The culture of reuse in the performance arts: a talk with Rebecca Lord-Surratt from The Drilling Company

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The Drilling Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot produced a quality version of “Hamlet” this summer. The set design was particularly impressive since it was simple, yet functional. It transformed the municipal parking lot in the Lower East Side into the Kingdom of Denmark. Most of the items were reused and it created a framework of how performance arts organizations can utilize Materials for the Arts to create superb sets. Rebecca Lord-Surratt, the set designer for this production of Hamlet, talks about her creative process and about the culture of reuse.

How can set designers in emerging nonprofit organizations in the performance arts benefit from vintage/used items?

RLS: The theater industry is notoriously wasteful. Many productions happen for only a week or two, and then most things are thrown away. Many companies already reuse things as a function of necessity, but many companies also have no permanent home, and don’t have the resources to store materials. That’s why organizations like MFTA and Build it Green are so essential to emerging companies. They allow us to recycle and reuse materials that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to, or be able to afford to purchase. Many of us in the industry feel a social responsibility to educate, enrich, and enliven the communities we work in; it’s part of why we do what we do. Not many of us however are aware of how our wasteful practices affect our global community. The industry’s continued use of Lauan, a tropical plywood, has contributed significantly to deforestation in Southeast Asia. Young designers need to become aware of how our material choices can have a negative impact, and work towards greater sustainability in the industry. A big part of that is to recycle or reuse as much as we can. It not only saves us money, but can be a source of inspiration as well.

Can you provide examples of set designs made completely with reusable items?

RLS: For The Drilling Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, we reuse much of our materials from year to year. I don’t think we’ve ever created a set of entirely reused items, but I think almost everything from Hamlet can be saved or recycled. For Julius Caesar last year, only a few items were purchased, and everything was saved for future use. We recently acquired a permanent space, so we have the luxury of being able to save more than other companies may be able to.

What have been the most interesting props you have come across that ended up being essential to your scenic design?

RLS: I am very inspired by found and vintage items, and love incorporating them into my designs. For Julius Caesar last year, the director found an old dress form on the street, and it became a major source of inspiration for the entire look of the show. We created a butcher’s meat diagram out of it, dividing it into the opposing negative and positive qualities of humans that are mentioned in the play. In the beginning of the play it stood on stage alone referencing the great classical statues. After Caesar was butchered by his friends, it turned into the body of the nobleman, with his conflicting human qualities. It was an idea that shaped the feeling of the whole show, and we would not have arrived at it without the serendipitous find.

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