A global ecological awakening is underway; one that calls for a new philosophy for theatre production that promotes more environmentally conscious, holistic, interconnected and symbiotic ways of making. With a global pandemic enforcing a pause in our practices and changing our ways of communicating and collaborating, we are at a unique moment in time that provides an opportunity to rethink the way we produce theatre now and into the future. How can we seize the potential that this new era of uncertainty and environmental focus demands?
This special edition of Theatre and Performance Design will examine the emerging practice of sustainability and ecological thinking in scenography. Related industries, such as architecture, product design and fashion have already shown us how a sustainable ethic can create novel processes and aesthetics. However, we are yet to fully grasp what a socially and environmentally conscious approach entails for the performing arts. ‘Ecoscenography’ is an expansive term that includes theories and practices that bring an increased awareness of broader ecologies and global issues to performance design. In this special issue, we are interested in how sustainability is being embraced in performance platforms across the world. How is ecological thinking evoking new materials and processes for theatrical design? How are practitioners and scholars critiquing and enhancing the social and environmental advocacy of our field? And what new aesthetics are being revealed? Beyond the necessity of energy and waste reduction, this special issue is interested in what an ecological approach to scenography does – how it influences our ways of thinking, and working – as well as how it might be defined within and beyond the performing arts. It calls for a new preoccupation with the agentic capacities of the field not only in terms of the ‘worlds’ that we create for audiences but also the ecological, social and political consequences, impacts and messaging behind our work.
Submissions are invited on, but not limited to, the following topics:
• Sustainability in theatre production, set, costume, lighting, sound and projection
• Theatre design and the circular economy
• Sustainability in theatre design education
• Sustainability in a digital performance culture
• Performance and Ecology
• Environmental advocacy and performance design
• Climate change activism and urban scenography
• Ecomaterialism and material ecologies
• Ecological approaches in expanded scenography
• Ecological approaches in theatre architecture.
The editors also welcome interviews with designers and architects as well as visual essays. In the first instance proposals should take the form of a 300 word abstract to be submitted to editorial associate Nick Tatchell at firstname.lastname@example.org by 12th October with accepted articles due in full by 12th May 2021. Articles usually range between 6000-8000 words.
The Living Pavilion recently received an Award of Excellence (the highest award available) in the category of Community Contribution at the 2020 AILA Vic Awards!!!
The Living Pavilion (1-17 May 2019) was an Indigenous-led temporary event space that took place as part of CLIMARTE’s ‘ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE’ Festival at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville Campus. Part celebration, part horticulture demonstration and part living lab, The Living Pavilion was a platform for revealing and celebrating past, current and future ecologies as well as hosting events and performances by local Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, artists, knowledge-sharers and scientists. It featured a landscape design of 40,000 Kulin Nation plants and a program of 40+ events that celebrated Indigenous knowledge, ecological science and sustainable design through participatory arts practice.
The Living Pavilion was the seventh iteration of ‘The Living Stage’ project, a global initiative by Tanja Beer which combines horticulture, sustainable design and participatory arts to transform urban spaces into accessible, equitable and thriving ecological and social gathering places. Sustainability is a key part of all Living Stage projects, which includes the desire to enhance the connectivity and integration of more-than-human places in response to climate change, social inequity, food scarcity and biodiversity loss. Its sustainability mandate has been one of not only mitigating environmental impact, but also of contributing positively to socio-ecological systems where possible.
Part event space, part garden and part exhibition, The Living Pavilion was a call for First Nations perspectives, histories and culture to take centre stage in the face of increasing ecological uncertainty. Over three weeks, the temporary landscape design of over 40,000 Kulin Nation plants transformed an unspectacular University thoroughfare into a haven of biodiverse gathering spaces, Indigenous artworks and ecological soundscapes before being incorporated into permanent landscape works across Victoria. Situated as part of the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festival, a key aim of the project was to engage people of all ages and walks of life in the cultural and ecological significance of the region’s native flora and fauna in a fun and accessible way.
The Living Pavilion aimed to forefront and celebrate landscape architecture as an expansive and transdisciplinary discipline that is capable of opening up unique cultural and ecological opportunities that can be shared across communities. The project engaged over 300 participants and experts across Indigenous knowledge systems, landscape architecture and design, ecological science, sustainability, horticulture, visual arts, theatre, music and sound design to showcase how diverse collaborations can sow the seeds of community vitalisation and environmental stewardship.
A key innovation was the use of artistic, participatory and multisensory design elements and programming to illuminate the hidden stories and cultural connections of the University site. For example, the design featured more than 60 exhibition signs (led by Barkandji researcher Zena Cumpston with Ngarigo landscape designer Charles Solomon) which articulated many of the plant’s cultural, nutritional, technological and medicinal uses from an Aboriginal perspective. Another highlight was the reclaiming of Bouverie Creek through a mural design by Yorta Yorta and Gunnai artist Dixon Patten which aimed to ‘daylight’ the waterway piped underneath the site. Sound was also an integral part of transforming the urban thoroughfare into a lush oasis which included several outdoor speakers that recreated past ecologies of the site (e.g. frog calls, creek flowing) as well as the voices of Mandy Nicholson and The Djirri Djirri Dance Group singing in Woi Wurrung language. More information about the project can be found here.
