new york city, 2015. After 17 years as a professional stage manager—including stints on Broadway—Jennifer Kahn had seen her share of shows. But she’d also seen something else: just how much gets thrown away after the last curtain goes down. Discarded or damaged backdrops, laminate floors, and all manner of theatrical miscellany end up in landfills across the country by the ton, and because it’s all meant to withstand the serious wear and tear of the stage, this stuff is far from biodegradable. “I knew how wasteful our industry was,” she says. “I wanted to try and counterbalance the bad in whatever little way I could.”
So Kahn started making a simple, if peculiar, request to industry friends: “Hey, can I have your trash?” she would ask. They obliged, and she found herself on the receiving end of everything from scraps of fabric to palettes of scenery from warehouse cleanouts, all of which she used to design clutches, totes, even jewelry. In 2017 she officially launched her line of repurposed accessories, Scenery Bags, from her then-home in New York, with a portion of every sale benefiting the Theatre Development Fund, a nonprofit that expands access to performing arts.
Two years and one cross-country move later, Kahn is based in Houston, where her husband is now general manager of the Alley Theatre, and as of press time she has saved nearly 20,000 pounds of items headed for the dump. These days theater companies—and trash companies, too—call her. “My answer is always yes,” she says. “Then we figure out what to do with it.”
Some drops are easy to convert, like “anything from Wicked,” Kahn says, or other famous productions with rabid fanbases. But what about 1,000 pounds of a neutral backdrop from an obscure, off-Broadway title nobody’s heard of? “That’s kind of the game I’m trying to figure out,” she says. “If it was on stage, it told a story and it’s part of that theatrical lineage, so it’s special. There’s a little bit of magic in all of these stage pieces.”
Reducing waste is satisfying, but the project also has brought other, unexpected rewards. “I get these emails from people that say, ‘now I own a piece of my very first Broadway show,’ or ‘now I own a piece of the last show I ever saw with my mother,’” Kahn says. “Stuff like that makes me cry, and it happens all the time. People are now getting to own a tangible piece of a very finite experience, and that’s really special.”
“Break a Leg” Bag, $85
The first bag Kahn ever designed includes her now-trademark inner pocket specifically sized for a playbill. True theater nerds will appreciate the double meaning of the gold-embroidered slogan for good luck—the bag’s black-velour fabric was originally a type of theatrical curtain called, you guessed it, “legs.”
Kinky Boots "Say Yeah!” Bag, $75
This red-velour clutch is crafted from the “Milan” curtain in the Broadway musical’s final scene. Eco-conscious label Celestino Couture used the very same fabric to create original Kinky Boots star Billy Porter’s suit-gown hybrid for the 2019 Tony Awards; the hot-pink tulle train and satin lapels on that ensemble inspired the lyrical embroidery on Kahn’s bag.
Lobby Hero Bag, $35
This dark-gray, speckled pouch is more than meets the eye: It comes from a painted backdrop of Second Stage’s 2018 production of Lobby Hero, starring Chris Evans and Michael Cera, the first-ever show in the New York company’s restored Broadway house, the Hayes Theater.
Mean Girls Bag, $40 (out of stock)
Kahn has expanded her inventory to include accessories made from marketing materials. “All that stuff ends up in the trash, too, and it’s a cool part of the show,” she says. This cute clutch was made from the step-and-repeat backdrop from the opening night of Mean Girls. Fans went so crazy to get a piece of the show, it sold out in just five minutes.