Mike Lawler

Earth Matters on Stage: Sustainable Practice

Many of the lectures here at EMOS are held at the very-new Hope Theater at the University of Oregon’s Miller Theatre Complex. Boom: there’s a big square fact to start the post off for you. But I’m going somewhere with it.

Right now, where the Hope would be a big black box is all full up with Set. The floor is painted in a curling desert-river pattern. Upstage is a forest of recycled wooden planks and juttings, a kind of grandpa’s-attic bamboo. In one corner is a platform with puzzle-piece innards: old bedposts, chairs and plywood fold over each other in a hefty collage.

It’s all for the stagings of the Festival’s top two prize-winning playsSong of Extinction and Atomic Farmgirl. But what was intended to represent a Bolivian forest and an American farm has come to represent the EMOS festival itself, both literally and figuratively: the set was  constructed with recycled materials.

Today’s sessions were sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. Led by Ian Garrett, they included presentations by Steve Mital, University of Oregon’s Director of Sustainability, PhD candidate (and EMOS Production Manager) Damond Morris, several eco-conscious designers, and several pioneers of a Sustainable Dramaturgy program at CalArts.

At this point: it’s day seven. Everyone in the room knows each other, at least by sight. We’re calling each other out in the audience: could you talk about your experience with . . . what’s your perspective on . . . and what begins as a formal presentation becomes a group conversation quickly and easily.

Inspired by Mike Lawler, here are a few questions asked in the course of the day (some got answered, some did not):

What is a “sustainable university”?

What is the impact of a theatrical lighting system?

Where in this stream can we reduce our waste?

What are the next steps in expanding/refining sustainable pedagogy?

How do we reframe our relationship to resources?

How can we implement what we believe in the art we create?

If your curiosity is piqued, I’d encourage you to visit the CSPA’s wiki for tools and nuggets of information. As to the rest, I leave you with Morris’ Five D’s of Design for Environment:

Design for Dissasembly. Design for Recyclability. Design for Disposability. Design for Reusability. Design for Remanufacture.

See you on the other side of  a recycled-wooden forest.

Go to the Green Museum

Earth Matters On Stage: Blood and Bodies

That’s a shark signing his chummy painting above, proving once and for all that eco-art is not for the faint of heart.

It’s an image used by Una Chaudhuri in her keynote address  “Animal (and) Planet: Zooesis and Ecological Extremity”  at this year’s EMOS. Chaudhuri is responsible for major contributions to the written EcoDrama field, and so wields terms like “gynesis,” and “anthropological machine” expertly (even while folks like Mike Lawler and I are squinting to catch up).

It was a look at performance and animals– or performance and non-human animals, if you prefer.  The bookends of the speech were a piece called “Helena”, in which artist Marco Evaristti  gave the public the option of pulverizing live goldfish in blenders–  and the work of Olly and Suzi, who go out into the wilderness and make collaborative paintings with animals ( not just your alley cat or field mouse: see above).

So here I am, at a conference intended to examine the relationship between our planet and our performance art, and I have to confess that I feel silly using the term “non-human animal.” But that’s the essence of what Una Chaudhuri is addressing: at what point do we stop looking at “the others” as something we manipulate and use, and start acknowledging them as collaborators in our community– ecologically, and in this case, artistically?

These same themes come up again and powerfully in EMOS during a panel on Rachel Rosenthal’s work, and in the context of the artist’s own flesh and blood. There’s also much more: green theater practices, Boal, space, giraffes, rituals and rollings on the grass– I’ll be posting more frequently in the next week as the eco-nerddery swells my brain . . .

Go to the Green Museum

In the Audience

I’ve worked in theater in some form or another since high school. I have had a bad habit throughout my life in theater of being the type who says (or at least thinks) “I don’t want to go watch theater, I see so much of it from backstage, from the booth, I see it in rehearsals all day long…” So, I don’t sit in the audience much.

Now, because of the illness that blindsided me over a year ago, I really feel like a spectator sitting in the audience watching the future of green, eco-responsible theater rushing by in flashes. It’s difficult to do. So much has happened in the last few months, and ecoTheater has missed it. People close to me will roll their eyes when they find that as I write this lament I am sitting in a hospital room in Indianapolis waiting for my second and final round of high dose chemotherapy to commence. “Who cares about green theater?” they will ask.