The team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which the project took place, the Wurundjeri peoples of the Woi Wurrung language group, part of the greater Eastern Kulin Nations. We pay our respects to Wurundjeri Elders, past, present and emerging. We honour the deep spiritual, cultural and customary connections of the Traditional Custodians to the landscape and ecology of the land on which The Living Pavilion was located. We acknowledge that this land, of which we are beneficiaries, was never ceded and endeavour to reflect and take consistent action to address this harmful circumstance. We are especially grateful for the contributions of many First Peoples involved in our project and their generosity to share their culture and knowledge with us. We would like to extend our thanks to all our collaborators on The Living Pavilion, including the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub (CAUL) of the National Environmental Science Program, THRIVE Research Hub (Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning), the New Student Precinct of the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, CLIMARTE’s ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 Festival, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), Ecodynamics, Next Wave, Place Agency, BILI Nursery, 226 Strategic, Graduate Student Association (GSA), Garawana Creative, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Sustainability Team @Unimelb.
Project Team and partnership credits:
The Living Pavilion was a co-production and collaboration with Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub (CAUL) of the National Environmental Science Program, THRIVE Hub (Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning), the New Student Precinct of the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, and CLIMARTE’s ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 Festival. The Living Pavilion’s major horticultural and design partners were Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) and Ecodynamics. Other partners of The Living Pavilion included: Next Wave, Place Agency, BILI Nursery, 226 Strategic, Graduate Student Association (GSA), The Living Stage, Garawana Creative, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Sustainability Team @Unimelb.
Producers: Cathy Oke, Tanja Beer & Zena Cumpston
Associate Producer: Jeremy Taylor (New Student Precinct)
Lead Researcher: Zena Cumpston
Indigenous Advisory Team: Charles Solomon, Dean Stewart, Zena Cumpston, Mandy Nicholson, Maddison Miller,
with additional support from Greenshoots Consulting, Murrup Barak and Wilin Centre,
Jefa Greenaway, CAUL Hub’s Indigenous Advisory Group and Rueben Berg
Original concept (The Living Stage) and Lead Designer: Tanja Beer
Contributing Designers: Zena Cumpston, Steph Beaupark
Signage: Illustrations by Dixon Patten of Bayila Creative, research and words by Zena Cumpston, design and production by 226 Strategic.
Graphic Design (Program): Dixon Patten of Bayila Creative (Principal) and Rachel Pirnie (UoM)
Program Partnerships and Events Manager: Cathy Oke
Programming and Event Assistant Managers: Jeremy Taylor, Rachel Iampolski, Skylar Lin, Amelia Leavesley, Marley Holloway-Clarke,
Anita Spooner and Paris Paliouras
Communications Managers: Isabel Kimpton, Nicole Mustedanagic, Leah Hyland, Sophie Hill, Cathy Oke, Kiah McCarthy and Alice Tovey
Communications Strategy and Social Media: Isabel Kimpton
Horticulture design and Propagation Team: Nick Somes, Jeff Beavis, Randall Wee, Adrian Gray, Charles Solomon, Zena Cumpston, Chelsie Davies, Kate Hogan
The Living Pavilion Student Ambassadors: Gabrielle Margit Lewis, Jane Chen, Chelsea Matthews, Victoria Tabea Seeck, Lucia Marie Amies, Mimmalisa Trifilò and Rachel Iampolski
Horticulture Coordinator: Jenny Pearce
Site and Plant Maintenance: Milton Perks
Wayfinding Design and Materials: Helaine Stanley and Andrew Hubbard, 226 Strategic
Research Team: Cristina Hernadez Santin, Tanja Beer, Zena Cumpston, Rimi Khan, Luis Mata, Kirsten Parris, Christina Renowden, Rachel Iampolski, Leila Farahani, Eugenia Zoubtchenko and Blythe Vogel
Financial Management: Angela Bruckner and Siouxzy Morrison
Site Support: Tevita Lesuma, Suzanne Griffin, Louise Ryan (Graduate Student Association), Rob Oke and Lewis Mcleod
Information Booth: Kay Oke, ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 festival crew
Soundscape: Mark Pollard, Alex Beck, Trev Dunham, Lachlan Wooden and The Faculty of Fine Arts and Music (Interactive Composition students)
Co-design Creative Development Workshop Contributors: Judith Alcorn, Margaret Bakes, Steph Beaupark, Tanja Beer, Chelsie Davies, Christina Chiam, Zena Cumpston, Harriet Deans, John Delpratt, Marita Dyson, Michael Ford, Lisa Godhino, Adrian Gray, Cris Hernandez, Joe Hurley, Leah Hyland, Sophie Jackson, Ryan Jefferies, Bronwyn Johnson, Kate Kantor, Alex Kennedy, Amelia Leavesley, Meredith Martin, Luis Mata, Patrick Mercer, Sue Murphy, Cathy Oke, Jenny Pearce, Eleanor Percival, Anne-Marie Pisani, Ian Shears, Robert Snelling, Jeremy Taylor, Alice Tovey and Katie West
University of Melbourne and New Student Precinct Contributors: Georgie Meagher, Alex Kennedy, Mal Abley, Chris Frangos, Tim Uebergang, Dominic Napoleone, Dani Norman, Danny Butt and Mark Gillingham
I have some news! I’m writing a book! Yes! A book on ecoscenography!
