Monday, August 23, 2010

OOB-er Waste

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Neal Freeman

First let me say that I’m honored to be featured as a guest blogger and that I don’t have a particular theme in mind for the week. Rather, I’m planning to write about a few topics that I often chew on myself without worrying about tying them together. I’ve also got a special guest for one of the posts later in the week. I welcome comments, feedback, and differing opinions. And now, on to the blogging!

This, by the way, right here, is my first blog post EVER.


OOB-er Waste

As Executive Director of an Off Off company, I often find myself (as I suppose many do) wearing any number of different hats around the theater. Volunteer carpenter is one of them, and despite my hatred for power saws (frankly, they scare me), I spend a lot of time in the theater assembling or dismantling our sets.

Our procedure is something like this: Go to Lowe’s. Buy a bunch of lumber and paint. Hire “man with a van” for $30 to bring it the 4 blocks back to the theater. (Seriously, it’s only 4 blocks.) Ask him to help us unload it. He declines. (Did I mention he only had to drive 4 blocks?) Over the course of 2 or 3 weekends, chop up the wood and assemble it according to whatever set we’re building. Paint it. Take pictures of it at a dress rehearsal. Charge people $18 to see it 12 or 16 times over the next 2 or 3 weeks. Then on the Sunday evening after the last performance, dismantle it as quickly as possible, chop it up into pieces no more than 5 feet long, and put it out with the garbage. Repeat 7 more times. Every season.

This is reductive, of course. We go to Materials for the Arts whenever we can, and as a company with our own space we have many stock items like flats and platforms that we re-use. But for every show there’s still a good amount of lumber we buy that will be cut and screwed into and onto various pieces that isn’t practical to keep when the show is over. We don’t have the space for all of it, and because of our limited storage we have to make smart decisions about things we might actually want again vs. things that are just going to get crammed in a corner and take up valuable space before they are thrown out in 5 years, un-used.

I also know that as a company with our own year-round space, we have it easier than itinerant companies for whom it must be significantly harder to avoid throwing out nearly everything at the end of a production.

I’d love to donate things at the end of a show to MFTA or to other theater companies. Sometimes we do. More often, we simply don’t have the resources to truck materials around the city after every show or to keep them around until someone else can pick them up. Besides, a lot of it gets destroyed in the process of trying to take it apart, or has been permanently altered in the construction phase into some specialized shape that isn’t useful to others. Ultimately it’s a hell of a lot easier to throw it away then it is to deal with donating it to someone else.

And this doesn’t take into account the paint, which of course cannot be re-used once it has been applied.

I wish I was leading up to some brilliant epiphany about how to work in a less wasteful way but I don’t have one.

For now I just accept that the fleeting nature of theater makes us far less responsible as consumers than I’m comfortable with.


  1. Neal,

    At Retro Productions we are in much the same boat (only without our own year round space). We keep and reuse 85% of our stuff. Where scenery is concerned we save all the hardware (most of it is screwed together, and unless the screws are stripped, we collect and reuse them), we use a rotating rep of flats, platforms and curtains, and we reuse wood until it is nothing but a splinter. This reduces waste as well as saves money.

    But yes, there are some things that can not be reused. We were able to cut down our juke box from Red Ryder and create the computer consul for Desk Set, but the stove and ice box from Holy Days were donated to Brooklyn College in stead of pulling them apart (I mean, they were gorgeous, they should be used again by someone!). We sell 90% of our props off at yard sales instead of storing them and we sell many costumes to actors or donate them to schools for reuse because our storage is so limited.

    We would give more to MFTA (since we feel so lucky to be a recipient organization) if we could get the stuff there, or if they would pick it up, but alas, we never have enough to donate at once to get them to come out. I wish we could collectively figure out how to convince them to make the trip for smaller donations, or to make a pick up loop: hit a bunch of us smaller organizations in one day.

  2. This might only occasionally salvage a significant amount of material, but why not put up postings on Craigslist, Glory's List, etc. about when strike day is, what's going to be available, and that anyone who can come with their own transport can take it away for free?

  3. Thanks for the thoughts. We re-use probably 80-90% of our things too - it's more the general model of buy it, build it, and throw it away that theater creates that I am complaining about. In every other instance I find the fleeting nature of theater to be an asset. In this case, it is particularly frustrating to me as someone who wants to be a responsible consumer, and wants to model that behavior.

    Chavisory - the problem with what you are proposing, at least for us, is that we generally don't know what will be up-for-grabs until we're actually taking things apart. And the good items - furniture and re-usable material - we do either save or find a home for. It's the chopped up luan, paint, splintered boards, wall treatments, etc that no one else is going to be able to use that fills our garbage bags. It truly is actual garbage, and over a 7 or 8 show season, it starts to really add up.