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Environmental responsibility in scenic elements: creative sourcing and building results in viable alternative to styrofoam.

The West Coast premiere of Sila under the direction of Theresa May was produced at the University of Oregon in the spring of 2015. Written by Chantal Bilodeau, the play examines climate change and its effects on the population and cultures of the Arctic Circle. The locations required for the play included interiors, exteriors, and abstract landscapes, all of which needed to transition quickly from scene to scene.

Symbolizing the worldview of the Arctic Circle, Director Theresa May and Scenic Designer Jamie Nathan decided to stage the play in the round. Several rocklike shapes that could become ice, rock, and tundra were an important element of the design. The rock shapes also needed to be stackable to create furniture, a coast guard station, and inuksuit. Inuksuit is the plural of an inuksuk, which is a man-made stone landmark used by the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic for navigation, travel routes, hunting grounds, and memorials. These landmarks are made of stacked stones that can be from one-foot to 15feet tall, depending on their purpose.

Technical Director Bradley Branam led the production team charged with the task of engineering a construction method for the rocks. Naturally, the first step was to consider and discuss the physical requirements. First and foremost, the rocks needed to be lightweight--at least light enough for the actors to easily carry and move them about from scene to scene. Because the rocks were so integrated into the staging of the production, the actors needed to work with them very early in the rehearsal process. The rocks also needed to be weight bearing, because the actors would be siting and standing on the shapes at various times throughout the show. Finally, the rock shapes needed to look like rocks with rough organically shaped edges.


With the climate change themes of the play and the director being an advocate for environmentally responsible and greener theatre, we knew that we would not be able to use materials such as Styrofoam. White-bead Styrofoam is often used for irregularly shaped scenic elements because it is lightweight and easy to carve. While scenic elements made with Styrofoam might have a six- to eight-week life as scenery, they are often then disposed of into the waste stream. Styrofoam is notorious for releasing toxic substances into the environment as it decomposes, a process that can take up to a million years or more. As a result, we began brainstorming for another lightweight material with which to construct our rocks.

Our goal was to find a material that would have some of the same properties as Styrofoam in terms of weight and ease of carving, while being less environmentally damaging when introduced into the waste stream. Recycled materials were at the top of our list because we already knew that we had a responsible disposal process in place to accommodate the material at the end of the production. We started to look at materials that we were already using to see if they could be utilized in a new way.

We first looked at repurposing cardboard from the university's recycling center. The cardboard was glued together to create large blocks and left overnight with a small stack of stage weights to clamp them together. The prototype was a little bigger than a 12-inch cube. The cardboard proved difficult to carve with a battery-powered reciprocating saw, which was our preferred carving tool. The saw would overheat and then required several short breaks before we could continue to carve. It took over an hour to carve the cardboard prototype. Due to time involved, the weight of the finished product, and the massive amounts of cardboard needed, we began looking for ways to modify this method. We tried putting a 12inch diameter Sonotube in the middle of the cube to use less cardboard and, hopefully, reduce the weight, but this added to the cube construction time without significantly reducing the weight of the cube.

For the next prototype, we used sound-deadening board, because we had a lot of the material on hand, and because we thought the life cycle of the material would be more responsible than the life cycle of Styrofoam. Sound-deadening board is a cellulose fiberboard used in building trades as insulation and to create a sound barrier between adjacent rooms or floors in a building. In our theater, cellulose fiberboard is used as sound-deadening underlayment for stage floors and platforms. Cellulose fiberboard is made from wood chips that are a waste product from wood mill operations. The woodchips are ground into a pulp, then bound together with vegetable starches and wax. Fiberboard is sourced from a renewable resource and is produced with minimal use of toxic compounds. It biodegrades quickly in a landfill or can be used as a fuel source for a biomass boiler. The fiberboard seemed to meet our needs as a material, now we just had to figure out how to construct the rocks with it.

We settled on a process of using strips of fiberboard glued and stacked in a lattice pattern to create a lightweight core that was then carved into a rock shape. The lattice structure allowed the core to have a great deal of empty air space, which kept the weight of the structure down while also making it strong. The fiberboard core was lightweight and showed less compression than the cardboard core. We also had a large supply of fiberboard in our shop from previous productions and we were able to mass-produce all of the required rock cores in a few weeks.

To produce the rock cores, we cut most of our scrap fiberboard into 1.5-inch wide strips. We then cut the strips to length based on the size of the core we were going to construct. To assemble the cores, we set a series of strips down on a table with a 2-inch gap between strips. We then squeezed a quarter-sized dollop of wood glue on one end of each strip. On top of the glue, we placed another strip of sound-deadening board perpendicular to the first layer of strips. This process was repeated to produce the second layer of strips that created a basic lattice structure. Subsequent layers were built up in this fashion until we achieved the desired size. Once the glued-up cores dried, they were carved with a reciprocating saw. Using a 12-inch blade on a reciprocating saw worked best to carve the desired shapes. We also tried using various handsaws, but eventually used only the reciprocating saw due to the time involved and our desired look for the rocks. A corded reciprocating saw would be the better choice, because the battery-powered saw lost its full charge quickly and, as the blade slowed down, the fiberboard structures broke apart from the vibration caused by forcing the blade through the layers. With a good working saw, the largest rocks took only about 30 minutes to carve.

