Resourceful ingenuity: Interview with performance designer Imogen Ross (Australia)

Imogen Ross has developed a variety of creative responses to live performance, production and event needs for over 33 years. She collaborates with an array of artists and organisations, teasing out the creative pulse within each project and making it manifest. Imogen is the co-author of ‘Performance Design in Australia’ (2001) and runs the APDGreen Conversations for the Australian Production Design Guild.

Snugglepot (Jacob Warner) and Cuddlepie (Kirk Page) asleep on the 360 degree rotating tree trunk. Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (CDP, 2015). Director: Susanna Dowling.Set Designer: Imogen Ross. Costume Designer: Matthew Aberline. Photo Credit: Branco Gaica.

How did your interest in Ecoscenography and sustainable theatre production begin?

I think my interest in sustainable theatre production has been there from the very start. As a young designer, I was always concerned about where the set would go at the end of the show. Living in a rural area meant that we all knew exactly what ‘landfill’ meant: the whole set was either going to be driven to the local tip on a Sunday morning OR it was going to be stored in someone’s shed until it could be re-used. The emphasis was always on re-use and upcycling because it felt like we were pouring our hard-earned money into the dirt when we took things to the tip. Working in a small theatre company means that everyone is involved in every step of the way, and every wasteful decision is discussed as the ramifications have impact on future budgets.

Some designers walk away at opening night and never look back. I seldom assume it is someone else’s responsibility to solve the waste problems created by my sets and I always try to present upcycling or recycling pathways for my design choices. I am well known for recycling and upcycling my sets/costumes. Many individuals and theatre companies now contact me to see if I know where to re-home post-show items.

Mr Lizard (Christopher Tomkinson), Snugglepot (Jacob Warner) and Cuddlepie (KirkPage) fight the villain Mrs Snake (Georgia Adamson). Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (CDP, 2015). Director: Susanna Dowling. Set Designer: Imogen Ross. Costume designer: Matthew Aberline. Photo Credit: Branco Gaica.

What does Ecoscenography mean to you? How do you define it (for yourself and others)?

Ecoscenography is about being environmentally consciousness at every step of the design and story-telling process. It is a conscious decision to choose upcycled elements, to re-use existing elements and to recycle them. I like to know the carbon impact of my design decisions, to discuss alternatives and be constantly learning.

Ecoscenography is also about discussing the ‘end of life’ stage of the project with the Director, the Production Manager, the actors and the crew. It is about having regular discussions; including the unlearning of problematic methods, techniques and technologies in performance design. It is about creating story driven, not ego/status- driven decisions.

The set of Kindertransport was made from 300 recycled boxes, all empty and facing the audience, standing 5m high. Boxes were recycled at the end and all furniture was purchased from 2nd hand shops and returned after the show. Most costumes were borrowed or hired. The floor was pieced together from vintage dress patterns on paper. Sarah Greenwood (pictured) as young Eva. Kindertransport (Darlinghurst Theatre 2017). Director: Sandie Eldridge. Set and Costume Design: Imogen Ross. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJODNfBdEQo

Can you tell me about one of your most interesting Ecoscenography projects?

Many of my shows designed for Monkey Baa Theatre have engaged with the serendipity of using repurposed and found items and second hand fabrics. The rigours of year-long touring has taught me the lesson that 2nd hand and true vintage costumes are NOT such a good idea but I will always try to include upcycled elements like 2nd hand buttons and fabrics into the making of hero costumes and their doubles.

In Diary of a Wombat, we collaborated with master puppet maker Briony Anderson who always incorporates upcycled elements into her work. The inner structures of her magnificent wombat are covered in ‘Who Gives a Crap’ toilet paper covers – a marvelous repurposing of something already recycled in its construction. For this show I designed and made an eight metre long ‘Earth Quilt’ made almost entirely of second hand fabrics to represent the cross-section of the landscape as it descends to a wombat burrow. It was stitched over two intense weeks in one long uncut piece with master sewer Matt Aberline in his tiny studio in Enmore. The scraps from the fabrics were used as stuffing so there was little wastage.

Mothball, our inquisitive wombat puppet is introduced to the ‘earth quilt’ in rehearsals. It was vital that the set was soft and without hard edges so that ‘Mothcall’ was not harmed during the show. Diary of a Wombat (Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People, 2017). Director: Sandie Eldridge. Set and Costume Design: Imogen Ross.

For me, upcycling and the use of ‘found’ items is not about stretching the budget (though it certainly was an initial factor when I was younger, working on unfunded Co-op shows) but about allowing the element of chance and happenstance to enter my design process. I enjoy accepting the design challenge of using what is thrown before me. I enjoy looking sideways at people’s rubbish piles, wondering if the missing piece to the puzzle may be there. So many design problems have been solved by the weird and wonderful things I find in my regular travels to and from a theatre space. The layers of complex spatial/colour/texture thinking we designers do as we process a play in our minds may actually bring certain objects to the fore – things we have not noticed lying about before on the periphery.

Second hand objects carry a resonance of their previous experiences. They bring something unique to the visual story-telling, even if no one but the performer or myself know its history. When designing costumes at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2003, someone in Australia asked me how on earth it could be justified spending all that money on hand-making items using 16th century style fabrics when it would be just as easy to use a sewing machine with store-bought fabrics. My answer was that it is the difference between tasting Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate in a packet and tasting a Belgian handmade chocolate. They are both chocolate right? No. The sensory experience is completely different, though they both look like chocolate. The resonance of the chocolate maker’s hands is in one, the action of a machine in the other.

Can you tell me more about your community-engaged projects?

In 2018 I was asked by Karen Therese the artistic director of Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) to work with them on a community theatre event called Little Baghdad: Cafes and Gardens in Fairfield. It was to be the culmination of two years of working closely with a mostly refugee Iraqi community in the grounds of Fairfield High School, with the assistance of the Parent’s Cafe: a locally run organisation that builds community, provideing education and employment for newly-arrived adults from war-torn countries.

