Refugium: Performing Resilience in the Heart of the Urban Landscape

6As 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.

73Refugium 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 if you are interested.

Photos by Nick Roux

Sketch by Tanja Beer

The Boy and the Sunflower

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.

bring life into concrete playgroundsIn 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.

me&gardening3The 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.FB_IMG_1438862682003

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.

FB_IMG_1438862577280Through 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.

FB_IMG_1439020088656FB_IMG_1439020306523Uprooted 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.

Post-show installationAs 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.

boy with sunflowerLost 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.

FB_IMG_1438862648341This 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.

A short documentary film of Uprooted here.

Photos by E. Reid and E. Carey.


The Salmon Surveyor by Janne Robberstad

Janne Robberstad is a Norwegian stage designer who is passionate about reducing waste in her designs, combining sustainability with creativity and place-based responses. Here, she talks about her sustainable approach on The Salmon Surveyor and how the unique cultural, social and environmental landscape of the Southwest region of Norway inspired her process and aesthetic. You can find out more about her work on her website:

12496428_10156299258010411_3776350336391254622_oBømlo Teater is an amateur theatre on a relatively small municipally on the west-coast of Norway.  There are 12,000 inhabitants located on a labyrinth of 1007 big and small islands. With a wide horizon stretching out beyond the land, the locals are immensely proud of this place they call home. Many of the inhabitants work offshore, as part of the oil-industry or farming Salmon (delivering 10% of the world market). As well as a booming economic market, the west coast has a thriving cultural scene, with three theatres, including Northern Europe’s largest outdoor amphitheatre. It is here that I find myself working amongst lots of half-crazy, creative people committed to making art and theatre.

This is also the background for the show which I designed in April 2015, called The Salmon Surveyor (Lakselinja). Based on Norway’s salmon industry, the narrative of the play deals with the people working on the assembly-line, their monotone daily rhythm (how it allows their minds to wander freely) and their relationships with each other. Part dance-performance, part theatre, the show also includes a unique music composition based on taped sounds from the real assembly-line.12496470_10156299258075411_6041454947268578407_o

The Salmon Surveyor ‘s author and director requested a simple and elegant design, with the potential of using Styrofoam fish-crates as multi-elements. I’ve worked in the theatre for 30 years now and I’ve seen firsthand how there is so much waste after a show simply because there is no storage-space.  As a designer dedicated to working as sustainably as possible, my initial thoughts were to check if Styrofoam would be safe to use (tick) and to see if I could recycle the boxes (tick). Once these aspects were approved, I began working on the aesthetics of the design.

12401682_10156299258085411_239556304560342281_oI was interested in expressing a sense of monotony with the Styrofoam – the institutionalised cleanliness of a food-factory in a massive scale while at the same time, maintaining a sense of poetry. I did this by making walls out of piles of 950 Styrofoam crates that I sourced at a factory only 2km away from the theatre. While it was very simple, when placed together the multitude of boxes had a lovely effect – perfect for the lighting-designer to play with, and for projecting video. 50 of crates were also used on stage by the actors as changeable items (e.g. chairs, beds, TVs, the assembly-line).

12401764_10156299258095411_8186048432705076507_oTo assist with the poetic feel, we collaborated with a local salmon-factory, who provided us with live film footage inside one of the fish-cages. With the music going, it looked like the salmon was dancing along with the actors, in their own ballet!  Another local salmon factory gave us the white overalls. They were pre-used so all we had to do was to cover their logo on the back.12440337_10156299257975411_7154256128220265654_o

After closing night, 937 of the crates were still in pristine condition and were sent straight to a nearby salmon-factory (only 3km away) to be used directly in their manufacturing process. The remaining 13 were sent back to the Styrofoam-factory, where they were recycled into little plates for the meat-industry. While Styrofoam may not be a particularly sustainable material, we considered it within a closed loop cycle, where The Salmon Surveyor essentially ‘borrowed’ the materials to help support the telling of a local story before being placed back into the assembly line once more.

The Ecostage Pledge Launch


Join us in building a community of change-makers, passionate about combining creativity and ecological action.

