Clemson University Players upcycle discarded material into something beautiful

Clemson University Players upcycle discarded material into something beautiful

by Thomas Hudgins

Bottles, plastic, and other items were used to create the (under)world of Eurydice.

Most of us dutifully take our small container of plastic, glass, and cardboard down to the curb on recycling day. But last season, the Clemson Players had more elaborate (and much bigger) plans for the items we toss out. Faculty and students took recycling to a new level when they mounted their production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice in January of 2015. They integrated traditionally reusable material into the play’s costume and scenic construction for a completely “upcycled” work of art.

Members of the Clemson University theatre department set a goal last year to produce at least one recycled show each season. They planned to design a production using materials already in stock; create awareness of campus recycling programs; create awareness of waste in the entertainment industry; teach students studying theatre to think in terms of sustainability and recycling; create ways to upcycle materials in abundance; and build bridges across disciplines with recycling projects.

Shannon Robert, Resident Scenic Designer and Associate Professor, was the driving force behind the initiative along with Technical Director Matthew Leckenbusch. “All production design elements focused on telling the story using fewer resources,” Robert said, “as well as using materials that would end up in a landfill if not properly recycled.

Though long interested in the idea, Robert was recently inspired to mount the project after she attended a lecture by Tony Award-winning scenic designer Donyale Werle, a trailblazer in popularizing sustainability as integral to the scenic design process. Her presentation dovetailed with the mission of the Broadway Green Alliance, an organization that encourages sustainable practices in Broadway theatres. With these influences in mind, Robert saw an opportunity after reading the University’s sustainability plan: put Werle’s concepts into practice for a student production.

This would be no mere exercise. Robert anticipates a future in which renewable materials will be paramount in the theatre industry, both from a social responsibility standpoint and a financially pragmatic one. “Our students are going to be working in a world where this kind of work is honored,” she said. The project would be both an effort to “stem the tide of wastefulness” in the theatre industry and training for the real world.

“We had been talking about doing a ‘green’ initiative for two or three years,” Leckenbusch said. He and Robert planned to start small by building an upcycled set for a play in the smaller Bellamy Theatre, but they soon became more ambitious. “Shannon and I were driving to Georgia to deliver something, and we started talking about it. She brought up the idea of using water bottles because of the direct thematic tie to Eurydice.”

This modern-day retelling of the Orpheus myth would be staged in the 968-seat Brooks Theatre, much larger than the intimate blackbox space they originally had in mind. The characters traverse a sunny shoreline and a dark, rainy underworld, so recyclable water bottles were an appropriate starting point for the set. The plan was to transform them into an enormous backdrop lit by ethereal colored lights that would transition seamlessly from one setting to the next. Despite its uniqueness, the set would need to act as a storytelling device, not the play’s main focus.

Work began in September of 2014, far in advance of usual Clemson Players productions. First, Clemson’s recycling services helped the team devise a plan to collect bottles. This included scouring Memorial Stadium after football games and tapping students in three theatre classes for a friendly competition to see which group could acquire the most bottles. It paid off: the students hauled in roughly 12,000, more than half of the final total. Collection boxes were also set up around the Brooks Center, with the only stipulations being that containers must be clear and relatively clean (some brands were also disqualified because it was too difficult and time consuming to remove the labels).

Meanwhile, Resident Costume Designer and Associate Professor Kendra Johnson was hard at work. She and Robert previously collaborated on another production of Eurydice that employed a literal, real-world design concept. This version would remain as abstract as Sarah Ruhl’s script. “To be consistent with the overall design concept,” Johnson said, “my goal was to purchase as little as possible and use recyclable items.” Her research led to a process of transforming trash bags into sew-able material by placing them between two sheets of newspaper and using a clothing iron. The result was a “fabric” not only durable enough for wear, but also able to absorb images on the newsprint like Silly Putty.

Johnson was present at early rehearsals, churning out preliminary sketches and allowing the actors to use prototype costume pieces in what she described as an “organic” process. She focused on what the actors were doing on stage, saw what worked, and tweaked her designs accordingly. In addition to the trash bags, Johnson used only what she had on hand, including the bottle caps and labels from the bottles, plus fabric donated from a defunct funeral garment store. “The only things we bought,” she said, “were three pairs of leggings, black lipstick, and a men’s suit.”

Back in the scene shop, the team members sought to accommodate an avalanche of plastic bottles. The university’s environmental health and safety department was brought on board to discuss how to prepare and clean the bottles, and a local storage company donated space for storage.

