Q & A with Scott Georgeson

Recently, I thought it might be nice to have a sort of guest speaker here on ecoTheater who really knows what they’re talking about. I’ve asked a few people over the last several months if they’d be interested in answering ten specific questions about green theater, and the one person who has really come through and given us all a window into his informed perspective is Scott Georgeson, a theater architect with HGA Architects & Engineers in Milwaukee.

Georgeson first caught my eye a few months ago when I noticed his name cropping up repeatedly in regards to green theater buildings. He co-presented the session “To LEED or not to LEED” at this year’s USITT conference, presented a two part series entitled “On Greening Historic Theatres” for the League of Historic American Theatres Conference (LHAT), and was part of the panel at NATEAC’s entitled “The Greener Theatre.”

The interview below was conducted via email.


ecoTheater: what kind of work do you do?

Scott Georgeson: I have been fortunate. My first job out of school in the mid 1980’s, was with the architectural firm designing the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre (MRT). This was an unbelievable experience. We spent countless hours working with MRT’s management, technicians, designer and performers to get every theatrical detail right. They were also concerned with audience accessibility before ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was a regulation and reducing energy use before LEED was standard practice. MRT also pushed us to think beyond the needs of the theatre company. This resulted in saving a landmark building, rejuvenating an area of downtown Milwaukee and building one of the first sections of the river walk. I bring the lessons learned from MRT to all my Arts projects. Since then I have completed programs and designs for over 100 facilities for the performing arts, including one of the first LEED rated theatres in the US. Since the mid 1990’s I have been giving “Green Theatre” presentations to theatre organizations. The theater community’s interest in the “Green Theatre” continues to grow. This year I presented at the League of Historic American Theatres Conference (LHAT), United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), North American Theatre Engineers Architects Conference (NATEAC) and attended the Theatres Trust Conference on Building Sustainable Theatres in London.

eT: what role do you play in the greening of arts organizations?

Being a theater architect, planning and coordinating the engineering of theaters is the expected role. The unexpected role is to develop a green agenda. I open up the conversation to the bigger picture, bringing alternative views, and showing the connections between seemly unconnected issues. The first challenge is to make clear it is easier to be “green” than you think. For example, the Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek, Wisconsin did not start out thinking they wanted to be green, but it seemed a natural fit for them. They are located on a beautiful wooded water front site. Their old theatre had a problem with rain noise and flooding and their ugly, white rubber roof was visible from everywhere. It also developed mold from the high humidity and shade from the surrounding forest. A vegetative roof was the perfect way to control the flooding, provide acoustical density, add life span to the roof material, and it looked great! The mixer of seedums and wild flowers blended perfectly in the surrounding cedar forest. This was a green solution that solved a lot of nagging problems.

Second, you need to think beyond the bricks and mortar and look at the big picture. One of my first presentations on green theatre was to LHAT. An audience member claimed “we can’t be green because we are a historic theatre.” I pointed out there is nothing greener than reusing a building. They are also located in the downtown and could jump start a renewal of the area, saving other buildings and using existing city infrastructure including public transit. The theatre was built before air conditioning, relying on natural ventilation through a floor plenum and roof exhaust vents. This would allow for a displacement air system, which is very efficient and a trend in the HVAC system designs in green theaters. We talked about reusing the theater seats, starting a recycling program, changing out building equipment, etc. He started to understand the bigger picture and concluded they were already on track to be green.

eT: how do you define sustainability?

Sustainability is about conserving resources, having a minimum impact on our surroundings and understanding the long term impact of our actions. Sustainability understands the difference between “needs” and “wants”. Sustainability requires you to look for new ways to become more efficient and save resources everyday.

eT: do you think sustainability is an appropriate term in the arts, or even an acheivable goal — or, should we simply call it “green,” or “eco-friendly,” or “eco-responsible?”

A couple of years ago a web search on “sustainable theatre” would bring up articles on the “financial sustainability” of theater organizations. Today there are more links to “green” articles. I believe both topics are related. Theatres are a business and need to survive in order to present their Art. Reducing and saving resources should be an integral part of every non-profit’s plan, especially when operation money is always short. I do like the term “eco-responsible” – it speaks to a broader thinking.

eT: what role do you think arts organizations can (or should) play in creating sustainable communities?

This is a great follow up to the previous question. My broad view is that arts groups are crucial to our quality of life and add to the livability of our cities. The arts reach across all income levels, education, race and political beliefs. I don’t think it is an accident that cities with great art institutions are the most desirable and rank high in livability. Holding together cities reinforces sustainability by preserving investment in existing infrastructure, reusing resources and creating community. At an organizational level, each arts group should take the lead in promoting sustainability. For example, historically movie theatres in the 1940’s and 50’s were used to sell the idea of air conditioning to the general public. A regular audience is a marketer’s dream and arts groups should continue to take advantage of this to promote sustainability and their own green programs.

eT: what are the major obstacles for arts organizations when they consider taking steps towards greening their operations?