Every industry must engage with the reality of ecological consequences and the performing arts can be a unique and powerful platform to imagine and inspire new realities. The ecostage pledge is about commitment and values, because with a conscious set of shared values we have a greater capacity to take action.

What: The ecostage pledge ( is a new global initiative for the performing arts sector that aims to place ecological thinking at the heart of creative practice.

Why: Envisioned as a public declaration and conversation starter to help raise awareness of ecological issues, the pledge is intended as a platform for advocating change. It consists of a set of ecological values and provocations aimed at engaging with ecological practice as a creative endeavour that deepens our relationship to the more-than-human world.

 Who: The pledge is for performance makers, directors, designers, choreographers, producers, administrators, technicians, video and sound artists, performers and playwrights (basically anyone who is passionate about sustainability in the performing arts!).

 How: To join a community of ecologically-minded theatre makers, go to and take the pledge and download the ‘ecostage pledge stamp’.

This initiative has been instigated by three ecoscenographers (Tanja Beer, Andrea Carr and Alice Malia) and will be launched globally in 2015/2016. Beginning at ArtCop in Paris on the 4th of December, the ecostage pledge will launch in Australia at Cop-Out (Arts House, Melbourne) on the 11th of December.

 Join us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for updates.

Sleeping Bag Metamorphosis by Andrea Carr

first (1)This post comes from Andrea Carr – a London based ecoscenographer, artist and co-founder of the ecostage pledge*. Andrea is passionate about investigating the creative potential of repurposing materials in ecological practice. Here she talks about her latest ecoscenography adventure: how discarded camping equipment from UK’s Reading Festival can be given a new life.

How can we inspire one another to make sustainable choices in the creative industries? What are some of the ways in which we can creatively flourish whilst addressing ecological concerns? These are just some of the questions that motivated me for the design of HOAX  Theatre’s  new production exploring mining and climate change.

second.tents at readingLoosely based on Jules Verne’s epic adventure, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, starting in Iceland, three ‘wunderkind’ Geo-Scientists (Flavia Bertum, Ayesha Tansey and Sabrina Manach) from ‘MyGeoCorpse Mining Corporation’ set off in search of precious minerals. As they drill down through the earth’s layers their machinery breaks down, finding themselves lost in the darkness. As panic ensues, they continue on foot, delving deeper into the collective unconscious they begin to unearth the complexities of climate change.

The brief for Journey to the Centre of the Earth was to design four layers of clothing for each Geo-Scientist. This was conceived as part of a series of dramaturgical revelations – with each layer progressing from extremities of cold (at the earths crust) to heat (at the core). Embracing the expedition spirit, I decided to use secondhand camping equipment for my concept. I utilised the particular characteristics (zips, padding and chrysalis shape) of sleeping bags as the first layer of the costume, so that it first appeared as if people are curled up asleep before transforming into unique expedition outfits. The idea was to also depict ideas of metamorphosis and evolution.

My first step to ethically sourcing camping equipment was to contact Julie’s Bicycle (a great resource and champion of sustainability and culture change), who alerted me to the fact that each year volunteers scour the campsites at Reading Festival, as part of the cleanup operation, recovering camping equipment left behind. So while HOAX went on a research and development residency to Fljotstunga Eco-Farm in Iceland (for an invaluable immersive experience exploring the terrain) I joined the volunteers salvage operation.

Perhaps I drew the shorter straw? On the way down to Reading (with Peter, my husband at the wheel) I fretted, “would there be enough sleeping bags left?” But, I need not have worried for nothing could have prepared me for what met my eyes as I stood looking over a sea, not of water, but of abandoned tents! Nevertheless, spirits were high as gloves were excitedly shared amongst the volunteers. I met the Scouts and people collecting for refugees at Calais (all generously providing tips of where the best equipment could be found). It was a pretty devastating sight to see so much discarded camping equipment – but not without hope. It was muddy and stinky (gloves being a must!) but so worth it. By the time my four hour slot was up the light was fading and we had retrieved over forty bags and nine tents, plus other camping bits and bobs for the set and costume design.

