The Green Theatre (or Teaching Sustainable Theatre)

Green Theatre goes by many names.  It is called ecological theatre or ecotheatre, sustainable theater or environmental theater. Each term can refer to either the practice of producing plays that educate and promote ecology, or it can refer to sustainable and ecological practices that go into the making, of any production. I will be referring to the latter definition in this paper.

The aim of this study is to define ecological or ‘green’ theater and determine what responsibility colleges and universities have to lead the theater industry in modeling sustainable theater practices. In this project I am exploring specifically, what Ecological Theater is, why it is important, how we can measure it, and what can be done to incorporate its tenants into our own theater programs. To answer these questions, I will examine current theories and practices to determine sustainable best practices for educational theaters. Available written resources are used, as are interviews with people working in theater programs that are striving toward sustainability. Systems of measurement and proposed action plans will be discussed. Traditional building upkeep and energy usage will be compared with the requirements of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification requirements. I will explore the tenants of Industrial Ecology and how they apply to the Theater Industry.  I will provide an brief overview of the university president’s Talloires Declaration and discuss why it is important to educational theater programs. I will also explore the obstacles that have kept the theater industry from embracing ecological practices. Based on this study, I propose a set of actions an educational theater program can take to promote sustainability, “50 Things You Can Do Towards Being a Green Theater.” In conjunction with this project, all research and information is published on a website: This includes a web “bulletin board” discussion and web resources.  The bulletin board is significant because it is evident that we do not have all the information available to us for truly sustainable theater to happen, and we need to further discuss to refine best practices.  Also, it is clear a support group is needed to help overcome the many obstacles to the possibility of ecological theater to come in the future. A lack of known resources is an important impediment to the development of sustainable theater, so the start of a list of known suppliers of sustainable materials used in theater is begun. With this publication, I hope to eventually establish a set of reasonable goals to challenge the educational theatre community.

The impetus to study green theater for this project sprouted from my frustration two years ago in not finding information and resources more readily available.  I believe it is education’s responsibility to train future theatrical designers in environmentally and socially responsible practices.

The need to provide a healthy and sustainable future for future generations is inarguable. Sadly, the impetus to change the theater industry’s wasteful, toxic, and consumptive habits are lagging. Higher Education has a responsibility to model and encourage environmental stewardship. This is not only for the well being of the 20% of Americans that go to school everyday, that is 55 million students and more than 6 million faculty and staff (Hooley), but for the industry leaders, designers and managerial staff they train. A green schools movement is growing—with outcry from both those within and without the system. Colleges and universities bear a profound responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge, and tools to create a sustainable future. Energy Education Scholar, James Elfin writes:

If Colleges and universities are supposed to be the leaders in the quest for knowledge– vanguards for what is possible and enduring, the forefront of what society can attain–Why can’t they be leaders on the path to a sustainable future (ULTF)?

More and more colleges are stepping up to the challenge and implementing more environmentally sound practices, but none are close to true sustainability. The edict cannot just come from administration; sustainability will require a dedicated commitment of every department—including the most wasteful—Theatre. In his dissertation, Towards a Recycled Theatre, Damond Morris writes:

While industries around the world have realized the need to lower waste and resources used, the theatre industry seems painfully unaware. While theatre practitioners seem to be aware of global environmental problems, transferring this knowledge to their work is a jump into denial. Denial enters the conversations, waste streams and resource use is identified. (2)

If education is coming around and industry is recognizing the need to promote sustainability, why is the theater industry lagging behind? While there are several areas to address such as toxicology, resource use and waste, the roots of the problem are the same: lack of education. In an interview with ecotheaterist Mike Lawler, Monona Rossol, author of The Health & Safety Guide for Film, TV & Theater, gave the primary reasons for such poor health and safety behavior in the arts with the use of toxic chemicals are:

Insufficient education in health and safety. Academic institutions are simply not providing proper training to their theater students. Why? “They say, ‘Well, that’s how it is out in the real world, so they may as well learn it now,” she added, “school is supposed to be the place where you have the time and the patience and care about a student [enough] to teach them the right thing. (Lawler)

Damond Morris reiterates this sentiment:

Colleges and university theatre departments do not train the theatrical designers of tomorrow about the issues of waste and resource depletion […] University environmental design classes fall outside the theatre department and may not be encouraged by theatrical design professors.  Design professors are not only blissfully unaware of the problem; some […] see the creation of art and the lowering of resources in diametric opposition.  It is imperative that scenic design professors encourage students to explore environmental design.  The next generation of untrained, environmentally unaware, theatrical designers will face mounting environmental issues and costs that may put many professional theatres out of business. (86)

Another problem with theatre’s resource use and waste has to do with practices that have been essentially the same for the past one hundred years.   Paul Hawken, a prominent industrial ecologist, and author of The Ecology Commerce, addresses the reason for the lack of change, “Traditionally poor designs often persist for generations, even centuries because they are known to work, are convenient, are easily copied and are seldom questioned” (118). The theater industry has used a convenient methodology that has been successful. Now is the time to change the way we work and use sustainable methods, so that we not only lower our use of materials, we save money.

Historically, theatrical designers have focused exclusively on the form and function of their designs and they did not worry about what materials their designs were made of.  Those decisions were left to those in charge of the shops. The greatest ability to influence the environmental impact of a product in any industry is during the design process. (Morris 96; McDonough 17) Often this is done, without even the designer’s knowledge. If a set designer design’s a large sculptural set piece, there is a 99% chance it will end up carved out of rigid foam.

This lack of awareness needs to change.

College and university theater departments need to bear the responsibility to be the industry leaders in sustainable practices. We need to turn out designers equipped with the knowledge of environmental practices and the ability to turn around the industry. Amazingly, few campus theater departments are taking on this challenge—the challenge to be ‘green.’

Those working toward a greener world identify similar goals that embody a holistic approach toward that achievement. The ethics of being green in industry is not just a concern for resource sustainability; it is concerned with a product’s lifecycle, fair trade and the well being of those using it. Being green is the attempt to develop “ healthy sustainable human societies that provide people with secure and satisfying livelihoods”(Calder 31) Many see sustainability as the key to achieving that goal. Sustainability can reduce dependence on oil, cut carbon emissions, eliminate pollution, reduce health-care costs and create jobs, (Underwood), but what is sustainability?  As a relatively new term, some say there is no agreed-upon definition of sustainability. Today’s environmentalists generally think of it as:

 …the potential longevity of vital human ecological support systems, such as the planet’s climatic system, systems of agriculture, industry, forestry, and fisheries, and human communities in general and the various systems on which they depend in balance with the impacts of our unsustainable or sustainable design. (Wikipedia)

The most often sited and much broader definition is the one established by the Norwegian Brundtland Commission who see sustainability as development that, “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The Brundtland definition implies that we take into account the rights of future generations to raw materials and vital ecosystems in today’s decisions about the environment. For the purposes of this study it is pragmatic to speak of a unit of economic production as being “more sustainable” or “less sustainable.” i.e. an energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulb could be considered more sustainable than incandescent ones. Ecologically it is more appropriate to talk of moving ‘towards’ or ‘away from’ sustainability when we discuss human’s impact on the planet.

In 1990 a significant attempt to define the sustainable university was made at an international conference in Talloires, France by university administrators.  The result was the ground breaking Talloires Declaration, now looked over by the ULTF. Signatories have gone from 20 at its inception to over 350 today (ULTF).

The Talloires Declaration is a ten-point action plan for incorporating sustainability and environmental literacy in teaching, research, operations and outreach at colleges and universities. (Addendum 1, Talloires Declaration) The Declaration is intentionally broad in its scope, providing a comprehensive framework for progress toward sustainability. It is a model of commitment for institutions and industry as well as a plan to increase awareness of environmentally sustainable development. While it was easy to assess the need of such a document, implementation of the Talloires Declaration is another story. The ULSF began an on-going ‘Sustainability Indicators Project’ that has helped identify specific activities in colleges and universities successful at fully committing to sustainability. (Addendum 2, Abbreviated Sustainability Indicators Project) Some of the indicators include a written mission statement for sustainability, across curriculum participation in sustainability, a campus wide understanding of the university’s role in the environment, knowledge of sustainability a factor in promotion and tenure, knowledge of emissions and ecological footprint as well as many other proven strategies in promoting sustainability.

