The Ecological Sustainability of Theatrical Lighting

This Article was originally presented at the St. Louis University “Constructed Light, Constructed Meaning” Conference April 12th, 2008. To see this article with notations, please visit our Wiki by clicking here.

Theatrical production is an inherently unsustainable process. Stage shows can live long lives: The Phantom of the Opera became the longest running Broadway musical on January 8, 2006 when it had its 7,486th performance (McElroy 1), but the vast majority of theatrical productions have much shorter runs. Of the 14,000 non-profit productions in the US, in 2006 there were 172,000 performances (“Theater Facts” 2). This works out to an average run of less than 13 performances. While Phantom has enjoyed a sustainable success, the vast majority of professional theater in the United States is created in the non-profit realm. There are 14,000 non-profit productions, but there are only 39 Broadway theaters. This does not reflect the entirety of commercial production, nor does it include community or academic theater, or theater that is produced on a small professional scale without hopes of commercial success and created without non-profit status. But, it does offer a glance at the divide between two distinct modes of production.

The non-profit theater emerged as an alternative to the commercialism of Broadway in 1947 when Margo Jones opened Theater ’47 in Dallas, Texas. Influenced by the decentralized European model and her work with the Federal Theater Project to create a national American theater, Margo Jones is single handedly responsible for starting the regional theater movement (“Sweet Tornado”). As contrasted with the commercial world of Broadway, this model introduced the ideas of season subscriptions, community outreach, a resident artistic company, and board development. These are all hallmarks of every member of the League of Resident Theaters (LORT), the organization of the non-profit regional producing companies in America, and the Theater Communications Group (TCG), which facilitates the infrastructure of those LORT and smaller non-profit theaters that create the 14,000 non-profit productions annually. But, while the goal of this regional system is to decentralize the art of theater away from New York City and to provide the cities of America with a home production company, this model is ecologically, and fast becoming economically, unsustainable.

This issue of sustainability stems from the needs of creating a sustainable organization, which is at odds with ecologically sustainable production. The goal of commercial theater is to make money. Production is a large expense, and the limitations of presenting a stage show, as opposed to a film, where one might spent millions to present to 2,000 seats as opposed to as many screens with hundreds of seats each, can make recouping an investment take years. On the other hand the goal of non-profit theater and by extension, regional theater is to fulfill a mission tied into its non-profit 501(c)3 status. As a charitable organization these theaters provide a cultural and educational community service similar to that of a museum. The mission for the Alley Theatre is Houston is “to present a wide range of plays, embracing classic, new and neglected plays, to produce these plays to the highest standards, and to serve the widest audience” (Alley). The mission of the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles, California is “to entertain, but also to provoke and to inspire” (CTG). A non-profit theater is not concerned with making a profit on ticket sales and merchandise, but rather on being able to pay for continuing it’s artistic mission. Through season planning, these institutions are able to offer variety in the theatrical viewing opportunities of a city or region. Without a large theater community like New York, Chicago or even Los Angeles, the number of productions available to an audience member is already limited to the few local producers. If these producers were mainly concerned with profitability and longevity, this variety would be non-existent. The resultant season offers six to ten full productions a year, but limits the run of each to an average of thirteen performances to fit productions into the season cycle. But, along with this seasonal cycle comes a cycle of wasted resources, as this model requires the need to build, dispose and rebuild structures on a nearly monthly basis.

The economic and organizational sustainability of a non-profit regional theater is based on the ability to sell a season. If you can sell a significant percentage of the seats for future shows in the season before you have put up the first, you have the capital to start the season and maintain the level of production by filling in the remaining seats with single ticket sales. This has never covered the cost of production. As a charitable non-profit, most theaters are highly dependant on contributed income. In 2006 contributed income was 48% of the budget of those 14,000 non-profit theaters (“Theater Facts” 2).