IMG_0867It is worth noting that camping equipment is made from synthetic textiles such as nylon, polyester and ripstop derived from the petro-chemical industries (which will take between 20 and 200 years to biodegrade). A sleeping bag is composed of three layers: outer shell (synthetic material), filing (feather or synthetic), lining (synthetic, fleece, silk or cotton), zips – (aluminum, metals, plastic), toggles and cord (plastic and cotton) and polyester sewing thread. It is estimated that 45,000 tents are brought to Reading Festival with 13,500 abandoned at the end of the weekend. The cost of tents (£20) and sleeping bags (£10) has been cited as one of the causes and has changed the nature of camping from a ‘once in a life-time’ purchase to a throw away item.

third (1)The good news is that Reading Festival in collaborative partnership with Julie’s Bicycle, Knowledge Transfer Network and other organisations are pioneering a new project to tackle campsite waste by testing festival-goers interest in services such as tent cleaning and packing away to encourage them to take it away.

Returning from Reading, my flat soon filled with drying sleeping bags – it took 4 days from collection to being ready to use. In my studio, we undertook the wonderful and highly creative process of discovering ways of re-purposing the sleeping bags. This I did with help from my team (Central St Martins graduates: Harriet Fowler, Rosie Elliot-Dancs, Roisin Straver and Elisa Nader) and proved to be more challenging than we had anticipated. The materials had so many layers and surprisingly complex shapes.fourth HOAX IN THE WIND (1)I believe that there is nothing that can give you a deeper appreciation of the resources that go into the production of an item than mindfully deconstructing it. Initiatives and ‘tear downs’ run by places such as FabLab, Hackerspaces, Makersspaces and Restart are great teachers of this process. Once you have experienced this (which I highly recommend!), it becomes increasing difficult to relegate things to the scrap heap. It is a highly insightful process.

There is always a balancing act to consider in any of these ventures – the use of fuel, water and electricity as well as extra support and time. Eco-driven initiatives can take longer than going out and making a direct purchase or even making something from scratch. A deeper understanding and reframing of design and production practices is of vital importance. The materials may cost less, in this case, the total for the van hire, fuel and eco-laundry liquid was £56.00 but the labour was more intense. I believe this needs to be reflected in how budgets are calculated and people’s skills and time valued.

fithMy journey has just begun with HOAX and there will be lots more scope for exciting ecological and creative solutions to inspire the next stages of the design. A work-in-progress presentation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth took place at the Pleasance Theatre, London in October 2015 (as part of ArtCOP21) where I also shared this story as part of a post-show Q&A. The show was a great success, paving the way for a full-length production planned for 2016. My costume also had another outing (worn by Flavia Bertum) at the Omnibus Perception Festival – Voice INTERROBANG: ARTCOP21 opened by Vivienne Westward – where I was given another opportunity to say a few words about the project. As Vivienne snapped a picture of my costume, I did wonder whether it might inspire her next collection!

I personally find it deeply fulfilling when imagination can find creative expression within sustainable practices and this can be linked to helping build awareness around environmental issues – such as, the impact of camping equipment after festivals. While re-cycling and re-purposing was once the remit of ‘poor’ small-scale productions – driven mainly by necessity – production companies of all sizes are now embracing its potential, whether driven by economic or philanthropic concerns. Having witnessed the ‘re-branding’ of re-cycling over the years it is now time to accentuate its opportunities.

Andrea Carr is a scenographer, performance maker and artist interested in the intersection between different disciplines. She is part of a growing community of designers exploring the emerging paradigm of ecoscenography incorporating sustainable practices and  developing ecological projects. She is also a practicing  artist.

*The ecostage pledge (launching in early December) is a new global initiative for the performing arts sector which aims to place ecological thinking at the heart of creative practice.  Join us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for updates.