Change is not easy for anyone. But, through simple and clear steps, greening an organization’s operations can save money and improve the working environment. These are the top four reasons I have heard from theatre groups for not being green and an alternative way to look at the issue.

1. We don’t have the time. The show comes first. Time is always critical and may not allow you to change your process. But this shouldn’t stop you from changing your thinking. Time may only permit putting the struck set in the dumpster. A green solution would have the dumpster picked up by a company that recycles wood and the set materials.

2. We don’t have the staff for extra tasks. I just want to focus on the show. There are many things you can do to make work easier and save you money – changing standard light switches to motion detection light switches, for example.

3. We don’t have the money for expensive building systems. Most energy saving devises are inexpensive and simple. Using LED lights in exit signs and fluorescent lamps in support areas will save energy and money over the bulbs life span. (Some studies show savings of over $40 a bulb.)

4. We have always done it this way. Yes we have, and that is what has gotten us into this mess.

eT: How important are green buildings in reversing the adverse effects of global climate change?

Reducing a building’s energy use is VERY important and our best hope at having an immediate impact on reducing our energy consumption and green house gases.

Buildings use 40% of all US energy. Studies show that the energy use of our current building stock can be reduced by 30%. This improvement would reduce the USA’s total energy needs by 13%. That is more than all the energy provided by the renewable energy systems now in use; 7% with out hydro generation. A 30% reduction in your theatre’s energy is not as hard as it sounds.

The example of the Theatre Royal, in Plymouth, England was presented in June at the Theatres Trust Conference “Building Sustainable Theatres”. Simple steps were taken to reduce energy use and reduce CO2 output. These steps include switching incandescent lights to LED’s and fluorescents, adding motion sensors to switch room lights, reprogramming the energy management system and trusting it to work, taking advantage of outside air temperatures for preheating and precooling, installing more efficient fans and pumps and developing ongoing performance monitoring to ensure savings were realized. This program resulted in the Theatre Royal reducing CO2 output by 33% and great savings in fuel costs.

eT: Can theaters go green in a meaningful way without greening their buildings?

Yes. Making changes in an organization’s daily operation has a big impact. For example, my firm, HGA Architects, is always reviewing ways to reduce waste and green our operations. Some of our practices include:

a. Recycling programs for paper, glass, plastics, metals.

b. Setting copiers to print double sided. (Resulting in a reduction of our paper use by 1/3)

c. Direct deposits eliminating paper checks.

d. Promoting staff usage of mass transit and bicycles. (All offices have bike rooms and changing rooms with showers)

e. Eliminating bottled water in favor of filtered tap water.

f. Using biodegradable cups and utensils instead of plastic.

g. Using green cleaning products.

h. Buying energy star equipment

i. Supporting similar minded suppliers for goods and services.

Some interesting programs that non-profit groups have taken on to support sustainability include; becoming a central drop for battery recycling, setting up ongoing fund-raiser recycling programs with local scrap yards, displaying information on global warming and the environment in business lobbies and buying renewable energy from the local utility company. Every little step helps.

eT: what is the most important step the leadership of a theater company can take towards sustainability?

It is critical to set a clear “sustainability” agenda. Establish a committee to examine the theatre’s daily practices. Be willing to look at everything, establish your priorities, have clear bench marks, and keep the long term in mind. Take advantage of the theatre’s community profile and support sustainable activities and organizations. From a building stand point, have an energy audit done. This will provide benchmark information on your building’s mechanical and electrical systems and you can pin point were your energy dollars are going. The results can be surprising. We recently looked at energy use for a theatre and found little difference in the days they had shows and the days they didn’t, highlighting how important it is to reduce a theatre’s daily energy needs. If you are upgrading HVAC systems, zone the HVAC to the use schedule of the theatre, and look into natural ventilation and energy star equipment. Adding natural light in backstage support areas can have a big impact on energy use.It will take time, a change in thinking and some investment, but in the long run you will create a better work environment, saving both money and the planet.

eT: what hopes do you have for the future of theater?

I am hopeful for the theatre arts. We are rediscovering our need for community and human interaction. Studies are proving how important arts education is to the well rounded student.People are moving back into the city to rebuild neighborhoods. Even retailers like Starbucks have recognized the need for our “Third Place.” The new Guthrie is certainly a large scale example of an arts complex trying to become a community living room. On a more intimate scale is the Tricycle Theatre in London that blends into the retail street and reaches into neighborhood with “alley like” lobbies. My hope is that arts complexes of all sizes strive to knit themselves into their surroundings to become the cornerstone of the community.

With regards to the building, every one needs to get past the perception that theatres and buildings for the performing arts can not be “green”. The reality is the typical theatre can be “eco-responsible”. The key to designing, constructing and operating a sustainable theatre is a commitment of the theatre company to question every detail, material, design concept and construction method.The big moves are important to create an efficient arts complex.But if you don’t get the little details, systems and materials right, they will continue to cost you operations money for years to come.

Ultimately, the future of theatre really depends on the writers, designers, technicians, directors and performers creating great theatre and this I know will continue.