My design brief was to bring together all the different elements that the community had been working on to tell their stories and weave a space for the audience to engage directly with the performers, culminating in a feast, with music, poetry and Arabic folk dancing. I worked with the Iraqi community for 6 weeks, helping to build and design a community garden with them, learning new gardening methods and exploring many new tastes. I found that sitting and listening was as much a part of the design process, as it was driving home while listening to Iraqi music and thinking about how many milkcrates I could safely fit into a 5m x 8m space.

The mobile art gallery in the school gardens had to be dismantled every evening after the event. There were over 40 paintings in total. Little Baghdad: Cafes and Gardens (PYT 2018). Artistic director: Karen Therese. Co-curators Jiva Parthipan, Haitham Jaju and Layla Naji. Event design: Imogen Ross. See https://vimeo.com/262508572

PYT recognises that sharing food and music are just as important as listening to performers tell a story. Musicians led the audience through the gardens as the sun set, introducing spectators to Iraqi language and culture while inviting them to taste the freshly cooked produce. Later, using the raised garden beds as room dividers, we laid out dozens of carpets and cushions made from upcycled hessian bags and Iraqi bedspreads. I covered milk crates with secondhand fabrics and foam and made instant tables from stackable timber stools. We used solar powered lighting for all but the stage area, with candles on every table. The lit trees became our backdrop.

At the end of the 2nd week of nightly performances, we donated as much as we could back to the community. The rugs and cushions were donated to the Parent’s Cafe; the milk crate cushions were donated to a struggling social-enterprise night market in Wollongong that could not afford seating; and the solar powered lighting was shared with a sustainable funeral event company that holds regular community events. PYT does not have much storage space in its tiny offices in Fairfield, so they always plan the waste streams of their sets and costumes carefully in pre-production.

A performer, dressed in intricate gown and elaborate gold headdress sewn by the women of the Iraqi Parents Café, prepares for rehearsal. Little Baghdad: Cafes and Gardens (PYT 2018). Artistic director: Karen Therese. Co-curators Jiva Parthipan, Haitham Jaju and Layla Naji. Event design: Imogen Ross. https://vimeo.com/262508572

What tips would you give to a scenographer who is exploring sustainable practice for the first time?

  • Don’t start with the idea that everything must be recyclable. Many things that are not recyclable can still be re-homed, re-used and reimagined by others.
  • Sustainability is about being creative and having a willingness to discuss alternative solutions with directors and production managers. Don’t be afraid of asking, ‘how do we solve this together’?
  • Always mention cost saving strategies when talking to the production manager. If something is more expensive to buy initially but will save the production money in the long term, promote this!
  • Ask for things to be put in writing. It is amazing how a sustainability discussion at the beginning of a process can be easily forgotten or overridden at the end of the process due to stress and time restraints.
Over 3 months of ensemble workshops, Imogen worked with teenage performers to create their vision of an apocalyptic war, heralded by the fabled horsemen of the apocalypse. All materials used were either found, 2nd hand or purchased from Reverse Garbage in Sydney’s inner west. Everything usable was returned post-show to where it had come. Plastic scraps were collected, bagged and recycled responsibly. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Senior Ensemble, State Drama Festival (The Arts Unit, 2017). Director: Nadia Emery. Artist in Residence – Imogen Ross.

What do you think the future of theatre will look like for a climate-resilient world?

I think we will become less ego driven in our designs. I was appalled at a recent panel discussion of graduates from a leading theatre design school when asked about their thoughts on re-use and re-cycling. This new generation of designers was still espousing very outmoded ideas about the need for a designer to assert their style on a production by never using elements from someone else’s design. It was as if the word re-use was a dirty word.

In the future, I think the designers who are clever and creative in their constant re-use and re-imaging of scenic elements between productions will be lauded. This is not about appearing old fashioned and retrospective, as some designers have expressed their fear to me. Instead, new material technologies may make this re-imagining of scenic elements even more exciting, as we can reduce things back to their base elements before re-constructing a new purpose.

Building mask and music rituals using recycled materials with young performers during holiday workshops in Wollongong. Masks made by performers from upcycled milk bottles and costumes made from food box packaging. Creativity Camp, (Merrigong Theatre, 2016 ) Facilitating Theatre Artist: Imogen Ross.

What are you working on now?

During the bushfires and COVID restrictions of 2020 I adapted and readapted an ongoing collaborative design project called The Chaos Loom – Habitats for an Uncertain Future.

This year I want to work more closely with nature and develop a stronger ecoscenographic voice. I am not sure yet where this decision will take my practice.

Until then, I am working on Life:

Finding joy.

Relationships in all their messy clunky forms.

Solo/group exhibitions with a range of local artists

Teaching the art of ‘seeing, listening and observing’ to young artists

Studying for a masters/phd in the future (soon)

Writing more. Learning more.

Growing things in my guerilla garden and creating spontaneous community sculptures to surprise passersby.

Watch this space…

As artist in residence for Outback Theatre for Young People in 2016, Imogen worked with school students, local artists and businesses to create changing installations across the town using found and upcycled materials. The installations occurred in the evenings so that the new recycling stories could be experienced by the townfolk in the mornings. The multiple installations culminated in the recreation of a sculpture that had won a local school competition to create something meaningfull from rubbish. The winning sculpture was an ‘echidna’ made froma 2litre red tomato sauce bottle and chip packets. The final giant sculpture was built on top of a rented horse float and used beer cans, fencing wire, cardboard boxes and chaff bags to replicate the original. The Giant Echidna (pictured), #While You Were Sleeping, (Outback Theatre for Young People, 2016). Director: Sarah Parsons. Art Workshops and Sculpture Creation: Imogen Ross.

Joyful Eco-creativity: Interview with Marie-Renée Bourget Harvey (Canada)

Marie-Renée Bourget Harvey is French-Canadian scenographer who is passionate about integrating sustainability and poetry at the heart of her artistic approach. She seeks to erase the boundaries between her personal and professional values to create an impactful and necessary reconciliation. The more she advances in this process, the more she realizes that all our actions, however small they may be, have an impact on the community, on everything. Instead of denying these ties, she now seeks to forge them.

