This April 22 will mark the second Earth Day since COVID-19 shut Broadway down. And for Molly Braverman, director of the Broadway Green Alliance, and Susan Sampliner, the BGA’s co-founder and co-chair, the pandemic has only thrown into sharper relief the importance of taking action on behalf of the environment.
“With COVID, we’ve had a moment that highlighted how interconnected the health and safety of our people and our planet are,” says Braverman, who previously worked as assistant stage manager on Wicked’s national tour. Sampliner, who is company manager of that musical’s Broadway production, agrees: “There’s so much intersectionality going on right now in every issue in our world. There’s social justice and climate justice, so much happening. We had made such progress in stopping single-use of plastic in theaters, and we started getting scared when we heard about all these new protocols being put into place. We thought, don’t let it undo everything we’ve done over the past 12 years.”
To help make sure that didn’t happen, the BGA assembled a task force of more than 20 theater professionals last summer, representing various departments, to create the “Greener Reopening Toolkit,” offering sustainable solutions for getting back to the business of live entertainment on and off-Broadway, and anywhere else. Divided into three sections—“Environmental Health & Safety,” “Backstage & Run of Show” and “Operations: Food & Hydration”—the living document addresses the particular demands posed by the coronavirus, including personal protective equipment, cleaning products, and hygiene and personal sanitation. It also outlines solutions for theater artists and insiders working in a variety of capacities, from lighting, sound and scenic design to wardrobe, hair and makeup to managing productions and green rooms.
“One of the main principles is that everybody has the power to take action,” says Braverman. “It’s not just the producers and leadership.” Getting feedback from different departments is key, adds Sampliner. “I’ll give you an example: We talked at one point about maybe collecting Playbills at the end of each show and giving them out again to people who want them. But the ushers said, oh no—you don’t realize how many put their gum inside the Playbills. So as we come up with possible procedures, we have to talk about everybody they impact.”
With theaters dark, the BGA has seized the chance to provide more trading. “It’s been an educational opportunity,” says Sampliner. “We can do more with speakers and programming, the sort of things we normally don’t have time to do during the year, because we’re working.” Different unions have lent support: Braverman notes that Local One, the stagehands’ union, “formed a green committee six months before the shutdown, and they’re still meeting regularly. They’ve been incredibly involved and enthusiastic about this tool kit, looking to implement it and providing critical feedback as we go along.”
The Stage Directors and Choreographers Society have also integrated elements of the tool kit into their reopening guide. “They pulled out some of the tips that applied most to their membership,” Braverman says. Sampliner adds, “We have green captains from each union, so that’s another way in, to make sure they have the most up-to-date materials from us.”
Both Wicked alumnae have made a concerted effort to stay green in their own lives. During the shutdown, Braverman has “focused on implementing more sustainable choices at home, from small personal consumption choices to increased engagement within my local community. “For example, in our home, we’ve switched to cloth paper towels and eco-friendly cleaners—so easy and helpful with so much increased cleaning—and I love my new bar shampoo and conditioner from our local low-waste store. I’m also a volunteer for our neighborhood’s community fridge, which directly addresses the dramatic increase in food insecurity in our community during the pandemic and helps eliminate food waste.”
Sampliner started composting at home about two years ago, “and that’s been a huge change for me. I have one on my counter that I transfer to the freezer, and then once a week I take it to the green market. There are other things I do, like turning off lights or unplugging things when I’m not using them. The whole powering down thing is so easy. Before I buy something, I ask if I really need it. If you just take small actions every day, they add up. When you reduce consumption, you reduce the amount of waste.”
To promote their goals to the wider public, the BGA has partnered with other organizations and leading artists as Lin-Manuel Miranda, who recorded a public service announcement. “We’ve always said that our goal is to impact the community and its fans,” says Sampliner. “Our membership includes a lot of fans, and many have their own companies or are in community theaters or high schools. Our goal is for them to take what they learn from us and bring that back to their home theaters.”
The BGA has several events lined up to commemorate Earth Day this year, including a summit on Climate Action and Environmental Justice, in partnership with Theatre Communications Group and Groundwater Arts. “We’re also partnering with the Earth Day Initiative in New York, which normally does a fabulous Earth Day celebration in the city,” says Braverman; this year, for the second time, it will be virtual. Current and former green captains will take part in the event, streaming April 18. “They’ll be interviewing some fabulous experts, and there will be some performances.”
While Braverman and Sampliner are encouraged by reports that Broadway will gradually reopen in the fall—the latter is serving as program director for ATC Vaccination at Times Square, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently announced clinic for theater workers—they’re keeping their optimism cautious. “The biggest thing we’ve all learned is that we have to be flexible,” says Braverman. “When we did the tool kit, we spoke about how this is something we could have in place for the next pandemic, or for things that might hit us in the future.”
The willingness to prepare, at least, represents a step forward, says Braverman. “As theater practitioners and humans, we were going about things the same way; there was no motivation to shift our habits. Now there is, and I think that increased flexibility is going to help all of us adapt to new ways we have to do things, because of the climate crisis as well. I think it will serve us overall.”
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