There's a buzz right now in the theatre blogosphere about "greening theatre," as evidenced by its gaining mention in the theatre pages of the Guardian
. It's an interesting topic, vastly multifaceted, and one i often ponder myself.Childrens Theatre of Madison
's production manager Mike Lawler writes a blog dedicated to the topic called ecoTheater
. (In order to more easily follow future posts, i set it up as an LJ syndication, ecotheater
, in fact.) He's got a pretty interesting debate started over the amount of air travel that design staff have to do in the current regional theatre paradigm
, which crossed blogs into Scott Walters' TheatreIdeas
and Praxis Theatre's blog
posts as well.
The thing that came out of this that most got me thinking was the idea of a "generalist" theatre professional. (Incidentally, aren't we already generalists, in the tech side of things at least? How many TDs out there are able to step in as carps, welders, run crew, set designers, draftsmen, etc. as needed? How many costumers have built soft goods for props or run wardrobe or functioned as designers, managers, shoppers, dyers, etc.?)
That sort of suggested approach, the "multitalented theatre artisan," is workable for a certain kind of theatre company--it makes ultimate sense for smaller-budget or traveling companies. The problem i have with the concept of the theatre generalist is that it doesn't work for professional theatre companies in residence at a university, where company members have a responsibility not only to the resident theatre, but to the training program that exists alongside it.
To use myself as an example, my duty is first to create all the costume crafts for PlayMakers Repertory Company, but the singular condition of my employment is that i teach in the Costume Production graduate program--one of the best in the nation. In order to be qualified to teach my courses in the program, i need to be the best specialized artist and artisan i can be. What's more, after i've done all the craftwork for the company and taken care of my academic responsibilities, i have literally NO more time to devote to some other aspect of theatre. PRC is certainly not alone in its status as a LORT theatre in residence at a university with theatre staff doing "double-duty"--off the top of my head, it's in good company with the Huntington Theatre at Boston University, the Clarence Brown Theatre at the University of Tennesee-Knoxville, the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, to name a few.
It has been my experience that, due to the collaborative nature of theatre, people are willing to work outside their area of primary responsibility as time and need and skill set allows (examples include a costumer dyeing fabric yardage for scene shop scrims, a propmaster casting ornaments for costume armor, a scenic carpenter creating decor for a fundraising event). I'm not so sure we need to write this into our hiring requirements though. As we've seen trying to fill our existing openings in staff this season, it's hard enough to find qualified applicants for positions as it stands--if we then demand that our actors also be drapers or carpenters, and our administrative staff be singers or painters or choreographers, i think the hiring pool only shrinks further til we're parched by professional drought.
Another issue to consider is that this "generalist" concept alienates those artists who are in production careers by discounting the degree of study and expertise they need to function at the top of their field. Certainly, actors pitching in to build flats or run wardrobe is necessary and valuable for theatres functioning in non-union paradigms, for example, and the theatre made can be transcendent and brilliant. Where though is the place in that for the scenic carp whose goal is to work for Cirque de Soleil building highly-engineered circus sets? What of the costumer who dreams of working on technically-challenging, huge-budget productions like new operas, Broadway, or Vegas shows? Because in many of the university programs, these are the students we are teaching in the tech departments.
I wonder if the generalist model isn't something that's emminently workable in the realm of the actor-director-administrator, but less workable when taking the technical fields into consideration. Within our company, many of our professional actors also direct, write, produce, carry full teaching loads, and/or work in other outreach and development capacities. If i were working as a dramaturg, i might welcome an actor as a research assistant. If i'm building a set piece, i don't think i want an actor who can swing a hammer over a career carpenter who can throw the whole thing together herself/himself without hand-holding. We already collaborate--i talk with the scenic production folks when i need something welded
or some carpentry project done
--but let's not stretch demands beyond the bounds of what's reasonable and safe.
