Q: The other month I caught a preview performance of the most expensive Broadway production ever, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” I don’t think I’ll ever view theater the same way again after that one. After weeks of digesting the nail-biting spectacle of it all, I got to thinking about the environmental cost of putting on a show. The lights, the costumes, the ticketing, the concessions, the travel (I fully admit to flying across the country just to see it) … some of these big Broadway productions are like major sporting events. I’m no Broadway buff but I do know that the Great White Way frequently champions numerous causes. Is green one of them?

 

Hey there,

You’re right about a Broadway production being like a sporting event. You’ve got the captivated audience, the bright lights, the high drama and the intricate choreography. Just swap out “Memory” for a chorus of grunts and groans and you’re pretty much there.

I’m not a theater man myself — my favorite production will forever be a fake one, “Red, White, and Blaine” from “Waiting For Guffman” — but I do know that Broadway is taking big steps to green-up the Great White Way. No, we won’t be seeing “Silent Spring: The Musical” hit 42nd Street anytime soon, but thanks to the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA), eco-friendly tweaks have been made on and off the stages of Broadway’s biggest shows.

Launched in 2008 as Broadway Goes Green with the collaboration of the Natural Resources Defense Council (the NRDC also works alongside various professional sports organizations to help them minimize their environmental footprints), the BGA describes itself as an “industry wide initiative that educates, motivates and inspires the theatre community and its patrons to adopt environmentally friendlier practices in theatre production and every day life.”

As noted by NRDC Senior Scientist Allen Hershkowitz in July 2010, since the creation of the BGA all 40 Broadway theaters have given their marquees energy-efficient makeovers and replaced older washers/dryers with EnergyStar models (saving enough energy to power all of those marquees for three months). Numerous Broadway theaters have instituted comprehensive recycling programs and adopted other energy-saving, waste-curbing behind-the-scenes practices. Additionally, touring productions have offset over 4,000 tons of carbon emissions through the Touring Green program. And all those sets? Eighty-four percent of the scenery from shows that have closed since January 2009 has been recycled or reused. Recent BGA public-outreach programs include an e-waste recycling event and a textile drive.

And then there’s the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, formerly Henry Miller’s Theater, a new venue christened as Broadway’s first LEED-certified theater. So yeah, Broadway is just about as green as the witch Elphaba's complexion.

Off Broadway, not in Blaine, Mo., but in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, another theater is putting Mother Nature in the spotlight: The Bushwick Starr. This nonprofit performance venue is home to Big Green Theater (BGT), a community-based project that invites neighborhood students to help create short plays about environmental topics. The educational component of the program kicked off in the fall of 2010, and on Earth Day 2011, the BGT will host a two-day performance festival where the students’ eco-themed plays are brought to life by professional actors in a “Green Theater” environment. Part of the proceeds from the festival will be donated to local green organizations.

  

One of the resources utilized by the Bushwick Starr to meet “Green Theater” standards is Materials for the Arts, a fantastic arts-centric reuse and recycling center operated by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs that I recently had the opportunity to visit with Michael Levinton, Artistic Director of the downtown theater company Little Lord.

So there you are. Although I can’t speak directly to the eco-friendliness of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” Broadway, as a whole, should receive a standing ovation for its NRDC-assisted greening efforts. And then there are nonprofit theater organizations like Bushwick Starr that are also making remarkable green strides particularly on the environmental education and community-building fronts. I’d check out what regional theater companies in your neck of the woods are doing to go green and considering checking out a production that doesn’t involve aerial stunts and Bono.

— Matt

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.