CALL OUT for cool sustainable design projects!
I am looking for examples of people doing great stuff in the world of sustainability and the performing arts that I can feature in my book. So, I’d love to hear about any projects people are doing around the world that are worth a mention. I really want to celebrate the exciting range of work that people are doing — everything from tiny theatre projects to massive spectacles, in both conventional and expanded practice. Especially projects that are not always celebrated the way they should be or from different parts of the world often not recognised in the Global North or English speaking context (note: this is not the time to be shy about spruiking your own work). Looking for examples across the whole spectrum of set, costume, props, lighting and sound.
Ecoscenography: an introduction of ecological design for performance
Sustainability in theatre production is the topic of my forthcoming book entitled, Ecoscenography: an introduction of ecological design for performance (Palgrave Macmillan 2021) based on my PhD research at the University of Melbourne which I completed in 2016. The monograph examines the emerging concept of ‘ecoscenography’; a neologism that I use to bring performance design into an increased awareness of broader ecologies and global issues. In the book, I argue that the current ecological crisis calls for a new philosophy for theatre production that promotes more ecological (holistic, interconnected and symbiotic) ways of doing things. Related industries, such as architecture, product design and fashion have already shown us how a sustainable ethic can create exciting new processes and aesthetics. However, we are yet to fully grasp what a socially and environmentally conscious approach entails for the performing arts.
The ephemeral and specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only of valued for the duration of the performance season – often a matter of days or weeks – before they are discarded. Designers are trained to work towards Opening Night. How we ‘get there’ or what happens to our sets and costumes after the production ends is often neither a priority nor a consideration. Our focus as scenographers has typically been to create ‘experiences of impermanence’ – often extravagant spectacles with little regard for the prevailing permanence of unwanted remains (seen and unseen) which persist long after the event. Unlike typical theatre productions where the performance season is precedent, ecoscenography is comprised of three stages that are considered equally fundamental to the aesthetic consideration of the work – co-creation (preproduction), celebration (production) and circulation (post-production). Drawing upon literature across the ecological worldview (Hes & du Plessis 2015), systems thinking (Meadows 2008), biomimicry (Benyus 2002), ecomaterialism (Cohena and Duckert 2013; Alaimo 2010), regenerative development (Reed 2007) and others, the book provides an introduction to ecoscenography’s theoretical and practical framework, opening up new processes and aesthetics of theatrical design that enhance the social and environmental advocacy of our field.
Dr Tanja Beer is an ecoscenographer and community artist who is passionate about co-creating social gathering spaces that accentuate the interconnectedness of the more-than-human world. Originally trained as a performance designer and theatre maker, Tanja’s work increasingly crosses many disciplines, often collaborating with landscape architects, urban ecologists, horticulturists and placemakers to inspire communication and action on environmental issues. Her most celebrated project is The Living Stage: a global initiative that combines spatial design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible event spaces. The Living Stage has been realised in Castlemaine, Cardiff, Glasgow, Armidale, New York and Melbourne.
Pia Guilliatt graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in 2017 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) majoring in Design Realisation. She is a set and costume designer and artist with an interest in sustainable and community theatre and is particularly fascinated by immersive theatrical spaces where different artistic disciplines intersect and collide. She relishes in the challenge of working within the parameters of environmental sustainability in her work, from model making and sculpting to costume and set design. It was Pia’s interest in sustainable design that led her to joining me in New York to work on the fifth Living Stage as part of her studies last year. Its just over a year since we were in the US, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to share her post about The Living Stage NYC with you. You can find out more about Pia’s work here.
I have always had a passion for the environment and a strong desire to make a positive impact in whatever area I am working in. I believe that the role of art is to educate and spread awareness about significant social and political issues and to actively partake in exploring solutions to these problems. It is not simply enough make a show about climate change if the creation process is still having a negative effect on the environment through the use of unsustainable materials and wastage. Similarly, the positive message promoted by a theatre piece that explores marginalisation of minorities in society is going to be severely diminished if the show itself is not even accessible to the group of people it supposedly represents.
