While at LDI in Las Vegas last fall, my colleague at Theatre Consultants Collaborative, LLC, Curtis Kasefang, and I attended a session that addressed the topic of green theatre. Although the presentation barely scratched the surface of what industry professionals can do and are currently doing to produce eco-friendly, sustainable theatre, both from production and building standpoints, the hour-and-a-half presentation certainly opened my eyes enough to make me begin thinking with expanded views.
I have always considered myself to be a fairly “green” kind of guy, though I must say that, over the past few months, my awareness has been heightened significantly. At that session’s end, for example, Curtis and I conversed about what different groups in the entertainment/construction industries could, and should, be doing to promote and achieve sustainable theatre. Now, before I throw this term around too many times, by my own definition and for the purposes of this article, let’s assume sustainable theatre means “conserving, defending, and ensuring an ecological balance in our theatre building, manufacturing, and production practices, while avoiding depletion of our natural resources.”

It was in Las Vegas, the picture-perfect definition of gluttony, indulgence, and waste surrounded by natural beauty, where our trade show took place, only adding to the city’s energy consumption, increasing its carbon footprint and Lake Mead’s water depletion. By my count—and please forgive me if I have left anyone out—of the hundreds of exhibitors at that LDI, there appeared to be only a handful of manufacturers on the floor who, in some way, touted the fact that their companies were practicing some sort of green principles. Pro-Tech Las Vegas has a line of rigging products made with post-consumer recycled nylon. Showman Fabricators has “gone green” in everything from the solvents, paints, and adhesives used to making sure its trucking companies utilize bio and/or clean-fuel alternatives. The Light Source uses recycled aluminum content for its lighting/rigging accessories products. Apollo and Nila have also contributed to the green movement.

Reviewing the above, one might inquire about LED fixture manufacturers with questions such as, “Aren’t LEDs environmentally-friendly products?” Of course, the quick answer is that, in and of themselves, yes, they are energy-efficient.

However, there are other factors to be considered. What are the manufacturer’s techniques and practices when it comes to being an eco-friendly producer of products? Is the manufacturer utilizing virgin or recycled steel/aluminum for fixture housings, and what is the percentage of each? How about packaging and shipping methods? Do paints and finishes contain harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)? What about supplies used to clean the shop or factory? Do the non-green elements of the manufacturing processes actually negate the good nature of the products? These are questions we should be asking.

On Sunday afternoon at LDI, I decided to go on a quest for some answers, with hundreds of industry manufacturers and professionals available. Quite honestly, I was a bit shocked by some of the responses I received. Though I did hear a few comments along the lines of, “You know, theatre is exempt from all of that,” (news to me), I wasn’t shocked by folks saying they didn’t care or didn’t practice eco-manufacturing.

What really perplexed me was that the most common answer was, “I don’t know.” Major manufacturers, many of whom provide our specifications as we consult on projects and everyday tools, admitted that they ultimately have “no clue” where their materials come from, nor do they know what percentage of those materials contains recycled versus virgin content. Upon receiving these responses, I then asked, “Well, have you ever asked your supplier these questions?” a question that drew a lot of blank stares, as if this had never occurred to them before.

So, why am I writing this? I am writing because we are at a critical moment in our planet’s history. Industry and its impact on the Earth’s ecology are precariously balanced. And though production is but a niche industry, we have proven time and again to be careless and wasteful of our natural resources. As a consultant and lighting designer, I believe that we—consultants, architects, engineers, installers, theatre and touring professionals alike—are in a unique position to lead the charge on designing eco-friendly and sustainable performing arts facilities and productions. We have the collective talent and ability to raise the bar for green theatre design and production criteria. We are well-connected with manufacturers, affording us the ability to begin to request—and eventually to demand—action on their part.

I believe we can also help our clients—we need to have a self-imposed responsibility to our clients and to the industry as part of our creed—to develop and design arts facilities and productions that will have positive and lasting sustainability for both the end-users and surrounding communities.

After my LDI-inflicted conviction and realizing that we have the potential to do something about our current situation, I ask each of you this question: If we were to make a conscious, unified effort, is sustainable design for the performing arts really that difficult to achieve? We are an industry of bright lights and even brighter minds. This said, I implore you not only to think outside of the box, but to also think about the box itself, and to strongly consider the products and processes for manufacturing that go into it. Hang your own thoughts on the industry clothesline, and let’s put our words into action. In every facility we design and build, in every product manufactured, in every production we mount, with all of our technical achievements, let’s really adopt a green mindset and implement it.

Josh c. Allen is a consultant with Theatre Consultants Collaborative, LLC. Driven by a passion for sustainability in design and production practices for performing arts facilities, Allen is developing a blog and forum for such discussions at www.eco-theatre.org. He is a lighting designer, member of United Scenic Artists, self-proclaimed tree-hugger, and coffee snob. Allen currently lives in North Carolina with his wife Amy, their son, Sam, and their Skye Terrier, Lucy, and can be contacted at jallen@theatrecc.com.