Toward a More Sustainable Theatre: Why Theatre Artists Should Be Concerned about Pollution, Global Climate Change and the Sustainable Future

By Lawler, Mike | American Theatre, September 2008 | Go to article overview
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Toward a More Sustainable Theatre: Why Theatre Artists Should Be Concerned about Pollution, Global Climate Change and the Sustainable Future


Lawler, Mike, American Theatre


I recently attended a concert in a smallish community center. On the stage was the faculty woodwind quintet of the University of Wisconsin--Madison--my wife is a member--and pointed at them were 30 lighting instruments. By my count, all but five were running at full throttle, burning white with no color. These instruments (ETC Source Fours with 575-watt HPL lamps) are some of the most energy-efficient on the market, and yet I couldn't help but run some rough calculations in my head: Approximately 1.34 pounds of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere for every kilowatt hour burned (yes, I have memorized this statistic: a national average, from a 2002 Energy Information Administration report). Running these instruments for the few hours of a performance produces merely 58 pounds of [CO.sub.2]--not much. It's about the equivalent of burning three gallons of gas in your car. But just how many community centers are out there right now doing the same thing? I thought, forgiving myself for occasionally letting the music drift out of focus. And what about the bigger players in the game?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I imagined what it must be like on Broadway at that very moment, with thousands of such instruments lit. My head buzzed with more and more calculations: Let's say there are only 575-watt Source Fours running on Broadway--perhaps 3,000 instruments, running four hours a day, every day. Now we're talking more than 3 million pounds of [CO.sub.2] every year! The equivalent of burning 173, 755 gallons of gasoline! More than 3,500 barrels of oil! And my furious calculations were undoubtedly conservative, considering the three dozen or so Broadway theatres in operation nowadays.

Okay, I admit it: I'm more than a bit obsessed with the idea of energy consumption in the performing arts. I've been thinking and writing about the green-theatre movement for some time now, and as a theatre artist trained in technology, I have a bit of the guilt complex in me, too. After all, it is us technicians and designers who continually push the theatre toward an ever-more-technological way of telling stories on stage. But in the 21st century, when climate change is a household term and our stubborn ways of producing energy are decidedly 19th-century, the notion of spewing tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the name of art becomes very serious business.

It's no secret that a sense of environmental awareness has moved slowly over the past decade into the arena of mainstream thought, playing a part in the lives of Americans on an increasingly routine level--from curbside recycling to the organic revolution to growing concern in the ranks of corporate America. But have our theatre artists carried this sense of ecological consideration with them into the green rooms, through the wings and onto the stages--or has it been left at home with the farmer's-market-procured organic broccoli and the fuel-efficient Corolla?

Certain works for the stage (didactic as they may be) deal with issues of what we may call sustainability, eco-friendliness, environmental responsibility or ecological awareness--but are those values espoused in the form itself, in its implementation, in its journey from page to stage? The short answer: rarely. It would appear that it has been entirely too easy for theatre artists to turn their thoughts away from the amount of resources and energy being consumed in the course of typical theatrical production. But now, for the sake of future generations as well as for our own health and well-being, it is time to look the matter straight in the eye--and take action.

Defining sustainability can be tricky. Even trickier, perhaps, is defining sustainable theatre. But after the semantic hair-splitting is finished, a fairly straightforward ideal of behavior remains: acting in a manner that takes into consideration the ability of future generations to sustain themselves in a healthy and safe way that does not diminish the quality of life.

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