Behind the Curtains: The Unseen Waste

By Charlotte Diamond

A large cast of high schoolers are trying their best to sit quietly for their soon awaited performance in a crowded room filled with remnants of aging set pieces from shows that have long been performed. As the number of actors participating in the plays increases and the amount of pieces of theatrical scenery that need to be stored expands, we have begun to outgrow the space. A few pieces are around that I can recognize, mainly the giant china cabinet that was donated to last year’s fall production of The Dining Room. It stands ominously tall and was placed in a corner in an attempt to make the room less claustrophobic, but it doesn’t quite do the trick. Neither do the large amounts of acting blocks of various wild colors that were made for Godspell and now have to be stored here. Items are donated for specific purposes and once they have outlived their use no one can seem to get rid of them. What’s sad is that we have a small bright purple storage shed where big set pieces such as these are supposed to go, but we have long outgrown that, too. This theater is not alone in this problem. “I have stored lots of scenery and the reality is that very little of it gets reused,” explains Ted Kraus, professor in the theatre department of the University of Arizona.

I have been in a number of plays and musicals and have seen many sets go in and out of theatres but I never have considered just how many materials are used on a stage for a production of a show. Eric Covell, assistant technical director at Muhlenberg, worked on the set design for Muhlenberg’s 2016 production of Pirates of Penzance. “The entirety of this set was built for this show,” explained Covell while looking at the giant set. “There were no pieces that we could pull from stock because of its totally unique shapes. So everything was built for this.” You can see the various materials involved in creating the island for the first Act and the ruined chapel for the second. Covell clarified that a show like this where everything is from scratch is not typical for Muhlenberg. The department tries to put on productions that are not as specific in scenery as Pirates of Penzance so that they can use what’s already in stock. “I can’t imagine anything that was built for this first act of the show was saved very much at all,” said Covell. He estimates that the larger pieces such as the stone walls and the island platforms were most likely all thrown away due to limited storage.

While the Pirates of Penzance production involved a lot of materials, there are ways that theatres can create sustainable sets. For example when Iman Corbani professor at the University of Texas designed the sets for Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn he wanted to create a zero-waste set and prove that it is possible to create a zero-waste production on a professional scale. Corbani started by checking to see what he already had in stock. Most theatres have a shed or room where they store old pieces of scenery and props. By looking at what is in stock and designing your set with that in mind you are able to be inspired by the pieces available to you and work it into the design intentionally.

It is not essential to sustainability but it is certainly helpful for the designer to have vast knowledge on how scenery is built. This way they can find alternatives to materials that serve a very similar purpose in construction. For example, reclaimed lumber can be used in place of brand new plywood. Corbani also conducted a waste audit. At the end of the production the crew broke down the set pieces into smaller parts and weighed everything. After their calculation they found that the waste product was 5.2% of the net scenic weight which means that 94.8% of the scenery was saved from landfill. The 94.8% of scenic waste was further broken down to 86.5% distributed to other theatres for reuse, 7.6% recycled. 0.5% returned to where it was purchased or loaned and 0.07% composted.

Corbani acknowledges that zero-waste works for a large theatre with access to a large amount of stock which a small theatre would not be likely to have. But Corbani was able to show that a zero-waste set doesn’t necessarily have to look or be made out of garbage. They also proved that sustainable design does not have to be more expensive. The money is just distributed differently, the budget for materials goes down and the labor budget goes up.

Covell explained that Muhlenberg’s theatre department is trying to be more sustainable. “Probably the biggest problem we have with saving scenery is storage space,” explained Covell. “However in today’s environment the storage space is cheaper than the materials to build one offs.” As of May 2020 the Muhlenberg Theatre Department has only one storage room left in Empie theatre but Covell had some great ideas about future sustainability for shows despite the limited storage space. “One of the things we’re talking about is requiring designers to have a percentage of the set that comes out of stock. The idea being that you have to design keeping in mind things that we own.” To prepare for that sort of requirement Muhlenberg Theatre has begun to make a digital catalogue of scenery, costumes and props. Regardless of the size of the theatre company, reducing waste and creating more sustainable sets is a solvable issue, it just takes a bit of creative thinking and planning ahead.

Photo by Ken Eck. (2017). The Pirates of Penzance.

POLYSTYRENE: Polystyrene was used behind walls to support and also on the fake walls to give the look of stone. Eric guessed that the production used about 30-40 2×3 and 1/2” thick sheet and 20 8” thick 1’x2’ blocks.

FLATS: The basic structure of the walls is made up of quarter inch plywood and built up using 1x3s or 1x4s. Then there is a quarter of an inch of polystyrene foam on top to create the fake stones on the faces of the walls. There are also six inch thick blocks of polystyrene on the back of the wall. Some of the other stones were made of homatose which is a building material made up of recycled paper. For adhesives wood glue was used on all of the wooden framing and blue foam bond adhesive was used to secure the polystyrene. The columns were made out of cardboard tubes which they stuffed a foam block into and carved it. The large wooden structures on the top of the walls are thin plywood cutouts with blocks of foam in between them.

STEEL: The ornate structure in the middle of this set called the apse was made out of a lot of pieces of welded steel and a cutout attached to it. “However the steel that went into the ornate structure was all reused and in building it I kept my pieces as long as possible with the thought of how am I going to cut this up afterwards so I can reuse as much as possible?”

PLYWOOD: The structure of the walls are made of plywood. The platforms are also made out of plywood. Eric estimated that this show likely used 40-50 thick plywood sheets that are 4’x8’. For the outline of the stage you can see a huge wooden portal most likely also made out of plywood.

WAGONS: The first set for this show was a dramatic cathedral that is a series of three scenery wagons. Scenery wagons are typically a mobile platform used to support and move three-dimensional scenery on a stage. The three wagons lock together to make the broken cathedral. They used dimensional lumber (various species of pine) on the framing of the walls and the framing of the platforms.

PLATFORMS: Three quarter inch plywood was used on the lid of the platforms to create the floor. Platforms are very rarely made new, most are reused by theatres time and time again. “This island that was here is a series of wooden platforms, plywood structure then coated in wire mesh and essentially treated like paper mache. To give it this fake stone look.”

BACKDROP: The backdrop of the stage is a softgood or a cyc which is a white sheet that is lit with blue light. The department has had the soft goods for almost eleven years and they are reused time and time again.

PROPS: The fake foliage and grass you see was purchased for the show but it was kept and is still in stock. Then there is some foliage lining stage left which was a base of plywood with fake foliage layed on top. The props such as the barrels and boxes the department already had in stock and still do.

PAINT: Eric estimated “with a production of this size, they easily used 15 gallons of paint. were used.”