As I become more and more exposed to theatre culture and practices through my studies in stage design, I have become increasingly aware of its exclusivity and general lack of engagement in environmental issues. I find it shocking, for example, that with all the information we have available about the irreversible effects of climate change, there was no acknowledgement of sustainable materials and practices or waste management anywhere in my production curriculum. For these reasons, I had become increasingly disillusioned with the theatre world and had begun questioning whether I could realistically pursue a design career if it meant sacrificing my passion for the environment. I had no idea that there were designers working specifically in the area of theatre and sustainability and had definitely never heard the term ‘ecoscenography’. So, when I came across Tanja’s work, it was like a breath of fresh air and a revival of my desire to work in this industry. She, like me (only much later in her career) had gone through a crisis of questioning the ethics of her work, which led her to instigating projects such as The Living Stage – a project which combines stage design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible performance spaces. In 2017, I was fortunate to assist Tanja on her fifth Living Stage project in New York, which she created in collaboration with Superhero Clubhouse; New York’s premier ecological theatre company.
The NYC Living Stage was a community project that took place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in Meltzer Park, a small paved green space that neighbours a Seniors Centre and apartment block, both of which are owned and managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Instead of working within the parameters of a script or overriding artistic vision, our aim was to turn the asphalt lined park into a beautiful and thriving space that would connect and celebrate the local community through theatre and performance design.It was amazing to see how much thought went into the communications with the local seniors and children that were engaged in the project, making them feel like they were an integral part of the work, not just passive observers. This turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole experience – chatting to locals in the park, hearing their opinions on elements of the design, getting positive feedback, and sometimes blunt criticism. These brief exchanges revealed fascinating anecdotes and snippets of untold histories.
Tanja’s process relies on reclaimed materials and so is by nature spontaneous and devised. One of our highlights was visiting Materials for the Arts or MFTA (a free reclaimed materials warehouse for not-for-profit arts organisations). MFTA provided us with all of the paint we needed for the floor murals, timber frames, fabric for costumes, smaller prop items and some furniture. It was also where we found our 3500 red wooden rulers that we suspended from the trees in the space. This was the very first element of the design that was installed in the space and became a source of free publicity for the event as an increasing number of people were drawn into the park by the striking scene.
The design also included transforming various items of furniture into vessels for plants. Working with reclaimed materials, while often tricky and fraught with splinters, provided many opportunities for creativity and resourcefulness and these items proved to be both the object and inspiration for many of the design elements. The luxury of a long installation period (over several weeks), allowed us to refine and tweak elements of the design in situ.
Many of the last minute solutions were discovered in this final week – such as the donation of trapezoid timber platforms that we re-configured into an angular stage for the performance. The installation period also became an accidental publicity stunt and an impromptu performance in itself, as seniors and passers began to stop to watch us work. This was evidence of the unexpected joys of community engaged theatre and public art, supporting the idea that its impact can be felt not just during the celebration but also during the making of the event.
The Living Stage was entirely successful in its goal – it brought the residents of the Senior Centre together and transformed an underutilised space into one that was bustling with activity and purpose. Tanja’s spontaneous design process proved a great learning opportunity for me, as I was able to have a genuine contribution to both the design and making process. The project introduced me to a world where the distinction between installation and performance; spectator and creator; and intention and outcome were blurred. The experience allowed me to expand my understanding of theatre arts and rethink my role as designer, artist or creator – opening up opportunities to combine my passion for sustainability with my creative skills and artistic ambitions.
All photos by Dylan River Lopez. A short film about The Living Stage NYC is available here.
After an exciting season on the Lower East Side in New York,The Living Stage is returning home to Victoria (Australia) — this time to the coastal town of Lorne. A centre piece of the Lorne Sculpture Biennale, the project will provide a platform for celebrating the town’s vibrant and eclectic mix of flora and fauna, as well as hosting performances by local artists and musicians.
For those of you that are new to The Living Stage, my original idea (conceived during my PhD in 2012) centred on creating a recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible performance space that combined stage design, horticulture and comunity engagement. Part theatre, part garden and part growing demonstration, the Lorne project will feature a portable plant-lined stage amongst a corridor of suspended botanical sculptures.
Since its inception in 2013, I’ve been incredibly lucky to see the project grow and take shape over multiple interations. The Living Stage (Lorne) is our sixth project and it is a concept that continues to travel the world. However, as each living stage evolves out of a direct response to the localities of site, ecology and community, no project is ever the same.
The Lorne project has been created in collaboration with Ashlee Hughes, assistant designer Pia Guilliatt and the local community. Lorne residents, Helen Smith and Colin Leitch have been particularly instrumental in procuring soil, plants and objects for the stage, with more than 45 boxes of plants actively growing in preparation for the Lorne Sculpture Biennale Opening on the 17th of March.
The Living Stage will include a series of performances by local artists over the three weekends from 17. March to the 2nd April. I’m super excited to announce our current line-up for The Living Stage performances: including local musicians and dancers that will respond to the unique space that surrounds them. Information about our artists are listed below:
Immerse yourself in the heart of the Blues on The Living Stage. Join us in celebrating an appreciation for all things nature through the lyrical poetry of front man Mike Robinson Koss (vocals/harmonicas/lyrics) and his dynamic ensemble. Complete with vintage guitar tones and bluegrass/ragtime style, this local band combines environmental themes with character and pizazz that will have you tapping your feet and asking for more.
