For audiences, a stage show ends as soon as the curtain closes. They stand, they clap, they shout their praises for their favorite characters. And then they leave with only memories of the theatrical magic that they experienced.
For the teams behind these productions, though, so much more goes into putting on a show. Not only do cast members have to say goodbye to the characters that they’ve played for days, weeks or months, but the tech crew also has to take down and discard the set to make room for the next production.
And rather than watch all of these resources go to waste, one stage manager wondered if she could repurpose used theater backdrops. As she looked at the large pieces of background fabric, she realized that she could repurpose them into something both useful and meaningful.
Throughout Jen Kahn’s career as a stage manager for Broadway productions, she had given little thought to what was done with fabric backdrops once her shows closed. That all changed in 2015, though, when she went on a road trip with a friend.
During one of their pit stops, Kahn and her companion happened upon a shop with a very interesting set of bags for sale. They were made out of discarded sails from boats. And this example of upcycling suddenly got her thinking.
She realized that she could make use of retired stage scenery in the same way. So, there was no reason why she shouldn’t repurpose fabric backdrops into handbags and sell them, too. And by November 2015 she was planning the bags’ designs and collecting supplies from theater companies.
Among her initial finds was a gold and silver brick pattern from the national tour of Hairspray and a textured, coral-and-black fabric from a Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors. She even managed to get her hands on the muted, flowery swatch from Dorothy’s bedroom in The Wizard of Oz.
And a little over a year later, Kahn was ready to show off her initial prototypes, created under her new label, Scenery Bags. “It’s all happening!!” she wrote in an Instagram post sharing the first two designs, which were simply shaped yet brightly colored clutches.
Each bag, of course, had a story to tell – it was once part of a stage production, after all. So, Kahn fitted – and continues to fit – each one with a label stating the name of the show from which the fabric came, as well as how many bags were made from the same backdrop.
Still, the bags’ history wasn’t the only feature that made them special to buyers. That’s because each purchase also handed Kahn the opportunity to give back to communities where access to the arts is limited.
With the sale of each bag, Kahn funnels a percentage of her proceeds into the Theater Development Fund’s Stage Door program. The organization could therefore use her donations to bring high- and middle- school students to attend Broadway productions, opening their eyes to the possibilities of the arts.
Of course, her ability to help depended upon whether or not her bags would sell. After her initial teaser images in January 2017, the website for Scenery Bags went live in July of the same year. And within two days, the entire collection sold out.
With the profits from her first round of sales, Kahn was able to help send ten kids to see a Broadway show through the Stage Door program. She could only thank the theater community around her for such an amazing response to the brand’s first collection of bags.
She told Upworthy, “We have been given such an amazing opportunity to create less waste, keep a part of theater history forever and introduce a new generation of storytellers to theater.”
What’s more, her efforts were subsequently helped by the support of both Broadway and Hollywood stars. Krysta Rodriguez, a regular on the TV series Smash and one of the original cast members of Broadway’s The Addams Family, shared an image of her Scenery Bag on Instagram.
Then, through Rodriguez’s Instagram post, Rachel Bloom found out about Scenery Bags. A Golden Globe winner, Bloom is best known for creating and starring in the CW series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And she reserved her own theatrically-inspired clutch immediately.
Just like Rodriguez, Bloom couldn’t help but share her new purchase via Instagram as soon as she received it. And not only did her post laud the brand’s charitable efforts, but it also inadvertently brought major attention to Scenery Bags in general.
In fact, just one day after Bloom’s post, Scenery Bags’ Instagram had gained 1,400 new followers. Today, the brand boasts more than 10,000 followers on the social media site and offers eight different collections of clutches from different theatrical productions.
On top of that, Scenery Bags has been able to recycle and repurpose more than 3,600 pounds of material that would otherwise have gone to waste. Kahn bills each bag as a “piece of history,” a unique souvenir from a show that no one else will be able to take home.
But she says that for her, the most important part is being able to give back to the community and spark a love of the arts in children who might use their creativity to change the world. Kahn wrote, “We may be giving [kids] an introduction to theater, but I strongly believe they will be giving us back so much more.”