Using our prototype rock, we discovered that if the lattice structure was covered with muslin after carving the shape, the structure would show through the muslin coverings and look like fabric-covered egg cartons. This was not the look we desired for our rocks, though we did leave some sides rougher to create a rocklike surface. The rocks we were trying to replicate did not have a bumpy or rough surface. After the rocks were carved, we filled any gaps with extra pieces of fiberboard to create a smooth surface and to firm up weak areas in the core structure. The rocks were then covered in muslin which was soaked in a mixture of white glue and leftover paint in a method similar to papier-mache. Using long narrow strips of muslin helped to create natural-looking details on the rock surface such as fissures, crags, and outcroppings. Us ing large square patches worked well to create large areas of smoothness similar to slate or granite. Once dry, the muslin acted as a rigid shell to hold the core together. The new shell became very rough and brittle. We cautioned our actors to be mindful of the rough surface in rehearsal, and we occasionally received word of scratches through daily rehearsal reports.

The muslin exterior was eventually coated with a layer of Jaxsan 600, an acrylic latex waterproof coating often used in the roofing trade to create a water barrier. We used it to soften the stiff edges of the muslin and create a textured surface on which to apply the final scenic paint treatment. We rotated rocks in and out of rehearsal to apply the finishing texture. The Jaxsan 600 coating was applied with putty knives and chip brushes to create a rocklike texture. Once the coating dried, it was flexible, easy to handle, and would not chip off the way a plaster coating might have chipped off. It is important to note that the Jaxsan 600 coating required many days to dry and remained tacky for several weeks after it dried. If the rocks were left sitting on the stage overnight they would have to be carefully pulled up from the stage floor. We are not sure if this was due to the weight of the rocks, the latex coating or both. The stickiness seemed to lessen when we painted the rocks for a final time.


The rocks worked well in performance. The actors carried, pushed, and rolled the rocks without difficulty or damage to the rocks. The actors sat and stood on them without any breakage or deformation. One actor even threw down and punched a rock each night without it breaking apart. The rocks were all stacked solidly at the end of the show to create an inuksuk that was about six feet tall.

The rocks were lightweight; an acting cube-sized rock roughly 20 inches wide by 20 inches deep by 20 inches high weighed roughly 30 pounds. The rocks were weight bearing; medium-sized rocks, which were roughly 14 inches wide by 14 inches deep by 14 inches high, were capable of holding 1,000 pounds and only weighed 12 pounds. We tested the weight-bearing capacity of the rocks by stacking stage weights on one of the rocks until we saw visible deformation of the structure. This deformation occurred once we reached 1,000 pounds of weight. In performance, this would be roughly equivalent to a 200-pound actor jumping up and down on top of the rock. All of the rocks used in the show survived the run of the show with minimal signs of wear and no visible deformation. Even our smallest rocks that were roughly eight-inch cubes were able to support an actor standing on top of them without crumbling.

We feel we achieved our goal of environmental responsibility by using a highly bio-degradable material which was also recycled to create the rocks. To decrease the environmental impact in the future, we can seek out and purchase fiberboard from a supplier that produces the material from a higher percentage of recycled materials. The Homasote Company produces a cellulose fiberboard from post-consumer recycled paper. Our fiberboard was sourced from Blue Ridge Fiberboard. Blue Ridge Fiberboard produces their cellulose fiberboard from 97 percent pre-consumer recycled material. The bulk of the material that is generated as waste wood chips from sawmill operations, and the material is LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), a designation developed by the Green Building Council, of which both Blue Ridge Fiberboard and the Homasote Company are members. The Green Building Council is an organization of builders, manufacturers, corporations, community leaders, and volunteers with the mission to "transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built, and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life" (

The cores from the rock shapes should break down quickly if they were to end up in a landfill. The muslin and Jaxsan 600 skins would need to be removed before disposal. Jaxsan 600 prevents the core from breaking down as quickly as it would without the skin. However, the skins may also be placed into the landfill and will break down over time in much the same way as muslin painted with latex paint. This is a significant improvement to the rate of decomposition of Styrofoam. We are also excited to find a new use for our scrap fiberboard that will keep it out of the waste stream just a little longer. However, for the foreseeable future, our rock shapes will go into storage to be reused in future productions, keeping their material out of the waste stream.

We believe this method would work well for other scenic elements such as trees and other components of natural landscapes. Fiberboard is carve-able and can be quite sturdy. It is a great option if it is already being used for sound deadening, because it's a great way to use the scraps leftover from irregular stage floors and platforms that might otherwise be thrown out. It's also cost effective because all of the fiberboard we used was recycled from previous productions. The rocks performed well and were reasonably easy to fabricate.

By Bradley Branam and Jamie Nathan

Bradley Branam is an assistant professor of theatre at the University of Oregon where he also serves as the technical directorfor the University Theatre.

Jamie Nathan is an MFA student studying scenic design at the University of Oregon. She anticipates graduation in June 2016.
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Author:Branam, Bradley; Nathan, Jamie
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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