April 2–21, 2024

On a mission: Making Philly theaters more sustainable, less wasteful 

April 17, 2024
Billy Penn

Instead of trashing sets after a production’s run ends, these producers want to see more material reused in future shows.

by Jane M. Von Bergen April 17, 2024

The Wilma Theater’s latest production, The Good Person of Setzuan, features a zero-waste set made from trash and recycled materials created by Set Designer Stephen Dufala and Production Manager Matthew Zumbo. (Joanna Austin/Wilma Theater)

Theaters routinely spend thousands of dollars on a stage set — it’s not unusual for the tab to top $50,000 for materials alone, not including labor costs.

But, at a time when theaters are still struggling financially post-pandemic, it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way, say two veteran Philadelphia stage construction pros.

And it’s not just about the financial benefits.

“This industry is terrible environmentally,” said Wilma Theater’s production manager Matthew J. Zumbo, who is on a mission to build a sustainability culture at Wilma and to be an apostle for it in the city’s theater community.

He shares the goal with another theater pro, Paul Kuhn, artistic director at West Philadelphia’s Curio Theatre Company and co-manager of the Resource Sharing Committee, a collective of city theater companies who dismantle sets, store the materials, and borrow from them to build new sets.

“That is my purpose for existing,” said Kuhn.

If you are noticing a lot of religious references, like apostle and mission, it is because these professionals are fervent proselytizers for the gospel of reusing and recycling stage sets from past productions to build new ones for the next show in the season.

“It saves us money, but it is also saving the planet,” Zumbo said.

And to continue the religious theme, there’s also guilt, fear, and joy in the practice. But let’s start with the money.

The cast of The Good Person of Setzuan at The Wilma Theater perform on a zero-waste set created by Set Designer Stephen Dufala and Production Manager Matthew Zumbo. (Joanna Austin/Wilma Theater)

Zumbo, who manages purchasing and construction to translate stage set designers’ plans into reality, is acutely aware of the costs. For example, he says the Wilma had budgeted $50,000 to $60,000 for materials, not labor, for its current show, “The Good Person of Setzuan,” closing April 21.

After he was able to convince director Justin Jain and set designer Steven Dufala to build the set out of material sourced from Revolution Recovery, an industrial recycling center in Northeast Philadelphia, Zumbo spent only about $7,300 for materials.

That allowed him, he said, to spend a little more on lighting, a little more on sound, and a little more on labor. All those “little mores” didn’t come close to matching the money saved by using recycled materials, netting Wilma tens of thousands of dollars in savings.

Post-production, Wilma will return materials to Revolution Recovery, Dufala’s studio or to its own warehouse for reuse.

“Ten years into this business, I couldn’t sleep at night because of the massive amounts of waste we produce,” Zumbo said.

After every show, he said, Wilma would hire a dumpster that was 10 feet tall and 40-feet long and “we would fill one or two of those four times a year. When you are filling it, it takes an emotional toll, especially when you have an environmental dictate that you’ve given yourself.”

Paul Kuhn, who besides leading Curio, builds and designs stage sets around the region, also shared some money-saving stories. One example was when he built the set for Hedgerow Theatre Company’s previous show, “New Electric Ballroom.” 

Hedgerow, a charming Chester County theater, had set aside about $6,000 to $7,000 for materials. “I built the last show for $200 (in materials), and we never bought one piece of lumber,” Kuhn said. He is also building the set for Hedgerow’s current show, “Beginners.”

Kuhn has a source for his material – his brother-in-law works for a big show in New York. Each week, a pick-up truck’s worth of goods from that show comes to Kuhn in West Philadelphia. He has mountains of plexiglass and has figured out a system to reduce newspapers to pulp and turn them into molding.

Kuan dismantles the wood, pulls off the luan, the layer of veneer that the audience sees, and stacks his supplies. There are boards available, already cut to size, to build standard floor and wall pieces.

“I can’t remember the last time I bought lumber,” he said.

“It’s beyond being a tree-hugger,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any product more on the front line” of the environmental crisis and climate change than trees.

“They are the lungs of the planet, and they are filtering everything we need to filter,” he said. “They are the ones to stop this existential crisis. You walk into Home Depot, and you see the death of the planet right in front of you.”

Kuhn is motivated in no small part by guilt. As a teenager growing up in rural Nova Scotia, he worked chopping down whole forests of maple and birch trees for a Canadian Christmas tree growing company.

“I spent my summers with a chainsaw,” he said. “It was a sickening feeling being aware that you are fundamentally destroying an ecosystem on your own.”

Kuhn feels he is paying reparations to the planet every time he re-uses a piece of lumber.

For Curio’s production, “Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story,” Kuhn pulled boards from his stash to build a huge shipping crate onstage that contains the entire set. “The front of the box will lower,” he said. “Everything will come out of the box – all the props, all the materials.”

The play, which received great reviews wherever it has been performed, includes modern klezmer music with musicians playing banjo, guitar, piano, and accordion.

“Old Stock” focuses on two immigrants who find love in a new land. Kuhn said the shipping crate is a metaphor evoking the erroneous impression that immigrants en masse are more of a product, rather than individuals.

By contrast, he said, “the playwright wanted to focus on two specific individuals and their story to have a better impact on what immigration is and the effect it has on people — what people are coming from, what their experiences are.”

“The Good Person of Setzuan,” through April 21, Wilma Theater Co., 265 S. Broad St., Phila. 215-546-7824

“Beginners,” April 18-May 5, Hedgerow Theatre Co., 64 Rose Valley Rd., Media, 610-565-4211

“Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story,” April 24-May 11, a klezmer musical by Curio Theatre Co, at Calvary Community Center, 4740 Baltimore Ave., Phila. 215-921-8243