A New Kind of Dumpster Diving: Sustainability in College Theatre

I was always on dumpster duty. As a student in the Boston University School of Theatre scenic shop, I loved standing in our 30 yard bin; I loved sorting materials in the Booth Theatre dock, playing the usual game of trash tetris with construction waste and hauling friends up to join me. But, after scrubbing off steel smudges and sawdust, I’d head downtown to join thousands of my peers in protesting our government’s inaction on our climate crisis. Singing on the steps of the statehouse, I remembered that theatre and politics are inherently connected. It became clear there cannot be a difference between my action on Beacon Hill and my action at the Booth.

In 1987, the U.N. Brundtland Commission defined ‘sustainable action’ as that which meets the needs of the current generation, without compromising the “ability of future generations to meet their needs.” To achieve this, four core principles were defined: Use, Systems, Equity, and Incentives. Commercial theatre has begun to embrace these as environmental and economic investments, but collegiate theaters are behind the curve. To change this at BU, I have been organizing with students, staff, faculty, and members of the Broadway Green Alliance. Our efforts can best be described using the principles of sustainability, and these principles provide a starting point for anyone looking to green their theatre program.

The Use Principle is what we think of as basic environmentalism: a sustainable society (or, in our case, a sustainable program) should not use more material or create more waste than can be handled by nature. In a theatre setting, this means looking at what we use and what waste we create. To do this, we broke our program down into three sections: Classroom, Production & Rehearsal, and Administration. We further split Production into departments (scenic, costumes, etc). We then made a list of all physical waste created in those sections, including items like scrap fabric, batteries, vellum, and Starbucks cups. We also looked at our basic electrical consumption by coordinating with sustainability@bu, BU’s resident sustainability program.

Next, we followed the Systems Principle: all things are part of a larger system. From a scientific perspective, we can’t escape basic physics. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; what we throw out, goes somewhere. So, we looked at all of our waste streams and how we could divert waste from the trash bin. We increased our paper and can/bottle recycling bins, and added wrapper recycling from TerraCycle. We are composting with Bootstrap Compost, to divert up to 25% of our waste, and plan to recycle 70% of our construction waste through SaveThatStuff. We’ve also invested in fabric, battery, and electronics recycling, and have stopped using paper programs for 80% of our productions. By looking at our habits, we are able to increase the amount of material we can reuse and cut down on the amount we order in the first place, ultimately saving us money. We are also interested in investing in solar panels, which could make us money through the process of net metering.

But, looking at systems doesn’t stop at natural ones: our social systems are equally important. This feeds directly into the third principle: Equity. A sustainable society fulfils the first two principles, ethically and equitably. Sustainability depends on not only our environment, but on our interactions with each other. This means we promote pre-show indigenous land acknowledgements, support Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) training, and look for ways to uplift all voices. Theresa May, director and climate change activist, calls directly on university and educational theatres “to bring artists and scientists, indigenous scholars and community activists … performers and audiences together through embodied climate change pedagogy” (May 2014). This means producing plays by and hiring artists of color, queer artists, female and gender nonconforming artists; this means increasing outreach programs and ensuring physical accessibility. BU has been moving towards this but, like most universities, has a way to go. Ultimately, creating a sustainable program means fighting for those individuals.

Sustainability in theatre also involves recognizing the intersections of equity and our climate crisis through our art. Theatre artist Annalisa Dias notes that we must focus on climate justice:

...we must center the [stories] of frontline communities who are most deeply and already impacted by the changing climate, including indigenous peoples, low-income communities, and communities of color. As theatremakers, we know deeply that stories matter. In the face of the climate crisis, this has never been more true.

For this reason, it is my hope that BU will soon produce a climate crisis play festival. This would bring together student and published voices to showcase the varied impacts of the crisis.

But, to make all of this happen, we have to have incentives. The Incentives Principle notes that a sustainable society must actively encourage sustainable behavior and discourage unsustainable behavior. At BU, we’re considering requiring a recycling pledge for all students entering production and rehearsal. We’ve created “Did You Know” posters about theatrical waste and climate crisis facts, including information about dangerous VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in paints and BU’s required installation of mechanical equipment on the Booth roof, to ensure it is not underwater by 2100. These posters are, frankly, terrifying, and serve to disincentivize wasteful habits. Most importantly, we are using the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) Green Captains programming. The BGA, the Broadway sustainability initiative and network, works with volunteer “GCs” on every Broadway show. The GC communicates sustainability tips and tricks to their team, using social pressure to encourage sustainable choices. The BGA has recently rolled out a College GC program, to encourage college theatre students in greening schools. At BU, we are working towards GCs in every rehearsal room, with a design and production-oriented GC on every mainstage project. Our GCs for this year’s Photograph 51 brought in reusable mugs, made candy wrapper collection bags, and helped advocate for paperless programs. They create a sustainably-minded culture in our theatre spaces, encouraging others to work with them.

Now, I go dumpster diving in a different way. I sort through recycling with my friends, we look at composting details, and dig up data on those very bins I walked through. And, I encourage everyone to join us on dumpster duty: let’s sort through our materials, play trash tetris, and give everyone a hand up so that we can sing this song together. After all, it’s now or never.

Photo Credit: Elkus Manfredi

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