Greening the Great White Way: Broadway’s New Environmental Ethic

First published on Take Part, November 4, 2014. Read the original here.

A few years ago, Susan Sampliner, the company manager of the Broadway show Wicked, was given an unusual task by her boss, producer David Stone: Take the next 18 months, he told her, and consider what we could do to make the show more environmentally sustainable.

“He had seen An Inconvenient Truth,” Sampliner said, and “it was a huge revelation.”

Stone assigned all four companies of Wicked the same job, and at the end of 18 months, he and Sampliner organized a town hall meeting to discuss what they had discovered. Despite there being no governing body pushing Broadway to go green, no directors or audiences demanding more sustainable shows, and no real incentives or penalties pushing the issue in any way, more than 250 people showed up. Out of that meeting came the Broadway Green Alliance.

“I decided we should have three basic committees to start,” Sampliner said, looking at preproduction (the building of the physical aspects of a show), production (the actual running of a show), and venues (the Broadway theaters themselves). In time, BGA added three more committees, handling touring, outreach, and education.

The changes they’ve pursued are mostly small-scale, such as adjusting the way in which shows place inserts inside the Playbill when an actor is out sick. But the returns are big: Sampliner said that that change alone has saved Wicked reams of paper—and nearly $5,000 a month.

The BGA organizes four collection drives a year, getting the vast theater community to donate reusable or recyclable clothes and electronics for reuse. The group also runs The Binder Project, which distributes to theater companies free, recycled binders to use in play readings.

The number of small-but-possible adjustments Broadway shows can make to be greener is vast: from putting high-efficiency bulbs in marquee lighting, to discontinuing the use of non-sustainable set-building materials such as Luan, which is made from a tropical hardwood, to buying carbon offsets for touring vehicles. Simply by switching to reusables in their body microphones, Wicked producers slashed the number of batteries they bought from 15,000 a year to 90.

Sampliner points out that many of the methods at the core of sustainability are old hat to theater professionals: things like upcycling cheap materials, adapting set pieces from ones already in stock, and ensuring that every usable piece of a set is taken when the show comes down.

She encourages interested productions to choose one thing they could change, then invest the savings from that change into a bigger change, and so on.

“Environmentalism is a science,” says Donyale Werle, the award-winning designer of such Broadway hits as Peter and the Starcatcher and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

That’s why, for each show she designs, Werle hires a green intern who does a case study on every aspect of the production. This helps keep the design team on track and proves that the “green” in green design doesn’t just mean more money. She also asks the fabricating companies she works with to quote her two prices—one for traditional products and one for green alternatives.

Werle believes that changing Broadway’s ways starts with designers.

“We’re building sets that last a lifetime for productions that run, what, a weekend?” asked Werle. “A week? Even three years isn’t very long in the scheme of things.”

The idea is that if designers start demanding sustainable options from the companies they commonly use, greener products will appear on the market. If they start using greener production methods to deliver popular shows—as Werle did on Peter and the Starcatcher (for which she won a Tony in 2012)—directors will begin to see that “sustainable” doesn’t mean “homespun” or “crafty.”

Both Sampliner and Werle see education as a crucial part of the movement. “You can spend a lot of time trying to change what's already here,” Werle said, “or you can go to the people who are going to have a greater effect 10 years from now.”

That’s why the BGA has formed the Green Captains program, which works with productions on Broadway, off-Broadway, at regional theaters, and at universities to designate a point person for sustainability-related concerns. The hope is to create a pipeline of theater professionals who are thinking about these issues long before they ever step on a Broadway stage. Indeed, Werle’s green intern on this past summer’s production of Pump Boys and Dinettes at the New York City Center previously served as the green captain at Occidental College.

It's a strictly voluntary effort, so there’s no guarantee these changes will continue. But as more shows, designers, directors, and theaters sign on, the movement to green the Great White Way grows bigger every year. It might even have a run as long as Wicked’s.