Sustainability can be defined qualitatively as the ethical/ecological proposition in the Brundtland definition and the Talloires Declaration, but if we are to make attempts at operationalization, it must be defined quantitatively. In order for any industry to set sustainability goals and know that they are achieving them, they have to know what to measure. One such unit of measure is metrics of climate emissions.  Many institutional programs striving to become more sustainable have put becoming climate neutral as one of their priorities.  Simplified metrics have been developed to measure environmental impacts of products and processes for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies. In this way, products and processes that have many environmental impacts such as climate change, acidification, summer smog, land use, or ecotoxicity can be considered for their ramifications simultaneously. This holistic approach keeps us from merely shifting environmental burdens. LCA practice uses metrics of environmental damage, but currently there are not any target levels set for “achieving” sustainability. As McDonough and Braungart write in their treatise on the new green industrial revolution, Cradle to Cradle:

Just because a material is recycled does not automatically make it ecologically benign especially if it was not designed specifically for recycling.  Blindly adopting superficial environmental approaches without fully understanding their effects can be no better and perhaps even worse than doing nothing. (59)

Without LCA studies, there is still another excellent source of toxicity data in products in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). These do not help you gauge environmental impact, but they are necessary to determine human health risks. These should be on file for every chemical product you deal with and are essential in training your shop how to avoid risks and hazards from improper use.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s (LEED) green building rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council is also defining sustainable practices. For existing buildings LEED addresses: energy and resource use, whole-building cleaning and maintenance issues, recycling programs, exterior maintenance programs, systems upgrades and indoor air quality. The US Green Building Council oversees LEED Certification and maintains a website with manuals on each type of certification.  LEED for existing buildings’ manual contains a checklist (Addendum 3) and an in depth explanation of the nine requirements and 74 credits available.(USGBC 2008) A crucial requirement is the ability to measure electric, water and fuel usage for the individual building seeking certification. An organization can then measure their performance toward sustainability by tallying their checklist. The required components are: a sustainable purchasing, solid waste management and green cleaning policies, tobacco smoke controls, out door air introductions and exhaust systems, minimum plumbing efficiency, minimum energy efficiency, refrigerant management, and overall energy efficiency best management practices—planning, documentation and assessment.  Another 34 credits out of the 85 available need to be attained to receive the minimum certification. Few would argue that the cost savings of a LEED building are dramatic in the long run, but some colleges are finding that the up front application and consultant fees, 25,000 to $100,00 on a new building, may take away from furthering the buildings energy efficiency projects. (Woods; Martinez) Regardless of whether colleges pay for the pricey certification, many are still using the LEED rating system as a guide to define green standards (Woods; Martinez; Lilyblade 31)

Yet one more model of sustainability to consider is that of Industrial Ecology (IE). IE does not use the first industrial revolution’s linear model of resource use as that of extraction, use, and disposal. IE instead looks at a cyclical model of resource reclaim, reduce, recycle, and renew.

IE vies industry in concert with Nature rather than separate from it.  It develops a systems view looking at every aspect of the industrial process.  This view moves through the life cycle of a product trying to optimize the total industrial materials cycle. (Morris 47)

Industrial Ecology uses the waste of one industry as a resource of another (Morris 17, 37) Industrial decision making can be shown in a simple diagram–it starts with the material supplier and ends with the customer. (Addendum 4 – Diagram of Materials Use). Theatre has the advantage that the product is never physically passed on to the consumer. Theatre is in control of the products at every level of the manufacturing process. (Addendum 5 Diagram of Materials Use – Theatre) This allows the theatre industry more ability to incorporate the tenants of IE.

These models are helpful in promoting sustainability, but there is no doubt that more studies are needed.  Congress has recognized this need and in an attempt to further define sustainability for higher education they have introduced the Higher Education Sustainability Act.

Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Vern Ehlers (R-MI) have introduced the Higher Education Sustainability Act of 2007, HR 3637. The bill provides funding for programs in American colleges and universities to develop, implement, and evaluate environmental sustainability programs. It also directs the Secretary of Education to convene a summit of academic experts to highlight and promote practicable and innovative approaches to environmental problems.  The legislation would authorize a $50 million grant program at the Department of Education that will annually support between 25 and 200 projects at higher education institutions. (GovTracks)

To date this bill is still in committee. It was first introduced in September of last year. If it passes, the available grants can solve one of the biggest obstacles to going ‘bright’ green—funding to implement new technologies.

