Photo Credit: Matt Wade
Written By McKenzi Thi Murphy
The Wicked Witch of the West isn’t the only one greenifying Broadway these days. From green initiatives off-stage to climate conscious productions onstage, organizations and individuals within the theatre community have committed to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
The conversations surrounding climate change and sustainability may seem far removed from larger-than-life musicals with kicklines and tap routines so often associated with Broadway. But while the theatre industry’s overall carbon footprint is relatively minor compared to the sprawling harm caused by coal and oil businesses, climate change is the result of a collective action.
“As a field we’re making stuff that is temporary,” Lisa McNulty, Director of WP Theatre, said. “We’re building things that are, by their nature, temporary. Within that how are you as
conscious as possible? How do we reckon with that as an artform?”
WP Theater, formerly known as Women’s Project, is one of several off-Broadway companies that have been fortunate enough to receive grants from the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) to help them tackle more ecofriendly practices. In the past few years they have been able to replace their lighting systems with LED fixtures, and have made a digital switch during script development, leading to a significant decrease in paper which is considered the most common waste product.
“There are ways that we occupy that space both in terms of practices in how we make art, but also in stories we tell,” McNulty said. WP Theater has also commissioned an upcoming environmental production, though it is still in the works. “[Sustainability] has always been a value for us.”
The push towards paperless practices, not only reduces extensive deforestation, but also limits the oil and water needed to produce said paper. Many new software used by theatre professionals cite environmental advantages as one of their biggest advantages. Stage Write, a product used to track stage placements and add detailed notes to scripts, among other things, is “a key to ensuring the theatre community effectively reduces its carbon footprint,” according to their website.
In fact, switching to more sustainable practices has become an industry-wide phenomenon in the past decade, largely led and supported by the BGA, a committee of The Broadway League, and associated with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“The BGA has focused on both broad actions and individual efforts.” Molly Braverman, the director of the Broadway Green Alliance, said. “That said, our mission is more specifically to motivate, inspire, and educate the theatre community and its patrons - as such, we are more focused on the individual.”
Simple things like providing theatre employees with reusable bottles instead of plastic, and offering a free exchange of binders to reduce cardboard consumption may seem relatively insignificant, but ultimately every little bit counts. These smaller everyday changes have been encouraged and implemented by “green captains” on and off-Broadway, as well as touring productions and college campuses, and BGA’s website lists well over 100 eco-friendly tips for both the industry and the individual.
Which is not to say BGA has not also tackled more sweeping industry-wide initiatives. While lightbulbs might not seem noteworthy, since switching to CFL and LED bulbs in Broadway theaters’ outdoor and marquee lights, they have reduced carbon emissions by 700 tons per year. These bulbs have also lasted significantly longer, leading to less waste due to replacements.
The switch to rechargeable batteries has similar positive impacts on the environment. Back in 2008, Wicked – appropriately leading Broadway’s transition into a greener existence – made the switch from regular alkaline batteries to rechargeable ones, according to John Curvan, a member of the show’s sound design team. To reduce the risk of show microphones going dead in the middle of a performance, batteries are regularly switched out before each show. By instead using rechargeables, Wicked was able to reduce their battery disposal waste by just under two tons in five years. Just like that, the need for over 15,000 batteries became less than 100. Since then, theatres across both Broadway and the world have followed suit.
With BGA’s association with Julie’s Bicycle, a UK based charity that supports creative community action in favor of environmental welfare, and as a founding member of the International Green Theatre Alliance, greener practices have extended far beyond the United States.
And of course, one of the theatre industry’s leading efforts to address climate change has been in what theatre does best – theatrical performances. This month alone, off-Broadway will premier two separate shows surrounding environmental concerns: “The Four Seasons” by Theatre Four @ Theatre Row, and “Hooked on Happiness” by Theater for the New City.
“Every year I watch the culture,” Tom Attea, writer of “Hooked on Happiness,” said. “This is the thing this year that deserves a voice on the stage. It magnifies meaning.”
The show, running through the end of the month, deals with a high school drama team that creates a musical on climate change and the backlash they face from their conservative parents. The younger generations’ action regarding climate change is extremely timely in the wake of Greta Thunberg and the climate march amidst the United Nation’s ongoing climate conference.
“Yes, it’s about climate change,” Attea said. “And it’s critical for us to get news of the musical out to schools. I think it can be an inspiration to a world of young people.”
Amidst all of this, The Arctic Cycle, an organization dedicated to theatre climate work, is hosting their biennial initiative, Climate Change Theatre Action. From mid-September to December 20, coinciding with the UN’s meetings on the climate, participants both within American and across 35 other countries produce short five-minute plays on the climate crisis.
“Efficacy isn’t a question of length,” Thomas Peterson, an artistic associate of The Arctic Cycle, said. “The goal of the plays is to start conversation around climate action…the problem we’re responding to is the dramatic underrepresentation of climate change in the cultural sphere and in the way we live our daily lives.”
Operating under the belief that the dramatic changes necessary to address and fix the climate crisis cannot happen without an equally dramatic cultural shift, he said, The Arctic Cycle uses theatre as a way to imbue this urgency into audiences’ psyches.
Theatre has historically been a way to foster community by bringing people together to a shared space to also share an experience.
“Theatre is our way of communicating,” Peterson said. “A tool to galvanize communities towards action.” By using its wide reach, theatre allows people to “have space to think through, and process, and also act on the dramatic and devastating changes that are going to be happening and accelerating in the next few years around the globe.”
In 2018, Kristalina Georgieva, CEO of the World Bank said that “we are clearly the last generation that can change the course of climate change.” The use of theatre as a medium to spark political discussions and become a vehicle for social change dates back to the earliest forms of theatre in Ancient Greece. It exists as an inherently political space with the potential to influence sweeping environmental discussion and action.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s saying that climate change doesn’t matter to us,” McNulty said. “It’s all of our responsibilities to be responsible to the culture that we live in, and to take care of each other and the planet.”