Comedian W.C. Fields is famous for saying “never work with children or animals”. He never mentioned anything about plants, but perhaps, with a little coaxing, he might have included them too. As a stage designer investigating ecological practice, designing with plants seemed like an obvious place to begin. But with little to no gardening experience, and nightmare visions of botanical armageddon on the day before opening night, designing with plants was a daunting prospect.
Fast forward a couple of years and I can happily report that designing with plants is not just ‘do-able’, but is also extremely rewarding from both a creative and personal perspective. Since 2012, I’ve worked on several plant-based projects under the banner of ‘The Living Stage’ – a project that combines stage design, permaculture and community engagement to create a recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance spaces. Part experiment, part theatre and part garden, the project has had three iterations since its initial inception: first as a portable garden amphitheatre (Castlemaine State Festival, Australia); second, as part of the creation of a Trans-Plantable Living Room (World Stage Design, UK); and third as a sound art installation for The People’s Weather Report (Arts House, Australia).
There’s no doubt that each Living Stage project has been a steep learning curve in gardening and ecological practice. Perhaps the biggest challenge was learning to collaborate with nature on its own terms. Unlike most of my other stage projects, I couldn’t ask the plants to ‘hurry up’ or ‘slow down’ or request that the sunflowers kindly ‘hold off from flowering until opening night’. Integral to this shift in thinking was the (sometimes harsh) realisation that nature could not be argued or negotiated with. Instead, I had to find ways to adapt my design to work in synchronicity with nature’s processes. And while this might sound tedious at first, this is also (as I soon discovered) what was most exciting about the work.
As a stage designer, I love nothing more than to see my designs evolve from a tiny sketch into the final physical design. However, nothing beats the magic and exhilaration of planting the seeds that grow into a stage which also attracts an ecosystem of its own. With this feeling comes the satisfaction of creating a design that can be literally consumed by the community; its physical structures may become their garden beds, its plants become their food, and its waste become their compost. In this context, waste is not something that ends up in landfill, but instead becomes a valuable resource.
Working with living systems allows us to see ourselves as part of nature, to experience the environment not as something to tame or control, but rather as an extension of ourselves. Plants have a way of bringing us (if you’ll pardon the pun) back down to earth. By growing things we learn to slow down, to test the moisture of the soil, take pleasure in the diversity of colours, textures and scents, welcome the presence of bees and rejoice in the first drops of rain. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Horticultural Therapy – a form of therapy that uses gardening to improve people’s social, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being – is on the rise. I now regularly use ‘ecoscenography’ to describe projects such as The Living Stage. But I’m starting to wonder; is ecoZenography a more apt description?
Photos by: Valeria Pacchiani, Nick Roux and Gisela Beer. The Living Stage projects would not have been possible without the support of many wonderful people. Please see project links for full credits.