Monday, November 1, 2010

Anthony Runfola Reflects on Sustainabilty, Design, and Planning

How does sustainability affect design? Throughout the grant, I have always been of the mind that an artist should never have to compromise their design for sustainability's sake. You can only ask an artist to go so far with scenery made from tires or recycled plastic water bottles. And if reduce, reuse and recycle is the mantra of the green movement, I am finding it more and more difficult to work "reduce" into the artistry/sustainability equation. So where does that leave us?

The initial impetuous for this grant was to investigate alternative materials. We found lots of great options, but so far none have been cost effective for the average budget. Speaking to manufacturers about buying in bulk or creating a regional co-op in an attempt to lower the per-sheet price hasn't proven feasible either -- the reason we are told is that the process of harvesting and making wheatboard or bamboo plywood is so expensive at this point that there isn't much latitude in the pricing.

Scenic co-ops are great up to a certain point. But at Childsplay, I don't think we've ever needed a "standard" 4'X8' flat in the time I've worked here. Our touring productions are so specific in their requirements that even we can't reuse most of the sets, ourselves.

Many theatres have started to hire one or two designers to work for an entire season. This certainly seems like the beginning of reducing the amount of materials that go into a set. sustainable stagecraft all about the planning? How do we change our thinking enough to be creative and sustainable?

-- Anthony Runfola, Childsplay Production Manager


  1. Planning - yes! That is the answer in all cases. Sustainability is about efficiency and efficiency requires one to view the long-term scope of a project or season and plan accordingly. Sustainability is about innovation. I don't think the movement depletes creativity rather challenges the artist to be more creative. The task is the same; to make something new out of something that previously existed in a different form. Artists have been conditioned to work on a show by show basis, which means they have no true perspective of the bigger picture. That is no fault to artists, that is the conventional training and practice of the last hundred years or more - it has been the artist's conditioning. And as such theatre artists today are simply carrying out the tradition of wastefulness. Building anew each time isn't more creative, rather, easier.

    Co-ops are a fairly new phenomenon as well as bamboo and wheatboard, so of course the effectiveness is something shy of worthy at this point. But give those new practices time... they will develop into excellent resources. And sustainability flys in the face of the consumer based living to which Americans have become accustom. There is a fundamental mindset shift that has to occur for any new endeavor to have legs. And that will simply take time, effort and dedication.

    Also, I notice the idea of recycling, reducing and reusing as posited in this article relates only to how a theatre deals with material internally. What about looking for options outside the scope of the company? I have found contractors and carpenters where I live that are more than willing to give away perfectly good lumber. And what do you do when you are done with the newly fashioned scenic piece? You could give it to a co-op... I'm sure someone would find it useful. Or you might find a found object visual artist, interested in sustainability, that could rework the materials into a new piece. In all of these cases the only way to achieve something worthwhile is through careful planning and hard work.

    I recently started working on setting up a pipeline between a major regional theatre in my area and our co-op. The regional company is more than willing to offer us anything they have.

    I think the shift toward sustainability is difficult - but it is fundamentally better for the theatre. And with better planning and a re-prioritization of the way companies operate, sustainability will ultimately become easier. Maybe not every aspect of sustainability is applicable in all circumstances but the mission, the journey and the outcome will yield net gain for the theatre community.

    Thanks for the post - it raises some great questions.

  2. Thanks Derek. I really love how you framed the idea of sustainability and design: "The task is the same; to make something new out of something that previously existed in a different form." That really puts it into perspective for me!

    I do think that the co-ops will be great for smaller theatres with volunteer or small staffs. However, I am concerned about the business model - can a co-op exist without major funding to keep it going? ( I would hope that the larger theatres would always be willing to send scenery to the co-op rather than to the landfill. However, my experience with giving away scenic pieces or even entire sets to small theatres or high schools or visual artists has only been successful once - someone built a cabin out of one of our sets. I wonder if there is an intimidation factor. Perhaps they think, "I can't put this back together" or "I can't drive a truck that big to move it," or maybe they just can't *see* the potential.

    This spring Childsplay will be hosting another Sustainability Summit with the larger theatre community (high schools, colleges, non-pros and pros) in an attempt to hopefully dispel some of these notions and see how we can work together.

    I have to say over all of this is the formula good/cheap/fast/sustainable. You can have two.

  3. Funny you mention the Austin Scenic Co-op. I'm in the early stages of partnering/growing with the Scenic Co-op. I think your diagnosis that sustainability is daunting and intimidating is accurate, but you also prescribe the cure. Most people are too new to the ideas of sustainability and how simple it really can be to *see* its potentials. I think most people think there is this great divide between current practice and sustainable practice. And that is true from a theoretical or prioritization standpoint. But in terms of functionality the shift in work load only seems more because it is different work. I firmly believe that (as you said) through planning we maximize the net gain of our labor in such a way that one or two simple tasks, repetition come habit, can actually create a smoother and more efficient mode of operation that can lower costs, overhead expense and wasted labor energy that can be focused on actually creating more and better work. I know you're thinking "How?" And I'm fully ready to offer those solutions, but the scope is pretty great to just launch into.

    That said, at the base of it all is a community connection and taking initiative to create scenarios wherein patrons or community members can *see* the possibilities. And it sounds like Childsplay is starting that trend in an effective manner. It will be hard... progress always is, but I encourage you and implore you to keep at it. You have no idea what kind of impact a sustainable mode of operation can create. Or you do and see the work involved and (like me) sometimes cower at the pile of work required to make it "real".

    I'd like to keep this going between you and I (and others, if they are listening). I appreciate the exchange of ideas and ultimately, the discourse.

    Oh - and if sustainability is implemented and becomes the new tradition/ritual I think good/cheap/fast/sustainable becomes one. Really.


  4. Thanks for your thoughts. It's great to see we're not alone in thinking about this!

    I supposed I've revealed my cowering at that pile of work by taking almost two months to respond!

    I have to disagree with you - good/cheap/fast/sustainable cannot all exist in the same space. What I hope is that sustainable enters the formula in a way that it is something that all companies aspire to.

    I've just written a new post for the blog and as you'll see I'm going to be focusing on the planning in the new year - that is to say, good & sustainable. It appears to me now that we started out "thinking it" from a top-down approach (trying to source new material); and now it's time to try it from the bottom-up (in how we schedule our time and resources.)