In the course of browsing links in these blog discussions, i came across a couple other sites that spawned some mixed response on my behalf as well. Mo'olelo's Green Theatre Mission
. Both of these sites advocate costume-related "greening" measures that strike me as limiting, short-sighted, or ignorant of costuming as a field. Specifically, here are some quotes, with my responses after:
- Rent costumes from other theaters and actors, or purchase from thrift stores before purchasing new items
- When possible, using thrift shops for costumes
- Consider reusing costume pieces rather than building new ones.
- In the laundry room, strive to do laundry as rarely as possible, perhaps giving actors the option to some items [sic] less frequently. Hang-dry, if possible, to reduce the huge amount of energy used by electric dryers.
Renting is certainly one means of costuming a show, but when a company invests its costume budget in the rental of a show, it receives exactly no return on that money
--none of the costumes go into its own stock for potential reuse on future pulled shows, and all of the shop's labor goes into alterations, upkeep, alterations reversal (because anything you do to the rentals, you must undo), and cleaning of another company's property, as well as the expenditure of transportation costs--costumes are heavy, particularly period costumes, and incur high shipping and insurance charges, nevermind the fuel expenditure, whether shipping or driving to pick them up.
Often the companies renting them require them to be packed in particular ways for protection of their property, such that for some specialty items (like hats) it makes no sense to rent, since you could make the item on-site for much less time, money, and effort than the packing and shipping and dealing with red-tape of rental. (Or, i could, at least.) It seems to me that if an organization wants to avoid the transportation costs of flying in NYC or LA designers, they'd feel the same way about flying in their costumes.
In the long-term view, a company is better off investing in well-made costumes which they will retain in their stock after the performance, as the more costumes a company owns, the more they can pull from for future shows. It's been my experience that a well-made costume can typically be utilized in at least five productions at your typical regional LORT theatre before it needs major overhaul, or moves into a second life as a decon/reconstructed costume or distressed/beggar-class costume.
Here's a real-life example: we are not renting any of our costumes for Pericles
, a huge show which has probably around 50 costumes in the version we're doing. We're making about 8 costumes, which will go into stock at the end of the run, and the rest are pulled from stock, altered, reconstructed, and/or dyed/painted or otherwise embellished. We could have rented the whole show and spent all our time and effort on doing reversible alterations on rental costumes; at the end, we'd have had to undo all the alterations and spend another few days after everything came back from the cleaners (since rental companies usually require confirmation of dry-cleaning of all items before returning them) packing them up and shipping them all. Instead, we make a few, alter the rest, and keep everything. I won't say NO labor is wasted--it's theatre, things will get cut--but far less labor goes toward something that has no longterm benefit to the company. After all, if you make it, even a costume that gets cut during tech still goes into stock.
Perhaps it's better to look at this rental issue from the other way around: might a company reap the benefit from establishing a means for conducting rentals of their own stock? Oregon Shakespeare Company is a great example of a company that's made this work very successfully--they are a primary rental source for theatre costumes and take in a certain amount of revenue from their rental department. Opera and ballet companies who build on-site also often operate with a rental component--they invest in making a whole opera or ballet, then reap the benefits of renting it as a batch to other companies staging the same show later on. Thrifted costumes
Thrifted costumes can be the only option sometimes for student groups, church theatre, no-budget productions, and if you are making theatre on a shoestring, you make do with what you can. However, in terms of professional theatre, in my experience, 9 times out of 10 when a costume designer brings in some clothing s/he has purchased at a thrift store for costumes, the amount of labor that goes into alterations and making them stageworthy is comparable to that of having gone ahead and made the item from scratch.
Thrift store clothing is already secondhand--it's already been worn in someone's everyday life, laundered, sometimes damaged. Thrift store clothing is also most often mass-manufactured clothing and has not been constructed with alterations in mind--picking apart a seam sewn with a five-thread overlock machine is maddening, and there's nothing in its seam allowance to let out if the garment is too small. When thrifted costumes go into your stock after the run of a show (provided they survive it), you can count on them to hold up through perhaps 1-3 more shows, as opposed to the 5-8 shows you can expect with a new item. Depending on the state of the item when purchased, thrifted costume pieces make more long-term sense than rentals do, in that you do wind up with a certain number of costumes that go into your stock afterward, but often what you save in materials costs you spend and then some in labor. Reusing costumes
Now here's one i can get behind...to a degree. I mean, actually, to a great degree, because pulled shows mean crafts-heavy labor, which means yay, work for me! But, that's something to figure into your evaluation when you decide to costume a show largely or entirely by pulling from stock.
