Sustainable Design: Peter and the Starcatcher

Donyale Werle's Tony award-winning set design and construction for Peter and the Starcatcher. The play had a sold-out run in 2011 at the New York Theatre Workshop and transferred to the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway in Spring 2012.


Donyale Werle is a set designer based in Brooklyn, New York, where she has established herself as a designer actively supporting and employing sustainable practices in scenic design. Although personally passionate about environmentalism, it had not always played a role in her professional life. Donyale’s moment of clarity was triggered by witnessing the dumping of a year’s work into landfill back in 2006. Since then she has received multiple awards for her work, the most recent being the 2012 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a play for Peter and the Starcatcher, a 2011 Obie award for Sustained Excellence of Set Design, and a 2011 Tony Nomination for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway.

Donyale is the co-chair of the pre/post production committee of the Broadway Green Alliance, a coalition of industry leaders on and off-Broadway that aim to educate, motivate and inspire the theatre community and its patrons to implement environmentally friendlier practices.

This case study will look at Donyale’s award-winning set design and construction for Peter and the Starcatcher. The play had a sold-out run in 2011 at the New York Theatre Workshop and transferred to the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway in Spring 2012.

The design team, led by Donyale, attempted to use reclaimed and recycled materials as much as possible, from a variety of interesting sources. When it was necessary to buy new, they tried to do so from ethical sources. Donyale’s work is on the tipping point of having a very clear vision and not knowing at all what the outcome will be. What steers this dichotomy are the materials that are available, so the design is an organic process determined by the elements found in the surrounding environment. The design approach was sensitive to the need for the set to not look like “rubbish dressed up” and the design team worked to make the second hand materials indistinguishable in the finished set.

In terms of disposal, Donyale’s project partners, Paper Mâché Monkey, aimed to send as little waste to landfill as possible. Even the sawdust that was created in the studio made its way into the set, and once the production is over it is key to them that the recycling loop remains closed.

This project also overcame the idea that sustainability costs: Peter and the Starcatcher, saved an estimated £22,623.23 by not buying materials new. Labour costs did rise, but the production still made a significant saving.

Introduction to Donyale Werle

Donyale studied painting and sculpture at the University of New Mexico, and earned an MFA in set design at the NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Based in Brooklyn, New York, she has now established herself as a theatrical set designer who supports and employs sustainable practices in scenic design.

Her “light bulb” moment occurred while working as an associate set designer on Broadway’s ‘High Fidelity’ in 2006. She worked on the show for 13 months; it ran on Broadway for 13 days, after which the entire set went into the dump. At this point, she could no longer continue to justify the disparity between her personal passion for environmentalism, and her inaction in her professional life. She then quit her job as an associate and began to work solely as a designer which could encapsulate the promotion of greener methods of creating theatrical sets.

She is the Co-Chair of the Pre/ Post Production Committee for the Broadway Green Alliance, and has most recently won the 2011 Obie award (for Off Broadway - 99 to 499 cap - and Off-off Broadway -99 or less - productions) for Sustained Excellence of Set Design, and the 2010 Henry Hewes Design Award for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (The Public Theater). Donyale also gained a 2011 Tony Nomination for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson on Broadway.

For this case study, Julie’s Bicycle analyses her work for the successful Off Broadway production of Rick Elice’s Peter and the Startcatcher, which had an extended three month run at the New York Theatre Workshop earlier this year. Her set design for this production gained Donyale a 2011 Lucille Lortel Nomination (an Off Broadway award). The show has now been a huge Broadway success leading to her winning the Tony Award for Best Set Design for a play.

Peter and the Starcatcher

The Book and Production

Peter and the Starcatcher (PATSC) is based on the best selling children’s book. The book (Peter & the Starcatchers) was a prequel to Peter Pan and was written in 2004 by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson and published by Hyperion Books, a subsidiary of Disney. Through fantasy adventures on sea and faraway islands, it answers the question as to why Peter Pan never grew up. The theatre production of nearly the same name has been written by Rick Elice (Jersey Boys and The Addams Family) and directed by Roger Rees (performer in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) and Alex Timbers (founder and artistic director of les Freres Corbusier and director of the highly-acclaimed production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson)

About the New York Theatre Workshop

The production was housed at the New York theatre Workshop (NYTW), an organization that has always nurtured new works from new artists.The NYTW now owns two theatres and one workshop space. Their productions have won a plethora of awards and influenced generations of theatre makers; it is the perfect home for Donyale’s innovative sustainable sets.

