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Theatre 'stuff:' use and reuse in the theatre: examining our human entanglement with stuff and mitigating its environmental impact.

In 2015, the Barnard College Theatre Department initiated a new project to investigate the impact of the department's design and production choices. Concurrently, the department explored factors that might impact sustainable design in professional theatre vs. an academic environment. The project gathered data from four college productions, with a focus on the monetary value of the materials used. The project also examined theatrical production from the lens of volume, as opposed to price, using four shows designed in New York in 2015-2016 by Sandra Goldmark (the author of this article).

Long term, Barnard hopes to engage other campuses, producers, and designers in a larger conversation about our responsibilities and possibilities in design and production. We hope to explore questions about designing, making, buying, and discarding the "stuff" of theatre that can be applied to the larger problems of over consumption and environmental degradation. Theatre is a small, closed system, but one of infinite possibility; we can use it as a laboratory, as a way to examine our human entanglement with stuff, and as a path towards mitigating the environmental effects of that entanglement.


Theatre is a physical and material art form. Live people interact with each other, with the space they occupy, and with the objects that share that space. These interactions between and among people and the material world combine to tell stories, create meaning, and construct a reality. This very human habit of constructing meaning through engagement with the physical world is, of course, not limited to the theatre. We all construct our own reality every day, not least with the choices we make about the objects that share our space. Ian Hodder writes that "our societies are built on and through things. The environment is not just a backdrop within which we fix problems; rather it is actively involved in our being as a species" (Hodder 2014, 34).

In theatre, too, we use an artificially controlled physical environment--a designed world--as more than a "backdrop" to tell us where we are. We use the designed environment to define the worlds we create on stage. Design can serve as a "thematic signifier," i.e., a primer for the audience on the rules, structures, and values of the created world onstage, writes Dennis Kennedy in Looking at Shakespeare (Kennedy 2001, 3 & 9-11). The backdrops, scenery, and props we use to create worlds onstage (and off) help tell us not only where we are, but who we are.

Theatre is a microcosm, a closed system where we can manipulate and control the objects and materials employed, and therefore shape the perceived meaning. We can focus a light on an empty chair and help the audience feel solitude or loss. That same chair could be lifted, or thrown, or multiplied, or miniaturized, to tell very different stories. We can create worlds with rules that are different from the rules of our everyday lives, and in doing so, comment on those lives and the rules that govern them. And to do all of these things, we make, build, buy, and alter a lot of "stuff."

In The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard defines "stuff" as all of the things in our homes that are not food-chairs, computers, shampoo bottles, packaging, coffee cups, etc. (Leonard 2010, xxxvii). In theatre, we can expand that definition to include materials like plywood, lumber, fabric, paint, foam, cables, cameras, and lights. We use all of these things to create our designs--our worlds. Designers and technicians are the main gatekeepers of "stuff" onstage, the makers and consumers of the theatre. We shape the choices of what objects share the space with the actors, and what objects join the dialogue. We decide what to buy, what to make, where to buy it, how to make it, what materials to use, and, largely, what to do with it all when the show closes. So what do our materials choices in the theatre signify? How do these choices inform the narratives we create onstage? And how can those narratives inform our understanding of the larger world, outside of the walls of the theatre?

Examining our consumption patterns onstage demands that designers and technicians, as the engines of consumption in the theatre, also confront the realities of a growing global environmental crisis fueled in large part by human consumption. A recent study published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology estimates that more than 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 50-80 percent of land and water use can be traced to household consumption--to mobility, food, and stuff (Ivanova et al. 2016). Whether in the household or in the theatre, our patterns of consumption are a choice. But, like many of our patterns of behavior, choice is limited by many factors, including speed, budget, and, perhaps most of all, habit. There is a common language and practice of "stuff" in the theater. If you talk about a flat, a platform, a drop, a scrim, a practical, or a lighting instrument, most practitioners will know what you are describing, and will have a sense of how it is usually made. When you talk about "strike," most practitioners will recognize the end stage of the theatrical process when materials are broken down, decisions are made to discard or save, dumpsters and stock rooms are filled, and the theatre is emptied, readied for the next production. How many of our choices are the product of habit, of patterns handed down to individuals and ingrained in institutions? How might we change these patterns? And what will happen to the theatre that we make if we do?