Sunday 18th March: Randall Forsyth ‘In search of an acoustic shoreline’ (live music) 1-3pm
Randall has a long history of playing guitar on the south west coast in various incarnations, most notably with the Beachniks since the early nineties. The Living stage provides a perfect opportunity for him to explore a more ambient side of his palette. Drawing on the natural sound elements of wind, ocean and forest, he hopes to compliment the natural soundscape rather than dominate with a series of acoustic guitar loops composed and created in real time. Links to contemporary songs may intercede in the overall context of exploring the tidal qualities and interwoven duality of landfall.
Two highly skilled dancers will inhabit The Living Stage to grow an original performance piece over a two-day creative development period. Sculpted live during the Easter Weekend, these performers will develop a site-specific, experimental work in response to lush design of living plants. Bring your picnic, kids and your coffee, relax in front of the stage as these performers work hard to create your show. Stop by and have a chat to them and maybe offer some creative ideas. See what has evolved when they perform a final showing for you on Saturday 31st March and Sunday the 1st of April at 2pm.
Sponsored by: the Thrive Research Hub (Melbourne School of Design, The University of Melbourne), the Great Ocean Road Coast Committee and Graham Blashki & Evelyn Firstenberg. This project has been made possible by the community of Lorne, including: Helen Smith, Anne Nadenbousch, Colin Leitch, Sue Grant and Grace Nicholls. Assistant designer: Pia Guilliatt. Set builder: Tim Denshire-key. Plants donated by Batesford Nursery, Bushland Flora, Flinders Nursery, Tavistock Nursery, Tree Growers Advanced (TGA), Warners Nurseries, Rhodo Glen Nurseries.
Community workshops in Lorne. Photos by Tanja Beer and Grace Nicholls.
Helen Duncan in The Texture of It by Elanor Webber. Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti’
While much of my work these days is positioned outside of conventional theatre (in the realm of expanded scenography), my venture into sustainability began in more traditional spaces and practices. My latest academic paper: “The aesthetics of impermanence: an integration of phenomenological and ecological aesthetics in performance design” explores new ideas of aesthetics, using a design that I did for Sea Change at The Place, a contemporary dance venue in London in 2014. This post includes a moderated excerpt and summary from the recent paper. The full paper can be accessed here.
As a scenographer working across the fields of sustainability and performance design, the subject of impermanence and its impact upon environmentally responsible practice is both ubiquitous and complex. The ephemeral and specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only of value for the duration of the performance season—often a matter of days or weeks—before they are discarded. Even digital projection and lighting have hidden impacts that extend beyond a stage production. At first glance, the notion of designing for ephemerality while also considering a work’s extended ecological effects constitutes a certain irony—a contradiction of approaches rather than complementary perspectives that can enrich design aesthetics. However, whilst there are challenges to implementing sustainable approaches in theatre production, I propose that considering the impermanence of performance design and its aesthetic and environmental implications opens up exciting new avenues for exploration including new ways of designing for an ecological paradigm across disciplines.
In the field of the performing arts, considering the longer-term consequences of temporary design is rarely recognised as part of a scenographer’s responsibilities. Short-term decadence is generally not questioned in theatre design education, and is often encouraged if the budget allows for it. Scenographers are trained to work towards opening night. How we ‘get there’ or what happens to our sets and costumes after the production ends is often neither a priority nor a consideration. Our focus as designers have typically been to create ‘experiences of impermanence’—often extravagant spectacles with little regard for the more prevailing permanence of unwanted remains (seen and unseen) that persist long after the event.
Traditionally, scenography has primarily been preoccupied with theatre design’s immediate visual, functional or experiential effects, with little regard for much else. While I propose that considering phenomenological aesthetics is key to any successful design, the ecological urgency of the last decade also urges us to consider the long-term impacts of our work. This entails developing a concern for the ecological impact of our ephemeral designs, including an interest in the often invisible (and more permanent) causations of material entanglement of sets and costumes—across bodies, substances and environments, well beyond the theatre. This shift brings up bigger questions of how we practice—of what it means to design for both the impermanence or ‘momentary spectacle’ of the theatre experience whilst also considering the more permanent and ecological implications of such work.
In my latest academic paper, “The aesthetics of impermanence: an integration of phenomenological and ecological aesthetics in performance design”, I cogitate how engaging with both phenomenological and ecological notions of aesthetics can provide a context for ephemeral designs that also consider a longer view of effects. For example, how might the focus of visual and temporal aesthetics in the performing arts be expanded to acknowledge and incorporate a more explicit relationship with ecological values and ethics? Can the quality and success of theatre design be measured not only by the phenomenological or aesthetic experiences it yields, but also by the environmental and social systems to which it relates and contributes to over time? To consider a design’s greater ecological integrity, it is clear that scenography requires an extended aesthetic field that encompasses environmental, social and political advocacy.