I won’t lie — it isn’t that difficult to realize that I’ve missed out on reporting on the big Broadway initiative, supported as it is by the mayor of New York City, or the up and coming Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA) (founded and driven by Ian Garrett, a regularly mentioned activist on ecoTheater), or the fast approaching Earth Matters on Stage (EMOS) at the University of Oregon, or, or, or…

I mean, it’s easy enough to see that there are bigger things to consider in my life right now. But, what can I say? For once, I hate being just a spectator. It’s like sitting through hours of rehearsal, not saying a word to anyone, and not participating in any way in the production.

For now, I have taken a leave of absence from my job with CTM and have done very little “work” of any kind in the last month or so. The only project I have spent time on is The Cancer Stories Project, hopefully the first stage work for the still-being-founded Wisconsin Story Project (WSP), which I hope to be a new model of theater that will take bits and pieces from many idea-makers, heading towards not just ecologically sound theater production, but also aiming to be a model of theater that solves for pattern (or here).

Who knows? Perhaps one day ecoTheater will simply morph into a blog tracking the progress of WSP, and how we’re doing our best to stay green, while tackling other issues that plague today’s so-called regional theater.

But no matter what I’ll be back here writing soon. So, don’t forget about me…

Go to EcoTheater

Message vs. Action

This Post was originally posted to Mike Lawler’s ecoTheaer blog on April 25, 2007. We are reposting it here to share this ecoTheater classic with new readers while MIke continues to regain his health. You can read his blog about his ongoing battle with cancer, The “C” Word, by clicking here.

In 1992, American Theatre ran an article called Green Theatre: Confessions of an Eco-reporter, in which Lynn Jacobson traveled to three performing arts companies–Merrimack Repertory in Lowell, MA, the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and Dell’Arte Players Company in northern California–and wrote about the work they were doing on the allegedly emerging front of “Green Theatre.”

In the fall of this year my first published foray into “greening” our theaters is slated to appear in the pages of American Theatre too–over fifteen years after Jacobson wrote, at the close of her piece, “Can theatre save the earth? I don’t know. But from sea to polluted sea, I’ve seen it trying.” Well, Jacobson was certainly right about one thing: Theater can’t save the earth–at least not alone. But, it does seem that it can make more of an effort than it has. Because, though Jacobson failed to really take it into account in 1992, the greening of our theater isn’t just about putting on ecologically themed work. It’s also about putting on ecologically friendly work, whether it be new, old, experimental, or otherwise.

In my research, I am struggling to find theater artists out there who are striving for a more sustainable approach to theater production. If you are one, or know of one, get in touch with me–I’d love to hear from you.

Can Art Be Green?

Being conscious of the environment may be worthwhile, but what does it have to do with art? In a way, everything. According to Merriam-Webster, art can be defined as, “the conscious use of skill and creative imagination, especially in the production of aesthetic objects.” Based on this definition, art can be broken down as a form of production, a form of work. Art is the skill of creating an object, the process, as well as the object itself. Theatre is also so much more than the production. From play selection to strike, there are supplementary materials that go into making the final product. It comes down to a number of processes and tools. Art is work, whether or not the artist gets paid, and work always produces waste. In the theatre, for example, the shop sink is often a dumping site for half-used solvents and stains, and other toxic substances such as spirit gum and petroleum-based makeup are frequently thrown in the trash.

The question, however, is how to deal with that waste. How does an artist conserve consumption, reduce waste production, and yet still maintain creative integrity and innovation? It seems as though such a compromise may be impossible. Theatre artists tend to stay isolated in their own worlds of creativity. Sometimes there are artists who have always worked in a specific way, and it can be difficult for some to divorce themselves from a system that has proven itself tried and true. Should artists be limited to their resources and how they work? Mike Lawler asserts in his article, Toward a More Sustainable Theatre, that “no artistic director wants to tell his or her creative team to limit themselves in order that they may reduce the endless cycle of waste generated by their productions.” The “endless cycle” Lawler mentions is exacerbated by the common desire to create something beautiful and poignant from scratch. There has often been the philosophy that to make masterful theatre, designs and pieces must be built fresh and new. Though the lifespan of a particular set may be short, it must maintain artistic innovation and be profound. Because of constant replacements, it can be argued that theatre is therefore a “temporal art” – thereby inherently wasteful and environmentally irresponsible.