Overview of the Set

The stage production of PATSC has two acts, the first is a very closed set: on a ship, underground and the backstage of a Victorian theatre. The second act expands, and becomes an open space for the actors to use the poor mans theatre mentally where the rope becomes everything and it is where the actors use props to explain the fantastical adventures Peter and his friends are having.

The Sourcing and Design Process


It is important to clarify the three main ways in which Donyale sources her materials:

Salvaging: This where materials are sourced for free, that would have otherwise gone to the landfill and were already in waste storage.

Recycling:Using old set materials or props that were donated to an established recycling scheme. They differ to salvaged materials in that they are in the recycling loop already. Details of companies are included below.

Purchasing: For this production, Donyale bought very few new supplies. However when she does have to buy new, she tries to source from sustainable and ethical companies that wear the fair trade mark, sell natural materials that are not harmful to the environment and the production methods have as low carbon emissions as possible.

Design Aesthetics

Inspired by artists such as Aurora Robson and Orly Genger, as well as Katharine Harvey - whose art responds to Environmental issues such as the Great Pacific Garbage Swirl - Donyale believes that the awful can also be beautiful.

There are no preconceived drawings prior to the design process. It starts with gathering research from many sources, then goes directly into the construction of a ½” scale model. This three dimensional approach to design allows for great experimentation and discovery within the model process. Accidents are considered a part of this process; models are frequently broken and reconfigured to develop ideas in a 3-dimensional space.

When the model is two-thirds complete, Donyale introduces the working model to the producers/production department of the theatre or show. From this preliminary design, sourcing then begins from pre-existing materials available within the producing theatre. After determining what raw goods are available, Donyale then returns to her studio to insert the materials into the existing design. At this point, the design path might shift slightly toward the existing materials although the change is never dramatic.

Junk Doesn’t Have to Look Like Junk

One of the biggest hurdles of the Environmental movement is the misconceptions about what it constitutes. It is once these untrue presumptions are overcome, concerns for the environment can be more approachable to everyone. It is with idea that Donyale approaches her work – she does not want her set to look like rubbish dressed up, so she weaves the salvaged/ recycled materials into her already established style. The proscenium seen below exemplifies Donyale’s style and her ability to obscure the materials and make them indistinguishable. So, the corks from the local restaurants disappear. It is true that using salvaged materials does lend well to the fantasy genre (like Peter and the Starcatcher) butshe can still maintain her salvaging / recycling process on other genres. For example, Donyale created the set for the Lincoln Center Theater’s production ‘Broke-ology’, which is a kitchen sink drama and one that required a naturalistic set.

It is important to note here that Donyale and her team produced 60% of the set, the other 40% was commissioned. In this case the bare structure for the proscenium was built by an external New York City shop, and Donyale and Paper Mâché Monkey worked on top of this structure.

Organic Design

The materials however do somewhat define the direction of where the vision is going. Donyale explains how her work is on the very edge of having a very clear vision and not knowing at all what the outcome is going to be. What lies between this dichotomy are the materials that are available. This is the nature of creating the set out of salvaged and recycling goods. So the design can be seen as an organic process, in that it is determined by the elements found in the surrounding environment.

Working with Paper Mâché Monkey

Paper Mâché Monkey is a New York-based art studio specializing in sustainable design and the green fabrication of hand-made sculptures, art objects, and theatrical scenery and props. Donyale has worked with them on previous projects as well as PATSC.

While working on Alex Timber’s Dance Dance Revolution, Donyale hired Grady Barker as an associate, and along with assistant Justin Couchera they worked on creating the set from salvaged materials. When they moved onto the first of three renditions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Barker realized that creating a sustainable shop could be a business. He then went on to create Paper Mâché Monkey in partnership with Meghan Buchanan.

Donyale and Paper Mâché Monkey work together to build scenery and props that resemble the model and drawings as close as possible, using salvaged and recycled materials as opposed to new materials. Incredibly, Paper Mâché Monkey only threw out five bags of rubbish in five weeks. It is not unusual for this type of rubbish to be generated on a daily basis. Even the sawdust that was created in the studio found its way into the set.

The Life Cycle of the Materials


Donyale firmly believes that there is so much to find, but the key is to knowing how to find it. Here are some examples of where she found her materials:

Material for the Arts: As part of New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs (MFTA) collect and donate supplies necessary for arts and cultural organizations to expand their programs. There are certain requisites of being a recipient, for example working under a not for profit arts and cultural group.