CfP: Performance Climates Expanded Scenography Panel

Call for papers, presentations and provocations

PSi ‘Performance Climates’ Expanded Scenography Panel

Conveners: Ian Garrett and Tanja Beer



In recent years, scenographic practice and performance design have increasingly moved beyond the theatre towards greater forms of hybridity. Traditional theatre spaces and contexts are being rapidly replaced in favour of participatory experiences, transdisciplinary practices, urban interventions and community platforms that also engage with social and environmental issues. Possibilities are expanding to use scenographic strategies (i.e. spatial, narrative, dramaturgical, performative and multi-sensory) as a way of engaging with the world beyond the theatre. In responding to the ‘Performance Climates’ conference theme, this panel seeks to consider our embodied and spatial relationship to global issues and provoke new forms of permeability and transdisciplinarity. We ask: Can scenographic methodologies and practices play a role in revealing ecological complexity – provoking emotional connections that elucidate the concept of environmental and social cohesion and resilience? The aim of the panel is to present an international group of hybrid researcher/creators exploring the boundaries of projects that problematize scenography and performance, and its relationship to greater ecologies and environments.

We welcome papers that intersect with the expanded realm of scenography and the Psi ‘Performance Climates’ theme ( including: performance, architecture, visual art, choreography, dramaturgy, new technologies, multimedia and community practice. We will be working towards an edited publication on this subject. Depending on interest, our aim is to set up a small symposium-like session on this topic.

If you would like to join us, please get in touch or submit a short abstract and bio to Ian Garret and Tanja Beer by Sunday the 13th of December.

Participants Confirmed:

Ian Garrett, York University (Toronto, ON, Canada)

Tanja Beer, University of Melbourne (Australia)

Gwenyth Dobie, York University (Toronto, ON, Canada)

Sydney Skybetter, Skybetter & Associates, Harvard, Boston Conservatory (Providence, RI)


Photo credit: Nick Roux (The Peoples Weather Report, Arts House 2014)

Ecoscenography: The Paradigm and Practice of Ecological Design in the Performing Arts

IMG_0682As the deadline of handing in my PhD draws closer, I’m excited about uncovering the potential of Ecoscenography. Here, I share a short summary of my research and the possibilities of contributive practice in the performing arts. 

Contemporary ecological concerns bring with them an opportunity for innovation; to rethink traditional practices and forge new approaches that not only strive for sustainability but also push intellectual and creative boundaries. My PhD research investigates the emerging paradigm of ecoscenography – a movement that seeks to integrate ecological principles into all stages of scenographic thinking and production in the performing arts. The thesis explores the potential of ecoscenography through a series of creative works projects that incorporate ideas of ecological thinking, community engagement and contributive practice.

A major focus is the notion of ‘positive legacies’. Moving beyond recycling and efficiency, my research seeks to investigate a more hopeful paradigm, one where scenographic practices are capable of generating positive and far reaching rewards. In my thesis, I ask: 1) how might designers engage with communities to play a central role in social and environmental advocacy and celebration?; 2) how can stories of place be communicated through scenography?, and; 3) can we create designs that not only enrich our audiences, but our communities and environments as well?’.

IMG_9096 - CopySince starting my candidature, a selection of my creative works have developed under the banner of The Living Stage – a global project that combines stage design, permaculture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance spaces. Part theatre, part garden and part food growing demonstration, The Living Stage considers ecological principles and environmental impact as opportunities rather than constraints: ethics that can illuminate, and be integral to aesthetics. At the end of the performances, my living stages are returned to the communities that helped grow them. Physical structures become garden beds and community spaces; plants become healthy food; and waste becomes compost. As each living stage evolves out of a direct response to the localities of site, ecology and community, no project is ever the same.

TheLivingStage_climbing_the_edible_stageSince making its debut at the 2013 Castlemaine State Festival, The Living Stage concept has travelled to Cardiff and Glasgow (UK) and continues to generate interest and inspire other projects around the world. New creative teams have emerged, taking local ecological ideas to engage communities and create positive legacies. Each project is unique, but share clear commonalities: the celebration of multisensory elements, effective and multi-level engagement with audiences, and a legacy that exceeds the celebration of the project through performance. Through projects like The Living Stage, the investigation of ecoscenography has provided me with the opportunity to embark on a new course – to reimagine and cultivate stronger relationships with communities and ecosystems, and to invest directly in their future.

