Recently, I found myself backstage at a theater (that shall remain nameless), and I had a chance to inspect the set that was currently sitting on the stage. It was a very pretty set, well-designed and pleasing to the audience’s eye from the house. (Granted, the set itself was basically a backdrop with a couple of doors cut into it; not exactly the kind of interactive playground that I like to work on; but that’s beside the point here) From the back, the set was very pretty, too. The hard-constructed flats were all perfectly uniform, with clean, perfect boards forming the structure, and flawless sheets of hardboard masonite covering them. The stickers from the hardware store on the backs of the masonite sheets were even all oriented the same direction. The builder of this set obviously knew what he was doing and put a lot of craft into it. It was kind of impressive.
Then, my brain started running numbers. “Those are at least mid-grade 1×4 boards in the frame, not standard grade. More expensive.” “I know where they bought that masonite. Could have gotten it cheaper at another store.” This is the pretty standard, kind of nitpicky stuff that a stage carpenter does when evaluating someone else’s work. We almost always have tight budgets, and it’s rare to see something in the small theater where it’s obvious that a larger budget is at play.
Then, my brain realized something else: all of this lumber was brand new. No cracks, old paint, or previous screw holes. Even all the screws were new. No tell-tale signs of wear and reuse. The perfectly-oriented masonite sheets were likewise new. Remember now, all of this is the stuff that’s underneath the nice coat of paint that makes a row of flats look like a set. And absolutely none of it is visible to the audience.
The numbers in my head kept ringing upward, and, frankly, I was a little appalled at what I was calculating. It wasn’t just that a larger budget was at play; it quickly became obvious to me that saving unnecessary expenses on the set was not even considered. In a world where small theater companies swear that they are doing all they can to give more money to actors, here was several thousand dollars’ worth of new materials that could have been easily replaced with recycled components.
I remember living in the Lowry Hill neighborhood during the days of the old Guthrie building at the Walker. I always knew when a show had been struck, because the dumpsters behind the building were full. I know that today the Guthrie proudly announces that it has partnered with a recycling company that pulls materials out of the theater’s waste stream, but back then the Guthrie was throwing thousands upon thousands of dollars into its dumpsters every month.
Modern theater is a wasteful affair. Some of this is unavoidable. We often are called upon to build weird things that are either constructed only just well enough that they look OK to an audience member sitting ten yards away, or serve no useful purpose off the stage. However, this is an excuse that does not cover up all crimes of waste. The obsession with large, luxurious sets and relative lack of storage across theater companies has led to pretty shameful state of affairs where the run of a show almost inevitably ends with an overflowing dumpster.
Much of this is due to lack of planning. Companies simply don’t take the entire life cycle of a set into consideration. Instead of taking the time to source recycled materials, it’s considered easier to buy new. Instead of taking the time to make sure that anything reusable finds a new home after the curtain close, they find dumpsters.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Fortunately, I discovered a long time ago that dumpsters can work in reverse. In my college days, I wanted to build a theater in my basement, but I had almost zero funds. I found out, though, that my school had a bad case of dumpster syndrome: a far-off parking lot was home to rows and rows of open dumpsters into which an unchecked stream of reusable materials flowed. In three days of diving, I had enough wood, metal, pipes, paint and mechanics to throw together a functioning space with a rudimentary sound system and lighting grid for exactly zero dollars. I have not stopped this madness since.
Being the main builder for Sandbox, I have one hard and fast rule: the hardware store is the last place you look for your materials. If I build something entirely out of new lumber, I consider it a failure. This is not necessarily some environmental crusade of mine. It’s a monetary one. I know how to turn a piece of junk into something presentable, and I would rather take the money I save on that and give it to a performer. You can do theater without sets. You can’t do it without performers.
For our last big show, This Is A World To Live In, Sandbox had a remarkable opportunity to take over 22,000 square feet of empty retail space at City Center in Minneapolis (see, we’re even recycling spaces!), but we were tasked with building out this empty concrete shell into a usable space with multiple smaller spaces within it. It was the biggest building project we had ever undertaken. I have never constructed so many flats so quickly in my life. If we had tried to purchase all the materials new, it would have exploded the budget. Instead, about 70% of the materials that made the set (including lumber, sheet material, drapes, lighting and paint) were recycled. It took more work up front, to be sure
Sure, it saved on the build budget and helped us to make sure we could pay out high stipends to our performers; but it’s the plan we made for disposing of the set that made it magic. You see, our space was directly attached to a service elevator in the building, at the bottom of which was a giant trash compactor and a huge, open dumpster. It would have been incredibly easy for us to haul everything down that elevator, drop it down a chute and never have to worry about it again. Instead, we reached out ahead of time to other small companies (and also a high school arts program) and made them an offer: if you want these materials, they’re yours. For free.
Ninety-percent of that set lived to fight another day. We saved other groups money while alleviating ourselves of some of the headache of disposing of our monstrosity. Everybody wins.
There are a lot of theater companies in town. We may be competing for grant dollars, reviewer praise and audience eyeballs, but not everything we do is a zero sum game. And by helping others, we can help ourselves. This is the best reason of all that we should all be recycling. There aren’t really any good excuses for not doing it.
Outside of Sandbox, I run a resource sharing email list for local companies to post materials that they would like to get rid of or look for recycled materials to claim. They can even post about their strikes and arrange to others to come pick up from them, just like we did for TIAWTLI. I’ve also been consulting with Leah Cooper at the Minnesota Theater Alliance about the Alliance building a more permanent online forum for this sort of sharing. If you would like to be on the weekly list I run, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also keeping that list up to date on any developments from the Alliance about their program.
Building out of “junk” does not mean making ugly, substandard sets. Look no further than the weird, stunning, jam-packed beauty of Swandive Theater’s Outopia for Pigeons. It was an absolutely gorgeous set constructed out of recycled materials, and it received national attention for its beauty, detail and environmental consciousness.
In the meantime, keep avoiding the hardware store as long as possible. Check out Facebook groups like Twin Cities Technical Theatre (on a budget.) and Sustainable Theaters of Minnesota Conclave. Find out how to get to the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity ReStore. And, above all, talk to each other. Share what you’ve got, and you won’t find yourselves wanting.
Derek Lee MIller is Sandbox Theatre’s Artistic Director and is co-project lead on our fall 2014 production, Killer Inside.