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The theater is no place for a plant

Published May 20, 2013

by igarrett

Every evening in most theaters, the air conditioning is turned up high, while technicians check every piece of 575w+ lighting and meticulously focused speaker clusters. They ensure that there is no foreign light, that the artificial fog moves the right way, and that the audience is comfortably buffered from influences we don’t control.

Usually, when I talk about theater being an unsustainable process, I am referring to the temporary nature of production. This lack of permanence, unlike “green” building, doesn’t justify a capital investment in sustainable construction materials, like Forest Stewardship Council (F.S.C.) lumber and no-Volatile Organic Compounds (V.O.C.) paint. There is a big difference in building your house and building A Doll’s House. But on top of all of that, the actual environment of the theater is an inhospitable one for most living things.

As a graduate student at CalArts, I worked on a production of Naomi Izuka’s SKIN, in which the scenic design had a ground row of living plants between the audience and the stage. Conceptualized as a natural lens to view a gray industrial space (really the theater itself), we worked long hours on supporting this living design element. This included setting a schedule to remove the plants front the theater, daily, as to bring them outside into the sun. We installed a plastic membrane between the soil and the rest of the set to allow for regular watering. We had to find mature plants, and spares for those that died, to fill a flower bed 1’ by over 100’ for two weeks of performances. Finally, we had to figure out where these plants would go two weeks later, when we were finished with them.

And after all that, the plants never looked real. In the hyper-designed theatrical realm, their lush leaves looked bland -- so much so that they were lit with a bright green as to make them “pop.” Here was all this effort to include a living thing, but ultimately for something that looked fake. Aside from the knowledge of the crew, we could have skipped this life support system entirely, and plastic plants would have been just as effective. But this was graduate school, so we were allowed our indulgence.

While I was living in Houston, Texas, I was contracted to design a set in a large warehouse space. The play called for a large facade in a tropical location. I very much wanted to grow the facade, and deeply invested hours of research into kudzu. Kudzu, for those unfamiliar with "the plant that ate the South," is an Asian vine that was brought into the United States to assist with abating erosion. But, as with many attempts to introduce foreign flora or fauna into a new region, it took over. It can grow over one foot in a day and is known for enveloping homes in a season. Of course, on a tight schedule, I wanted it for its quick growing properties, but soon learned that it was illegal to bring into Texas. A plant that could tough out the harsh theatrical environment, so hardy and aggressive it is legislated against its use.

As a human being, not solely dependent on sunlight for my day-to-day living, I recognize the unnatural situation of entering a building early in the morning to sit in a dark room and then leaving once it is night. This is the theatrical environment of many contemporary theaters. During the winter months, I’ve not seen the sun itself for days, and have weathered a couple blizzards in a tee-shirt with no clue as to the snow pack outside. And, when I’ve tried to bring the outside inside, it’s been a poor substitute for a substitute or just plain disallowed.

As a child, I grew to love Shakespeare at a theater in Southern California called the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. It was started by Will Geer, an actor best known as Grandpa Walton. He had been blacklisted during McCarthyism and retreated to land he had purchase in Topanga Canyon on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Here he grew vegetables for his livelihood, with a road-side stand, but also began a theater company in an outdoor amphitheater.

I would later work at the Theatricum Botanicum as an administrator, but this is where I first learned to listen to theater, to let go of the words on the page and fill in the rest with theater artists at work. There, theater takes place in natural canyon with railroad ties for bench seating and a simple stage that is a deck over a sometimes-stream.

And, what I learned there is that you can’t design this environment. The annual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is magical because it doesn’t need anything except to happen. It is natural and spontaneous in this canyon in a way which the controlled environment of the theater space downtown could never really replicate. For all the technology to make theatrical magic, this place used as itself is a better substitute than the substitute.

Of course, when you tried to put Arthur Miller on that stage it was, at times, to mixed effect. It’s hard to make a living room believable in the woods.

But we should be thinking about our theater spaces in the same way that landscape architects think about working with an indigenous environment: What is the best thing for this place and use? How do we make a theater space that fulfills our needs and desires, while supporting life? A part of sustainability in architecture is about environmental health: natural lighting, air-quality, safety. Perhaps rather than just putting solar panels on the roof, we should be thinking about making sure a building allows life in the first place.

his was originally posted on and is reposted by permission from the Ashden Directory:

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