For more information about The Living Stage projects see link below:

Ecology & Theatre-Making (by Creative Carbon Scotland)

This post* comes from Creative Carbon Scotland who run ‘Green Tease’ arts and sustainability events every month. A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the Edinburgh Green Tease about the latest Living Stage project with Eco Drama’s Emily Reid and Edinburgh based designer Mona Kastell. Here is their lovely summary of our work.

This Edinburgh Green Tease was led by Eco-Drama, the schools-touring programme of the Whirlybird Theatre Company. Their aim is to use theatre, music, storytelling and creative workshops to engage, entertain and inspire people of all ages to care for our natural world. Director Emily Reid, alongside Set Designer Tanja Beer and Assistant Set Designer Mona Kastell, came to discuss their latest production Uprooted, which features Scotland’s first ever Living Stage.

The Living Stage is exactly as it sounds: a stage composed of living plants. It is recyclable, biodegradable, edible and created from locally found and reclaimed materials. Tanja Beer, author of this wonderful idea, has travelled all over the world working with local permaculturalists and theatre-makers to create living sets. Since its debut at the 2013 Castlemaine State Festival in Australia, the project has only grown (no pun intended) and has since travelled to Cardiff where it was part of the Trans-Plantable Living Room and now into Scotland.

The Living Stage for Uprooted was created as part of Eco-Drama’s ‘Out to Play’ programme, working with four Glasgow primary schools to design, grow and build the living theatre set. Having seen that many of these inner-city schools only have concrete playgrounds, the idea of a touring garden developed to give the children a chance to experience the natural world. They were involved in designing aspects of the production (plants growing out of a toilet proved particularly popular) and they planted the first seeds in March 2015.

Of course there are many challenges to creating a Living Stage and touring it in a sustainable manner. They’ve successfully tackled this latter problem by becoming the proud owners of an electric car and ‘The Magic Van’, which runs entirely on repurposed vegetable oil (the best stuff comes from Indian and Chinese takeaways by the way – chippy oil has been used too many times). Some of the other challenges include having stunt-doubles for some plants which have active performance roles (so that they each have a time to recuperate) and ensuring that there is enough time to be sustainable.

Timing is key in any sustainable production. 80% of a product’s sustainability is locked in at the design stage, with the earliest stages of the design process having the greatest influence over its environmental impact. Careful planning is needed and sufficient time granted to locate sustainable components and, in this case, to grow the plants needed in the production. Gardening is arguably the slowest of the performance arts and cannot be rushed – a sunflower doesn’t care when you’re supposed to go on tour, it will bloom when it pleases!

The final challenge is deciding what to do after the production has finished. The Living Stage is a ‘Zero-Waste’ set so nothing will be thrown away or discarded. Rather, it is going to return to one of the schools which helped plant it and be installed as a permanent feature – turning an ugly metal fence into a thing of beauty. It will be in a public, and therefore unprotected, space but the hope is that, because the community helped to create the garden, they will have a deeper connection to it (and a desire to care for it) than if it had merely been dumped upon them.

*This blog was originally posted on

See more images of Uprooted here

Wheat Paste and Other Sticking Points (By Isobel Hutton)

This post comes from Australian set and costume designer Isobel Hutton who tells us about her experience working with Big Green Theater in New York*. I first met Isobel a few years ago when I started my research into ecoscenography. Since then, Isobel has taken her passion oversees to explore opportunities with like-minded eco-individuals.

I recently had the pleasure of working on Big Green Theatre, which is an independent co production between Superhero Clubhouse and the Bushwick Starr Theatre. BGT is a unique project described as an annual eco-playwriting program and green theater festival celebrating environmental education, sustainability in the arts, and community enrichment. Fifth-grade students from Bushwick schools explore environmental topics with environmental experts, and then are guided in writing original eco-plays. Finished plays are then fully realized at The Bushwick Starr Theater during Earth Week, produced with an ensemble of professional actors, directors, and designers. Originally what drew me to this project was the holistic approach to theatre making where content, process, and production are connected to complex environmental problems. What I discovered was how challenging it is to produce a set and an ensemble of costumes wholly sustainably without compromising on ones ethos.

