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: http://www.isobelhutton.com

* *To keep the mice from eating the set!

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