It’s a Start

or What COS Theatre is doing this season to be “less bad.”

This year, a couple of us who work in the College of the Siskiyous Theatre Department, are trying to make our theatre department better for our environment. I am afraid it is what McDonough and Braungart call in Cradle to Cradle, “being less bad.” It is a start, however, while we all try to wrap our heads around what it will mean to our theaters to be truly sustainable. The most important thing is that we are beginning to teach our students that environmental awareness and stewardship is important in everything we do and that we are turning out theatre practitioners that are part of the solution.

For our current project, The Spitfire Grill, the set designer designed the set for disassembly. He assured me that we would be able to reuse every inch of the lumber we used in this set. The main idea is first–some considerations made in the overall design and second–more screwing, less gluing. Unlike professional theater, we can afford the manpower (free student labor) to completely disassemble the set after the show. It helps too, if any texturing you are considering is applied with paint and not a 3-D goo such as scenic mud. While we all love scenic mud, it makes surfaces more difficult to incorporate into another production. The other thing about this set is that we considered our season next year into its design and construction. We are going to use this set again this summer for Nunsense and again in the fall for either Bus Stop or When You Comin’ Back Home Red Rider. Not only does this sort of forward thinking save countless construction hours, it saves us money too. With the recent cuts in education here in California, it will really help us next year.

In the costume shop, I have been determined to buy more sustainable fabrics. That is getting easier as more products are becoming available. I have eliminated the use of any toxic glues and compounds I may have used in the past. I am searching for alternative clothing options instead of dying something I have in stock that is a “wrong” color. I still dye with Rit sometimes, but I am buying liquid dyes, so that I don’t have to worry about anyone inhaling the dust. I will investigate some non-toxic dye options. We have secured a better storage area that will effectively triple my storage capacity. That is, when I finish building all the racks I need. Increasing storage will also save build time and money. When I visited the University of Washington a couple years ago, they told me that they rarely spend over $200 for costumes in most productions—they have an amazing amount of storage. While storage seems to be a luxury at most colleges and universities, it is a crucial requirement to building what you might call a “sustainable” costume stock. For those of you who are lucky enough to be near costume rental houses, using that source is a sustainable option as well. I am trying to find everything at thrift stores for Spitfire, rather than making the “perfect” item. I am using task lighting rather than lighting a whole room and I am giving my fabric scraps to quilters. I am washing wool sweaters in woolite and I am washing silks in shampoo instead of sending them to the cleaners. Oh… and of course I try to use my own canvas bags, or abstain from bags altogether when I make purchases.

For our new concessions area (the tops assembled from old doors) I am making hemp aprons for the staff and we are buying only organic coffee in bulk. We are selling only locally made baked goods too. We are using paper cups at the moment, but I will make the move to washables when I can. We also want to sell ceramic and travel mugs that we can fill with a complementary cup of coffee (and offer a discount on further cups.)

Building-wise, LEED seems out of reach for the time being. One of the crucial requirements is that we be able to measure our buildings water, electric and fuel usage. Makes sense of course. On our campus, none of the buildings are individually metered; I imagine that is the case on many campuses. That requirement is not so easily met, but we hope to renovate our theater in the near future–hopefully we can include that requirement as well as the others to qualify for LEED. Meanwhile, we have replaced all the fluorescents in the building with more energy efficient fluorescents, put compact fluorescents in the lobby, and did something to the tanks of the toilets to use less water. I am looking into LED lights for the house—they are dimmable. While they are about $60 apiece, they should not need to be replaced for at least 10 years. Since our houselights are about 25 feet in the air, this will be quite the convenience. The cost of getting a LEED certification for an existing building is from $2-6,000 from what I understand, for application fees. While I agree with the argument that perhaps that money can be spent on more energy efficient items, LEED buys you some credibility. For an existing building, I think it may be worth it.

I would love to see what others are doing in their theaters—look to the forums for that discussion!