The design premise of this project was to have as little environmental impact as possible, therefore to use as little materials and resources in the most sustainable way. This was a huge mind shift for me, coming straight from working on a very commercial and hugely extravagant TV show, with a wealth of resources and money. I found myself automatically thinking “Oh we need blah blah, why don’t we just go and buy some?”

The problem with this thought process is you’re not thinking about where that resource is coming from, how environmentally friendly is it, is it local or has it a large carbon footprint, do we need to buy something new or can we use something we already have or second hand? An example of this was when I was charged with the task of making some fabric props. I was shown to the 60 year old sewing machine owned by the theatre, given a bag of fabric leftover from the making of the costumes and a list of props to make. The first hurdle was getting the sewing machine to work but also when I ran out of fabric, I initially didn’t realise I couldn’t just go shopping and buy more because everything had to be sourced sustainably.

I learnt many things on this project, about artistic process and ways to minimize a productions materials and resource usage. However I also realized how much I still have to learn and what a long road I have ahead.

Recycle + Upcycle

I find there is frequent confusion around the terms recycle and upcycle. I didn’t know the difference until recently myself! Recycle is the practice that takes an item and targets it for reuse, returning it back to the cycle of daily contribution to society, rather than discarding it to the trash. Upcycling is described by some as reusing a material without degrading the quality and composition of the material for its next use. In this way upcylcing is considered more sustainable because the material is moved back up the production chain instead of recycling which just prolongs a materials life cycle, before it inevitably ends up in the bin as something else.

The foam used to build the main structure of the set for BGT was a great example of upcycling. It came free as leftovers from another art project and as long as it was kept clean and free of contaminants, it could be returned to the manufacture to be broken down and remolding back to virgin foam again. For this reason, we had to be careful what we used to hold the foam together and to hold the fabric covering over the top. Hence I spent many hours making over 20 gallons of wheat paste which we used as our primary adhesive. The problem with wheat paste however- comprising of only flour and water, is that it doesn’t preserve. So half way through our build week, the set designer and myself found ourselves elbow deep in fermenting goop that smelt like vomit with a tinge of peppermint oil*.

There are always shops and companies that either sell or give away recycled materials to the arts. Most of the fabric used for the set and costumes of Big Green Theatre came from these kinds of places. The interesting thing about them as a materials source is you never know what you’re going to find. This can be a blessing and a curse, depending on the design…and your frame of mind.

I believe recycling and upcycling are a great way to expand your repertoire and knowledge. Thinking outside the box is key, as this pushes you to consider objects and materials in an abstract way; what can I repurpose to get my desired aesthetic?

* This blog was originally posted on Isobel’s own website:

* *To keep the mice from eating the set!

Beyond the Skip: The Art of Resourcefulness (by Alice Hoult)

FullSizeRenderSet and costume designer Alice Hoult kicks off our first ecoscenography guest blog series with her journey of resourcefulness. I first met her at a Julie’s Bicycle sustainability event in London in 2013 and we have since joined forces on an ecological initiative that we will be launching in the coming months (watch this space!). Alice’s commitment to rethinking unsustainable practices is infectious – she gives you hope that we can all do our bit to inspire change. I can relate so much to her story.

I started thinking about ecoscenogaphy a couple of years ago. It came as a fairly sudden realisation – the feeling that there was something not quite right in my creative practice. Growing up, I always had a strong affinity with the environment and have increasingly become more conscious about reducing my impact. However, in the past I’ve felt that my eco-mindedness has had to take a backseat when it came to my working-life.

I was confronted with this realisation whilst working on a theatre production a couple of years ago. Leading up to tech week, it became apparent that we would need to build a large MDF ‘wall’ on stage in addition to the set that I had already designed. I ran up to the director and production manager and firmly protested this decision but they simply looked at me like I was mad. You see, I’d tried so hard to utilise the lovely exposed-brick wall and concrete floor of the theatre in my design (and in doing so, avoiding the creation of unnecessary waste). I realised that while my mind had already jumped ahead to the disposal stage of the set, no one else’s had.

