There I was: twenty-seven, with a double major in theatre and English, sitting in my office on a Friday night doing math. That night’s calculation? Program order. Six weeks of shows, six shows per week, one hundred forty-two seats. The producers just knew they had a hit on their hands. The printing company required batches of five hundred, so… we ordered five thousand.
Three months later, I arrived early Sunday morning to assess the venue after the company’s load out. There I found four unopened boxes still in the closet. Four thousand programs. I had to carry them to the recycling bin myself.
For three years I managed the five performance and rehearsal venues at the Boston Center of the Arts, where theatre companies large, small, and midsized rehearsed and performed fifty weeks a year. I oversaw every aspect of the venue operation, from booking to load in to load out—including those damned dirty programs. I had a front-row view of the work and waste that goes into—and comes out of—even the smallest theatrical undertakings.
What I saw made me ill. Productions that lasted two to five weeks sent dumpsters full of lumber, steel, and plastic to landfills. Thousands of pounds of programs were going off to the recycling bin every year. That waste will sit there for decades or centuries.
So, when I started to produce and direct theatre of my own, I set out to do it differently. My aesthetic would forefront sustainability, a reuse/recycle/upcycle mindset, and strive to minimize waste while maximizing theatricality.
In years of doing this, I’ve followed three basic guidelines:
- State this mission from the outset and engage collaborators and community in the goal.
- Research and reach out.
- Allow sustainability to guide bold aesthetic choices, rather than the opposite.
My first full production with this mindset was Bear Patrol: an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz set in a post–climate disaster Boston featuring mutant DJs, a reality show competition, and dancing genitalia. (What do you mean now I know why you self-produced your plays?)
The world and story of the play fit the reuse/recycle/upcycle mission to a T. From the jump, we engaged designers and the full company in the mission. Our set designer, Sean A. Cote, landed on a concept of creating a version of the Boston skyline on the back wall of the theatre. To make this happen, the whole company collected cardboard boxes from packages and package stores.
Apart from the cardboard skyline, we kept the set pieces minimal: a few painted stage cubes (inherited from another local indie company), a few curtains, and a few built out wooden pieces.
This is where research and reach out kicked in. I scouted shows closing two to three weeks before we opened, paying attention to the components of their sets. If they had something potentially useful to us, I reached out to ask if they had plans for the piece after strike or if we could take it off of their hands if their plan was to scrap it. The vast majority of the time, the plan was to scrap it. Most production managers I spoke with, upon learning of our mission, were happy to keep the piece out of the landfill and give it to us to reuse.
After our run, we sought new homes for all of these resources. Using social media and networks of theatre and performing arts groups, we shared a list of these pieces to keep them from the landfill.
Total cost for set pieces on Bear Patrol: < $100.
Total waste: some fabric scraps and cardboard boxes we recycled (which we ourselves pulled from recycling). For everything else, we found a new home.