Naseem Mazloom

What are you going to do with that?

The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts has three things going against it. It 1) concerns the arts, 2) focuses on environmentalism and 3) is a non-profit. To the untrained eye, a group like this is doomed to fail. It is defined by three things often associated with bleeding hearts, off the wall hippies, and do-gooders with no real direction. No one takes it seriously. How do I know this? Because whenever someone asks me what my post-undergraduate plans are and I talk about sustainable theater or arts and the environment or working for a non-profit, I often get the same reply: “Well what are you going to do with that?” thinly veiled behind a smirk and smiling eyes. It’s a horrible feeling, having to justify hours of work and something I am intensely passionate about. It makes me question the worth of what I and other artists do, as though it is just a waste of time.

I think people feel that professionals in the arts, specifically, are shallow or foolish for a number of reasons. In all reality, it’s not the most stable career path. Unless you can guarantee commissions or roles, it can be difficult to stay in the game and maintain work. But what the layman doesn’t realize is that it is exactly that kind of aloofness, that uncertainty and inconsistency that makes artists resilient and competent workers. I spent a week in San Diego this past August doing some field research for CSPA. I had the opportunity to meet numerous artists, including dancers, actors, designers, and directors. In our conversations and my observations I learned a very valuable lesson: It takes an enormous amount of strength to stay passionate about the arts. Because they don’t always know when their next paycheck may come, artists learn to budget, they work harder to perfect their resumes, they constantly try to improve upon their talents and hone their craft. They are flexible and can think quickly on their feet and survive in the fast-paced, competitive world in which they live. It’s the backstage world of an artist that the general population doesn’t see and doesn’t understand. And artists aren’t dumb. That is another misconception, that artists do art because they aren’t smart enough to have “a real job.” I have met not only some of the most talented, but some of the most intelligent individuals during my time at CSPA. They are well-read, articulate, driven, passionate and funny. They just also happen to work in a field with a reputation.

The image of environmentalism is changing. What used to be considered only for drugged-out college kids has turned into quite the market. From organic foods to solar panels, the term “green” has become a label on which many industries are capitalizing. But there is still a definite aura of elitism around the nature of, well, nature. It just seems so nice to do things to benefit the environment, but it’s not always the most practical. That’s something I’m finding out in this research. When talking to directors at Eveoke Dance Company in San Diego, they were genuinely upset that they couldn’t do more than basic recycling. So in our current world, environmentalists are sometimes considered to have superiority complexes, because we advocate something that is not always readily available or accessible. I also believe this to be an unfair assessment. Am I a better person than someone else because I recycle and use FSC paper? Not necessarily. What must be understood is environmentalism is about doing what you can. Ok, so he or she can’t afford FSC paper or non-toxic paints. Fine. But that person can reuse lumber, or recycle metal scraps or even simply invest in a Brita filter rather than buying bottled water. Organizations like CSPA and the people who run them want to spread information, not beat you over the head with it.

Finally, of course, is the dreaded label of being a non-profit company. I have a limited understanding of what it means to work in the not-for-profit sector but for me, it has always been something deserving of respect. It acts as an agency for change and advocacy, for the benefits of others. Some may consider this charity. And charity is good, but not always respected. It comes back to that idea of the bleeding heart. I think in our society, corporations tend to draw more people and fame than not-for-profits. Being a Good Samaritan or having more than a daily dose of compassion is not always applauded. Some think of it as a waste of energy and resources. Such is the case when dealing with something as obscure and intangible as art and the environment. Providing food and shelter to orphans in Myanmar is one thing. A company devoted to sustainable performance spaces is something completely different.

Or is it? Sure, saving people is wonderful. But saving the environment is just as important. Without it, people couldn’t be saved. Art is humanity’s best way of documenting our existence. Through our writings, our art, our music, we are recorded into history. Without sustaining the practices in which we create that documentation, there is no guarantee that we will be able to continue our human existence into the future. At the end of the day, that’s all the people at The Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and other artists and environmentalists are striving to do.

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.