Unfortunately, we did end up throwing the newly constructed wall in a skip at the end of the production. This left me with a bitter taste: I would never incur such wastage in my personal life, so why should I have to in my professional one? It got me thinking about how and why these things happen in theatre – the time, financial pressures and the desire to please seem to be the main ones, plus the fact that no one wants to be a ‘No’ person. This prompted me to do some research – to find other designers out there thinking the same things as me and also doing something about it. Finding a community of like-minded designers has made me more confident to speak up about my own eco values. It doesn’t always work out, and it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of the many inevitable failures. Change is incremental and we must accept that it’s a long path to sustainability for an entire industry. Even so, I believe that the best change starts from the ground up.

Luckily, I’ve meet some really inspiring collaborators. Director Poonam Brah, actress Dina Mousawi and I started 3Fates Theatre a few years ago. Our style is born out of a DIY aesthetic where we mix high-tech and low-key materials, objects and imagery. Through our productions I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with found objects, reclaimed and recycled materials. For example, the set for our last scratch performance was built out of blue plastic milk-crates which we borrowed from local groceries and returned the next day for collection by the milk delivery company.

I’ve found that resourcefulness and eco-consciousness often go hand-in-hand. For example, I was once given the task of creating an entire library set for a community project in Peckham with Time to Change (a charity who works with mental health issues). Borrowing library furniture from local schools and buying books from local charity shops saved us a large portion of our budget. After the show, some books were given to cast and crew, while the theatre used the rest to make a library of their own in the corner of their bar area. Nothing went in the bin!

FullSizeRenderNonetheless, I’ve found that things can also swing wildly from success to failure. For example, I recently designed a show about the life of the painter and poet Khalil Gibran. The idea for this set was that a simple timber construction (made to look like artists canvases stacked together) could also become a projection surface. During our London season, everything went swimmingly: I hired fine-artists to make the stretchers for the canvases which were also given back to them after the production for re-use. All great (!) until the show proceeded to tour various Gulf States a number of times. The Gulf is possibly the hardest place in the world to make people care about the environment (It’s all tiny plastic bottles and air conditioning…don’t get me started!). Unfortunately, the set was so simple to build that the producer decided to build it afresh in each venue rather than spend money transporting it. I’m uncertain as to which is better…

I’m beginning to find a way to balance my ecological values with my creative professional role. There is still much to explore. A group of eco-conscious designers (Tanja Beer, Andrea Carr and Bethany Wells) and I are working towards creating a pledge – a sort of ‘eco-stamp’ to help theatre practitioners to more effectively communicate their desire to work in an environmentally conscious way. I’m also excited about our next 3Fates project which is about the River Thames. It is still in its planning stages but the starting point for my design will be to try and source as much of the set as possible from the river itself.

I think that incorporating sustainability into the planning stages of my work has helped me define my creativity further, rather than placing limitations on it. I’ve always had an innate desire to make work that comes from the world around me. Using found objects and recycled materials also chimes with my own personal aesthetic.

When it comes to stage design, I have no idea if I have a ‘style’ or not, but I always try to strip away from extraneous objects, ideas and materials during the creative process. I want everything that passes in front of the audience’s eyes to be loaded with meaning, carefully chosen and essential. The opportunity to play with the expectations of audiences – that gap between the audience and the stage into which the audience pours their own imagination – is what fascinates me most about performance-making. And I’m learning as I go that innovative and exciting ideas don’t have to cost the earth.

Alice Hoult is a set and costume designer based in London. She is a founding member of 3Fates theatre company, currently developing work with the National Theatre Studio, London, and with whom she took part in the Copeland Fellowship at Amherst College, Massachusetts USA. Their shows RETURN and To Close Your Eyes is to Travel have been seen at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Aat international Theatre Festival (Amman, Jordan) The Yard Theatre, Tara Arts and Rich Mix in London.