The requirements of access to contributions expands the challenges of sustaining this model of production and becomes much more complicated than for-profit production. Instead of primarily marketing a show to build a nightly audience, the non-profit theater must also market multiple shows in their season to its subscribers, while making themselves attractive to contributors and being fiscally responsible in pursuit of a service mission as overseen by a board of community members. Cultural shifts in the way people plan their cultural outings, competition with a growing number of entertainment alternatives, the controversy of government support of the arts and a number of other factors have made organizational sustainability harder to achieve and tightened budgets across the industry. The combination of the temporal limitations of season planning, the spatial limitations presented by repeated reconstruction in a confined space in a small theatrical market, and the economic limitations of shifts in expected income coupled with the requirement of marketing to subscribers, board members, contributors and single ticket holders is a series of daunting hurdles to overcome. This is further exacerbated by the limitation this puts on staff compensation and the ability to attract competitive candidates.

            These limitations manifest themselves physically in the available resources for the creation of a theatrical production. While it behooves the theater to extend the life cycles of raw scenic construction materials into as many future iterations as possible, the deconstruction or “strike” of each set on a regular basis demands either disposal or storage. The one time expense of disposal as opposed to the sustained expense of maintaining storage for highly specific items is much more attractive from a fiscal perspective. Costumes have similar consideration.

On the other side of the resource equation, the issues of lighting, sound and video involve fewer raw materials, but require management of and storage space for a capital inventory of related technology. But as technology for performance evolves and expands the energy resources necessary to produce at a professional level increase and/or shift. Sound and video have experienced large advances in technology in recent years that have increased energy efficiency of devices used while also seeing prices drop. But, they have also increased in fidelity and controllability in such a way as to create a larger demand for a larger variety of devices. This leaves the question of the overall impact these advances have had on energy consumption for these areas of design. However, the essential technology for lighting has remained unchanged since the invention of the electric light.

Large steps have been made in efficiency and efficacy of theatrical luminaries, but all other electrical devices pale in comparison to the overall demand that the electrical loads of theatrical lighting. Quite some noise can be made with a few Meyer Sound wide coverage loudspeakers, each having a peak load of 2.55kw (Meyer). But in That Untravelled Land, a recent show in the Walt Disney Modular Theater at CalArts, using similar loudspeaker technology, the energy demands for the sound plot had a peak draw of roughly 15kw. The peak load of a sound plot is typically double the total load output, which reflects a level that can be sustained for a prolonged period without damage to the loudspeaker. The same show’s lighting plot had a maximum load of 279.57kw, just barely less than18 times the maximum load of the sound plot. The video for the same show has 9 projectors, the largest of which had a draw of 275w (Eiki). Even with all of the 9 projectors drawing this amount the maximum load would be 2.4kw, or less than one hundredth of the maximum load of the lighting plot.

Using methodology from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Solar Buzz, an online solar technology resource, one can convert the power consumption of this show into a number of equivalents. To produce the power to be able to provide the capacity for this show one would need to spend $1,347,527.40 for a solar array based on the national average of the price per watt of existing commercially available technology. Running with all lighting intensities at full this design would create 10.88 metric tons of CO2 over the ten-performance run of the show. This is equivalent to the yearly emissions of two passenger cars, the yearly energy consumption of an American home, 25.29 barrels of gasoline and would require nine acres of pine to offset. Simply using the conventional electrically grid costs $2,739.79 per hour and requires an HVAC system to compensate for a thermal gain of 877,849.80 btu/hour.

The plot never actually draws this amount of power. While this would not change the solar expense as one must plan to be able to handle the maximum load of a plot in that equation, it does offer some relief in all other aspects. But it also must be noted that this only offers equivalents to the performances themselves and not the usage in the weeks leading up to performances for hanging, focusing, cueing and rehearsing under show light. This would easily double the time that a load would be pulled by the lighting plot and still represents some significant equivalencies. And, more importantly, it still will never allow the load from lighting to approach the lesser numbers of other power hungry design elements, thus making lighting the worst offender by far in terms of energy consumption and extrapolated environmental impact.

            As previously mentioned, strides have been made to increase both efficiency and efficacy of theatrical lighting. The largest leap in both occurred in 1992 when Electronic Theater Controls (ETC) introduced the Source Four. The Source Four not only included features that made huge steps in the usability of theatrical luminaries, it also introduction new reflector and lamp technology. Due to filament design and the integration into more efficient aluminized (now dichroic) reflectors, the High Performance Lamp or HPL is able to produce the same luminous flux, or perceived power of light, as most 1kw lighting instruments with only 575w (ETC). Future strides, within the same product line included the introduction of a 375w lamp and continued improvements of reflector and optic technology. But, as far as these strides advance the state of the art, each lamp is still an incandescent source and is still losing 90% of the energy consumed to heat, as opposed to the 30% -40% of fluorescents.

