Greening Theatre Practice Part One: Productions

There’s a number of places I can start but let’s go with plastic wrap. At the Montreal Fringe in 2017, I directed a play called Pluck’d by Ke Xin Li. In the production, the entire stage floor is covered in plastic wrap and for a variety of reasons, it is thrown away at the end of every show. We looked at different alternatives, for example, using a vapour barrier which is thicker and could be wiped down and reused, but it didn’t have the same cling and shine that we needed for the show. Nothing really looked like plastic wrap except plastic wrap.

This was a problem because I started working towards living plastic-free/zero waste at the beginning of 2017 so the colossal amount of waste the show produced was something I grappled with – how can I be plastic free in my personal life and in good conscience direct a show like this? I don’t have an answer to this – it still sits uneasily with me.

I asked theatre artists in my community and beyond to share what initiatives they have taken to green their practice and asked them to imagine how theatre can be revisioned to be more sustainable. We cover a bit of ground so to make it more reader friendly I’m splitting this over three posts.

Pluck’d by Bald Angry Asian Productions during tech. Yes, everything is covered in plastic wrap – the chairs, table and entire stage.

Ian Garrett is Associate Professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University and one of the co-founders of the The Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. Understandably he gets asked how performance companies can be more environmentally friendly all the time. But, he points out, the biggest footprint lies not with the production itself but with the venue buildings. “Looking at the actual impact of theatre, the production tends to be much less of an issue than many other areas. You’ll do more for the earth based on things like changing a venue’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), or lobby lighting than you’ll get from what you do on stage.” As important as this is, like many of the smaller companies, Imago doesn’t have a venue so this lies out of our control. There’s far more companies producing work than venues, so what can the smaller, venue-less companies do?

I know Repercussion Theatre’s Artistic Director Amanda Kellock is very environmentally aware so I checked in with her to see what changes she has made since she took the helm at the company. Theatre companies operate under tight budgets so sourcing second-hand items is something companies are used to. And sometimes it fits the production, as was the case with Repercussion’s production of Julius Caesar in 2016. Amanda explains: “we used recycled materials to build our costumes (this was an eco-friendly measure, but also fit with the concept of the show, which was set in a post-apocalyptic world). Susana Vera, our amazing costume designer that year, ruminated on the kinds of materials that would endure an apocalypse, and so she used materials like denim, inner tubes (used to make battle skirts), plastic bags (woven into corset-type amour) and bottle caps (which were added to the armour for decoration.) We sent a call-out for these materials and people from all over brought them to us – so we had a crowd-sourced, recycled costume design that ended up looking amazing (it even garnered Susana a META nomination!) It was also a cool way to get our audience engaged with the production ahead of time – as they donated items and then got to see them transformed onstage.”

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Deena Aziz, Holly Gauthier-Frankel, Warona Setshwaelo, Danette MacKay, Catherine Varvaro, Samantha Megarry, and Donnub Jafarzadeh in Repercussion Theatre’s Julius Caesar. Photo: Studio Baron Photo

“Last year, we needed a large amount of faux greenery and flowers. We hated the idea of buying it all new (given that it would then likely just end up in the trash) so again, we put a call out for people to donate their unwanted fake flowers, garlands, etc. We ended up only having to buy a fraction of what we would have used. Also, one of the lovely arches that made up our set (designed by Sabrina Miller) was repurposed for a wedding after the tour was done. And other pieces, like the benches, went to people who worked on the show (one of them is in my backyard right now.)”

But not everything gets rehomed and those that don’t invariably end up at the EcoCentre (sorting centres available to Montrealers to dispose of materials for reuse and recovery). Dave Surette shared that the hardest part of his job when he was a technical director was seeing all the sets go to waste after each show. “There is no question we waste a lot of materials and financial resources. We often spend thousands of dollars on sets and other production related materials which is a significant amount of money for small companies who are barely getting by as it is. Then after spending all of this money, a lot of these sets end up in a dumpster at the Eco Centre. What is the answer? I wish I knew. I don’t think anyone is going to stop building sets for their shows. There needs to be innovation in how we design and build shows and how we strike sets. It needs to be thought through but at the moment I have not seen any quick and affordable answers. I think a place to start is to simply ask the question at the beginning of the design process, what are we doing with the set when the show is over? Is there anything we can recycle? Can we build it smaller? Can we build in such a way that we can reuse materials? We are addicted to single use products but I think we can ask these questions and slowly try to introduce new ways of thinking about how we use our resources.”

Andrea Lundy agrees. As Director of the Production Design and Technical Arts Program at the National Theatre School of Canada, Andrea is responsible for teaching the next generation of technical theatre practitioners. She offers that instead of looking at changing the materials you use which can be prohibitively expensive for most companies (for example, the Sydney Theatre company changed their practices to use only certified plywood for their sets and organic cotton for their costumes, as part of their Greening the Wharf initiative), companies can make the most impact by rethinking the materials they already use. “There isn’t really a list of materials you use instead of other materials to be eco friendly – it usually boils down to how you reuse or share materials rather than rethink what you buy. At NTS we are continually adjusting our first year class on Eco Sustainability with the French and English Production and Set Design students to instill the idea of best practices to the students as they head into the second and third year of study when they will be collaborating to realize their designs while keeping sustainability in mind”.