La Forêt, Où tu vas quand tu dors en marchant? Carrefour international de théâtre 2013-2014. Pictured: Joëlle Bourdon. Light: Laurent Routhier. Costume: Sébastien Dionne. Makeup: Élène Pearson & Nathalie Simard. Photo: Francis Gagnon

How did your interest in Ecoscenography and sustainable theatre production begin?

My passion for sustainability has been there from the very beginning of my theatrical journey (over 15 years). When I first started out in the theatre, we worked in very small teams and did everything ourselves, so nothing was thrown away unnecessarily. It was only recently that I realised how sustainability has always been at the heart of my artistic approach. I was always the ‘annoying one’ on productions – the person who ensured and insisted that nothing be thrown away!

It took Jasmine Catudal (who organized the Quebec exhibition And after at the Prague Quadrennial in 2019) to alert me to my sustainability ethic and insist that I be part of the delegation of artists at PQ. Previously, I had been inclined to keep quiet about my sustainability concerns and put all the responsibility of Ecoscenography on my shoulders.

Now, I am grateful and so full of joy to work with Anne-Catherine Lebeau (Écosceno) to share my sustainability journey with others.

What does Ecoscenography mean to you? How do you define it (for yourself and others)?

Love. Really! For me, eco-design means to love and take care of others, the planet and myself. It is the main inspiration that drives me and challenges me in infinite ways.  And the more ‘I love’, the more it becomes a natural part of who I am, not just as a concept, but also as part of my reality. This changes everything because nothing is external to me anymore, and I am no longer separated from my personal and professional values. Love is a powerful tool that keeps me thriving.  My passion also comes with an infinite dose of hope that allows me to move forward and continue wanting to do and see things differently.

When I define eco-design to others, I describe it as a process of creation that adds meaning to our artistic voice. We must take the time to think about the community and inject meaning into our decisions. We must make sure that we respect all matter as well as human beings – to love them, to take care of them, to allow them to regenerate. It is respecting all that is. Eco-design is a way for me to create a healthy environment right now and for the generations that will follow.  It is also, and above all, a commitment to perpetuate life. And it is extremely motivating to choose this commitment.

Incendies, Théâtre du Trident 2018. Director: Marie-Josée Bastien. Light: Sonoyo Nishikawa. Costume: Sébastien Dionne. Pictured: Réjean Vallée, Jean-Sébastien Ouelette, Gabriel Fournier, Lise Castonguay, Véronika Makdissi-Warren. Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois

Can you tell me about your work on La forêt?

La forêt consisted of a labyrinth of trees where more than 20 actors and musicians came to life under the theme of disillusioned tales. It was set in an underutilised site in the city, a vacant lot between two streets, under highway ramps. For this project we used security barriers (rented) and covered them with branches recovered from the pruning and ecocentres of the city. We also rented a tent to house the musicians and actors. The vast majority of the accessories and costumes were created from rental and second-hand purchases. The pennants were made from used sheets and have been reused several times since on other projects. The wigs were customized and were subsequently given to Drag Queens for their own performances. All tree branches were gently removed and shredded to create compost. To my delight, during the 4 weeks that the scenery was set, the birds came to settle in the temporary forest. I admit that I was very happy to see the city planting trees on this site the following year.

La Forêt, Où tu vas quand tu dors en marchant? Carrefour international de théâtre 2013-2014. Pictured: Jean-Michel Girouard. Light: Laurent Routhier. Costume: Sébastien Dionne. Makeup: Élène Pearson & Nathalie Simard. Photo: Francis Gagnon.
La Forêt, Où tu vas quand tu dors en marchant? Carrefour international de théâtre 2013-2014. Pictured: Maude Audet. Light: Laurent Routhier. Costume: Sébastien Dionne. Makeup: Élène Pearson & Nathalie Simard. Photo: Nicola-Frank Vachon.

Can you tell me about your work on Tom à la ferme?

For this project, the director and I had a strong desire to represent the rural universe of the play realistically but with a poetic touch. In Quebec there are many barns with weathered timber – a look that is part of our rural landscape. Many barns are dismantled, and the wood is sold for its rustic appeal. I took advantage of this opportunity and purchased the reclaimed timber boards and then worked with the carpenter to build directly on the site to minimise excess waste.

The structure of the barn for the show was made solely from rented scaffolding structures. A good part of the house, which opened at the end of the room, was also structured in the same way. All the accessories were bought from antique dealers or borrowed from a family barn belonging to the parents of one of the actors. All the artefacts were returned at the end of the piece. I also donated the barn wood or antiques via social media. The ground was covered with soil that was recovered and donated at the end of the last show.

It was fascinating to see how the use of recycled material can create a visual and artistic richness; the passage of time gives it a complex beauty.

Tom à la ferme, Théâtre de la Bordée Director : Marie-Hélène Gendreau, 2011. Light: Dominic Lemieux and Hubert Gagnon. Costume:  Maude Audet. Photo: Dominic Lemieux.
Tom à la ferme, Théâtre de la Bordée Director : Marie-Hélène Gendreau, 2011. Light: Dominic Lemieux and Hubert Gagnon. Costume:  Maude Audet. Photo:  Guillaume D. Cyr. Pictured: Steve Gagnon.

Can you tell me about your work on Madame butterfly?

This project was also created with weathered timber (recycled barn wood). For this design, we proposed to those who had sold us the wood to come and collect it at the end of the production. They accepted with joy! They were even surprised by the offer as this meant that the company could resell the wood and increase their profit on the same material. We also offered them all the wood they wanted from the decorated structure. Thus, a greater percentage of wood was recycled. This project proved that people are often more open than we think! Furthermore, my whole approach shows me that one of the reasons why I love creating so much is because it allows me to make surprising encounters than more ‘traditional’ ways of doing things. Every project, every subject, every way of seeing things differently allows me to make encounters that enrich my life.