            It is this lack of efficiency and efficacy when compared to fluorescent and other alternative lighting technology that has led to many bans on incandescent lamp sales across industries. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 17, 2007 after being passed by the senate and house, has mandated phasing out the sale of incandescent lamps by 2014 (United States). Internationally, Australia has passed a similar ban to phase out incandescents by 2010, Ireland plans to by 2009, and both Brazil and Venezuela both started to phase out incandescents in 2005 without an outright ban (“Argentina” 1). California has proposed beating the United States deadline by having banned incandescent sales by 2012 (Kurtzman 1), but even before these bans began, California enacted Title 24 in 1978, most recently updating the standard in 2005, which requires high efficiency lighting in all new construction.

            These bans do a lot of good in decreasing the aggregate human carbon footprint, but they do not affect the use of incandescent sources in theatrical lighting. Nor do they have an effect on many specialized lighting fields like exterior architecture and industrial environments. Page 87 of the 2007 EISA begins the list of exemptions from what the authors refer to as “General Service”. While homes, offices, and retail space will see noticeable differences with this legislation, fields requiring specialized lighting devices will be relatively unchanged. Tom Littrell of ETC remarks, “Most of the energy stuff – ASHRAE, California’s Title 24, etc. exempts “portable” lighting, i.e. stage fixtures that you re-hang every now and then, from the watt-per-square-foot guidelines that govern the rest of the buildings. But a lot of Source Fours get used in general architectural ways – so we are really conscious of this stuff.” These exemptions are not simply the result of effective lobbying, but, at least in the event of theatrical lighting, utterly necessary. Carrying an incandescent ban out on the theatrical lighting industry would devastate it.

            There are a number of alternative lighting sources available for all markets. Fluorescent, Compact Fluorescent (CFL), High Intensity Discharge (HID), Light Emitting Diode (LED) and more are all viable for a number of applications. Many of these technologies have been incorporated into instrumentation for theatrical applications as well, but there are a number of hurdles that prevent lighting suppliers and theaters from changing.

Control is the largest issue. Theatrical applications primarily use large banks of high capacity resistance dimmers coupled with computerized control consoles using the DMX 512 standard to provide designers with extensive control over luminaries in a light plot. These dimmers easily control incandescent sources, which produce light based on heating filaments. By changing resistance in the dimmer, a light will produce more or less light based on the amount of electricity passing through the filament. Fluorescents and HID lamps require ballasts to be used with the alternating current (AC) that our electrical grid is based upon and this change in resistance in the dimmers damages both the ballasts and the lamps. Dimmable fluorescent technology is fairly new and uses specialized ballasts and require two separate powered connections, one for power and the other for dimming control. HID lamps are themselves not dimmable, but fixtures have been designed to use them with a mechanic douser that reduces the about of luminous flux that escapes the instrument. LED lights are photon-emitted semiconductors and AC power causes them to flicker since they only allow electricity to flow in one direction. They also require voltage to be dropped from the standard 120v American standard and must be dimmed through specialized magnetic ballasts. To provide control for these newer technologies would mean not only replacing lamps and luminaries but also the electrical infrastructure of a theater, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

The ability to focus lights is also high on the list of benchmarks that are harder to adapt to newer technologies. The optics of the Source Four use an ellipsoidal reflector to be able to produce a crisp cone of light based on the adjustable placement of lens in the barrel of these instruments. This is a style of device known as an Ellipsoidal, ERS or Leko; this last name comes from the surnames of this device’s inventors. Source Fours feature accurate rotating shutters and easily adjusted lamp placement in the reflectors, further improvements beyond the aforementioned HPL. The ability to focus these lights requires a point source of light. HID lamps are point sources and are easily focused. They are often used in moving and intelligent lights to better deal with heat issues those fixtures face. LEDs are point sources, but are so small; using them effectively in theatrical setting requires a large bank of LEDs, which immediately runs counter to the effective properties of a point source. Fluorescent lights on the other hand evenly disperse light in all directions and cannot be focused. These issues of focus can severely limit the ability of a lighting designer to do their job and while they are often integrated into a light plot for other properties, the ability to focus and control where light is directed limits their applications.

