Green from the Get-Go (May 2012)

(originally published on NY Innovative Theater Foundation's May blog, "Greening Your Production")

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As a self-proclaimed eco-theater artist, I am overjoyed at the steady greening I see in the NYC theater community.  From Off-Off companies designing with entirely recycled materials to the Broadway Green Alliance replacing marquis bulbs with LEDs, there is immense progress.   Indeed, (NY Innovative Theater Foundation's May) blog is proof that NYC theater is both innovative and principled.

But I wonder how much greener we could be if sustainable thought began earlier in our creative process...

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I am privileged to work for The Bushwick Starr once a year, heading their annual Big Green Theater Festival.  The festival begins with a 3-month teaching artist program in which 5th graders write eco-plays (that is, plays inspired by environmental topics).  The program culminates around Earth Day, when the students’ plays are given a professional production at the Starr using only green theater techniques.

5th graders are incredible eco-theater artists.  They simultaneously possess wild imaginations and sophisticated processing skills, making them innately excellent at absorbing environmental information and then turning their newfound knowledge into wonderful storytelling.  They write ambitious adventures without censorship, yet remain practical about how such plays might translate into green production.  Because on a playground they are accustomed to improvising their make-believe with whatever they have around them, their written stories are huge but their expectations are not; they assume an audience’s imagination will do most of the work.

Can we adults take a tip from a 5th grader, and reduce our reliance on resources without sacrificing our big ideas?  Can this sort of green thinking start at the very beginning, when ideas are still germinating?  As we write or devise new work, can we begin by giving ourselves rules-- not only for story, theme and character but also for production?  This might mean considering, from the very first page of a script, what we’re asking production teams to build, what sort of space we’re demanding our plays be performed in, and how long we expect energy-intensive lights, heat and air conditioning to stay turned on.

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When I write adult eco-plays, I give myself limitations: I try to write for a nearly bare stage, I omit lighting cues and major scenic changes, and though my aesthetic is often epic, I strive to stay within an intermission-less 90-minute run time.  These limitations don’t make me feel limited; on the contrary, by prioritizing bodies, voices and imagination, I find I can challenge myself, my collaborators and the medium of theater in new ways.  Additionally, I have found that these types of early-considered limitations encourage actors to become more virtuosic, directors and designers more innovative, and audiences more engaged.

As a director, I try to apply the same principles when I am considering how to bring a script to life.  Once the ten student plays of this year’s Big Green Theater were in my hand, I spent countless hours with our designers (Michael Minnahan, Preesa Bullington and Jay Maury) developing a design that would allow all of the plays to exist within the same world, and a concept that would result in the whole becoming greater that the sum of its parts.

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So we came up with a set of rules-- literally a set of rules: using one of the students’ plays (aptly titled Clean Up The Park) as a frame, the set became a littered park, and the action of the evening was cleaning it up.  The nine (more fantastical) internal plays were stories the characters told each other as they picked up and organized garbage.  The actors created gestures inspired by the act of cleaning, and then recycled and reused those gestures throughout.  The plays became the reason for cleaning, and the cleaning the reason for the plays.

Of course, the set, costumes, lights and rehearsal practices were as green as can be, the program paperless, and the performance space carbon-neutral.  When it was finished, the action-packed evening of plays was less than an hour long.  The Starr’s rooftop hydroponic garden was open, and the refreshments were local.

I wonder what would happen if every theater space and company in NYC thought green from the very start.  How quickly green the status quo!  How brilliant the citywide problem solving!  With greener values embedded earlier in our processes, could the rigor of our sustainable practices rival the already enviable caliber of our creative innovation?

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All production photos by Sue Kessler.  Actors pictured: Danny Gardner, Flakoo Jimenez, Tina Mitchell, Katey Parker, Monica Santana & Sam Traylor