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By Brian Robin

Goldmark Designs for the Ages

The idea came to Sandra Goldmark nearly 15 years ago, after a visit to a dumpster. The set designer had just finished taking down a set for one production when she had an epiphany.

“I just felt like I filled so many dumpsters with scenery that I filled my personal quota and couldn’t do anymore,” she said. “I started from a place of wanting to reduce waste and it turned into a much longer journey and much longer process than I imagined.

“I got into the arts because I want to be in conversation with the world around me, responding to the moment of time we live in with my art. Fifteen years ago, when I realized I was making theatre in a way not responsive to the historical moment of the events, I realized I had to make a change.”

The journey continues for Goldmark, who parlayed that epiphany into a reputation as one of American theatre’s foremost artisans of sustainable design. You can see the set designer’s work in Galilee, 34 by Eleanor Burgess, which is running now through May 12 on the Julianne Argyros Stage.

Sustainable design is using materials already in the theatre’s possession, what Goldmark calls “stock,” to create a theatrical world for actors and audiences. For example, Goldmark used the decades old backdrop from a past SCR production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara for part of Galilee, 34’s backdrop. She used a floor of existing Masonite, complete with old markings from Sharpies and bits of paper from previous productions. Many of the elements Goldmark discovered on a January visit to SCR’s storage.

“One of the reasons we went for this beat-up look was because the people in this play are working people. They’re not wealthy,” she said. “They are people who work with their hands and there is something about backstage material that helps evoke that every-day, working life of the characters in the play.”

The simple elements of sustainable design mesh well with the down-to-earth characters of Galilee, 34, Burgess’ play set in ancient Judea in the first century CE. Goldmark downplays the innovative elements of what she does, preferring to let the materials speak for themselves.

“The design doesn’t feel novel or innovative, but it feels simple. We’re avoiding buying new materials as much as possible,” she said. “As the set designer, the biggest impact is from the material choices. We have stock and that stock is like gold. We can really create beautiful and powerful shows by seeing the value in all of the materials. We want to put the value of everything we have first, whether that’s people or stock. That’s the only thing that is novel or innovative.”

Goldmark’s goal is to make sustainable design more commonplace than novelty. She said when she started the practice in 2010 that a lot of theatre companies were worried about everything from cost to preserving the artistic integrity of their productions. How would this new school of design enhance the old school of theatre?

“Now, happily people are more receptive and are looking to do their way of sustainability, incorporating it into their work and their seasons,” she said. “The landscape has changed over the years. I wasn’t alone working on this and we weren’t one of the early movers on sustainability as an industry. Now, I think there’s a real opportunity as storytellers and culture makers to not only reduce our own waste, but also think carefully in terms of what we value and how we can move climate and sustainability culture along on a broader level.”

Goldmark may not have been the originator of sustainable design, but she wrote the book on it—Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet. She teaches a class in circular and sustainable design and production at Barnard College and serves as the Senior Assistant Dean for Interdisciplinary Engagement at the Columbia Climate School. She co-created the Sustainable Production Toolkit, a resource for performing arts organizations to implement sustainable design programs in their institutions.

People are noticing. Goldmark’s work has been covered in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times of London, the BBC, MSNBC and, among many others. And Goldmark has brought sustainable design to theatres such as the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Transport Group, Shakespeare and Co. and Syracuse Stage, among others.

It's appropriate that Goldmark is working on a play set in ancient times, when you consider the earliest practitioners of theatre.

“This is kind of like returning to our roots, with the Greeks,” she said. 

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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