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  • Writing for RALPH: An Exploration in the Dramaturgy of Sustainable Theatre
  • Barbara Carlisle (bio) and Randy Ward (bio)

Since at least 1990, the authors of this article—director and playwright Barbara Carlisle, with scenographer and lighting designer Randy Ward—have been participating in a common theatre problem at Virginia Tech. As a department we pride ourselves in maintaining high standards of execution to provide valid design and technical learning for our students. At the same time we confront increasing materials costs with fixed budgets, intense pressure to meet overlapping production deadlines, and perhaps more importantly, deep discomfort with the unrecycled waste that has gone out the door after each production. In every respect we have balked at the model we were perpetuating for our students—debilitating burnout, financial anxiety, and production panic. In writing the book Hi Concept - Lo Tech, Barbara and her co-author Don Drapeau (also of Virginia Tech) coined the expression “sustainable theatre” to refer to the need for a mode of theatre making that does not deplete the resources of the theatre makers (174). Yet our theatre at Virginia Tech was not sustainable. We were working off the backs of exhausted students and staff, caught up in a theatre mythology that presumes “if you’re not willing to kill yourself for the art, you better get out.”

The material and mental frustrations were linked to dramaturgical and pedagogical ones. For the same period of time, our faculty was engaged in a many-sided debate about the function of our theatre program. To briefly summarize, we struggled with the desires and expectations of our various constituencies over what our theatre should be: a museum and historical resource, a leader and dramatic innovator, a creative classroom for training young people, an investigative enterprise in theory and technology, an artistic laboratory for faculty, a cultural resource for a community. We hoped to familiarize students with works that are reference points in the history of drama; we wanted to encourage new forms; and we wanted to develop new works by students and artists in our region. These roles were not mutually exclusive, but we often found ourselves mute with anxiety about how to reconcile these powerful and potentially contradictory impulses. 1

As members of our departmental production committee, we heard these issues return in the discussions surrounding every new season of work. No [End Page 69] single idea could possibly solve all the problems, but we thought we could begin by addressing the cost of material. As the following article charts, the ongoing experiment with RALPH became an important first step towards a new formulation for flexibility and imaginative invention in our theatre program.

Where RALPH Lives

When RALPH was born, we had already worked for three years in our new Studio Theatre. Designed and equipped by Randy, the thrust stage space had removable galleries and cutting edge lighting capabilities. We all worked to become more adept in its use. Barbara had directed there twice and worked as a writer in the creation of two original collaborative pieces. Randy had designed a half dozen or more shows. Bob Leonard, who became a key third partner in the work, had directed there four times.

Despite the flexibility of this theatre space, designers found themselves using it in conventional ways, guided by the unspoken but perceived need to mask or disguise the theatre architecture. They had constructed major walls and doorways. They had built environments inside the theatre with elaborate platforms embellished with architectural details. Heirs to nineteenth-century tradition and influenced by modern spectacle, we had all been attempting to create scenic illusion while denying the theatre’s own architectural presence. To create a sustainable theatre, we would first have to reinvestigate this space, its character and properties, in order to find some new way to put them to use.

By November of 1994, the production committee discussions of our material and literary dilemmas had stagnated. The group consisted of two representatives of the acting faculty, Randy as scenographer, the costumer who also supervises the studio program, an undergraduate and a graduate student representative, our management and marketing director, Barbara as spokesperson for playwrights, and Bob, who teaches directing. We all...

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