Madame Butterfly, Opéra de Québec. Director: Jacques Leblanc, 2013. Light: Serge Gingras. Photo: Louise Leblanc
Madame Butterfly, Opéra de Québec. Director: Jacques Leblanc, 2013. Light: Serge Gingras. Photo: Louise Leblanc.

In my conceptualisation of Ecoscenography I am interested in how ideas of co-creation, celebration and circulation can be considered as a fundamental part of the design process. ‘Co-creation’ implies ways of using local, serendipitous, place-based solutions in the making of the work; ‘Celebration’ is about using the stage as a platform to showcase sustainability and test out new ideas; and ‘Circulation’ is about taking the afterlife of theatre materials and ideas into consideration. Can you highlight any examples of your work that address these stages in interesting ways?

Co-creation: I am completely animated by the concept of co-creation and involving the use of local materials. Creating from what exists around us, to design an aesthetic with a local signature pleases me greatly! I believe it is possible to create this by remaining and curious.

Celebration: Up until now I have tried to prove that we can create eco-responsible scenographies without drawing attention to its sustainability credentials. Now, I am more interested in highlighting the ecological implications of a show with its audiences. I truly believe that the whole theatre community must be part of the solution. Creating for and with the wider community is a very rewarding path from all points of view.

Circulation: I am really animated by the idea of making matter circulate – to allow it to become something else, to have several lives and possibilities. This is something I take into account from the very beginning of the creative process – thinking about other ephemeral uses, but more often than not, I think about sustainable alternatives to facilitate reemployment. The truth is, I’m a matter lover. I find it moving to see materials circulate and engage with several audiences – to bring meaning into more opportunities.

What have been some of the biggest hurdles that you have encountered in implementing Ecoscenography? What are you most proud of?

I think one of the biggest obstacles I have faced is the lack of time. The conditions of creation are so short and intense that it is often lack of time that causes unsustainable practices to persist as eco-design (at least at the moment) invariably takes more time. I am truly aware that our system is not sustainable and that aiming for productivity, speed and the desire for tailor-made spectacular designs at all costs encourages over-consumption and over-exploitation of both human and global resources. I hope that in the near future, the methods of creation will change and that time will play in our favour instead of being perceived as our enemy.

In these unprecedented times (when the cultural environment is in hiatus), many people no longer want to work a senseless number of hours with unhealthy pressure and speed. Many of my colleagues are going back to school or changing jobs because the insecurity that existed before is now tenfold. When the cultural system resumes, will we refuse the old methods of operation, or will we fall back into our old habits for fear of losing contracts or of being perceived as disruptive agents? I sincerely hope that we will dare to speak and stand up to protect what we hold dear and what we care about and help create a healthier environment.

Another major obstacle that I have encountered is the lack of education and/or openness of some people who do not wish to make the effort to change their working methods. When I hear the phrase, “We’ve always done it this way…”, I sometimes rage inwardly or feel a burst of frustration. I understand that questioning our unsustainable methods requires reflection, time (and yes, again that!) and energy, but stagnating and believing that we always do the right thing – without questioning ourselves – also takes a lot of energy and removes some much needed flavour to life! I find it stimulating to question myself, to seek what is healthiest, to be alive!

What tips would you give to a scenographer who is exploring sustainable practice for the first time?

  • Do not take the entire fate of the universe on your shoulders because guilt or burden is not sustainable in the long run.  It is healthy and realistic to share this responsibility. It also allows us to realize that this is both an individual and collective process.
  • Find some fellow eco allies! They will help to exchange experiences, to alleviate the pressure, and to see the whole picture from other perspectives. This will make finding solutions easier.
  • Accept the fact that you are always imperfect, that we are all imperfect and and that’s okay. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, it’s pretty fair actually. Mistakes are part of the process and make it possible to learn very quickly – remember them!
  • Be patient with yourself and the others, but not too much! Remain action-orientated (not too much in your head) and be curious and open.

What do you think the future of theatre will look like for a climate-resilient world?

I hope to see a more holistic way of creating by allowing people to realise themselves both personally and collectively. I believe the solution lies there. Creating for the service of the community brings such great meaning, greater than oneself. This motivates and nourishes. I hope that the notion of waste will no longer exist, and that everything will be considered as resources, therefore upgraded and loved again and again. I hope that governments will quickly prioritize the common good and put forward policies that accelerate the circular economy and make the linear economy obsolete or even illegal.

I also hope that this approach will soon be embraced by all disciplines in the industry, not just designers because I think that’s where the solution lies. Let the designers adopt this creative process, but let them be joined by the directors, technical and production directors, the workshops, the actors, all disciplines. I sincerely believe that this is the only way it will change in a global way, that responsibility and pride will be shared. And I dare to believe that we are already on this path and that everyday more people are joining it.

What is your next project?

Currently, almost all theatres or museum projects are cancelled, postponed or virtual and especially in stand-by since last March. I am very grateful because the projects that come to me are meaningful, bigger than me.

Anne-Catherine Lebeau (Ecosceno) and I are preparing training sessions in ecodesign and ecoresponsibility for the museum and cultural community that will be held in the winter and spring of 2021. I find it extremely inspiring to see the enthusiasm for these training sessions. It fills me with much hope to see that this is starting to become a main concern, that people are finally wanting to change their way of creating.

Incendies, Théâtre du Trident 2018. Director: Marie-Josée Bastien. Light: Sonoyo Nishikawa Costume: Sébastien Dionne. Pictured: Gabriel Fournier. Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois.

Community Engaged Eco-theatre Action: Interview with Xiao Ting (Singapore)

Xiao Ting is a freelance Singapore-based hyphenated practitioner – performance-maker, movement-based performer, actor, educator and interdisciplinary collaborator. She was a recipient of the Singapore National Arts Council Undergraduate Scholarship and graduated from Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts (LICA), Lancaster University, UK, where she received the LICA prize for Outstanding Achievement in Theatre. She is currently an Associate Artist with The Theatre Practice (Singapore) and Programmer for Practice Tuckshop.

Recess Time (by Ang Xiao Ting, Sim Xin Yi and Joey Cheng), Practice Tuckshop.