The ability to accurately represent color is measured by the color-rending index (CRI). Incandescent light has a CRI of 100, and reproduces all visible color accurately across the spectrum. Alternatives are able to match this benchmark, the best of these technologies having CRI in the low 90s, while an HID lamp like a low pressure sodium lamp may be nearly zero. Many LED fixtures are touted for their ability to produce most any color through color mixing of red, green and blue diodes, occasionally packaged with whites diodes. While this does produce color accurately when reflected off a surface, this light has wide gaps in the spectrum created by the severe spikes in each LED’s color.

Color temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin, measures the relative perception of white light in the visible spectrum. A lower Kelvin color temperature will appear more amber and a higher temperature will appear cooler. Incandescent tungsten fixtures have a color temperature of about 3500ºK, while fluorescents can be 1000º higher and HID lamps, like metal halide has be 7000ºK. Because the eye adjusts to a perceived white, these lamps used with others of a similar type are easily matched, but a mixed lamp inventory requires an extra level of design that may be hard to compensate for in an industry that hasn’t had much time to properly integrate the newer technology.

But benchmarks aside, the most concrete barrier is cost. Most non-profit theaters maintain an inventory of lighting instrumentation. The price from B&H Photo for a Source Four is about $325. ETC manufactures an HID version of this lamp that uses a specialized ballast and lists for $750, also from B&H Photo. A price tag that is twice as much does not include the mechanic douser that would be required to also dim the output of that light and requires that the instrument be always powered at full, potentially increasing utility costs. Also, though HID lamps have longer lives than incandescent, they are also more expensive. The costs of building new inventories of lighting instruments without industry standard resistance dimmer racks are huge when dealing with hundreds of fixtures. The cost difference for instrumentation alone based on these published prices is nearly $100,000 without purchasing the necessary dousers form dimming or considering the costs of electrical and control infrastructure. Any theater that already has an inventory would be even harder pressed to expend the additional amount while also give their existing inventory over to obsolescence. Many well established theaters have already invested in changing over their inventories to Source Four instruments in the last decade and would find a change over of this scale especially hard. And, smaller non-profit theaters who often depend on the cast off inventories of larger organizations for donated or inexpensive functioning instrumentation, would find this change entirely cost prohibitive. In the case of That Untravelled World, the case study previously mentioned, the inventory in that theater is a hodgepodge of devices accumulated since the opening of the California Institute of the Arts in 1971; it ranges from large 5kw film lights, Source Fours, common 40w fluorescent shop lights, older versions of Ellipsoidal fixtures, to HID fiber optic Illuminators and first generation LED fixtures.

            While this information could paint a grim picture, it must be appreciated that theater is a very resourceful medium. Before the most recent resurgence of environmentalism started to question the ecological impact of production process, theaters were already attempting to streamline the use of available resources based on fiscal impact. Maximizing the life of raw materials for sets and costumes is an easy choice to help reduce capital expenses for future shows. However, lighting instrumentation is a durable good and it is harder to grasp the benefits of investing in new technology when older inventory still works. The capital expense is great and the cost savings are long term. But, when dealing in megawatts, the cost benefit of operating these lights is very tangible. The success of the Source Four is due to the fact that it puts more light on stage with less power and less heat gain. LEDs were embraced because they offered accurate color mixing, have extremely long lamp lives and draw a fraction of the power of conventional incandescent instruments while producing negligible heat. The benefit is not just on the electric expense for lighting, but also reducing the burden on resource hungry climate control. Though new efficient, power-saving lighting technology does result in environmental benefits, the bottom line has always been the primary concern.

It is only recently with the explosion of “green” marketing and the spotlight that has been shone on environmental issues that the development of lighting technology has been reframe by ecological sustainability. ETC has recently begun running print ads that claim, “It’s easy being green!” This marketing campaign is for the same Source Four that was recently marketed for its cost saving potential. The technology has evolved since its introduce 16 years ago, but not for the sake of being “green”. Coemar, another major player in the market, began a similar campaign for its LED products. And again, this is not for the sake of being “green”. The lessened environmental impact is a result of responding to the desire for operational cost benefits and coincidentally aligns itself with current marketing trends. Regardless of one’s feelings on shifting marketing for existing products from the intentions of a product’s design to unconscious benefits revealed by shifting focus on global issues, the benefits are still real.