In the 2015-2016 academic year, Barnard's theatre department began by establishing a baseline of what kinds of materials and objects we use in our design and production process for scenery, costumes, and props. Where does our stuff come from? How much is new? How much is used? How do our stock items contribute? We began by quantifying the materials used, based on where they came from. This first step would allow us to establish a baseline, develop policies and best practices, engage our guest artists in the experiment, and develop goals.

One starting point in this process was the landmark design book Cradle to Cradle, which develops the idea of "biological" and "technical" nutrients in the design process-in other words, acknowledging from the start that the materials used in any design process are not all equal in terms of impact. According to authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart, technical nutrients can be used over and over again, re-used or recycled without degradation of the materials. Biological nutrients are understood to have a shorter life cycle, be used and then be returned to the natural environment (McDonough and Braungart 2002, 93). Theatre already has a similar breakdown of materials. Stock items like platforms, drops, or lighting instruments are re-used repeatedly, while many new materials and objects are purchased for a single show and often used only once.

Using things that already exist--whether in stock, or in rental houses, or purchased used, is one of the simplest ways to reduce the environmental impact of a design. While we may not have the ability in theatre to design from completely perfect "biological" and "technical" nutrients, we can begin to think of our stock as a form of technical nutrients--things that can be used over and over again. And when we do have to build new, we can think carefully about the full lifecycle and impact of the materials we choose. What would happen if we began to ask our design and production teams to think more carefully not only about our budget in terms of dollars, but also in terms of environmental and social impact? What if stock and used items were not only considered as a convenient way to meet budgets, but as a highly valuable re-use system that can serve "triple" bottom lines?

Our first year's task, then, was to assign value to and track the "technical" and "biological" nutrients of our design and production process. We began with the budget and the design process. We assigned a monetary value to all of our stock items, tracked which materials were purchased new vs. used, and asked designers to begin considering the impact of their design choices from the outset.


Through collaboration with the design and production teams, data on the expenditures and materials used for the set, props, and costumes of every show are collected and sorted into four categories: stock, reclaimed, new, or rented. Stock materials are only those that come from and are returned to our departmental stock after the show, such as flats, scrims, platforms, hand props, etc. Reclaimed materials are defined as those bought used or materials repurposed from other sources, such as materials from previous shows that were reused but could not be returned to stock, as were objects purchased at a thrift store. New materials are those purchased new for a given production, and can be materials, such as piece of plywood, or durable goods (e.g., a couch). Rented materials come from outside sources, like TDF Costumes or prop rental houses (used items that do not go back into Barnard College stock). We did not collect data this year on lighting or sound, since this year's study focused on material consumption. From the point of view of purchased and rented goods, almost all of our lighting equipment can be considered "technical" nutrients; very little of it is purchased and disposed of on a per-show basis the way scenery, props and costumes often are. The environmental impact of lighting and sound would need to be considered over a longer time period, with more variables addressing energy consumption (relative energy consumption of LED vs. conventional equipment, for example), in a separate study.

These categories are subjective and, accordingly, created opportunities for debate and discussion. Questions such as "Is a haircut reclaimed or new?" inevitably arose. A few materials that were bought new were considered reclaimed because they were made from entirely recycled materials, such as a Pulp Art Surfaces brick wall. In order to properly represent the utility of our stock, the values of prop and costume stock items were estimated based on the average cost of all props and costumes bought during the 2015-2016 year. Scenic items used from stock were quantified based on current prices and a breakdown of their components (i.e., how much it would cost to build new). It is important to note that this section of the project quantifies sustainability and measures the materials used not by volume but by their monetary value. As such, the charts accompanying this article that detail the Barnard College productions are not an accurate indicator of the physical materials we may have saved from a landfill. They do, however, demonstrate the value of this stuff to our creative process.

Barnard Production Materials and Design Approach

The Barnard College theatrical season includes four main productions. What follows is data for each of the four shows, as well as some commentary on the conceptual approach and design process for each. Does the initial approach and design process affect the environmental impact of a show?

