Design by Evelyn Mousigian

While climate policy is hotly debated in national politics, many programs at the University of Michigan have been incorporating sustainable initiatives, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and minimizing waste sent to landfills. One of these programs includes the Department of Theatre & Drama at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD). 

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jordan Pinet has been studying theatre design and production at the University for four years, focusing particularly on stage management. She recently looked into the school’s theater program to evaluate if the theater productions are sustainable.

Pinet conducted an independent research study, which has not yet been published, about theatre sustainability during the summer of 2021 to understand how theatre programs can become more sustainable. Pinet conducted her research within the Department of Theatre & Drama, studying different shops within theater production and their efforts to become more sustainable in addition to what needs to be improved.

She found that the University is effective in incorporating environmental sustainability but often overlooks other important aspects of sustainability, such as social sustainability. Based on her research, Pinet said theater programs need to focus more on social sustainability because burnout is a relevant and widespread issue in theatre.

“I did some research this past summer, specifically an independent study about theater sustainability, looking into how we move past just environmental sustainability,” Pinet said. “Sustainability is talked about as this three-branch concept, where environmental sustainability is one part of that, but there’s also social and economic sustainability.”

Pinet said her findings revealed how the University takes sustainability into account for necessities like props, costumes and lighting by reusing or refurbishing costumes and props and switching to LED lights and motion sensors in dressing rooms. Pinet said financial and labor limitations prevent further options to explore sustainability. 

Pinet said she understands the difficulty of achieving sustainability within a university because of the frequent turnover of students and staff. 

“Something that I think a lot of places, including (U-M) theatre, (should consider is): How do you put policies and practices in place so that the sustainable things you’re doing now keep happening even when people change?” Pinet said. “Especially with things like student (organizations), where the entire organization is run by people that’ll be gone in four years?”

Pinet is also a Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) captain for the University, which means she is working to help make the University’s theatre programming more sustainable. Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Alyssa Sunew has been a part of two theatre projects at the school, “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Sophisticated Ladies,”. Sunew said she was assigned to be the green captain of “Sophisticated Ladies” this past fall, but she didn’t accomplish as much as she wanted due to the vague nature of the role.

“I feel like (SMTD) could do a little more in actually facilitating this because the term green captain is (a cast member) that vouches for more sustainable practices,” Sunew said. “But in general, I think the school could do a lot better at creating a structure for how to go about that.”

Christianne Myers, interim head of design and production and a professor of theatre focusing on costume design, said she is looking forward to working with the BGA in the future to make the programs more sustainable in all aspects.

“Representatives from the BGA are doing a site visit and workshops in March,” Myers said. “They’re here for like five days to really do a shot-by-shot breakdown of what we can do in the short term and long term. So the team is invested in this work. It’s not like it’s this big question mark and hand wringing.” 

Sarah Oliver, assistant professor of theatre and drama, wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that the consultant group will work to help the Music, Theatre & Dance School and University Productions reflect on how to make their productions more sustainable starting in the winter 2023 semester.

“As faculty, students and guest designers work with University Productions to present 10 or more full-scale productions each year, reflecting and evaluating our process through the lens of sustainability will help us identify actionable steps to improve our sustainable theatre practices,” Oliver wrote.

While Pinet believes the University has more room to improve when it comes to incorporating sustainability, Myers spoke about how sustainability impacts elements of theatre from the buildings used on campus, to the final productions.

“We all need to do better in classes and in our performances, but I would say the theatre spaces are improving,” Myers said. “There have been infrastructure changes — everything from LED lights and (other changes in) dressing rooms — and as instrumentation changes over, they are definitely being replaced with things that are more friendly to the environment.”

Myers also spoke about the importance of reusing and recycling materials within costume design, which is both more affordable for the Department of Theatre & Drama and more sustainable. 

“We have a huge costume stock,” Myers said. “I’m guessing at least 80% of what ends up on stage is reused from something that’s been used before.”

The Music, Theatre & Dance School’s stock warehouse, known as Michigan’s largest closet, is a 17,000-square-foot space that holds more than 50,000 costume pieces. Myers said many other local Ann Arbor theaters can rent out the stock warehouse and use the pieces. Oliver said the costumes are accessible for others in Ann Arbor and beyond to rent in an email to The Daily.

“Supporting regional rentals helps to ensure other area high schools and theatres are able to have more sustainable practices as well,” Oliver wrote. “I have worked at other universities that did not see the value of maintaining costume and prop stock as a means of becoming more sustainable, and it was very detrimental to meeting overall sustainable practices.”

In addition to costume design, SMTD focuses on environmental sustainability when it comes to set design, according to Music, Theatre & Dance professor Jungah Han. In her experience on her first show, Han said she found that sets are not always easily altered, like costumes, but the Music, Theatre & Dance School attempts to reuse what it can, whenever possible. Han said that when reusing a costume is not possible that the costume department aims to make the props out of half recycled costume material and half new material.

While these environmental sustainability initiatives are important at SMTD, Pinet said the ultimate focus now should be on organizational sustainability. This is especially important to her after the pandemic because much of the staff is not just learning how to make productions more sustainable but also relearning how in-person productions work.

“Something that I care a lot about, as someone who wants to continue to work in this field, is what changes do we need to make so people are able to have the lives they want to lead?” Pinet said. “What do you do to make sure that people have days off and that’s not seen as ridiculous or unreasonable?” 

In light of this, Pinet’s hopes her research will push the theatre program to reduce burnout and reinforce what she calls “people sustainability.”

“In a world where we’re producing 10 shows a year, everyone is almost always overstretched,” Pinet said. “That’s where I think it’s super important to do all this work. And that’s the frustrating thing, too. It takes time, especially if you want to be sustainable to the people that you’re working with.”

Daily News Reporter Rachel Mintz can be reached at mintzrac@umich.edu.