How did your interest in eco-theatre and eco-scenography begin?

I absolutely love hiking and trekking in the mountains (responsibly, of course!). Climbing Mount Rinjani (Indonesia) and completing the Annapurna circuit (Nepal) were two of the biggest highlights in my life. It was only a matter of time before I started thinking about integrating two of my greatest passions – the natural environment and theatre.

What does ecoscenography or eco-theatre mean to you? How do you define it (for yourself and others)?

I believe that Eco-theatre is about harnessing the power of theatre to advance a slowly-but-surely cultural shift. For me, theatre is a space for stories. Theatre is a space for hope and transformation. There’s already so much good work by local communities about how to contribute in meaningful ways that I think the best thing theatre can do is to be a bridge – to empower or motivate people to care, to think differently and take action in their own ways.

Eco-theatre is as much about creating work, as it is about ethics in collaboration. So much of our work also involves fostering meaningful relationships to build a healthy ecosystem that we can create within. For example, how do we embed environmental sustainability into our operations, logistics and creative practices?

In my practice, I use an interdisciplinary approach to create work that inspires climate action. I want to create different ‘access points’ for specific audiences. This means each work will look very differently, depending on the audience. Therefore, I am always on the lookout for inspiring collaborators around the world who may vary differently in art form, but stem from the same ethos.

Poppy (by Ang Xiao Ting, Jean Ferry, Zoea Tania Chen.) Composer: Sim Shao Jean. Lighting and Set Design: Kuo Jian Hong.

Can you tell me about your latest project, Poppy?

Poppy was inspired by the ‘Greta Thunbergs’ of the world. It was also written in response to Kuo Pao Kun’s ‘The Silly Little Girl and The Funny Old Tree’. We wanted to maximise the potential of digital theatre to create a live-streamed hybrid performance of film/animation/theatre specific for young people (14-18 years). So, we ended up with Poppy – a story of an adolescent environmentalist, who goes on a journey navigating the complexities of climate action and social media activism culture.  

Through the use of social media platforms such as Telegram and Instagram (@p0_ppys_ok123), we positioned our young audiences as social media followers, so they have to experience and witness the complexities of talking about the climate crisis online. They experience first-hand, how easily it is to say something in an effort to ‘do something’, and how challenging it is to follow-up with meaningful action.

As the majority of Singapore youths are ‘city kids’, this entry point for climate action is familiar. This means that we were able to engage them in deeper conversations at the post-show segment.

Animation still from Poppy (by Ang Xiao Ting, Jean Ferry, Zoea Tania Chen.) Illustrator: Mary Bernadette Lee. Animator: Jawn Chan.
Poppy (by Ang Xiao Ting, Jean Ferry, Zoea Tania Chen.) In picture: Ang Xiao Ting, Tan Beng Chiak.
Post-show conversation from Poppy (by Ang Xiao Ting, Jean Ferry, Zoea Tania Chen). In picture: Ang Xiao Ting, Masturah Oli.
Poppy (by Ang Xiao Ting, Jean Ferry, Zoea Tania Chen.) In picture: Ang Xiao Ting, Masturah Oli.

Can you tell me about your longstanding projects, Recess Time and c o o p?

Food waste is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore and the amount of food waste generated has grown by around 20% over the last decade. In 2019, Singapore generated around 744 million kg of food waste. That is equivalent to 2 bowls of rice per person per day, or around 51,000 double decker buses. As most food in Singapore is imported from overseas and bought in supermarkets, consumers are used to purchasing unblemished produce. In order to de-stigmatise ugly produce, we created Recess Time!

Recess Time is a lunch party at the heart of the Singapore arts district. It is a long-running participatory work that stages a social situation, i.e. lunch, as the site for public engagement. It has served 30 lunch sessions to date. For this programme, invited chefs go on rescue missions to salvage unwanted or ugly produce. They then incorporate the rescued produce in their menu. Each Recess Time also features a “Kaypoh” King/Queen, whose main job is to archive the conversations that emerge from a lunch like no other.

Recess Time Chefs, also known as Makan Masters. In Picture: Imran Kidd and Priscill Koh.

Meanwhile, audiences also get to enjoy their food in the premises of Practice Tuckshop (@practicetuckshop) or on c o o p – a multi-level outdoor installation created by DO Agency with support from Nanyang Polytechnic. This reusable modular architectural system was built using biodegradable strand-woven bamboo. Herbs from the solar-powered aquaponics garden are regularly incorporated into our daily menu. It was awarded the COLA Environmental Sustainability Merit Awards (2018) and the Singapore Good Design Award (2019).

Last year, Recess Time was featured in a documentary about ground-up initiatives that tackle the climate crisis in Singapore.

Rescued produce, Practice Tuckshop

What were some of the biggest hurdles that you have had to tackle in creating these project/s? What are you most proud of?

Narrowing the scope of the research for each project is always daunting. The climate crisis is a global problem, but the way in which it manifests in each country is indisputably specific. To identify a focus area for each project, we start by asking:

  1. In terms of our local emissions, who are the biggest contributors and why?
  2. As city-dwellers, what is our relationship with the natural environment?
  3. How does that translate into practice with regards to the climate crisis?

I am most proud of the ‘sphere of influence’ each climate-focused project has generated. For instance, to be able to hear members of the creative team go: wow! I’ve always felt so much guilt about needing to do something for the environment, so I end up doing nothing. I never thought I could make a difference…

c o o p (by The Theatre Practice and DO Agency)

What tips would you give to a theatre maker who is exploring eco-theatre and sustainable practice for the first time?

I read an article by Jonathan Franzen (The New Yorker) and it really resonated with me. Franzen writes:

In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities. In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action.”

So I would start this exploration by first asking: As a (insert role), what is a possible ‘meaningful climate action’ for me and my community?

Also, as someone who struggles with climate depression, I also think it’s about constantly reminding yourself that there is hope for the future because every bit counts!!!

What do you think the future of theatre will look like for a climate-resilient world?