In 2014, I conducted a practice-led research project through the design and development of Sea Change – a short dance piece about climate change by choreographer Richard Osborne – as part of the Resolutions Festival in London. Examining the relationship between materiality, ephemerality, sustainability and/in performance, my aim was to explore the potential of using both phenomenological and ecological aesthetics to guide the spatial design. By synthesising ideas of phenomenological and ecological aesthetics, Sea Change demonstrated how long term environmental considerations can be brought into the ephemerality of scenographic practice and how these two modes of consideration can also bring about a more unified design outcome.
Including ecological aesthetics in theatre production and other temporary design practices requires that designers consider their co-extensive relationship with the living world beyond the experiential and ephemeral. This entails a concern for the ‘unseen’ effects of making temporary spaces and implies a kind of interaction with an ‘invisible design’ – that which may not be immediately evident in the making of the work (unrecyclable set elements, flame-retardant, spray paint and $2 shop props) but we acknowledge has causational potential to form a by-product of the ‘visible’ and ‘experienced’ (adding to landfill waste, air pollution and the production of child labour). At the same time, these ‘unseen’ consequences can also be acknowledged in a positive light, where the designer considers the evolutionary potential of a work to contribute to socio-ecological systems. This multifaceted and complex approach to performance design’s ‘aesthetics of impermanence’ remains at the crux of the sustainability challenge and will no doubt require substantial shifts in how we engage mentally as well as practically with the issue.
The full paper (including a summary of the learnings from Sea Change) can be viewed here.
Expanded scenography is everywhere. On the streets, in hospitals, at airports, parks and shopping malls and most recently, in the form of knitted pink beanies and protest banners at political rallies. Space ‘performs’ in the everyday, quotidian, and the mundane, providing much inspiration for scenographers both in and beyond conventional theatre. While it could be argued that ‘expanded scenography’ has existed since the beginning of human culture, performance design’s focus on the ‘expanded’ over the last decade has opened up new approaches and artistic insights. Gone are the days when being a stage designer was restricted to ‘working on other people’s shows’ in traditional theatre spaces. Instead, scenography now represents an exciting pathway for imagining and inspiring new realities beyond the confines of the theatrebuilding and its (often elite) audiences (Beer, 2017).
I recently had the pleasure of editing the newest edition of the CSPA Quarterly on ‘Expanded Scenography’ with fellow ecological artists Ian Garrett and Meghan Moe Betiks. Expanded Scenography is an emerging area in the field of stage design that is being increasingly embraced. But what is it? ‘Scenography’ is already a contested term, with multiple definitions, but essentially one that describes the art of creating performance environments. Since the last half of the 20th Century, the term ‘scenography’ has rapidly replaced ‘stage design’, ‘theatre design’ or ‘set design’ in contemporary performance scholarship, and now represents a progressive field that is moving far beyond traditional scenic illustration and naturalistic representation.
I use the term ‘expanded scenography’ to acknowledge an increasing number of performance designers working outside of traditional theatre, and whose passion for socio-ecological issues is at the core of their practice. Expanded scenography uses scenographic strategies (i.e. spatial, narrative, dramaturgical, performative and multi-sensory) as a way of engaging with the world beyond the theatre. I like to think of expanded scenography as stage design that ‘has left the building’ to intersect with daily life. The idea of scenography ‘leaving the building’ can be both literal and metaphorical, but the central premise is one of questioning normative practices and re-imagining what scenography is and what it can become. It is not bound to the schackles of theatre buildings, disciplinary rhetoric and formal expectations. Here, the scenographer is seen as both a designer and artist in their own right (as well as a producer, facilitator and instigator of creative work).
Ecoscenography works across both in expanded scenography and ecoscenography, but it is in the ‘expanded’ realm that I am finding myself the most these days. Perhaps, it is because the ‘expanded’ allows me to be free to explore the possibilities of ecoscenography — to create new ways of working that integrate ecological thinking without the constraints of unsustainable conventions of the mainstream. For example, projects like The Living Stage and This is not Rubbish could be described as ecoscenography within the realm of expanded scenography.
I hope that one day I can also create ecoscenographic designs in more traditional settings. I want to demonstrate that ecological projects can also take place in the beautiful theatres that first inspired me as a young artist. Regardless of whether designers want to work across conventional or in more expanded contexts, one thing is clear: opportunities for performance designers have never been more diverse and inspiring. I look forward to seeing more scenographers using their theatre training to explore the potential to expand their practice outside of traditional contexts in the coming years.
Our special issue on ‘Expanded Scenography’ features artists who have ventured outside of the more traditional boundaries of theatre-making and performance design to find their own way of responding to the complex problems that haunt us in today. While incredibly diverse, it is our collaborative desire for contributing to the wider world and being part of the political debate as artists in our own right that unites us in this issue. We hope that this publication opens up discussions that reframe traditional perceptions of scenography and introduces new audiences to its potential. The full journal edition can be accessed here.
More information about Expanded Scenography can be found here.
Happy 2017! I begin my first post for the year with an edited excerpt and introduction to my latest paper, ‘Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography’ (published in ASAP/Journal in 2016). The paper explores the role of the scenographer in seeking out the artistic potential of unconventional materials and discarded objects in and beyond the theatre. The full article can be downloaded here.
