Wednesday, April 28, 2010

New Links

Short post. Changed the link to >100k to CRADLE(Arts), the link of their spiffy new home. Also added a brand new link to the Broadway Green Alliance, who are doing some very, very cool things.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ubisoft Goes Green

So this bit of news actually isn't related to theatre; it comes from the video game industry. But I consider the two businesses to be more related than typically thought, and aside from that, I think this is an excellent example of intersection between environmental and economic spheres.

Games publisher Ubisoft has publicized that they are making the move to eliminate the paper manuals that are packaged with all of their games and have been a mainstay since the beginning of the industry. In place of these paper manuals, Ubisoft plans to supplement the in-game tutorials that most software developers create these days with online PDF manuals. According to Ubisoft, this move will obviously reduce energy and paper consumption, as well as offer more 'robust' manuals through their online service.

Now, I think this is just great. It's a no-brainer that eliminating paper manuals will save resources. We continue to stumble towards a nearly-paperless society, and I think that's a very good thing. The really interesting thing to me is just how divided the opinion of gamers has been over this news. There's plenty of grumbling over the disappearance of the manuals, from perceived inconvenience to complaints that 'games have always had manuals.' This illustrates the important and unfortunate point that there are large segments of the population that are in favor being ecologically sustainable, but only so long as it has no negative impacts on their quality of life, or indeed, really creates no change in their life whatsoever. This honestly isn't so surprising.

But the other fascinating thing is how commonly the point is raised that Ubisoft most likely stands to save money with this new policy, although the company hasn't officially released any concrete figures in that respect. That in itself, not surprising. But what I find so intriguing is how this fact is almost uniformly treated as evidence of Ubisoft being duplicitous, self-serving, or engaging in green-washing. Even more-or-less serious gaming journalists have had a sort of 'Aha! Gotcha!' response.

Here's my basic problem: The underlying assertion here is that if a company's green policies also end up saving the company money, this is somehow evidence of the company selling out. It's a subtler example of the negative assumption that progress in environmental sustainability is always made at some other cost, it either being economically or in quality-of-life considerations. This is a dangerous assumption; it discourages synergistic problem-solving that can simultaneously address a multitude of separate concerns, and can ultimately serve as a barrier to progress towards true sustainability.

I think what is the root cause of most of the un-ease (aside from a basic dislike of change of any kind) is the perception that the consumer is now getting less. That they will be paying the same amount of money for less product, essentially a combination of the two points I've addressed so far. And while this may be true in the most basic of senses, I think there also has to be a reckoning with the actual reality of the situation: There is a tiny and increasingly shrinking segment of the population that will be buying these games and yet have no access to Internet-based resources, connectivity is simply too wide-spread these days. Secondly, even taking that aside, most manuals will be flipped through once or twice, only to be tossed in the trash or to sit in a plastic box for the foreseeable future. These are not long-term reference documents we're talking about here. What this means is that gamers troubled by this change are complaining about 'getting less' in the most crass and visceral sense, that they didn't even need it, but they're mad as hell that they're not getting it anymore. This is to me, ultimately, the truly frightening and disturbing face of consumerism.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

USITT 2010 Afterthoughts

So even though it's been a couple weeks since the 50th United States Institute of Theatre Technology Conference wrapped up in Kansas City, I'm still going to take a bit to review my time there.

First impressions: Still great, still a lot of fun, just as much as I remember it being the year before. The section of the conference expo devoted to design submissions seemed particularly robust this year, with some great retrospectives on some noted designer's bodies of work, as well as some fun exhibits of theatre technology throughout the years.

The show floor had all the usual exhibitors, along with some new faces. A few trends I noticed this year: I may be totally off-base with this, but there seemed to be more exhibitors selling modular seating and stage flooring units. I connected this with one of the USITT sessions specifically dealing with creating modular performance spaces. I'm spinning out this hypothesis probably further than it should actually go, but I'd still place a solid bet that as we continue to weather this financial downturn, and capital investments dry up, more theatre companies and performing arts venues are going to be looking for ways to do more with the spaces they already have. It's a small silver lining to a very dark cloud, but the economic crisis could spawn significant innovation (in addition to the far less fortunate budget cut-backs, lay-offs, and company closings.) New LED instruments continue to hit the market. I'm really excited about the possibilities of these new instruments, I just wish the price point wasn't such high-hanging fruit for most smaller companies. Of course, these days, any new equipment at all can qualify as 'high-hanging fruit'...

Interestingly enough, the tech-related sessions seemed a little anemic this year. On the flip side, there were more sessions related to topics like marketing, audience-building, making your budget stretch, economic strategies for weathering the downturn, etc. Not too surprising, really. My feelings about these sorts of sessions (at least the ones I attended, which was most) were that there were a few truly good ideas scattered amongst what amounted to some very basic discussions. Those ideas (most of them centering around how to creatively embrace new information technology instead of fighting or ignoring it) were still completely worth hanging around for.

There was also the return of the 'Healthy Technician' session, as well as a new session suggested last year that dealt with diagnosing and dealing with psychological burnout. I'm very glad to see the evolving discussion of how theatre professionals can lead healthy, happy personal lives while still maintaining the quality of their work. It's a topic that is too easily ignored, and I think there's a very insidious assumption that pervades the industry that wanting to live healthy, not overwork yourself, do things like live in one place more than a few months at a time, raise a family, etc., means that your drive and dedication is somehow lacking. Or worse, that there's assumed choice between having either these things or success in your field. This is not a unique concern to the theatre industry, but it is still particularly notable. I see signs of change, and it's about time.

If USITT is any indication, the theatre industry is still slowly but steadily embracing the 'Green Movement'. There were not one but two sessions purely devoted to improving the environmental sustainability of theatre companies. And I saw several booths on the show floor that prominently displayed the 'green-ness' of their products. First blush, it's great that environmentalism is finally starting to become mainstream in the industry. The downside is that, like in any other part of the environmentalist movement, you have to wade through a sea of misfires and misinformation to get to the hard data and innovative ideas. Theatre has the same vulnerability to green-washing as any other industry. But that's just a natural step in it's evolution. Everything has to start somewhere.

Potential Styrofoam Substitute on the Horizon

So a few bright young folks over at the start-up Ecovative Design have come up with their own entry into the Styrofoam alternatives market, and it's derived from a novel source: mushrooms. Turns out the natural microfibers found in your average fungi can be turned into some highly efficient packing material. This is potentially great news for scenic designers and carpenters who are guilty about the use of Styrofoam on stage (myself included). Styrofoam is amazingly useful in the theatre! It's a material that's lightweight, incredibly easy to shape, takes a variety of surface coatings, and it's cheap. It just happens to also be toxic and non-biodegradable. Some experiments I've been a part of years ago looked into the use of cornstarch substitutes, without much success. This was mostly due to the water solubility of cornstarch making it very difficult to paint or otherwise treat, and also it's difficulty to shape due to its fiber structure. But this new material may be able to solve some or all of these issues. After having some back-and-forth with the developers, I've learned that the material has a very low solubility and is easy to shape. I'm eager to actually experiment with some test samples! The bad news is that it may be a while before Ecovative is manufacturing the shroom foam in sizes and shapes that are ideal for set construction. They're still working towards mass production, and they understand the truth that most of their initial profits will come from producing custom packaging. Still, it's a promising bright spot on the horizon.