I think it will be come increasingly collaborative. Practitioners will find more reasons to do work online as geographical borders will become increasingly irrelevant, also because the amount of carbon footprint in air travel will be and has been, a serious point of consideration.

What is your next project?

I am currently in the midst of translating Poppy and doing a Chinese-language version of the work, as well as conceptualising Poppy 2.0. This next phase will include international artists who work in the intersection of theatre, education and climate action. We want to continue experimenting with Digital Theatre and bring teens from different parts of the world together on Zoom – without accumulating carbon footprint in the form of air travel!

If you are curious, find out more here.

Earth-based Serendipitous Scenography: Interview with set and costume designer Ruth Stringer (UK)

Ruth Stringer is a set and costume designer and creative facilitator, based in South Wales. Ruth is passionate about how site-specific projects can encourage engagement with the local community, and in exploring how designers can be storytellers. She believes that theatre and performance have an important role to play in the development of ecological thinking and has recently been exploring how her practice addresses climate change and sustainability.

Egin Residency, National Theatre of Wales, 2019. Photo: Steve Peake.

How did your interest in Ecoscenography and sustainable theatre production begin?

I don’t think there was a defining moment for me. Whilst training as a theatre designer and working in scenery workshops, I felt very uneasy with the process of poly-carving; watching tiny piece of plastic falling everywhere like snow – more ending up in the bin than it did in the final sculpture. From there, the notion of reusing, repurposing, recycling was always integral to my process – looking at how I can be sustainable in theatre design and making, and consider where I might be able to improve.

Ever since my first role with National Theatre Wales, I have looked at what the landscape provides, allowing it to inspire and build my designs. I remember looking out of the window of our facility one morning and seeing a shopping trolley half-buried in a sand dune on the beach.  I knew it would be perfect for a large, mobile torch that I needed to make, and loved the idea of transforming this forgotten piece of rubbish into a prop! I made a light installation out of old abandoned umbrellas, which I sourced from pubs and nightclubs.  I was inundated with items that had been long-forgotten, waiting to be turned into art. Site-specific really opened up my practice in terms of responding to a site, and working with it, rather than imposing my vision upon it, which I think is fundamental in Ecoscenography.

What does Ecoscenography mean to you? How do you define it (for yourself and others)?

To me, it is thinking about the whole and taking responsibility for where our sets and costumes come from and where they will go once the production is over. It is about thinking how theatre can connect to a wider ecosystem. How can our practices be inspired by locality, and in what ways can it benefit a local community? How can we work in a way that allows people to take notice and celebrate what is around them? How can we make sure that we can give a voice to those who would otherwise go unheard? This bigger picture involves considering the final product as more than a piece of live art. It includes the wellbeing of the people involved in making the work and the sustainable practices being adhered to in order to achieve it, as well as the legacy of the project itself (beyond the production).

Ecoscenography is about acknowledging that theatre and performance design have a role to play in mitigating climate change – in both the stories it tells and the way it tells them. It’s not about leaving it to someone else to sort it out. And it is about acknowledging our own place in nature; learning from it, being inspired from it and giving back to it.

Egin Residency, National Theatre of Wales, 2019. Photo: Ruth Stringer

Can you tell me about one of your most interesting Ecoscenography projects? What was it about and how did you bring an ecological ethic to the work? (i.e. strategies, materials, approaches and aesthetics considered?)

In 2019 I took part in a climate change residency called Egin, organised by National Theatre Wales and Natural Resources Wales.  We spent two weeks in Snowdonia National Park, visiting local areas to learn more about their ecosystems, engaging with local connectors and bringing conversations about climate change to the table. We also had time to research and begin to experiment with our own ideas.  I worked with dancer and choreographer Vikram Iyengar on a series of interventions on the landscape. This included choreographed walks in various places, with Vikram wearing garments made of materials that contrasted with the local surrounding area. I made him a garment made of wood and bark which he walked into the lake with.  Myself and fellow artist Emily Laurens constructed attire made out of locally growing fern, which was worn to the nearby disused slate quarry.  Lisa Hudson, a local artist and connector, loaned one of her pieces, a dress made out of slate for Vikram to wear in the forest.  And on the side of a mountain, he performed in a dress I had made from all the single-use plastic we had collected over a day and a half of the residency.

These experiments encouraged the viewer to slow down, to walk in and notice the gentle rhythm of the natural landscape, to consider the materials that are of the area, as well as those that were brought into the area. I allowed the quality of the materials themselves to inspire the shape and style of the garments I was making.  The garment made of wood was held together by tough elm bark, which acted as a type of string, and took on the appearance of armour.

The bright green and varying sizes of the fern leaves leant themselves to a carnival-style dress.  The least enjoyable one to make was the plastic dress.  I washed all the plastic pieces by hand and put them on a rock to dry before fusing them together with an iron – they smelled horrible and handling them all continually put me a bad mood. They contrasted sharply with the rocky mountainside that Vikram performed in, and this was the garment that was least sturdy, and began to fall apart as Vikram danced. But this fragility also became woven in to the content and meaning of the piece – a parallel to the short-term durability of high street fashion items. Ultimately, this performance also made me think about human activity, and fashion – with the exception of Lisa’s slate dress, each piece was made specifically for the choregraphed walks – celebrated, and then discarded. The fern and bark dresses were returned to their landscape and allowed to biodegrade as they would have done before. The plastic dress ended up in the bin, but as a part of our process it had enjoyed one more use, one more purpose before it’s inevitable fate. But it made me consider: what are most of our own garments made from? How long do we love and celebrate them, and where do they end up?

Egin Residency, National Theatre of Wales, 2019. Photo: Ruth Stringer

What have been some of the biggest hurdles that you have encountered in implementing Ecoscenography? What are you most proud of?

Time and budget are major influencing factors of any theatre project. Both are often in short supply.  I find that it takes extra time to implement my Ecoscenographic practices: to research and speak to local suppliers about a specific material and experiment with it; to trawl charity shops and second-hand websites (to avoid buying new costumes from fast fashion chains); or to strip down old theatre sets so I can reuse them in a new form. Inevitably, at some point my time runs out and I have to resort to shortcuts I would rather not use. Similarly, budget constraints mean that I cannot afford to pay someone to help me with the extra labour of searching for sustainable materials, or in the process of reusing items.