The environment is a big consideration for set and costume designer (and NTS graduate) Diana Uribe. “When I design I try to always leave room for changes, not just on materials but also on dimensions. I take my time to go and check with the TD around the shop for what I can use. Yes, it’s time consuming but at the ends it pays off. That way if we found a wall or a bar, etc, that is close to what I designed then it is likely that I will go for the used piece rather than use a new one. I also design a lot knowing the dimensions of the materials I would like to use, so I can reduce the waste.”

Moving into the rehearsal room, most of us work with text, which means paper – lots and lots of it, especially if it’s a new work and the script is evolving. Melanie St-Jacques is a stage manager with over 20 years of experience. I asked if she’s ever worked on a paperless production (ha). “No, I have never worked on a production that is paper free unfortunately. It’s a darn shame, but it’s true. When I work on a new play, I try to print out the least amount of scripts and rewrites as possible on a daily basis. I still have to make sure that the appropriate people have the hard copies they need on any given day, but I try to not copy more than one extra copy of everything. And then if we find out that someone needs a copy, we would then go ahead and copy what we need. That person may need to wait a few minutes for what they need, but there you go. Small price to pay for the life of the trees.” 



The Hockey Sweater, a new musical with book and lyrics by Emil Sher and music by Jonathan Monro, stage managed by Melanie St-Jacques, premiered earlier this season at the Segal Centre. Photo: Leslie Schachter

Melanie stresses that the SM team on any production, whether it be new work or not, needs to be diligent about keeping paper usage to a minimum. “It can be easy to forget about taking these extra small steps, but if discussed with the entire SM team, as well as passing a few things on to the cast and rest off the team during prep week, then you are setting yourself up for making the effort. One way to give the whole team a heads up about the fact that the SM is going to be diligent and very aware of the amount of paper we go through is to include a little blurb about it in the SM’s introduction email to everyone during prep week.” Melanie shared some steps SMs can take to reduce paper usage during the rehearsal process. They are listed at the end of this post.

Who knows though, more and more I see phones, tablets and laptops being used in the rehearsal room. I have had actors read their scripts from phones and tablets during creation processes (although taking notes would be very difficult), and a lot of the time at production meetings many people have their laptops open, so perhaps a less paper intensive practice is on the horizon.

This short series on Greening Theatre Practice continues next week where we’ll be discussing how we can reduce the environmental impact of our patrons when they are at our shows and events. 

Melanie St-Jacque’s list to actions to reduce paper usage:
Here are some things that an SM team can do throughout the duration of a production to reduce the amount of paper used.

– Contact the cast and design team well in advance during the prep week to find out whether or not they will be needing a hard copy of the script on first day of rehearsal. Often people will print out the script on their own. Good thing to know before first day to alleviate the number of scripts you need to copy. Also, double sided script copies as opposed to single sided, obviously uses half the amount of paper.

– The SM team can copy their opposite page onto the BACK of the script page for the Prompt Book, as opposed to adding a whole new separate sheet for their opposite page, which doubles the amount of paper needed.

– The SM can limit the amount of Daily Schedules to print out on a daily basis. Make sure the Callboards are covered and that you have two copies in the room with you, but that is all. No need to copy four or five extra copies each day. The copy that was used for the rehearsal hall callboard each day can be the one the SM then puts in their Prompt Book at the end of the day, and so on.

– When working on new scripts, the Playwright and SM should have a clear communication in terms of daily rewrites and what the procedure is. The SM can set up a system wherein, for example, if the rewrite is just one or two lines, where the cast can simply make the line adjustment in their own script without having a copy a whole new page for every actor, you can do that. Of course you will need maybe two or three new printed pages for archives and for the Prompt Book, but there are certainly ways to use less paper in this way.

– At Production Meetings, the tendency is to want to have multiple copies of the most updated Production Schedule, or the most updated Props List on hand for everyone to peruse. Again, the SM can make a point of sending an email, or including it in the daily schedule email to everyone the night before, to please have your own copies of the pertinent documents to refer to during the production meeting. And maybe say that we will have two printed copies of each document on hand for people to share during the meeting. Not everyone has a printer or is able to print out a document the night before, so the SM will for sure have a few copies on hand, but there is no need for every single person at the meeting to have a hard copy.

– Whatever paper you end up recycling, the SM can ask the office staff if they can use the paper as scrap paper. Often theatres will have a stack of recycled paper that they use in their printers to print out in-house documents where having something on the other side doesn’t matter so much. SMs should always ask before dumping it in the replying bin. On that same note, there should of course be a big ol’ recycling bin in the rehearsal hall for people to put pages in. The SM team and director can also use old pages as scrap paper while they work during the rehearsal process.

CatalystsImago Theatre