A Dream Play

Director: Mikhael Tara Garver Set: Gabe Evansohn Costumes: Wanong Gao (student) Props: Chris Kavanah

How do you bring a dream to life onstage? Carol Churchill's adaption of Strindberg's A Dream Play pushes the audience and the actors to trace the narrative in an ephemeral yet visceral dream world. To question the boundaries of the story on the stage, the creative team blurred the line between reality, the dream, the actor, the audience, and the theatre. The set extended over the heads of the audience like a wave. A walkway extended through to the back of the orchestra and audience seating was moved onstage. The decking was built mainly from stock platforms, while the large overhead flats and rigging had to be bought and built from scratch. Many of the props were items that were found in the shop or backstage and repurposed, while some, such as oranges and flowers, had to be bought new every few days. The costumes were conceived from the start to incorporate many elements from the actors' closets and from Bar nard's stock. The designer created a "rack" of mainly pulled and borrowed items, which the actors used in rehearsal to help build their characters.

Bingo Director: Alice Reagan Set: Sandra Goldmark Costumes: Nell Simon (Barnard College '16) Props: Chris Kavanah

The design for Barnard's production of Bingo by Edward Bond responded to the play's treatment of the 17th century enclosure of the commons. The design created a contrast between a small, earthy, human scale language of props and costumes that referenced the Jacobean time period, and a surround inspired by the legacy of enclosure--an entirely compartmentalized and measured modern world. What does an increasingly rationalized and compartmentalized environment mean for the people and things within it? Sustainability was central to this design process. A great deal of the scrap wood and fabric from the overhead flats in A Dream Play were disassembled and repurposed to create "hedges." Eighty percent of the costume pieces and 65 percent of props, since they were mostly period pieces, were rented or bought reused. Most of the new material purchased for scenery was natural rope, reusable to some extent, used to create a grid that surrounded the audience.

Barnard College production materials overview Sources of scenic, prop, and costume elements (combined), 2015

Chokher Bali Director: Mahesh Dattani Set: Neil Patel Costumes: Deepsikha Chatterjee Props: Chris Kavanah

Chokher Bali, a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, was adapted for the stage and translated by Partha Chatterjee. The play is an account of marriage and widowhood set against the backdrop of the rapidly modernizing late 19th century Calcutta. Because it is a period piece set in Bengal, India, props and costumes that could be sourced from stock were limited. Most of the saris came directly from India or from members of the production team who had them in their possession already. Props, due to their specific nature, were either sourced from antique stores/sites or had to be made new. The set, however, was composed mainly of flats and a platform and relied heavily on stock materials.

Barnard Thesis Festival (students) The Arsonists

Director: Jordie Askins Set: Christina Tang Costumes: Lacey Bookspan Props: Julia Brunner

The Lover

Director: Emi Lirman Set: Waverley Engelman Costumes: Thea Lewis Props: Alana Herrnson

Oedipus Rex

Director: Chet King Set: Gauri Bahuguna Costumes: Dakota Ceneta Props: Rachel Winton

Each spring, the Barnard College Department of Theatre produces a festival of two to four directing theses that are designed, staffed, and cast entirely by and with fellow students. The shows perform in repertory, with limited changeover time between shows and tight budgets. For the past three years, the department has experimented with creating a unit set of sorts, with shared scenic elements and materials. The combination of limited resources, time, and working in repertory leads to a clearly visible reduction in the purchase of new materials, in all areas.

This first season of data collection and analysis at Barnard College brought us some answers, and left us with many more questions. We discovered, for example, that one high-priced new purchase can skew an entire re-use budget. In the case of Bingo, for example, almost the entire show was re-used, except for several hundred feet of hemp rope and one large piece of white fabric. We may be undervaluing our stock items. On a broader level, our greatest challenges were the logistics of obtaining salvaged building materials in and around New York City and finding ways to really hold designers accountable for material choices.

We learned a lot from the Senior Thesis Festival, a mini-season within our larger season that we have often used to experiment. For several years, the Festival incorporated a sort of "unit set" or else curated a selection of shared elements used in all the shows. What if professional designers and producers began thinking more consciously about the other shows in the season, and about multiple seasons? What if we "designed" our stock just as much as we design each show, so that we had a truly flexible and variable set of elements to work with?