Another problem I have is one of communication. As a freelance designer, I work with several different companies across the span of a year. Whilst I have noticed an increase in concerns about working ecologically with some companies, the change is slow. Coming on board as a designer partway through a production process means it is often too late to begin implementing ecological practice. It is far easier if the entire company is committed to sustainability, rather than one person attempting to do it on their own.

I think I can say that I most proud of being open about my own journey towards implementing Ecoscenography: from starting out with small steps of exploring how to incorporate second hand or recycled items into a design, to producing work outdoors and integrating myself with the local environment as part of the creative process, to seeing sustainability as the focal point of new works that I can inspire and drive forwards.

What tips would you give to a scenographer who is exploring sustainable practice for the first time?

It’s easy to feel alone in what you’re trying to do, but you’re not! Talk to your peers, begin conversations, get involved with sustainability initiatives. You don’t have to tackle this alone, and it is so much easier to share ideas and practices with others. Start small – look at realistic, achievable goals that you can achieve and make a positive contribution with.  And don’t feel disheartened by failure – we’re all learning, and sometimes that involves using the wrong thing or forgetting to consider a certain factor. Know that you can move forward from your inevitable mistakes.

Fabulous Animals Den. Idea conceived by: Zosia Jo. Sound: Christopher Michael Young. Photo:Ruth Stringer.

What do you think the future of theatre will look like for a climate-resilient world?

My hope is that theatre will slow down, celebrate what is around it, and put value into new aesthetics and practice: aesthetics that show a consideration of the natural world in the form and materials used, and practice that allows the designer-maker to work with their hands, understand the properties of a material and adopt techniques we might have forgotten. I am excited by the opportunity of allowing artists to visit and inhabit a place and be inspired by its local stories and idiosyncrasies, to work with the community to bring their stories, experiences and expertise to the forefront.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just completed the first stage of a research and development project, funded by the Arts Council of Wales, with writer Sara Lewis and Vikram which explores rivers. We are looking at connecting community stories of the Rhondda Cynon Taf rivers in South Wales with those across the world, such as the Ganges in India.  We are exploring similarities and differences in local relationships to rivers, including how climate change is beginning to manifest itself in natural disasters such as flooding. It’s the first time that I’ve led a performance project, and I’m excited about how we can implement local experiences and bring awareness to and celebrate the unique beauty of the areas we work in.

I am also working with a group of peers to update Ecostage – a website which includes ecological guidelines for anyone working in the performing arts to apply and communicate their practice, as well as inspiring case studies and a library of sustainability resources.  We’re hoping to launch the website early in 2021.

Performing Sustainability: Interview with designer Silje Sandodden Kise (Norway)

Silje Sandodden Kise is a freelance scenographer and costume designer based in Norway. She graduated with a BA in Scenography from Oslo Academy of the Arts in 2008. She also studied 2 years at the Bergen School of Architecture, and has a BA in Theatre Studies from University of Bergen. Her work covers a broad range of productions: from text based theatre productions in large theatre venues to smaller, more experimental independent projects. Slije often works on cross disiplinary projects, and has been focusing on merging scenography and music/sound to tell stories through visual and auditive means as much as text and movement.

Sustain (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise.) Scenography: Silje S. Kise. Light design: Silje Grimstad. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.  

How did your interest in Ecoscenography and sustainable theatre production begin?

Over the last few years I have been increasingly aware of the climate crisis but wasn’t sure how to respond to this urgency as an artist, despite taking small steps towards sustainability in my personal life. I actually started to feel a bit guilty about spending all my time making theatre and art, instead of working on the ‘really important issues’ of the world. Then in 2014/2015, I was asked by a colleague, singer Bodil Rørtveit, to join in developing a theatre/music project about sustainability. This performance work (entitled, Sustain) became a big part of my life for many years and sparked my interest in sustainable theatre production. The project has influenced my work ever since.

Sustain (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise.) Scenography/costume design: Silje S. Kise. Costume maker: Ceri A. Rimmer. Light design: Silje Grimstad. In picture: Bodil Rørtveit. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

What does Ecoscenography mean to you? How do you define it (for yourself and others)?

Ecoscenography and sustainable performance art is gradually becoming a more important aspect of my work – it informs all the decisions I make on my projects. I am still in the process of defining Ecoscenography for myself, and to explore what it means for my artistic practice. For me, it is about creating an awareness of all the choices that are behind the making of a performance, especially in creating the design of the scenography and costumes, and the choice of materials. But I also find it relevant to many other aspects of production. For example, the choice of the performance theme, the location and its relationship to the audience, as well as all the practical aspects of making or touring the production, including what happens with all the material objects afterwards.

While I find working with an ecoscenograhic approach very demanding, I do think that it gives something extra to my creative processes. Nevertheless, there are certainly a lot of challenges that can make it hard to make sustainable choices. Sometimes it has to do with low budgets and/or too little time, especially in smaller independent projects. In the bigger institutions, I often find it difficult to get the rest of the theatre team on board to prioritize sustainability – theatres can be such big ‘machines’ with huge time pressures, with a ‘this is how we have always done things’ mentality. It is especially hard to come from the outside (as a freelancer) and try to tell the institutions to change and make other choices.

Fortunately, I have been noticing a big change in the Norwegian performing arts sector over the last couple of years. Almost every organisation now has a focus on sustainability, with a commitment to implement this into practice. Some theatres have actually put these demands into contracts for freelance artists (i.e. that they should choose sustainable ways of working and travelling to the theatre). This is very inspiring and makes it easier to demand that theatres make sustainable choices.

Sustain in symphony (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise, with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, 2020.) Scenography: Silje S. Kise. In picture: Magnus Brandseth. Photo: Magnus Skrede.

Can you tell me about Sustain? What was it about and how did you bring an ecological ethic to the work?

