Advice and Resources

Lumber is seriously expensive right now. Here’s what you should consider when planning your upcoming show.

The housing and home renovation boom has left lumber mills spinning, and supply cannot keep up with the demand. The soaring price of lumber is leaving theatre stunned. But there's a solution! Read on to learn more.

The lumber issue

As the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a serious economic downturn last spring, sawmills dramatically scaled-down production in anticipation of a housing slump. Instead of the expected housing crisis, the economy was greeted with a significant surge in home buying and renovation. This is no doubt brought on by rock-bottom mortgage interest rates and a renewed focus on improving our at-home spaces to accommodate our new do-everything-at-home reality.

This boom triggered a 359% increase (Ag Web) in the cost of lumber, and this new reality is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s been a long time coming, and it’s not simply due to a shortage of timber. Timber – raw wood material – remains available, but new import taxes and a decade-long reduction in demand has resulted in the closure of many sawmills, and, therefore, a bottleneck effect on the supply of lumber. The nationwide impact of a dwindling lumber industry combined with a unexpected and sudden surge in demand has resulted in an average increase of $36,000 for the price of a new single-family home.

This is further complicated by the hyperlocal structure of the lumber industry – different states are being disproportionately impacted by this shortage. Some states have plenty of timber, but not enough sawmills to manufacture lumber, and in others it’s the opposite. Opening new sawmills? According to sawmill and plywood mill-owner Steve Sawnson in an interview with Vox, it’s not simple:

“They’d like to see our industry respond to these prices and make new lumber, but a new sawmill today is $100 million, it takes two years to build, and there’s no guarantee you’re going to have the raw materials to run it.” (Vox)

While the housing and lumber industry stakeholders petition the new administration to focus on the supply chain issues and solutions to the sky-high prices, we can anticipate that the problem is not going away in the immediate future.

What does this mean for theatre?

As theatre organizations and schools plan their comeback seasons, directors and administrators are pondering the effects of a lost season on production coffers and making staffing decisions to protect the viability of their organizations. The unwelcome news of inflated lumber prices will undoubtedly throw a wrench into production budgets for the upcoming season.

The good news: We don’t have to sacrifice production values in the face of a raw materials cost increase – and we can look to Broadway for inspiration. The majority of new shows opening on the Great White Way are utilizing projected multimedia alongside more minimalistic built elements to create rich scenery. The industry-wide surge toward projections is lowering the barrier to entry, and resources like Broadway Media’s Scenic Projections are making the licensing and implementation of projected digital scenery easier and more affordable than ever before. In fact, many producers are switching to an entirely digital set to lower their costs and increase the storytelling potential of their stage.

Using Projected Digital Scenery as Backdrop Replacement

The easiest, and most cost-effective way to control your production budget as we come out from a bruising COVID-19 hiatus is to entirely replace the built environment onstage with Scenic Projections. The nature of Scenic Projections provides an opportunity to project all the settings of a show without the need for additional set pieces to help explain the story. Scenic Projections are a powerful storytelling tool and are designed specifically for organizations and schools working on a tight budget, have limited storage, or perform in a space to which they don’t have unrestricted access.

Using Projections to enhance a built environment

Arguably the most effective way to utilize projections in a production is to integrate them with physical elements for a more immersive, three-dimensional set. Not only will you be cutting down on the physical materials required to create a set, but you’ll overcome spatial constraints that limit the number of hanging drops and flying physical elements in and out to create different settings.

Using Digital Scenery as a Backdrop Replacement for Disney’s Aladdin JR.

Scenic Projections are designed to do much of the heavy-lifting in regard to the production values of a play or musical. As you can see in the above image from Artpark Theatre Academy’s 2019 production of Disney’s Aladdin JR., the design relies heavily on projections, with smaller props (like the magic carpet) used to great effect alongside the animated digital scenery.

This is a great technique for productions with large casts. Projections maximize stage space and provide storytelling tools, like animated scene changes, scripted “magic” moments, and changes in light and weather that reflect the mood of a scene.

For Broadway Buffs,
Dear Evan Hansen is a great example of a set that depends on projections and minimal set pieces for its storytelling, and reflects the era in which the story is based. See below.

The Integrated Projections Method for Catch Me If You Can

Physical set pieces can be enriched with multimedia elements – like digital scenery – to make a set both visually and physically interactive. The physical set pieces provide depth for the projections,while projections help convey movement, time and mood changes without the need to move different set pieces on and off the stage for each scene. Importantly, this hybrid model (which is favored by most set designers) cuts down on materials like lumber and scaffolding.

Check out the following images from Showbiz Players’ production of Catch Me If You Can.

As you can see, their unit set evolves with the lighting throughout the show and provides visual depth to the onstage action.

At a rapidly increasing rate, theaters and schools across the country are utilizing projections as part of their set design – either as a backdrop replacement or enhancing their built environment. As the lumber market faces an ongoing crunch, take advantage of the affordability and versatility of this exciting new development in scenic design. For more information, visit our Scenic Projections information page.

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