Stock consists of all the costumes in still-wearable condition, from all the shows a company has ever done and then some (i.e., including donations). These things are every imaginable shape, size, and color...but the trouble is, sometimes the thing that fits or can be made to fit is not the right style or color so something has to be done to accommodate that. Whenever a show is designed from stock, a large part of what makes it a visually-cohesive show falls to the crafts artisan--costumes get dyed to conform to the show's palette, accessories are constructed to "pull together" the look of a chorus or collection of characters, distressing or toning or other paint effects are the "glue" the holds the show together design-wise. It's not just crafts--stitchers and first hands add trim and appliques, refurbish or decon/reconstruct things and deploy other tricks to make these disparate costumes from a dozen previous unrelated, unconnected shows hang together as a whole--but the point is, a pulled show still requires labor and expenditure of resources, often more than people think. There's a lot you need to do beyond pulling your reused costumes in order to mount a professional show with them.
Or, you don't do any of that and it looks like you rag-picked your show from a dumpster and a dress-up box. Which is maybe what you are going for, but 9 times out of 10, it doesn't stop with a pulled costume as-is. I'm just saying, with reuse comes a whole new set of costuming issues, and particularly if you are thinking about conservation, dyeing is a big one to weigh, in the scheme of things
.Laundry minimizing and hanging-dry
With all due respect to whomever wrote this, it's not even a valid suggestion. Actors Equity won't allow wardrobe to just "skip" laundering costumes--if you aren't operating an Equity house, okay, ask your actors if they are willing to wear sweaty, dirty, rank costumes for several shows running. Good luck with that. The rest of us are required to do laundry of launderable items after every performance. As for hanging dry, if you have a sunny day and a clothesline and the time to sit and watch over the costumes to make sure someone doesn't run off with the lead actor's pants, okay, give it a shot. As a general rule though, Equity houses have to do lots and lots of laundry, and that laundry is done in washing machines and dryers. Use responsible laundry soaps and softeners, buy energy efficient and low-water appliances, but don't tell me NOT to do laundry in my wardrobe department; it's naive at best and downright absurd.
I don't mean to suggest that i am against making the theatre industry more ecologically responsible--i'm saying that there are no simple solutions and that more consideration and weighing of impact is necessary than simply making a list of brainstormed ideas and implementing them without further investigation.
You can't pull shows if you don't also invest in adding valuable items to your stock.
You can't run a union house without laundry appliances.
You can't rent entire shows and feel proud of how ecologically-sound that decision was, nevermind what it does in terms of pissing away your budget.
invest in quality, well-made costumes that can be used again and again.
You can run a dyeshop with a mind to water and energy conservation
impress upon your designers the impact of their decisions (for example, "Every time you purchase a fabric to be custom-dyed, that utilizes up to 200 gallons of water in the process," or "If you spend your entire budget on rentals, we will not be investing our costume budget back into our own stock.").
I think the most ecologically sound theatre is street Butoh in trash-picked attire. Theatre done in the actors' own clothes on grassy clearings in public parks is the next rung up, and then there's what we call "sweatsuits in a black-box by ghostlight". If we're going to do theatre with any kind of advanced production values though, we've got to compromise and make sensible, well-thought-out long-term choices, and we've got to include everyone in the conversation. It's clear to me that these costume-related suggestions listed by these organizations are either aimed at theatres who do not aspire to high technical production values, or were dreamed up by people who didn't run them by an actual costumer first.
And honestly, the first nail in the coffin of any regional theatre company is a lack of communication and mutual respect among departments. Which is weird, because talking's free, and so is demonstrating respect for one another's art and artisanship.