The aim of Sustain was to make a show about sustainability, overconsumption, and the way us humans have distanced ourselves from nature. I worked with two composers/musicians: Bodil Rørtveit and Jørn Lavoll, director Vibeke Flesland Havre and producer Hjørdis Steinsvik. Together, we wanted to make a performance for musicians to take centre stage (without actors). The images, music and actions of the musicians and the scenography would tell the story we wanted to convey. We wanted to make a strong political performance about sustainability, but at the same time, give the audience a powerful artistic experience, that they could interpret using their own associations and imagination. The process was very crossdisiplinary. We were able to develop the various components of the work (i.e. music, dramaturgy and design) at the same time: the director and me collaborating very closely on the visual concept, the plastic design inspiring the composers and the music etc.

Drum kit made of plastic garbage, from Sustain (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise.) Instrument design: Hans C. Senneseth and Silje S. Kise. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

The scenography consisted of self-designed instruments, made out from plastic garbage or reclaimed plastic. We chose plastic for several reasons. Mainly because plastic is not biodegradable and therefore causes big problems when it ends up out in the wild. We were inspired by Chris Jordan photography work (The Gyre) which depicted birds from the pacific ocean that have died because of eating plastic. Jordan’s images show the heartbreaking reality of decomposed carcasses of birds; bones and feather, together with lots of small plastic items, things such as toothbrushes that you use every day. We also chose plastic as a challenge to ourselves, because it is very hard to play music on plastic! Luckily, we worked with a very skilled sound designer, Thorolf Thuestad, and our brilliant musicians (Terje Isungset, Annlaug Børsheim, Magnus Brandseth) learnt how to play the unusual hand-made instruments, searching for ways to produce a lot of different soundscapes with these strange objects.

For the scenography, we made a big tree out of plastic bottles, and filled meters and meters of fishing nets with plastic garbage hung from the ceiling, conveying the image of big branches and leaves of the tree. I spent half a year searching for plastic garbage – finding pieces by the seashore and along beaches, by the road, or in my kitchen – and knocking and banging on things to find the right sounds! What shocked me was how easy it was to find used plastic bags and packaging for the set design. We asked a couple of big stores for their plastic trash, and in just a couple of days they had collected more than we would ever need! We had a big car full of plastic.

Percussion set made of plastic garbage, from Sustain (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise.) Instrument design: Hans C. Senneseth and Silje S. Kise. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

What were some of the biggest hurdles that you have had to tackle in designing Sustain? What are you most proud of?

The hardest part was to design and build instruments that actually worked. Plastic is a very hard material to work with. I tried to find environmentally friendly solutions and avoided using as much chemicals as possible. However, that meant that we had to put things together in a very labour-intensive way or use things like epoxy glue because we found no other solution. I was lucky to work with some very skilled people, and we found much joy experimenting and looking for solutions.

I think the biggest hurdle was talking to people about the work. Many people thought that it was kind of embarrassing to make a theatre production for adults that fore-fronted environmental issues. They assumed that sustainability would not make for good art. However, a few months before the premiere at Bergen International Festival in 2017, a large dead whale washed up outside our city with plastic in its stomach. This caused a big stir in the national media, and suddenly everyone was focusing on plastic and marine pollution! We had been exploring plastic waste for 3 years through our work on Sustain, and the show provided a timely platform for audiences to relate to the issue.

Another thing that I am proud of is that we have been able to perform this production in a diversity of arenas and formats (from 2017 to 2020).  Our last performance so far, was very special. We were asked by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra to create a new version of the performance, where the composers rewrote the music to include 80 philharmonic musicians and a children’s choir. We filled the philharmonic hall with an audience of over 1000 adults and kids amongst the mountains of plastic garbag!

Sustain (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise.) Scenography/costume design: Silje S. Kise. Light design: Silje Grimstad. In picture: Bodil Rørtveit. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

What tips would you give to a scenographer who is exploring sustainable practice for the first time?

Embrace sustainable choices as opportunities, rather than limitations. The search for alternative solutions can sometimes lead your projects in ways you could never imagine. Embrace the unpredictable and let the material(s) lead the way for the development of your design. New and experimental use of materials can sometimes lead to completely different aesthetics than you might have planned, but this can be a very fruitful part of your creative process.

Sustain in symphony (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise, with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, 2020.) Scenography: Silje S. Kise. Light design: Silje Grimstad/Ivar Skjørestad. Photo: Magnus Skrede.
Sustain, frontal version (by Bodil Rørtveit, Jørn Lavoll, Vibeke Havre, Silje Kise.) Scenography/costume design: Silje S. Kise. Costume maker: Ceri A. Rimmer. Light design: Silje Grimstad. In picture: Bodil Rørtveit.

What is your next project?

I am still working (and struggling) to fully integrate ecoscenographic thinking into all my theatre productions, and I don’t succeed 100%. But my aim is to always consider every choice carefully and to look for sustainable solutions as much as possible. I have just finished making a set for Jølster Hotell by Jeff Pedersen Productions, a theatre production about refugees, where a big part of the set was made from used bedlinens (sourced from asylum seekers centres). This autumn, I used ecoscenographic thinking and the Covidsituation to make ‘hammock concerts’ in the forest, where the audience broughttheir own hammocks. This was in cooperation with singer/composer Bodil Rørtveit from Sustain and director Ingrid Askvik. We are now making a new performance, about the dilemmas you facewhen you try to live a modern life as environmentally friendly as possible (and also a little bit abouttrying to change the world through singing). This performance will hopefully tour by train (when thepandemic is over), and all the items for the show will fit in 2-4 suitcases. For the big finale I am making a gala dress out of pine- and spruce cones. It makes the most marvellous sound when thesinger walks!

Cone dress from RØYST (means: VOICE/VOTE), (Bodil Rørtveit, Ingrid Askvik, Silje Kise 2021). Costume design: Silje S.Kise, costume maker: Julie S.Jensen. In picture: Bodil Rørtveit. Photo: Silje Kise

More information about Sustain can be found via: www.sustaintheconcert.com