As a result of this first year's study, we have designed a "purchasing guideline," which we and other schools can use as a first step in thinking about how we think about sourcing materials for theatrical design and production.

For the next phase in this project, in 2017 Barnard College will work with consultants from Gotham 360 to calculate the carbon footprint of a show "as built," with approximately 50 percent stock or used materials, and the footprint of the same show if it had been built entirely new. This will allow us to quantify the environmental impact of re-use in the theatre, and a measurement of more than one bottom line.


In addition to examining the materials used at Barnard, we also spent some time looking at four professional productions. We examined the intersection between the design process and the actual scenic elements built and bought, as objects rather than as represented in a budget. What do we actually put onstage and why? We created a series of graphic representations of four New York shows, identifying what elements made up each design, and where those elements came from. The shows recorded here are Once Upon a Mattress (Transport Group), Boy (Keen Company), and The Dingdong and Stupid Fucking Bird (Pearl Theatre Company).

It is clear from these productions that the difficulty of storing and maintaining a stock is even greater in the New York professional theatre; many companies do not have a dedicated facility and are extremely limited in terms of storage (Once Upon a Mattress, Boy). Theatres that have a "home" are more able to keep a stock (Pearl). Perhaps most importantly, as with the Barnard productions, it is clear that when the design is approached from the start with a conceptual approach that facilitates sustainable practices, it is one of the most powerful ways to affect the final results.

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, writes that "90 percent of the environmental impact of a product is determined in the design phase" (Chouinard & Stanley 2012, 82). This idea holds true for theatrical design. When the process of "sustainable design" was part of the conceptualization of the show (sets for Bingo, sets for Stupid Fucking Bird, costumes for Dream Play), it is much easier to reduce impact. In cases where sustainability was a secondary goal, primarily raised in the production phase and not also considered in the design phase, the amount of new materials used was greater.

Once Upon a Mattress and Boy, for example, were designed with the intent of using as few new materials as possible, but without strong conceptual or production support for the goal. If materials were used or recycled, or at least recyclable, that was a nice bonus, but it was not very a high priority in terms of the conceptual approach, the budgeting process, or the build. In the case of Stupid Fucking Bird and The Dingdong, however, the play itself and the conceptual approach allowed for the idea of reuse and reinvention to be integrated from the start, and embraced by multiple members of the team. The set for Stupid Fucking Bird was, by design, largely created by using the back side of scenery designed for The Dingdong. The idea of using the elements that were already in the theatre, of creating a conversation between the two shows and the space, was followed through in props, blocking of set moves, furniture choices, and more. By using what we knew was going to be there, or what we found when we actually moved into the theatre, we used less overall, and, by many accounts, created a strong design that supported the show.

It is important to note, however, that the re-use of objects found in the theatre in the case of Bird was largely a conceptual, aesthetic, and logistical choice, not solely an environmental one. In this case, the text and the circumstances of the production (working in rep in a theatre with no storage space) coincided to make greener choices logical. What happens when the text does not obviously support such a choice? Is sustainability only appropriate for certain shows?

While these questions cannot be answered here, it is important to begin asking them, knowing that while we make theatre, we are also part of a larger economy, a global system that, like it or not, can increasingly no longer ignore the impact of our material choices on the natural world.

And, even as we as a community of theatre makers are exploring these questions, it is clear that (as with most decisions in the theatre), designing and producing sustainably needs to be a collaborative effort. A single designer can push for more sustainable choices. A single shop can attempt to move towards a zero waste model. These are important steps, and should not be disregarded. These are ways, in the words of McDonough and Braungart, to produce designs that are "less bad." But it is much more exciting and much more powerful to try to create designs that are better than "less bad," where the limits and difficulties raised by considering our impact fuel the work, contribute to the conversation, and ultimately, strengthen the work.


