A Systems Perspective in Theatre: Let's Talk About Sustainability

As we crash into 2020, American society is increasingly aware of our climate crisis. Greta Thunberg’s face on the cover of TIME may be the most obvious example, but we continue to see rapid resource depletion, massive species extinction, and more and more devastating natural disasters. The bad news? Climate change is here. We have overused and overworked and overlooked our planet, and we’re paying for it. The good news? We are taking action. Solar and wind power are cost competitive, while plastic products are becoming socially stigmatized. Our young people are marching in the streets, and (some) politicians demand policy.

We in the theatre industry are also taking action. We have been taking action for some time now. To investigate this work, I spoke with Susan Sampliner, the company manager for Wicked on Broadway, about her experience as the Co-Chair of the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA). As she explained it to me, “250 theatre artists and managers” met with environmental scientists and activists in 2008 to discuss sustainability in Broadway. Their efforts formed what is now the BGA: a network of environmentally conscious theatre artists dedicated to “greening” American theatre. Sampliner looks back to that first meeting, noting, “it turned out a lot of people were doing things, but nobody was telling anyone about it.” It was this realization that prompted Sampliner and others to join the burgeoning BGA.

In the environmental science world, this realization is part of the Systems Principle. Everything operates within a system: everything works within the laws of physics, our planet within a solar system, organisms within biomes, and humanity within social, economic, and political systems. To act sustainably, Sampliner thinks it is vital that our industry recognize that “there is a connection between our work and what’s going on with the planet,” and a connection between us all that we must foster. In order to become more sustainable, we must communicate our plans, policies, and creative endeavors with each other. Artists can and must provide each other with this hope in the face of the looming unimaginable — and the Broadway Green Alliance strives to do this for our industry.

As Sampliner half-jokes, the BGA has always been “a group interested in action rather than data collection.” The most actionable thing? “Our Green Captains program,” with a Captain “on every single Broadway production, and many tours.” Green Captains are elected by each Broadway cast and provide their production team with sustainability tips, reminders, and advances. These Captains have been active for over ten years, and have included household names like Audra McDonald, Bryan Cranston, and Nick Kroll. Most importantly, they are “somebody at each theatre who communicates with the BGA and with whom we can communicate,” says Sampliner.

The BGA and these captains have organized with NYC artists to reuse metro cards, worked with Art Cube to redistribute materials, and assisted technical directors in diverting waste through community partnerships. At Broadway load-ins, the BGA works with technical directors to categorize “when the show closes, what is sellable, what can be given away, and how [we] can recycle,” says Sampliner. “When a show is done… we always invite people from prop shops and community spaces to take a look.”

The BGA is now taking bigger steps to increase sustainability, under the “bold direction of [new director] Molly Braverman,” Sampliner raves. Braverman is currently promoting the use of solar, wind, and biodigester energy on Broadway, to head towards carbon neutrality and save money for productions. The BGA is hoping “to put this into contracts [with venues and companies], and become energy positive” by practicing net metering. The hope is to reduce Broadway’s footprint while demonstrating that clean energy is effective and financially sound for theatre companies across the nation.

Braverman is also working to expand the network of College Green Captains, to ensure artists “come into the industry with a sustainable mindset.” These College “G.C.s” promote environmentally conscious programming, and often interact with the rest of their university and community. G.C.s at Emerson created a Green Gala, which invited and educated all Emerson students; I and several other students at Boston University are working with the sustainability@BU program to track their waste; and captains in Michigan are donating materials to local homeless shelters. On a broader scale, the BGA has introduced social media campaigns and a Green Captains prize competition to further appeal to the student population and educate younger artists. Ultimately, Sampliner hopes this programming leads to a greater dissemination of sustainable practices through the whole of the theatre world. These students and young people will take this mindset everywhere in the industry.

“Look,” Sampliner explained to me on a too-warm February morning, “we have an obligation to use our platform. We have to set examples of what we’re doing. We have to tell people. And we just have to keep doing better every day.” The climate crisis is here, but we have the power and ability to change our ways. We just have to be bold enough to share it with each other — and that’s what theatre communities do best.

Photo credits: Suzanna Bowling, Times Square Chronicles

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