There are numerous ways to test whether our green practices are truly sustainable. We can compare our actions with those on the action plan of the Talloires Declaration.  We can figure out what the LCA is of a product and compare it to another to make better choices. We can be informed by MSDS sheets to handle chemicals safely.  We can compare our efforts to make a greener environment to LEED requirements for our building. We can figure out our carbon footprint in attempts to be climate neutral and we can apply the tenants of IE in our design practices. If the theater industry is to attempt sustainability, these models must be examined.


We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. ~Albert Einstein

The theater industry has used wasteful and environmentally toxic habits for at least the last 100 years. The use of different materials and methods has gone in and out of fashion for theater use, yet the old industry linear model of extracting a resource, molding it to our needs and throwing it away still exists. In order to enjoy any sort of sustainability, the theatre industry needs everyone involved to train in what it means to work ecologically. Using the working model of Industrial Ecology, designers and directors need to work in collaboration, each with the goal of minimizing a production’s impact on the environment.

To be competitive the 21st century designers may have to reinvent themselves to stay employed.  In the 20th century there were, modestly hundreds of thousands of productions that moved through millions, perhaps a billion tons of waste.  This waste, classified as construction and demolition waste is one of the most prevalent material in our landfills.  To curb the waste we create in the theatre industry we must find new ways of thinking and new ways of working without it. (Morris 43)

Clearly, a new paradigm shift is needed. The change toward sustainability must come from the top and be incorporated into the entire system of an organization to be successful. Without pressure for environmental performance, many designers in the theater will stay environmentally in the dark. The few designers that have given the subject some thought, find there is little material on the subject.

In Greening Our Houses, the only book published specifically on ecological theater to date, the authors advise that small industries like theatres must comply with increased regulations on pollution and waste. They must realize it can only really be reduced through education and initiative on the part of everyone involved. They modestly promote that we continually try to optimize our performance in reducing use and improve handling of toxic materials, conserving materials, reducing waste, recycling materials, and improving employee health and safety standards.

To think ecologically means we organize our lives and work around ecological principles and values.  Specifically it means to manage our theaters from this perspective everything from how we treat each other to the kinds of materials we use to how we dispose of or recycle them.  Ecological thinking asks us to shift our operating principles from mechanistic to systems thinking. [… ] We can begin to call ourselves an ecologically responsible theatre when the quality of life of actors and technicians is as important as a good review; when how we build and discard our sets is as important as how they look. (Fried 8)

Education can no longer consider sustainability an elective. Sustainability needs to become our new measuring stick of success—not growth.  If we look for inspiration from the Brundtland Commission’s definition, “sustainability means to consider our actions in light of a commitment to leave to future generations a world at least as life sustaining as the one we inherited” (Fried).

As discussed in this paper, there are several environmental tools developed by government and industry that can be used by the theater industry to help us re-think the way we work. Morris contends that it is up to Theater designers to design the theater industry out of its linear wasteful practices.  Using the model of industrial design, designers could collaborate in creating alternate spaces with similar elements. This would decrease the need for raw materials, lesson energy usage and decrease waste. This idea of repertory rotation could allow companies to produce more without a strain on staff and budget.  Morris makes the observance that even a statement could be made about the accord or discord between the two productions. (11) Reaching further into the principles of industrial ecology, we can save even more waste by designing for disassembly. If wood members can safely be screwed apart, that wood can be reused for future sets.  Another strategy of IE can be to identify local industries that can benefit from our by products—such as donating the scrap wood for “hog fuel” used by power plants or donating that left over throne to the local who plays Santa Claus. A good governmental rubric of sustainability is the LEED certification guidelines which also incorporates the practices of reducing reusing and recycling.  Adherence to the Talloires Declaration’s Action Plans is also a sound practice for not only creating a sustainable program but also one of promotion.

There are obstacles to change and there is a need for further research and funding.  The success of scenic construction practices of the past, the lack of education about how to recycle large volumes of wood and steel and getting over the stigma of recycled content are some of them. Fear of inhibiting the designer’s art is another.  Some designers are hesitant too to use something of another designer’s work. We strive to give an audience a different show every time we produce and there is fear that if we reuse materials, our audience will get bored. Leadership has not made ecology a priority, therefore the hiring of designers and directors is another area where an artistic director can make a huge an ecological impact. I have defined more best practices based on this research in the attached, “50 Things You Can Do to be a Green Theater.”  (Addendum 6) We do not have all the answers to yet define true sustainability for theatrical applications, but because of environmental concerns it is imperative that we begin applying what we know to make a better future for generations to come.

 “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” –Buckminster Fuller