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.

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