Green is the new black

Imagine this: a performance installation that purifies water, a biodegradable set and costume design printed in 3D, an edible stage that feeds a community, a set design that restores native grasslands…Could this be the future of stage design in an environmentally stressed world?  Absolutely. As a stage designer investigating ecologically conscious design, I believe that working sustainably can encourage progressive thinking and innovation in the Performing Arts.

As a new era of environmental awareness is dawning, I find myself at the turning point of an exciting cultural shift. But I’m not alone. Stage designers all over the world are beginning to heed the call of sustainability, and along the way discovering the potential of ecological practice. In a recent article in The Guardian, Julie’s Bicycle’s Sholeh Johnston highlighted some of the projects that are placing sustainability at the heart of the creative process. From bicycle powered shows, to growing edible stages and creating body suits that capture kinetic energy, it is clear that stage designers are starting to re-think the way we make things from an ecological perspective. As Johnston revealed, a production designed on the principles of low or positive impacts – such as upcycling materials and investigating new energy sources – is also capable of exciting new aesthetics and artistic insights. Gone are the days when being green was considered ‘boring’ or ‘tedious’. Instead, we now are starting to see ecological thinking as a valuable pathway to innovation in the Performing Arts.

Yet, until recently, there has been a perception that environmental sustainability and stage design are not compatible. Stage designers are traditionally taught to serve not to innovate. After all, a stage designer’s priority is on creating a world that supports the dramatic work. It is less concerned with recycled materials or sustainable approaches unless it serves the vision of the piece. Hence, sustainability has not been recognised as part of the designer’s purpose; the view has been that if sustainability doesn’t serve the piece in some clear and tangible way, it has no place. Furthermore, sustainability has often been viewed as yet another limitation on the designer’s already constrained vision. Stage designers work within strict parameters – tight budgets, hard deadlines and the juggling of a director’s desires and expectations. Considering the ecological consequences of our creations has been viewed as just one more limitation to add to the list.

Even with a strong desire to pursue a sustainable agenda, designers have sometimes faced stiff opposition. There has been little support from producers, directors and venues to assist the designer in adopting a more environmentally conscious process, or even outright dismissal of the need.

Early this year, in an effort to overcome this legacy, Julie’s Bicycle hosted two workshops on sustainable productions in Northern England as a platform to discuss the possibilities and constraints of embedding sustainable practices into theatre making. Both the Newcastle and Manchester events were attended by a wide range of theatre professionals and students, and included a conversation with a panel of practitioners who had been exploring sustainable practice for some time. The discussions focused on open resource sharing; on how the theatre community might work together to open channels of communication and spread ecological know-how, to share props, costumes, spaces and storage, and to engage with international artists leading the sustainability movement. Participants were clearly disturbed by the image the ‘skip’ as the final resting place of most theatrical designs, and expressed a strong desire to find new homes and uses for design elements post-production. More broadly, the workshops demonstrated a rising interest in how sustainable practice can create positive outcomes.

Indeed, the level of commitment from participants at these events was inspiring. Theatre practitioners of all disciplines are challenging old ways of doing things in favour of greener processes and outcomes. It is clear that the theatre landscape is transforming. Larger theatre companies and festivals (e.g. Manchester International Festival, National Theatre of Wales, The Young Vic) are demonstrating that change is possible, and designers with sustainable credentials are becoming increasingly desirable. Organisations such as the Association of Lighting Designers (ALD) have already established environmental committees, while designers and sustainability advocates, Paule Constable, Soutra Gilmour and Donyale Werle continue to prove that being ‘green’ in the high art and commercial sector is not only possible but can reap rich rewards.

In this new age of environmental consciousness, there is nothing preventing designers from being at the forefront of holistic, innovative and greener thinking. This cultural shift presents us all with an opportunity to question and evaluate the ecological impact of our own practices. For environmentally conscious theatre makers, this is not merely a question of reducing our carbon impact; it is also necessary for us to remain relevant and progressive within our art form. My own ecological design projects are as diverse and varied in aesthetics as any design challenge. I have made sets with reclaimed salami netting, edible plants and 3D projections. I have worked in both conventional and non-conventional theatre environments, investigating new technologies and aesthetics. Exploring ecological innovation has opened up new channels for thinking and dreaming. In my mind, the ecological future of stage design is about thriving. It’s a wonderful opportunity that we can only embrace.

This post was published in the Society of British Theatre Designers Blue Pages and on Julie’s Bicycle’s guest blog

Download the Julie’s Bicycle Sustainable Production guide by clicking here.

To read more articles on sustainability, click here.

To read more articles on stage design, click here.

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