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: http://www.spindelmaker.com

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.