A different kind of artistry: Orchestrating sustainability with the theatre department

Post by IU Newsroom intern Laura Ellsworth:

The IU Bloomington Office of Sustainability has 30 programs on the docket to support its conservation goals for 2020, and one IU student, with the help of a university grant, is doing her part to make these goals a reality.

Olivia Ranseen in front of a tree

Olivia Ranseen is a Sustainability Scholar.

Olivia Ranseen, a 2020 Sustainability Scholar and environmental management major, got involved in associate professor Paul Brunner’s sustainability project, “The Waste Stream in Theatrical Production and a Vision for the Future,” last year. This project combined Ranseen’s interest in theater with her passion for environmental responsibility.

“I think climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, and I want to devote my life to solving, or rather mitigating, environmental issues,” she said.

Ranseen has taken a running start with this goal. During the 2015-16 academic year, she went backstage with Brunner and conducted an environmental audit on the entire theater program at IU. This study culminated in recommendations for IU Theatre and helped to implement carbon dioxide and occupancy sensors in Ruth Halls Theatre and Wells-Metz Theatre, which help regulate temperature based on occupancy.

In April, Ranseen and Brunner received a grant for $3,000 from IU’s Office of Sustainability for a case study on the upcoming production of “The Duchess of Malfi,” studying how individual productions can be more sustainable. The show will be live at the Well-Metz Theatre Feb. 3 and 4 and Feb. 7-11.

Even the smallest of changes make a difference, as evidenced by the electronic sign-in sheet Ranseen implemented with the help of stage manager Josiah Brown and assistant stage manager Caroline Lee, the “green captain” for the production. This sign-in, as well as Lee’s efforts to recycle paper for stage notes, cut paper waste within the production.

The sustainability research Ranseen conducted led the theater department to begin looking at material usage as well. The department is now using about 20 rechargeable batteries for microphones over the course of the academic and summer seasons in lieu of the 630 to 750 alkaline batteries they previously would throw away.

Scene from "The Duchess of Malfi."

See sustainability at work in the upcoming production of “The Duchess of Malfi.” Photo courtesy of the Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.

Other materials the production adopted in line with Ranseen’s efforts include Ecor, a wood alternative made of recycled agricultural and paper fibers. Jeff Baldwin, technical director for “The Duchess of Malfi,” experimented with multiple ways to use Ecor, which has subsequently made its IU debut in some stage decking and scenery for this production. By introducing new materials and easy changes to make the theatre program more environmentally friendly, Ranseen hopes these changes are lasting.

“As an academic theatre, we experience a lot of turnover because people graduate every year, and so maintaining those efforts can be difficult,” Ranseen said. “Paul [Brunner] and I are currently working on ways to keep environmental initiatives going.”

Looking to the future, Ranseen is collaborating with IU Facility Operations to replace the house lights with LEDs, which will decrease energy consumption.  The joint project has a feasibility study planned, with the intention of installation in summer 2018.  In addition to the efficiency of lighting, IU Facility Operations and the Musical Arts Center are participating in figuring out ways to recycle lighting materials more effectively to further reduce waste.

“I’ve found that sustainability is always an afterthought, and I think it should be an integral part of every process,” Ranseen said. “Often, sustainability requires a change in behavior, and that’s the most difficult part.’

Ranseen thinks that sustainability efforts like those demonstrated in “The Duchess of Malfi” can be implemented elsewhere on campus. As chair of the Residence Hall Association’s Sustainability Committee and its Eco Reps program, she works with residence hall representatives on sustainability education and identifying environmental issues in their residence halls. To Ranseen, the university’s sustainability efforts are bigger than just IU Bloomington.

“The university, of course, is centered on students,” she said. “It exists to cultivate the great minds of tomorrow, but how can it do that if doesn’t help lead the fight for tomorrow — for a hospitable planet? It has immense resources and concerned students who want to make an impact.”

IU Bloomington is making efforts, as Ranseen said, to “lead the fight,” and sustainability with “The Duchess of Malfi” is just the beginning of how students can help. Tickets to see sustainability at work in “The Duchess of Malfi” are available online.

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