Building a Sustainable Set: The ‘62 Center's Eco-Conscious Action in Theatrical Production

Door to '62 Center mainstageThroughout the past semester, the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College continued the initiatives that Zilkha Center intern Leo Levine ’26 initiated in Spring 2023, aiming to enhance the ‘62 Center’s environmentally sustainable practices. I, Hattie Shapard, had the pleasure of supporting the ‘62 Center in this work as an intern by helping develop guideline documents for commonly used set construction materials and possible alternatives. My work involved researching current ‘62 Center set building materials and writing policy documents for the ‘62 Center, as advised by the Zilkha Center. 

As someone who enjoys the arts of ceramics and carpentry, I recognize the importance of finding a compromise between these extractive arts, global development and our environment. So when I saw the opportunity to get involved with the Zilkha Center and ‘62 Center through the Performing Arts internship, I was excited; I knew sustainable set design is an opportunity to make a difference on an achievable scale on campus.

Sustainability is a core value of Williams College, as articulated in the college’s 2021 Strategic Plan, which underscores the importance of the ‘62 Center’s recent efforts. Further reading of the Strategic Plan shows an interest in increasing the school’s responsible consumption of materials and reducing unnecessary waste. Because of the college’s emphasis on prioritizing sustainable purchasing, it was necessary for the ‘62 Center to research commonly used set design materials, as seen in the document Research on Various Building Materials, to become more aware of and make more sustainable purchasing decisions. This document explores the characteristics and environmental footprint of commonly used set building materials at the ‘62 Center while exploring alternative materials and sustainable building standards. My primary goal for this project was to illustrate and bolster the Center’s dedication to environmental sustainability for the college and the world through a series of documents focused on the sustainability of scenic element building materials. I chose this focus because education and awareness play a crucial role in creating a resilient, inclusive, and sustainable world where the benefits of environmental conservation are shared equitably and vulnerable communities are not disproportionately burdened by environmental challenges.

Students making set design of orange leaves

I considered including a cost comparison in this research, but due to the lack of standardization of sources on this topic, I decided to include that in the next phase of this project. Future work on this topic could also include life cycle assessments on the materials and case studies of the successful implementation of sustainable materials in theatrical set construction. I believe collaboration with industry experts and other academic institutions could also provide valuable insights and foster innovation in sustainable theater practices. Furthermore, working with the college on expanding storage space to increase the reuse of set materials as well as to reduce purchasing overall will be a necessary step for future sustainability in the ‘62 Center. 

As Williams College moves forward, the ‘62 Center and Zilkha Center envision a future where sustainability is not just an aspiration but a fundamental principle woven into the fabric of every aspect of theatrical production, inspiring audiences and artists alike to engage with environmental issues and work towards a more sustainable future for the arts and our planet. To that end, the ‘62 Center will implement restrictions on a selection of 10 set design materials. My research identified these ten as the most harmful materials for set design because of their environmental impact. Due to their ecological and health implications, the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance will not permit a set design containing the materials outlined in Setting the Stage at the ‘62 Center: 10 Eco-Unfriendly Materials for Set Design. This is not an exhaustive list but is meant as a quick guide for employees who source materials; as a result, members of the ‘62 Center will research every material proposed in a set design to ensure that the design upholds its commitment to environmental sustainability in alignment with Williams College’s strategic plan. 

The ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance reaffirms its commitment to responsible resource stewardship by prioritizing environmental sustainability in set construction. This commitment and subsequent action are sure to set a precedent for other performing arts venues. To that end, my research has made a small but important contribution to establishing this precedent, and I am excited to see what the future of sustainable set design has to offer. 

Hattie Shapard ’27, Performing Arts & Sustainability Intern