This Company Is Turning Old Broadway Backdrops Into Handbags—and Saving 20,000 Pounds of Fabric from Landfills

October 18, 2019

Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: “I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash.” The elaborate backdrops? Gone.

But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?

A selection of colorful clutches are spilling out of a tote bag that reads "I can't, I have rehearsal."
Courtesy Scenery

Saving Treasure from the Trash

“The theater industry does so many wonderful things—the art of storytelling is just so important, especially right now,” says Kahn. “But the one thing I think we’re getting wrong as an industry is how wasteful we are.”

So in 2017, Kahn founded Scenery, and it’s saved a lot of treasure from turning into trash. Scenery works with a manufacturer in Florida to transform drops, wings and curtains into chic clutches. And a set-building shop in South Carolina turns marley and stage decks—a wood-like laminate material used in theater floors—into accessories. “We’ve collected almost 20,000 pounds of material, and it all would have been in a landfill somewhere.”

Shows do often share set materials as they move from Broadway to national tours to regional productions. But there’s a lot of waste along the way, says Kahn, as drops get trimmed in size to accommodate smaller theaters. “That’s what we started with: the scraps of Broadway and national tours. And then I reached out to all the production managers I’d ever worked with and asked for their trash, and they all graciously said yes.”

A cluttered theater set-building workshop featuring a cart with a piece of stage floor. Circles have been punched out of the floor material.
Stage deck being turned into bangles. Courtesy Scenery

Take the Story with You

Scenery has produced bags and accessories from a growing list of shows, including productions of Kinky Boots, Mamma Mia!, Mean Girls and The Lion King. Recently, it upcycled a stage from Beetlejuice‘s pre-Broadway run to make coffin-shaped rings. (They’re currently sold out.)

Kahn says she has “8 million” ideas brewing, and whenever they receive material from a show, she brainstorms what new product might come out of it. Earrings made of recycled marley will be launching soon.

When asked what Scenery’s most popular products have been so far, Kahn shoots back some surprising statistics: The coveted Mean Girls‘ clutch sold out in only three minutes. Crafted from the show’s opening night step-and-repeat banner, it featured Mean Girls‘ pink and white logo. Bags from Wicked sold out in five minutes. Still, Kahn says Scenery has sold more bags from Mamma Mia! than from any other show, because they acquired all of the production’s materials, which were designed in tones of ocean blue.

Not Just for Theater Lovers

She also upcycles the velour material of wings to make bag embroidered with messages like “Break a Leg” and her recent dancer-friendly version: “Merde.” Kahn, who started out as a dancer, said she chose to release the “Merde” bag in light of the Lara Spencer’s untoward comments on “Good Morning America” about Prince George taking ballet. She’d had the idea for a while, but thought, “This is when we need to launch this bag and love on the dance community. I love the theater/dance/entertainment community at large. Really, we defend our own.”

Founder Jennifer Kahn poses with a speckled blue clutch. She has wavy blonde hair and is wearing a denim jacket, white shirt and black pants.

Kahn with a clutch from Mamma Mia! Courtesy Scenery

Giving Back

A portion of proceeds from each sale is donated to the Theatre Development Fund’s Introduction to Theatre program, which provides education and free live theater tickets to students in and around New York City. “I feel like theater should be as accessible as the movies, and nowadays you can buy some theater tickets for as much as an IMAX ticket. People just don’t know to look for it.”

Scenery’s more dance-centric “Merde” bag helps fund TDF’s Introduction to Dance program, which sends students to ballet or other dance performances. “I always say that this company’s whole mission is to be a love letter to the theater community—and now the dance community as well.”