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Ian Garrett: "Arts, the Environment, and Sustainability in the Near Future"
March 26 at 7
Hamman Hall
Rice University
6100 Main St.

In 2006, Ian Garrett, who had recently earned a BA in architecture and art history from Rice, was working as a lighting designer for a production of Thomas Gibbons’s play Permanent Collection at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, California, when he began making some back-of-the-envelope calculations to determine how much energy his lights were using. “I started thinking, what would be the size of the solar array that you’d need to provide power for this? How much money would that cost? How much CO2 does that ultimately create? How does that affect the community?”

Those questions ultimately launched Garrett on a new career track as a scholar of ecology and production design. Now a professor at York University in Toronto, he’ll deliver a public lecture this evening at Rice entitled “Arts, the Environment and Sustainability in the Near Future.” “Theaters are places of public discourse—the Western idea of theater comes out of places of debate in Greek society,” Garrett told me. “So how can we leverage these audiences to make larger changes in society? That’s much more important than just changing the kind of paper in the office—although you should do that as well.”

Ian Garrett

Garrett originally came to Rice precisely to get away from the world of entertainment. He was raised in Southern California; his mother was an actress and still photographer, while his father was a producer and cameraman—they were in the “working class of the entertainment industry,” as he puts it. Although he studied architecture at Rice, he found himself drawn into the world of theater, learning about production design from Trish Rigdon, who directed the university’s theater program from 2004 to 2007. “I sort of came into that world kicking and screaming,” Garrett said. “I wanted nothing to do with the entertainment industry, but I didn’t really have a concept before that of what was possible on stage.” 

After graduating from Rice and earning an MFA in producing and lighting design from the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), Garrett became more and more interested in the environmental impact of theater, as well as theater’s role as a space for public debate about issues like global warming. He has written numerous scholarly essays on the subject and is the co-founder and director of the Center for Sutainable Practice in the Arts. He’s put that academic research to work by designing ecologically minded productions in Canada, America and England. 

Given that most theatrical companies are struggling just to survive, how important—and how expensive—are environmentally sustainable productions? Garrett said that the first step is simply figuring out a theater’s ecological impact, including its carbon footprint. But being ecologically conscious means more than simply installing more energy-efficient lighting—theaters can mount productions like Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People, which examines the costs of the Industrial Revolution, to raise awareness about the consequences of environmental degradation. “You can look at environmental issues in the works of Shakespeare,” he said. “Look at The Tempest—that’s all about an extreme weather event that catalyzes changes in the people around it.”

Of course, there’s also the danger of turning off audience members with “Earth Day propaganda plays,” as Garrett referred to them. One of the surprising conclusions of his research is that a packed theater actually saves energy, because if the audience members weren’t there, they’d be at home watching TV and doing other energy-intensive activities. “The most important thing arts companies can do is to create good work, to get people into the theater," he said. "The production itself is only about 10 percent of the impact.”  


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