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Prof. Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta’s Pop-Up Repair shop merges sustainability and social activism

For Prof. Sandra Goldmark, the environmentalist mantra of “the three Rs”—recycle, reduce, reuse—is missing one other critical “R”: Repair. “It is a part of waste reduction and sustainability that is underdeveloped,” says Prof. Goldmark, a member of Barnard’s theatre faculty, who recently launched an initiative to make repairing items a viable alternative to throwing away and replacing them.

“We are facing enormous problems on this planet that can’t wait—we can’t just recycle our way out of this mess. We have to extend the life of objects as well,” says Goldmark.

The heart of the project is a fix-it shop tucked in a tiny storefront on Broadway in the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood. Open only for the month of June and funded primarily by an indiegogo.com campaign, Pop-Up Repair served local residents, who brought in broken objects to be fixed by a team of “repair wizards.” Led by Prof. Goldmark and her husband Michael Banta, the production manager in Barnard’s theatre department, the team consisted of theatre professionals with the necessary skills and artistry from their experience working with props and set designs.

“We have some really amazing skills that not many people have anymore—from watching the repairs that we did, I felt affirmed about what we do in theatre,” says Prof. Goldmark. “It was exciting to see the people who are usually backstage, put front and center. Their work is always unspoken and never an explicit part of the show, but here, that was the show.”

Even for seasoned theatre practitioners, the wide inventory was a challenge. “Repairing some of these items requires a lot of internet research to figure out a plan of action,” said Banta.

With the help of a Barnard Presidential Research Award, the project will extend beyond the shop itself to examine the culture of consumption from an analytical perspective. Customers were asked questions about the history of their object—where it came from, its original price, in what way it was broken—as well as their overall attitude toward waste and repair. Prof. Goldmark said she will use this data in her research looking at the outcomes of the shop’s one-month life, and it will also inform her inquiry into the cultural and historical context of repair. They also collected photo and video documentation of people and the things they brought in for repair, which will become part of a theatrical response to the bigger questions of society’s relationship with “stuff” and the value placed on material objects.

“When we invest the time or money to have something repaired, does it become more valuable to us? In theatre, we take everyday objects—or words or moments—and we give them a heightened meaning by placing them in the context of a larger narrative,” said Prof. Goldmark. “Theatre has a long history of social activism, and in some ways, that’s what this is.”

On this June day, as the customers continued to arrive, in the back, several of the shop’s staff members were hard at work repairing the seats of cane-woven chairs. Among them were a Barnard student and alumna. Flora Vassar ’11 worked in the theatre department during her college years, and now lives in Philadelphia, where she’s been involved with The Resource Exchange. This creative re-use center that reclaims material from theater and film so that it can be redirected to makers, educators, and the public.

For theatre major Lilla Goettler ’14, working at Pop-Up Repair was an opportunity to improve her craftsmanship skills. It also helped her realize the absence of repair in the sustainability movement.  “This is my first time involved with an environmental project, and it’s changing the way I think about objects,” she said, picking up a needle and thread to fix a ripped shirt. “Many people identify as environmentalists, but here we’re making them more aware of repair as a way to be proactive and responsible.”