Written by Marshall Carbee and Larry Clow
Scenic artists work hard, and the end of a successful show is cause for celebration. When the show is over and the sets have been struck, scenics are done with the job and ready to move on to the next gig. But the job may not be done with them.
The paints, paint strippers, cleaning supplies and other materials that scenics work with often are chock full of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Organic chemicals are used in paints and other products to improve durability and product performance. But as paint dries (or even when it is simply stored), it emits VOCs. Exposure to VOCs can result in immediate symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment. Careful use of paints, cleaning prooducts and other VOC-containing products can essen these symptoms, but problems persist and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled VOCs as possible carcinogens.
Working around these products for 12 to 14 hours a day—as many scenics do—can lead to serious health problems later in life. Not even the most careful scenic following all safety precautions to the letter can fully avoid these problems.
Scenics aren’t the only ones at risk. After a show is over and the sets are struck, the discarded scenery often ends up in a landfill. Some materials decompose, some don’t. But the paints, coatings, and other chemicals used to create those sets continue to emit VOCs. Groups like Broadway Goes Green and others are working to cut down on the waste and pollution that comes with discarded sets, but wider awareness is needed. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Going green is a choice that all artists can make easily these days, and scenic artists are no exception. Paints and coatings with low or no VOCs are available, often at a price comparable to the VOC-laden paints that scenics have used for so many years. During the next few months, we’ll be exploring the ways in which scenic artists can go green. We’ll learn from working scenics about the methods they’re using—from natural, VOC-free paints to the use of sustainable practices—to make their work safer and sustainable.
Most of all, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your stories about going green. Togteher, we can make sure that, when the show is over, scenics can walk away healthy and ready to create again.
Marshall Carbee is a scenic artist, USA local 829, who has developed the first sustainable industrial plant-based scenic coatings.
Larry Cow is a journalist.