What this means is that without trying, the evolution of theatrical lighting technology is already making moves to being more ecologically sustainable. And, while the technology isn’t ready to make major shifts in what we use in lighting, existing efforts are pushing forward the demand for more environment technology, both on purpose due to social demand and accidentally due to fiscal demand of symbiotic benefits. As with the other elements of design, theatrical lighting is constantly trying to do more with less.

Portland Center Stage recently completed a new theater for themselves that received Platinum LEED certification. The Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED) standard, organized by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) was developed to provide a want to identify excellence in sustainable design. This is a stunning achievement for PCS, but even with a “green” building, they are trying to figure out how to make their productions “greener”. They have made big steps in maximizing their resourcefulness in scenic and costume design, based partially on their sustainable goals, but also on the necessity of fiscal efficiency in being a non-profit theater. They are an all Source Four house as well. In talking to Creon Thorne, PCS’s general manager, he wondered what he could do in their lighting rig to help make it more sustainable while waiting for alternatives to incandescent sources to both drop in price and catch up to the usability of these power hungry.

How can we increase ecological sustainability without jeopardizing organizational sustainability? Demand exists for improvement, but no changes will be undertaken without the ability to justify the expense. Though PCS has nearly doubled their operating budget and have seem an increase in audience that they feel is in part due to their new space, there is no solid analysis of this connection. If “green” marketing works for the lighting manufacturers, one could propose that the same could help increase earned income for the non-profit theaters by making changes. The understanding that theater is not a particularly sustainable medium in its resource use even at the highest levels of efficiency reinforces the importance of changes that are made and could help make new marketing tactics that much more effective. Though demand for more efficient lighting already exists, could that be increased and in turn increase the imperative of research and development? Phillips recently purchased Genlyte, a collection of theatrical lighting companies including major control and dimming powerhouse Strand Lighting, the creators of moving lights Varilite, and LED revolutionaries Color Kinetics. The largest manufacturer of energy efficient compact fluorescents is now horizontally integrated into all of theatrical lighting. Mike Lawler, writer of the ecoTheater blog and long time theatrical designer/technician, points out that most people working in theater have a college degree and many have master’s degrees. If sustainability and the efficiency of resources is integrated in all fields of high education for theater those next generation of theater artists being pushed to be innovative in aesthetics and storytelling could be doing so with maximization of available resources in mind. Expanding the budgeting process for production beyond raw materials to include intangible resources lighting energy could not only push lighting designers to make better choices, but allow them to do so with the intention of shifting freed up funds to newer technologies and expanding their visual vocabulary.

What we see now is the beginning of a movement. The California Institute of the Arts School of Theater has begun to integrate sustainability instruction into its curriculum and in coordination with facilities has been working to develop new strategies for more sustainable production. Mo’oelo Performing Arts in San Diego has started building a new model for a small non-profit theater company and has been rewarded with a partnership with LORT heavy the La Jolla Playhouse. New York Theater Workshop is set to break ground on a new LEED certified shop this summer. Actor Gideon Banner has been working to fund his Green Theater Initiative in New York City; Sharon Swingle has greater as a discussion board for ideas on how to make theaters more ecologically sustainable in Northern California. The Electric Lodge in Venice, California, a largely solar powered facility has grown two local Los Angles Theater heroes, Joel Shapiro and Justin Yoffe, a cultural supervisor for the city of Santa Monica. They have developed a one-page standard called the Arts Earth Partnership (AEP) for small to mid-sized performing arts companies to build eco-friendly practices in their operations and offices. In coordination with Miranda Wright, a second year grad student at the California Institute of the Arts and the Law Firm for Non Profits, I have started to create a venture called the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts. A number of other projects and groups are in the works or just emerging and rally around not an idea of strict environmentalism but a combined ecological, organizational, economical model of sustainability. If the current non-profit theater system is still based off of a 1947 idea to bring theater to the nation, it is fitting that 60 years later we should be re-examining this model of production.

To see this article with notations, please visit our Wiki by clicking here.