Leckenbusch and some student carpenters began work on a small-scale proof of concept. They experimented with stringing the bottles on recyclable fishing line with quarter-inch reusable washers to secure them. “We did four or five strands of these,” Leckenbusch said, “then hung them on a welding screen. We turned off the lights and shone a flashlight through the bottles using a colored gel. That kind of gave us the motivation we needed, because we realized this would be really cool.”

The tests complete, the team sought volunteers to help clean, cut, and hang thousands of bottles. Student Liz Haynes served as Assistant Technical Director, keeper of statistics, and unofficial ambassador for the project. When visitors stopped by the shop, Haynes could give a snapshot of the process in 30 seconds. She helped mobilize Saturday work calls, jokingly referred to as Bottlepaloozaganzas. “We really had no idea what we were walking into,” Haynes said. “When I came into the shop in October and they told me about the project, I thought, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll snip some bottles, it’ll be great.’ As it began to develop, it became this huge thing, and, for a while, we weren’t sure we’d actually get it done.” She calculated how many hours it would take to complete the project based on the test strings she and Leckenbusch assembled. That estimate came out to around 800. “It seemed like such an impossible task at that point.”

The team originally thought 12,000 bottles would be sufficient, so they scheduled three Saturdays. Once this estimate ballooned by 60 percent, workdays were added, as well as volunteers. Students in theatre classes pitched in and even recruited their friends and roommates. Faculty members and their children participated, with Leckenbusch’s young daughter specializing in peeling labels from bottles. These sessions accounted for the bulk of the work, though it was not confined to Saturdays. When unoccupied with work for other productions during the week, the team worked on Eurydice. “There was no ‘down time’ in the shop this year,” Leckenbusch said. The Clemson Players still had two traditional productions left in the season, and the team was working on an expansive new set for the South Carolina Educational Television program, Making It Grow. Organizing this workflow was challenging and the prospect of 800 hours of work was daunting, so the process had to be as efficient as possible.

First, caps and labels were removed and sent to Kendra Johnson for use in her costumes. Then the team used 295 gallons of water to wash and rinse the bottles in five-gallon buckets with non-toxic cleaner before cutting them into smaller, randomly shaped pieces. These smaller shards were affixed to 500 to 600 strands of heavy fishing line that were temporarily stored on mobile z-frames using some of the labels. Zipties secured 350 pounds of plastic to the horizontal pipes above the stage. The team loaded around a dozen bricks onto the flyloft system to counter the weight, and sheer fabric, used for the Brooks Center’s 2014 fundraiser, was draped behind the wall of bottles to catch light. The set also contained two rented steel platforms that required fire protection by law, so the team constructed panels of drywall installed at the platforms’ edges. The panels were later donated to a private residence.

The team members determined, by counting bottle caps, that 124 volunteers processed around 20,000 bottles and used 17,814 in the final product. Combined, they logged an impressive 584 hours.

Tearing down the set was much simpler than assembling it. The steel platforms were deconstructed, fishing line was unstrung, and bottles were placed in a 40-yard dumpster supplied by recycling services, ready to be shipped to a processing plant. An exquisite set half a year in the making took six to eight hours to come down.

“It was a really collaborative effort across the whole school and the community,” Leckenbusch said. “We learned a whole world of recycling based on this project.” Despite the non-traditional process, he said it was not terribly different from a typical Clemson Players show. “We were just more collaborative and cognizant of what we were doing. We designed by what we had rather than what we wanted. And renting platforms probably saved us a lot of money.” He was right. Thrift was not the ultimate goal, but the show’s production price tag was 25-30 percent less than similar Clemson Players productions, and Kendra Johnson’s costume expenditures were down by 80 percent as well. Though he never forbade anyone from spending money, Leckenbusch stipulated it be spent only on materials that would be used again. “For the technical students, I think there was more of an awareness of an alternative way of doing shows,” he said. “You don’t have to stay in the mainstream of how to produce a play. Budgets are getting smaller, and the more you can re-use and think about future productions, the better. Not everything is about the moment, but rather two steps down the road.”

Haynes said the team established a set of rules and best practices to ensure the next sustainable production remains truly green: “We’ve asked ourselves, ‘What makes an upcycled show different from a regular production that just reuses parts of the set?’”

That question will be explored in 2016, when Shannon Robert directs the Players’ next upcycled production, God’s Country. For now, Eurydice’s army of designers and builders can be proud of the project’s “honorable mention” status in RecycleMania’s competition for college and university recycling programs. Their work may change the way we look at both theatre and what goes in our recycling bins.

Image: Student Ellen Folk in front of backdrop made of bottles.

Thomas Hudgins is director of marketing and communications for the Brooks Center for Performing Arts at Clemson University.