A compromise may lie in an organizational structure, one that does not condemn or restrain professionals in the arts for their production choices, but rather acts as a guide to aid these professionals in creating their work with minimal waste and even challenge their creativity. Stephanie Smith writes in her book, Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art,

“The convergence of [art and design] can provide rich opportunities for artists to create satisfying visual forms that provide ways of embodying critical practices. And when this convergence occurs around environmental questions, it resonates strongly with sustainable design’s goal of bringing social and aesthetic concerns together with environmental and economic ones.”

Theatre artists may feel limited at first, but ideally, the push toward sustainable design will push artists to think out side the box for creativity and they will develop a deeper connection to not only their craft, but their environment.

It is also important to note that theatre artists cannot be alienated from the rest of the world. It is inherently impossible and implausible. Theatre companies act as role models for the community. Putting on a production is not merely a portrayal of stories. Companies and their actions are visible and can influence the communities which surround and support them. As Larry Fried and Theresa May articulate,

“As members of state and municipal arts networks and of local chambers of commerce, theatre organizations have an unusual opportunity to take a stand on principles of sustainability. Our audiences tend to be people who are educated, active in the community, and concerned about social issues. If we can inspire them to care about an ecological ethos, they will inspire many others.”

In an interview with Sam Bowers, of greenmuseum.org,  he stated that because “art is a very powerful tool for communicating ideas” it is very much the responsibility of arts organizations to take on the role of organizing and developing a paradigm shift in the way the community views and relates to the world. So can art be green? If we want to live, work and play in harmony with the Earth…no. It has to be.

Critical elements of change…

This Post was originally posted to Mike Lawler’s ecoTheaer blog on May 8, 2007. We are reposting it here to share this ecoTheater classic with new readers while MIke continues to regain his health. You can read his blog about his ongoing battle with cancer, The “C” Word, by clicking here.

Everyday I think about this subject more, and everyday I try to talk to someone who might help me see it a little more clearly. Most recently, I had lunch with Natalie George and Michael Massey, a theater professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin. He is not an expert on this subject by any means, but just having the opportunity to speak with folks and get an idea of what they think is enormously helpful. Nowadays I even dream about green theater–and the question that keeps rolling around in my brain, persistent, nagging, is whether or not it’s even possible. And, if it is, do those in power (the artistic directors, the business managers, the board members) care enough to make it happen? Or, maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at it–the question really is: do they believe the issue is critical enough to influence the decisions they make about their mission, and their funding? I’m not sure. But I have come up with a rough list of the elements that are at the center of the dilemma, the things that must be scrutinized and addressed if any of us are to help curb the world’s destructive path toward catastrophic environmental and human health dead ends.

1) The building —
    The buildings that house the performing arts may be the most detrimental to the environment of all. According to the U.S. Green Building Council(USGBC), commercial buildings are responsible for 70% of the electricity load in the United States. Furthermore, the USGBC 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.” Those numbers are staggering. What’s worse, there is only one performing arts facility in the entire country that has taken the steps necessary to reduce its impact on the environment (see ecoLogue, April 26, 2007). This is not for lack of newly constructed or renovated facilities–consider the Guthrie’s new spaces, for which they spent nearly $200,000 on “utilities” in 2005! If theater facilities did their part in reducing the negative role that buildings play in our lives, we would make enormous strides.

2) Theatrical lighting systems —
    Chris Coleman of Portland Center Stage (PCS) told me last month that the necessary lighting equipment for the new Gerding Theater made it difficult to meet the USGBC LEED Platinum rating. Other areas of efficiency were ramped up significantly on the project in order to offset the amount of energy required by the desired system. While theatrical lighting companies, such as Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc. (ETC), have made moves toward efficiency (witness ETC’s ever popular line of Source Four equipment), they have a long, long way to go. 

