PhotoCredit: Donyale Werle and Wingspace

At USITT 2018, we chatted with Tony Award-winning Scenic Designer and sustainability advocate Donyale Werle to discuss green practices in the industry and how her mentors have helped to shape her career.

Interviews such as this one will take place again in Lousiville in just a few short days! Stop by the USITT/Stage Directions booth on the Expo Floor to see industry luminaries, USITT19 program participants, and exhibitors chat with us about what’s going on in the industry.

who are some of your mentors and influences?

I started my career in San Francisco and Eddie Raymond was one of my very early mentors at ACT. I started as a scenic artist and he served at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival as a board member and someone who advised young people. And as a 20-something-year-old who didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with my life, he gave me some ideas and opened up some doors that would not have been opened up to me naturally. He was definitely an early influence. I worked with Anna Louizos, a brilliant set designer for many years. I went to NYU, so I’d say Paul Steinberg and Susan Hilferty are great influences on me and my early mentorships.

you focus a lot on sustainability. what do you do in your designs to make them sustainable and why is it important to you?

Why is it important? I mean, if you look at the news any day of the week, our planet is scary, really. Climate changes are very real. I know many theatre productions are really short-lived and yet we make choices that are going to last a lifetime.

My dad was involved in my way of looking at things. He is another one of my influences. He was involved in the solar energy movement in the `70s and the `80s. I grew up with this practice in my home life and realized it was not being implemented in my career or my job choices. It became very apparent that this is a sort of a crisis and that I needed to actually start solving the crisis instead of just participating in it.

I started my career with just doing. Building things out of re-use because it was the easiest thing to do. I would find a piece that already existed for some other purpose and turn it into a design. Now I would say I do something called sustainable engineering. I make choices based on things like sheet goods size. I design whatever I want but then I come back around and do something very similar to a value engineering, but I’ll do a sustainability engineering. I will make choices based on known things, known quantities, and I’ve been able to reduce materials this way. I’m able to very quickly make a series of more sustainable choices just by doing this sustainability engineering on top of my own designs. It’s not that I use the particular products to make decisions for me, I just go back and I look at it through a different lens.

adviceĀ  for aspiring designers or anyone looking to make their designs greener?

There are a zillion things you can do! I feel like there are a few people who started going green and now there are hundreds of people that do it. There are very few programs that specialize just on sustainability for theatre design. However, there’s a lot of places that are green, like right now we’re sitting in a LEED building. This is something that the architectural industry does and it’s like they’ve been doing it for years and years and years.

would you consider this a new trend?

It’s really a new frontier and it’s really about what young people want to do. I feel like nowadays, as we are exhibiting on the Expo floor at the Broadway Green Alliance booth, there are so many students who come to me and tell me all of the things that they are doing. Students have taken this way beyond the things that I do currently. I get a lot of credit for coming to talk to you but I would say, I’m going to pass the credit to all those people that are actually in the field doing it every day.

is it a big task?

It’s a lot of just taking the time to do it. We all recycle but we don’t actually do it at our jobs. It’s a very small thing but at the same time, it’s like a series of small things.

being aware of your own footprint

Yes, right! Here at USITT we did the green model-making class. So we built models out of U-Haul boxes, Amazon boxes, pizza boxes, and cereal boxes. That’s it. It’s cheap. It’s sustainable. It’s one step.

why do you come to USITT? What importance does it hold for you?

Because of these conversations. Because while I’m on the floor, I’m talking to students, from the minute I get here to the minute I leave. It’s the dialogue that changes things. I’ve been doing this for about four years and I can see that conversations that we had four years ago have grown to fruition. Now there are teachers that have their own programs in sustainability on campus. A small conversation turned into an entire program changing, and that happened at USITT. It is amazing.

So these conversations turn into a continuous dialogue

Yes, because it’s all about people. They have the ideas, right, these conversations are just opening the doors. It’s also allowing students and teachers to feel like they’re not alone. They might be the only people in their community that feel that way about sustainability, and I think what USITT does so well is it brings us all together. A lot of people care about the environment, but a lot of people don’t know that there are others out there that care as much as they do.

It gives a voice to those people

Yes, absolutely. I appreciate USITT for doing this. Hopefully, we always continue the conversation.