The Challenges of Decreasing Theatre's Carbon Footprint

Rebekah Dare Guin

  • North Carolina Columnist

The Globe Theatre and theaters around the Globe, build elaborate sets for each one of their shows. Every time, they must face the environmental impact of set building and striking.  

“Theater is tough,” Adam Maxfield, technical director for Playmakers Repertory Company, said. “There is so much we can’t reuse. By the time material gets cut down, it is just cut down.” 

Sets, particularly the ones in large performance spaces, use truckloads of lumber, pounds of steel, boxes of screws, and gallons of paint in every shade of the rainbow. These materials are lovingly assembled and displayed during the run of a show. 

Then, the sledgehammers come out. 

Strike is an alarmingly short process in comparison to the build time of most projects. Sometimes, minutes after the audience leaves their seats, the cast and crew will be busy working to dismantle the world of the play. 

It might seem cathartic to chuck broken wood and mangled steel into industrial dumpsters, but it should also be unsettling. The pile of reusable and recyclable materials is dangerously low. 

This is not unusual. As soon as a drop of paint is brushed onto wood, it no longer meets the requirements for recycling. Of course, there is always in-house reuse, but for most items, it becomes impractical. 

Each set is unique. It is hard to see many of the pieces get reused. Pieces from ‘Sweeney Todd’ just don’t have much use in ‘My Fair Lady.’

Because of texturing and other design elements, it is difficult to reuse materials even if another show has a piece of the about the same size and shape. 

Additionally, most theaters do not have space. Even established theaters that have dedicated performance spaces often do not have the option of storing anything on site, and revenue rarely justifies an offsite storage facility.

“We just don’t have the ability to store large amounts of scenic elements,” Maxfield said. “If we had a warehouse somewhere where we could store lots of platforms and flats so we could adapt some basic elements and get two to three uses out of them, it would be great. We have some space, but it is already full of the basics. You try to put much more out there, and you would be breaking fire codes.”

This leaves theaters filling the air with sawdust before the applause even dies down. Load after load of waste is dragged out and stacked high. In a few weeks, set designers and technical directors will be starting the process anew. 

Sets are a vital part of the theater experience. Taking them away or minimizing them would irrefutably harm the art. Sets add life and structure, and they are arguably one of the features that distinguish great works from mediocre productions. Yet, those great works are adding mounds to landfills every few weeks.

It becomes the responsibility of the next generation of theatergoers and participants to find the artistic balance where both performance and the environment can thrive.