3) Material waste —
    This is a subject that has come up time and again in ecoLogue–even in its short life. The fact is, theatrical production revolves around a process of creation and subsequent destruction. So much effort is devoted to imagining, designing, and building theatrical scenery–and yet, very little (or so it would seem) goes into what happens to all of it once the final curtain has fallen on a production. And even those who do consider the demise of scenery, allowing it at times to weigh heavily on their minds (see May 3, “Is Waste Inherent in Theater Production?”), can only do so much. Remember, reuse and recycle come after the all important reduce. This must become the central word in theatrical production. The problem, of course, is our fear of limiting the artistic process. No artistic director in the world wants to tell his or her creative teams to limit themselves in order that they may reduce the waste generated by their productions. But, is there a time that artists must step forward and play a role in change, rather than merely using what they may to comment on it? Reducing the use of non recyclable materials alone would go a long way in reducing a theater’s waste. Conceiving of a way to reuse and store (safely–perhaps off site) scenery would be another.

4) Toxic materials —
    Just have a look at the ecoLogue entry from April 27 up there (“Monona Rossol and the toxic, unsafe theater we create”), and you may begin to understand the often toxic stuff that we theater artists work with on a regular basis. Actually, that entry doesn’t really go into detail, but suffice it to consider these fields: scenic carpentry (welding, working with foam of all sorts, adhesives, stains, finishes, et cetera), props (ditto), and costumes (including wigs, makeup, millinery, crafts and dye–all using a myriad of toxic chemicals). Of course, there are laws and regulations in place that dictate the safe use of these materials, as well as their proper disposal, but guess what? According to Monona Rossol of Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety (ACTS), most theaters don’t abide the law. As has been written here before, simply acting in accordance with OSHA and EPA regulations would help reduce harm to both the environment and theater artists themselves.

There are, to be sure, other areas that will affect the environment and human health in theatrical production, but I think the four listed above are the worst offenders.

Thank Heavens for Local Law 86

This Post was originally posted to Mike Lawler’s ecoTheaer blog on July 19, 2007. We are reposting it here to share this ecoTheater classic with new readers while MIke continues to regain his health. You can read his blog about his ongoing battle with cancer, The “C” Word, by clicking here.

In New York City there is a law called local law 86. Passed in 2005, it has just now taken effect, and is responsible for at least one thing in the green theater movement so far: convincing (through brute force, I suppose) Theatre For A New Audience (TFANA) to build their new space in Brooklyn’s BAM Cultural Center to meet Silver LEED status or better. Local law 86 states simply that any non City building (whether new construction or renovation) that receives either 50% of its capital or $10 million or more from NYC’s treasury is subject to the constraints of the ordinance, which requires compliance with USGBC’s LEED rating system. (It may be of note, that ALL city agency buildings are now required to meet this standard.)

I say that it convinced the historically vagabond theater company because that’s exactly what TFANA Managing Director Dorothy Ryan told me just yesterday. “Our [initial] attitude was probably, well, if the up front cost isn’t too high we’ll certainly look at it,” she said. “But other than that [green building] is a luxury.” Fortunately, with the help of city funds, and local law 86, Ryan and the rest of TFANA have come to see the advantages of building green. “The really good part of this story,” Ryan told me, “is that the more we’ve paid attention, the more we’ve learned, the more that we’ve really explored this, [green building] is something that our team has really embraced in a very genuine way.”

Ryan’s admission of TFANA’s initial unwillingness seems to be further indication of a preexisting attitude in the arts. While the typical reaction to green building that theaters and their directors seem to have (so far we can cite Portland Center Stage, American Players Theatre, and TFANA–all initially opposed to green building) may be understandable for the frequently cash-strapped arts organization mindset, it is nevertheless slightly bothersome. 

So, what is it? In the simplest of terms, it is the money. Michael Broh, production manager of American Players Theatre (APT), told me recently that though everyone involved with their new theater project is happy to consider the green building option, “if it came down to building a less sustainable building, or not building at all,” he said, “I think we would build the less sustainable one.” It is here that APT and I do not see eye to eye. The benefits, in my way of thinking, of adding an indoor space and possibly extending their operating season and expanding their repertoire, are not worth adding another conventional building (or two) to the world to further pollute and contaminate. Isn’t the business of theater dirty enough? Must we add more of them? There must come a time when the artists (and, frankly, business folks) running the theaters own up to their responsibility to their communities the way they would expect any other business entity to do so. With the attitudes that seem to exist–the notion that there just isn’t enough money to build green, to build conscientiously–one can only come to this conclusion: the driving force behind these projects is nothing but self-interest, and perhaps greed.