Some of the materials she got from this source were: Plastic chains, tulles, paint, lace, and badminton netting that became part of the OCEAN DROP.

Disney: One of the most interesting salvaging locations Donyale used was at the Disney’s warehouse hangar in Rochester, New York. This is Disney’s storage facility, where current tours and past productions are stored. They allowed Donyale access to some of the productions that were no longer in use.

Materials sourced from here included a 2,156 square foot RP screen, 660 yards of Mermaid fabric from the stage production of The Little Mermaid, hooks from Tarzan, zippers and Velcro.

New York Theatre Workshop: NYTW also donated materials. For example, lumber leftover from a deck build on a previous show.

The optimum aim for salvaging materials is to find ones that have been flame proofed already, or can be flame proofed.

Dumpster Diving: Donyale describes her set building process as fun, as it is not just restricted to the studio. The team would regularly go dumpster diving. One of the most successful finds were the doors of a bodega which had caught fire. The partially burnt doors were put on the street and the team was able to grab them. The team began their search at the end of the Christmas season and took much of Macy’s department store’s old window display materials.

Local Bars and Restaurants: Donyale used several corks and bottle tops as sculpting materials. NYTW helped collect these from bars and restaurants in the immediate area. She also accepted other materials, even though she did not initially know where they were going on the set.

Buying New

It is an organic process, and as the found objects are collected, Donyale adds these to the design. For example, a lot of kitchen utensils were salvaged and they became a part of the proscenium detail. One of the drawbacks of salvaging/ dumpster diving is that you are never certain how much you are going to find, so some utensils had to be bought new. Primarily, however, it was was mainly hardware that was bought new, i.e. wheels.

Examples of supplies bought new: forks (from a second hand shop), staples, screws, glue, rivets, safety pins, metallic paints.

Disposal: Keeping the Recycling Loop Closed

Once a show has closed, if it is not slated for a larger production Donyale will suggest several recycling options to the production management team. Peter and the Starcatcher is currently waiting for its Broadway debut, therefore, the set is residing in storage.

These recycling options (within the US) include:

Build it Green: A not for profit collection/ donation organization for building materials. They claim to have kept 900 tons of materials out of landfill.

Film Biz Recyling: A not for profit company, that creates socially and sustainable solutions for industry waste. Their network distributions include local charity donation, a self-sustaining Creative Reuse Center, community-building initiatives
 and the media production Industry.

ArtCubeNYC: A 1000+ member Google Group which was created as a forum for the exchange of materials. “A network of folks that work in the art department in New York City. A place where we can share resources, post available left over materials and sales, share crew recommendations, ask questions, answer questions, up and download files,rant, rave, and essentially make our lives easier!”


Storage is a major issue in New York City. Currently, most theatres cannot store scenery effectively. This is a primary focus for the Pre/Post production committee of The Broadway Green Alliance.

Mini Case Study: Pallets into the Shipwreck

15 pallets were salvaged from various locations in Brooklyn. Each pallet was broken down into individual boards, and each board had its ends removed to dispose of nails and screws. These boards were used to sculpt the Shipwreck. The total cost of materials for the Shipwreck was $69.19 (£44.10). Had the wood been bought from a traditional source, this would have cost $556.61 (£354.80). A total savings of $487.42 (£310.30) was achieved.

The Key Differences to the Conventional Approach

Increase in Labour

Donyale explains that one of the misconceptions working greener or employing sustainable design practices, is that it is more expensive. However, looking at the finance sheet of PATSC, the savings accrued by salvaging materials is substantial. However, what does increase are the labour fees. Dumpster diving/salvaging/breaking down materials to store takes additional time. Donyale is transparent about this added cost to theatre companies. In offsetting material expenses the need for labor increases, therefore creating employment while reducing physical waste.

