, you’re not wrong, but if you look at the building in the same way, you are wrong. Buildings are long-term, plays are not. The building itself uses 80 per cent of the power. It’s the biggest [energy] consumer, not the performance.
The Magazine: Can advertising the fact that a performance is sustainable help draw an audience?
Garrett: To some degree. There are theatre companies that have taken this approach and made it a selling point. It’s marketing toward an audience that might be interested in the experiment … but what does that mean? How does it change [the production]? An important aspect of all this is addressing the question of how does a work or performance communicate the message of sustainability to an audience, either in form or function?
McKernan: I think absolutely, sustainability can be a draw, but it can also be a turnoff. I’m completely cynical about the whole thing – hopefully in a good way. [Laugh.] If you choose to stand up and say, “I’m part of this!” that’s great, but not everyone will buy into it.
The Magazine: What kind of steps can we take to be greener on stage?
Garrett: There are a number of different things producers can do to reduce their impacts environmentally: there are energy-efficient lights and fixtures; different ways of bringing less toxicity into the construction environment, such as dyes, paints and fixatives; alternatives to some adhesives; certified sustainable-growth lumber and organic fabrics; even printed versus non-printed publicity materials. One of the things I advocate most is that companies produce work that brings in a full house because it is highly energy efficient. Why? That’s what heating and cooling systems are designed for – a full house. It’s the most efficient way to “green” your theatre right away: maximize your audience.
McKernan: You can cut your operating budget by thousands of dollars through building changes. Many green technologies are just not there [yet] for performances, but they are for buildings.
The Magazine: When and where did the green theatre movement start?
Garrett: While eco-drama and eco-theatre can be traced back to the start of the modern environmental movement, the greening of production is more recent. One could argue that it’s about eight years old, and in the English-speaking world I think you could say it kicked off in the U.K. – a lot of it with [not-for-profit organization] Julie’s Bicycle, which started in the music industry. The U.K. government then invited [Julie’s Bicycle] to look at other kinds of arts organizations. [Julie’s Bicycle is a global charity bridging the gap between environmental sustainability and creative industries, working with more than 2,000 arts organizations internationally to help them measure, manage and reduce their environmental impact.
McKernan: We all take our thoughts ultimately from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – at least in the Western world. But the greening-the-theatre movement, the theory side, started with Theresa May’s book Greening Up Our Houses.
The Magazine: Every discipline has its own unique logistics. Is it hard to create an all-encompassing standard for “greenness” in the arts?
Garrett: You’re not wrong there. Once you start getting granular it becomes difficult. We deal with time in a different way and deal with materials in a different way. It’s much different from planning for a sustainable building that is going to be standing for a long time. By comparison, a performance is short, but it’s important to figure out where we can have the most impact for productions, audiences and our people.
McKernan: Most productions have a metaphorical rehearsal and an opening night, but other than that it’s different for every theatre company. They’ll all have their own particular demands and constraints. Job titles can be similar, but what the people with those titles do can be quite different. What works in Austin, Texas, will not necessarily work in Montreal or somewhere in Italy, and vice versa.
The Magazine: What is York doing, specifically?
Garrett: In the theatre department, I teach both graduate and undergraduate courses that are about building and sustainable staging techniques.
McKernan: We do a bunch of things. For example, we reuse materials as much as possible, but every theatre does that. We try to build things a certain way so they can go into stock because we have space, but not every theatre can do that. We kicked out caustic chemicals for health and safety reasons as much as sustainable ones.
The Magazine: How can we educate the public more about greening theatre?
Garrett: I’ve been doing work with Harbourfront [Centre] and I know there is certainly interest in what exactly being sustainable means and their part of the larger Toronto community. It’s valuable to them because they are also telling human stories. I know there are smaller companies that are also doing interesting things in this area but don’t really tell anybody about it, which is too bad. But yes, there’s marketability to it. It’s also important to share the information … everyone benefits from it, not just the marketing department. In theatre, there are some things we’ve been doing the same way for decades – and for hundreds of years – because we’re under tight deadlines, so we go with what works. Sometimes performance can be very risk averse.
McKernan: There’s always more to be done. We have sustainability managers on our shows now and they are responsible for studying the show’s environmental impact. Then, if you want to, you can put publicity information in the lobby explaining what the carbon footprint of a show was.
The Magazine: What does the future hold for sustainable theatre?
Garrett: I think we’ll see companies minimizing their environmental impact and maximizing their social impact more and more.
McKernan: The less tech we use, the greener we’ll be. But I don’t think the arts are going to shoot past the world in this. Everything we do tends to be custom built. We’re very much a niche industry although we don’t produce actual goods. But one thing we do have is a stage, so our marketing is built into our product. When you come to a show, you’re not walking away with a thing; you’re walking away with an experience – and an experience can change you in a way a product never can. ■