Green is the New Peach: Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit

The green economy is ready for take-off, and most Americans are jumping aboard Obama’s sustainable bandwagon. Will theaters join in the movement?  Imagine that you’re a non-profit arts organization competing for funding in a sector where financial resources are quickly dwindling. And that you’re based in a major American city plagued by drought and situated within a community that has just begun to realize its role in our growing environmental movement.

When Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta, GA embarked on a search for a new home in 2003, the company settled on the building right next door.  Its new facility was formerly one of Atlanta’s most cherished restaurants, Herren’s. Theatrical Outfit’s use of the space is inherently green, in that it utilizes an existing space for the new building; but the restaurant-turned-theatre also carries rich historical and social meaning.  Herren’s was the first restaurant in Atlanta to voluntarily desegregate, and in fact, the first African-American couple to dine at Herren’s are now Theatrical Outfit subscribers. The building’s rich history matches Theatrical Outfit’s mission to present work indigenous to the culture of the American South. I can’t think of a better setting to tell stories of Atlanta’s past, present, and future than in a space that was once a leader in progressive social interaction among Atlanta’s important cultural groups.

Once Theatrical Outfit decided upon their new space at Herren’s, they were approached by a local donor who had been funding various green building projects throughout Atlanta. Theatrical Outfit voiced their commitment to explore green building to the anonymous funder, who was donating through the Kendeda Fund. Along with the anonymous donor’s $1 million dollar pledge, a gift of $1.4 million from two board members enabled the company to purchase the old restaurant. A three-year capital campaign raised the additional funds toward the $5 million required to build green. When the Balzar Theatre at Herren’s opened in December 2004 it was America’s first LEED-certified theatre. The building has earned a LEED Silver rating and the company’s management staff was able to keep their promise to the anonymous donor.

Locally supplied materials and recycled content constitute approximately 33% of the total material cost of the building. Additionally, all adhesives, sealants, paints, coating and carpets emit low or no volatile organic compounds. For example, the building’s carpeting was made from recycled glass. More than 75% of the demolition and construction waste, by weight, was diverted from the landfill.

The theatre utilizes a HVAC system that provides clean (and quiet) air to the facility by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide expelled by the audience, bringing in more fresh air as required, so the audience does not become oxygen-deprived and stays comfortable. Patrons using Theatrical Outfit’s restroom facilities will find light sensors, low-flow toilets and waterless urinals (with signage educating patrons about the purpose of the devices). Rainwater collected on the roof in a 7500-gallon tank is used in place of fresh water for toilet and sewage systems.

When purchasing concessions, patrons do not receive a plastic bottle or aluminum can. Instead, Theatrical Outfit serves soft drinks out of 2-liter bottles which are then recycled when empty. The City of Atlanta doesn’t pick up materials for recycling, so the company has developed an on-site recycling center where items are separated and transported to a local recycling conversion center. Additionally, patrons are encouraged to recycle their programs at the end of each performance.

Located in between two nearby public rail stations and with two county bus systems dropping off patrons directly in front of the facility, Theatrical Outfit was able to thrive in a time when rising fuel prices kept many Atlanta citizens from attending cultural programming. With a staggering person-to-car ratio, many in metropolitan Atlanta still view the act of driving into the city as part of the greater theatrical experience. The staff at Theatrical Outfit is exploring ways to increase patrons’ use of public transit, especially with the nearby downtown revitalization that enables safe, convenient mass transit options. Staff at the Balzar are already working toward reducing their own car travel, thanks to bicycle storage and shower and changing facilities for bicycle commuters.

The management team has further helped their employees reduce car transit by instituting a monthly “Green Day”, when staff are encouraged to work from home and save the round trip drive into downtown Atlanta. The Green Days are planned around holidays and breaks in the organization’s programming. On each Green Day, the building’s heating and cooling are turned off to further increase energy savings. The organization’s Green Days have been a cost-saving hit with management and staff. When they are working on-site, the administrative office space is built with massive windows to utilize daylight, with personal lighting at work stations to decrease energy normally utilized for overhead lighting.

Theatrical Outfit’s artists have commented on the positive benefits of working in a green theatre. For example, skylights in the company’s rehearsal hall, which help save on energy costs, provide actors a much-needed connection to the natural world outside. Accounting for efficient lighting when building the new space has led to a 25% reduction in energy use compared to comparable structures.

Building green enabled the marketing team to pursue additional public relations opportunities beyond the simple arts feature stories and production reviews. The increased exposure the theatre has received from local newspapers, national arts organizations, green building websites, and curious eco-artists has helped quadruple their subscriber base in a period of only three years. Thanks to local colleges and universities, as well as a successful $10 student ticket program, the company is seeing its audience trend younger each season. With a majority of young Americans identifying themselves with green living, arts organizations who present works in green spaces may beat out the competition. With 118 theatre companies in Atlanta, any edge (green or otherwise) is crucial. 

The majority of Theatrical Outfit’s programming deals with issues of civil and social rights. While the company doesn’t necessarily seek out plays and musicals that explore green living, they certainly look for opportunities to educate patrons about local ecological issues. During the company’s fall production of “Big River”, the company provided information about Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, a local non-profit dedicated to preserving the most heavily used water resource in Georgia. Theatrical Outfit is a shining example of a forward-thinking theatre positioned ahead of the curve to ride out this current wave of fiscal and ecological uncertainty.

Links:

“Green News” at Theatrical Outfit’s website

BuildingGreen.com’s overview of the Balzer Theater

The Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Building Technologies Program overview of the Balzer

“Visions of vibrancy come to life downtown” in the Atlanta Business Chronicle

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Go to the Green Theater Initiative

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