Opening night at the theatre and the stage is awash with colour and spectacle, an awe-inspiring display of set and costume extravagance. Fast-forward eighteen months: this wondrous design has transformed itself into a mountainous ruin, oozing from a gluttonous skip deep in the bowels of the building. These contemporary “theatre ruins’” begin relatively harmlessly, hidden behind dusty staircases and at the back of storage units, crowding corridors and littering dressing rooms. But sooner or later, what doesn’t make it into the recycle bin is cast off to the land of “away,” where skips overflow into leaching landfills, and, inextricably, into our fragile ecosystems. It is here that we encounter the unsettling reality that our arts practices have consequences.
The ephemeral and highly specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only valued for the duration of the performance season (often a matter of days or weeks) before they are discarded. Designers are rarely contracted to consider the impact of their designs after opening night, or to build post-production possibilities into their creative processes. But does it need to be this way? Can the image of the skip as the final resting place of most theatrical designs instead be revised to find another endpoint where creativity and innovation can once again flourish? How might scenographers embrace cyclic rather than linear production processes to rethink the potential of art’s refuse?
Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography explores the role of the scenographer in seeking out the artistic potential of unconventional materials and discarded objects in and beyond the theatre. Here, extending the use of materials is not approached out of austerity but fuelled by a desire for invention and ingenuity—a way of rethinking design in response to ecological values. Moving beyond the transient nature of performance design, I ask whether post-production considerations can become an integral component of the design concept and thereby extend the legacy of the project. I consider how the temporarility of scenic design can be re-examined so that the “end-point” of production is no longer seen as waste, but becomes an opportunity (intellectual as well as material) for continuing the creative process itself.
Central to the investigation is a reconsideration of notions of value in and beyond the theatre. Instead of concentrating on waste reduction through the reuse of objects, the focus of this research is to examine how recycled materials and found objects can generate value and make a contribution beyond the restricted theatrical economy of production. For example, a set designer might seek out the untapped creative possibilities of readily available resources (such as stock items, found objects, and discarded materials), or materials that might ordinarily be rubbished or otherwise devalued, as a means of creating something of beauty and resonance that might also extend beyond the performance event.
Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography begins by introducing the concept of ecoscenography, a practice I define as the integration of ecological thinking into all stages of scenographic production and aesthetics. Rethinking conventional production processes, I examine contemporary thinking about material culture and agency through the scenographer’s practice of “making.” Using a practice-based research project—This Is Not Rubbish, which began in December 2012 and unfolded in four phases over a span of two years—I explore the journey of material rescued from the landfill and its capacity to create immersive performance spaces and wearable artefacts.
This Is Not Rubbish considers how post-production procedures may be considered an integral part of the scenographic event and its broader artistic project. The project situates itself in the field of expanded scenography, where scenographic practices are considered outside of “conventional roles and sites of theatre” to engage with broader issues of social and environmental advocacy. While This Is Not Rubbish was conducted primarily outside of traditional contexts of theatre making (to enable greater flexibility to explore novel ideas and approaches), the essay also considers potential applications of the project to conventional theatre design practices as well.
As an artist confronted with a world of increasing environmental uncertainty, I believe we need a hopeful vision: one that acknowledges the challenges and constraints that we face, but also focuses on opportunities for positive change. Put simply, the scale of contemporary ecological concerns can be paralysing and disconnecting; a perverse outcome at a time when custodianship of the natural world could not be more important. Contribution is the antidote, because for most of us it is the idea of contributing that ultimately motivates and inspires us. I see my role as one that facilitates reconnection and spurs contribution by creating moments of ‘wonder’, of ‘awe-inspiring beauty’ and ‘potential’ that reunites us with the natural world.
Refugium is a temporary art installation – a ‘bush refuge’ in the heart of the urban landscape of Federation Square – which seeks to engage the public in regenerative potential. The work explores biodiversity in the city through participatory art making with native plants. It includes a number of free public workshops in kokedama making (an ancient Japanese technique of wrapping plants in moss and string) which employs the community to create mini plant-sculptures that will contribute to a growing exhibition in the Fracture Gallery. On the 17-18 June, the plants will be temporally installed in the centre of the public square for the opening of The Light in Winter festival, before being distributed into the broader Melbourne community to bring greenery into the wider city.
At the heart of Refugium is the investigation of alternative narratives for engaging urban communities with ecological themes and practices. Accompanied by an interspecies sound design and inspired by Melbourne’s unique climate, the project brings together flora and fauna of past and present to examine the city’s unique stories of place. Refugium uses sound to consider how urban spaces have transformed past ecosystems; how multi-layered historic and contemporary landscapes intersect with human trajectories and spatial hierarchies; and how these stories might be revealed to audiences through new forms of communication. The 20 minute soundscape created by Nick Roux follows the unique seasons of the region and takes influence from Tim Entwisle’s ‘Sprinter and Sprummer’ – a concept which redefines Australia’s seasons based on the climatic habits of plants.