Ahem.

I am convinced that if more theater managers were either forced (as in the case of Dorothy Ryan and TFANA), or just took the time, to consider the long-term advantages of building green, most of them would come to the same sort of revelations that the folks at TFANA did. Perhaps all municipalities can follow in the footsteps of local law 86–there is nothing like folks with money (be they governments or rich benefactors) putting worthy conditions on the money they dole out.

When you look at the Green Theatre Initiative in Stage Directions…

I also suggest you take a look on the article about keeping up your lighting Inventory on page 16. Keeping Up Appearances by Brent Steiner talks about how to maintain your old lights in good working order. Why is this important in terms of sustainability? First of all it will save you money on new inventory or major repairs to existing inventory. Second of all a well maintained light is a more efficient light and if you’re optics are clean and properly focused you’ll increase efficacy, meaning you’ll get more punch out of the front of the light. Third you’ll increase the safety; a short in a connector or carbon build up could hurt an electrician, start a fire or even case issues back at the rack (again getting to the issue of major repairs). Small investments of time could save you lots of money on inventory, lamps and energy, all things that we want to be conserving in theater production. It also gives you a good idea of what to do with the lights and parts you can’t use and longer (a hint, most all of lights, especially old ones, are recyclable).

I would also point you towards the idea of sharing inventory with local venues. An inventory sharing program could save you even more if managed right as then you have a greater investment in the condition of your inventory and more hands to help keep it up… as well as less things to break and get stored in the attic.

And don’t forget to check out the Article about GTI, Green Support by Mike Lawler, on page 30.  You can see Mike and Gideon’s recent work here in our Archives and link to their projects.

Links:

Stage Directions October 2008 Edition

Keeping Up Appearances by Brent Steiner

Green Support  by Mike Lawler (about Gideon)

Mike Lawle’rs EcoTheater Blog

Green Theater Initaitive (Gideon’s Organization)

LEED standards don’t stand in the way of artistic expression

This Post was originally posted to Mike Lawler’s ecoTheaer blog on July 19, 2007. We are reposting it here to share this ecoTheater classic with new readers while MIke continues to regain his health. You can read his blog about his ongoing battle with cancer, The “C” Word, by clicking here.

Today I spoke with Scott Bowne, the production and facilites manager for Theatrical Outfit (TO)–number 5 on mySummer 2007 greenList. They may have been alphabetically #5, but chronologically, they were #1. Remember Tom Key (We wanted to do the right thing), TO’s executive artistic director? Key was the first–and thus far, only–leader of a theater going (or gone) green to tell me without hesitation that he was eager to build green.

Since Bowne has only been in his current position with TO for less than a year, he’s still trying to catch up with the idea of managing a green facility. And, unfortunately, the idea hasn’t quite fully infiltrated their way of producing theater.

But, what was most interesting about our conversation was Bowne discovered that the USGBC wasn’t interested in inhibiting theater artists from doing their jobs, and creating the kind of work they should. Bowne encountered this especially when TO was mounting a production of Doris Baizley’s Shiloh Rules and the dilemma of using fog or haze came up. After putting a call into the equally-new-at-this-LEED-stuff staff of Portland Center Stage, Bowne says he was reassured to learn that the folks at the USGBC, while concerned about the air quality issues of theatrical fog or haze,weren’t in the business of telling artists how to create art. Of course, such issues are not new to the theater business either, and Bowne still had to keep in mind the health of the performers and audience. Since TO’s Balzer Theatre has a state of the art ventilation system that monitors CO2 levels while introducing fresh outside air to control air quality, the hazing issue became one that caused little problems. The Balzer’s ventilation dissapated the haze so quickly that it became somewhat of a non issue. “We decided not to combat that,” Bowne said, and so the haze made brief appearances at the top of each act.

The hope is that Bowne will continue to learn and grow into his position (which he has held for less than a year, after a long career with Alliance Theatre). He has the opportunity to make a difference with a company that has already taken huge steps in their commitment to sustainability.