Figure 1:

Paper Mâché Monkey Labour ExpenseTraditional (Hypothetical) Labour Expense

SCENIC 2 $800.00SCENIC 1$2592
INTERN $800.00SCENIC 2$800
TOTAL SPENT $36,040(£22,946.04)TOTAL SPENT$32,648 (£20,786.46)
LABOR INCREASE PPM+ $3,392 (£2,159.58)

Dramatic decrease in material costs

Whether a theatre company is environmentally conscious or not, everyone wants to save money. On PATSC, Paper Mâché Monkey’s portion of the build using the salvaging method cost $5,071.31 (£3,080). This includes materials, tools, and transportation. This is compared to the cost of newly purchased materials, tools and transportation being $42,308.02 (£25,698.15). That is a saving of $37,236.69 (£22,623.23). As Donyale correctly states: ‘This is not chump change in the world of Off-Broadway’. Here an excerpt of this cost comparison, looking specifically at the material cost for the Ocean Drop in the set, and where the majority of these savings were made:

Figure 2:

QuantityMaterialTrue Acquisition methodTrue cost ($)Hypothetic cost of buying new, including sales tax
(July 2011)
2156 sq ftRP ScreenDonated$0$10,624
660 yardsLittle Mermaid FabricDonated$0$14270
60 yardsWhite ScrimDonated$0$3480
4Badmitton netsBought second hand$13$13
4 rollsConstruction NettingSalvaged$0$174.16
178 sq feetLighting GelsDonated$0$379.70
2 boltsLaceSalvaged$0$457.28
1 - 20’ x 30’Black ScrimSalvaged$0$857.39
1 gallonPaintBought$21.99$21.99
1 gallonPoly-AcrylicBought$55.99$55.99
1 gallonGlazeSalvaged$0$0 (donation from studio remains)
1 - 20’ x 6’Construction table frame - Repurposed Theatre FlatDonated$0$0(donation from studio remains)
Rivit GunsBought$411$411
1000Cable TiesBought$51.25$51.25
Saving:$30,379.45 (£18,464.17)

The Legacy Effect

Broadway Green Alliance (BGA)

Donyale has turned sustainable design methodology into a successful career in set design on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in regional theatres. She is the co-chair of the pre/post production committee of the Broadway Green Alliance, which is is a coalition of industry leaders in Broadway that aims to educate, motivate and inspire the theatre community and its patrons to implement environmentally friendlier practices. Working closely with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the BGA identifies and disseminates better practices for theatre professionals, and reaches out to theatre fans throughout the country via campaigning. It primarily operates through committees, covering key aspects of the initiative – education and outreach, membership, production, touring, venues and pre/ post production.

Donyale’s Achievements Within the BGA

Led by the Pre/Post Production committee, the Broadway community has adopted greener methods of disposing sets from closing productions. On Broadway, 88% of scenery from shows closing is now recycled instead of going to a landfill. Other projects include an ongoing series of workshops called “Going Green in Theatrical Design”. These inform the theatrical community in New York City about various areas of sustainable design.

Another Initiative is “The Gel Project”.

The Gel Project: “Each year thousands of dollars of lighting gel must be changed out on Broadway shows as part of the maintenance procedures. This lighting gel is usually not damaged nor faded, and in great condition. The goal of “The Gel Project” is to transfer good lighting gel from Broadway shows to the collections of regional theaters for only the cost of shipping. This will keep lighting gel out of the dumpster and into theatrical productions throughout the country. The first "The Gel Project" sister theaters are Broadway's Wicked and The Old Globe in San Diego, California.”

Critical Recognition

“Donyale Werle's dream box of a set is all sooty shadows in the first act and music-hall paradise sunshine in the second (with matching lighting by Jeff Croiter and witty, period-scrambling costumes by Paloma Young). Against this backdrop the performers keep reconfiguring themselves into various shapes that serve to evoke (quite ravishingly) the different cabins of a ship, a hungry and dynamic ocean and (with the use of foliage-shaped panels) a jungle to get lost in.”

– Ben Brantley, 
The New York Times
March 9, 2011

“Donyale Werle's brilliant set, playing off dark ropes and riggings in act one and with a bright, plastic concept an avant-garde Little Mermaid in act two, provides the cast, led by the high-octane Christian Borle as the pirate king, with a veritable playground.”

– Brendon Lennon
, Financial Times, 2011

“At least, the production benefits from a highly original design. Donyale Werle, who transformed the Royale Theatre beyond recognition for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, here covers the NYTW stage with a faded Victorian proscenium and purple swagged drapes; the first act unfolds on a nearly bare stage populated by a couple of trunks and indefinite scenic pieces; the second act, set on a South Pacific island, is like a child's-eye view of Gauguin, with the stage wrapped in translucent blue-green drops.”

– David Barbour, 
Lighting and Sound America
, 2011
Sustaining Creativity