Refugium considers how highly visual, sensorial, interactive and participatory events can catalyse engagement, cultivate empathy, precipitate action and engender regenerative potential. Through the work, I ask: (i) How can we engage audiences to reveal urban nature, and provoke humanities intrinsic emotional connection with nature?; (ii) How can artistic practices deliver ecological understanding of environmental adaption and resilience?, and; (iii) How can artistic practices reveal pathways for community involvement in environmental stewardship and cultivate hope for the future?’.
My hope is that the Refugium provides an act of ‘performing resilience’ – a tangible example of how artistic public engagement tools and strategies can sow the seeds of ecosystem awareness, community vitalisation and environmental stewardship.
More information about the event can be found here
Refugium is looking for ‘kokedama masters’ (i.e. crafting and gardening enthusiasts) to help guide our public workshops. The instruction workshop to become a ‘kokedama master’ will be held on Saturday the 28th of May from 1-3pm in Port Melbourne. Please email email@example.com if you are interested.
Since 2012, I have been developing a series of projects under the banner of The Living Stage, a concept which combines stage design, permaculture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance spaces. In this post, I reflect on my time working with Glaswegian Children’s theatre company Eco Drama during the development of my third Living Stage.
In the UK Summer of 2015, I collaborated with local theatre company Eco Drama to create a travelling garden with and for children that could brighten up Glasgow’s concrete playgrounds; fusing live performance with living plants.
The project involved working with four Glasgow primary schools to design, grow and build a portable stage. I joined permaculturist Katie Lambert and the pupils in their concrete playgrounds in late Spring to plant out quirky containers with basil, parsley, tomatoes and carrots. Despite the dreary Glaswegian weather, the children’s enthusiasm to be outside and get their hands dirty was infectious – placing their hands into the soil was regularly met with audible ‘aahs’ and ‘ooohhs’. Even in pouring rain, there was an instinctive desire for the children to engage with the world beyond the classroom walls.
Together, we planted seeds, made willow arches and wrote plant labels for the set. As we absorbed ourselves in the act of gardening, the children learnt to gently ‘tuck’ their seeds into the ‘bed of soil’ and give the earth a ‘good drink’ of water. By the time the children left for their summer holidays, the seeds had started to sprout, turning the once humble soil into hopeful speckles of green.
Through the growing season, the director, performers and I began building a show around the budding plants, coupling storytelling with experiences of gardening. The story that emerged followed three characters (Plum, Lily and Basil) singing to the salads, flowers and herbs amongst their curious home of plants. Told through music, movement and multi-sensory storytelling, Uprooted connected audiences with nature through the view of the wider planet as home. In true Living Stage spirit, Uprooted became part theatre show, part garden and part installation, where audiences had the opportunity to nibble at the stage and sample drinks made from the set.
Uprooted toured to various outdoor venues and schools across Glasgow, before finding its way back to the schools that helped plant it. As the students returned from their school holidays, they watched the performance and were excited to see how much their plants had grown. They were amazed at how the plump vegetables, bushy herbs and soaring sunflowers that inhabited the set had emerged from the tiny seeds that they had planted months ago. The students revelled in tasting unusual herbs and flowers, and embraced new textures, flavours and sensations. I have never seen so many children so excited about a zucchini. But more broadly, they also shared an immense pride in the space and the fact that ‘their’ stage had been touring around their home city.
After our final showing at Corpus Christi Primary School, we turned to the task of transplanting and installing the set as a permanent feature in the playground, turning an ugly metal fence into a beautiful space for future gardening and storytelling. Again, the children became an integral part of this process, transplanting the living stage pots into the soil of their garden beds and gently ‘tucking’ the greenery into its new home. This time, I witnessed an even greater eagerness to be in the garden and contribute to the next phase of the growing. There was clear comradery and confidence amongst the group, with many of the children playing a leadership role in the planting process. The pupils had been shaped by gardening’s lessons and its potential.
As the children returned to their classrooms after the final session of planting, Eco Drama’s director Emily Reid pulled me aside. She had seen how a boy had taken the initiative to claim responsibility for a sunflower he had planted during the transplanting of the set – even giving the flower its own name ‘Jack’. Emily saw the boy standing by one of the garden beds and started walking towards him, when she suddenly stopped, intrigued.
Lost in his own world and focused inward, the boy did not know that Emily had been close by. As the boy stood there, sharing a moment with his newly found friend ‘Jack’, he began to sing softly to the flower. In the context of Uprooted, where the characters sing to their plants on stage, this would not have been considered unusual; however, it had been a striking moment to experience in the real world. It was only a moment (perhaps only a few seconds before the boy joined his classmates), but Emily’s description of the event bought me incredible joy.
This boy had found a way to break through perceived binaries between humans and nature, nature and culture. He had connected to the ecological complexity of the living world with such simplicity. In this moment of more-than-human communication, this small boy had seen himself as an integral part of the web of life, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.