Throughout the Barnard College research, we have noticed that transportation and storage are crucial when it comes to availability and accessibility of stock or reclaimed materials. In a place like Manhattan, where space is scarce, it is difficult to maintain a comprehensive stock. Therefore, during the purchasing process, it is important to consider whether items bought for a show can be stored indefinitely. Reused, reclaimed, or repurposed materials generally take more effort to find and obtain. New items can often be bought and shipped within a day, but reused items must be sourced and transported (frequently by means of a van rental).

Tracking the expenditures and materials for shows is difficult. Gathering the data from many sources and ensuring its accuracy is not simple. A consistent documentation format for the production members is critical, as is the commitment of designers and production team members.

With that in mind, the question then turns to how to motivate design and production teams to participate in this difficult process that appears to have few immediately tangible benefits. It is one thing for an individual designer to change their own practice, it is another to build a sustainable practice into a production or into the institution of theatre. How do you incentivize sustainable design?

We can create budgetary guidelines, and best practices in the production department. These types of external constraints (space, money, time) are common, and they often actually strengthen a design. How many designers have seen a show that had too few limits mushroom into something chaotic and uninspired (think Spider-man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway)? Limits are, indeed, opportunities in design. And if we begin to recognize the limits of the natural world outside of the theatre as part of what can inform our work inside the theatre, we open up a chance to create a new language for theatrical design, one that considers the show and the moment at hand, and also the longer term ramifications of what we do.

As designers and theatre makers, we must make it part of our job to think of our work in a larger context--we must think about the materials and objects we use, where they come from, what they are made of, where they will go after we use them, and the impact they have at each of these steps. We hope that thinking more carefully about where our objects and materials come from will help create a closed loop design process for theatre. Though we may begin our process with an empty theatre, or an empty model box, linear design thinking can lead, very simply, to filling that box and then depositing the contents in landfill. The design process must begin with a consciousness that the box is not empty, that resources are limited, certain materials already exist at the start of the process, and making theatre is (and always has been) about responding to the world we find around us. Creativity is always limited by budgets, available tools, the size of a theatre, and more. It's time to start thinking of sustainability not as an exceptional difficulty, but another necessary consideration that can ultimately strengthen our shared endeavor to create meaningful, lasting theatre.

Sandra Goldmark is a theatrical set and costume designer, assistant professor of professional practice at Barnard College. Her designs, teaching, and social enterprise work allfocus on questions of material culture and sustainability, exploring how the design and production choices we make impact the world around us and shape the narratives we create as artists, as individuals, and as a society. Goldmark's theatrical designs have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Drama Desk and the Hewes. In 2013, she launched Pop Up Repair, an itinerant repair service for household items. Pop Up Repair is an interdisciplinary social enterprise aimed at re-imagining repair as part of a sustainable model of household consumption. Goldmark is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale School of Drama.

This work was undertaken by many members of the Barnard theatre department, students, and guest artists, including the author, Michael Banta (production manager), Kara Feely (costume shop manager), Greg Winkler (technical director), Lhana Ormenyi (Barnard College student; research and analysis), Jiin Choi (Columbia College alumna; graphic and layout design), Maeve Duffy (Barnard College student; research), and Christopher Kavanah (prop supervisor). The project is supported by a Barnard College Mini-grant.


Chouinard, Yvon and Vincent Stanley. 2012. The Responsible Company. Ventura: Patagonia Books.

Hodder, Ian. 2014. The Entanglements of Humans and Things: A Long-Term View, New Literary History. Volume 45, Number 1, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Ivanova, D., Stadler, K., Steen-Olsen, K., Wood, R., Vita, G., Tukker, A. and Hertwich, E. G. 2016. "Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption." Journal of Industrial Ecology, 20: 526-536. doi: 10.1111/jiec.12371

Kennedy, Dennis. 2001. Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of 20th Century Performance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Leonard, Annie. 2010. The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health - And How We Can Make It Better. New York: Free Press.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. 2002. Cradle to Cradle. New York: North Point Press.
Sources of scenic, prop, and costume elements (combined), 2015
Barnard College production materials overview

bought or built new   42%
used or reclaimed      7%
form stock            47% used or reclaimed

Note: Table made from Pie Chart.
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Author:Goldmark, Sandra
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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