Opera production & the circular economy: interview with Thierry Leonardi (Lyon Opera)

This interview is the first of a series of interviews that I am conducting with eco-theatre professionals over the next couple of months. Thierry Leonardi has been working for culture for the last 25 years. He has been the Lyon Opera Ballet General Manager from 1995 to 2015 and the sustainability officer of the Lyon Opera from 2008 to 2015. Since 2016 he has worked as a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) consultant with cultural organisations, helping them to formalize and implement their sustainability strategies and road maps. He is a member of the labelling committee of French CSR label Lucie26000.

How did your interest in theatre and sustainable production begin?

In 2008, I was working as the general manager of the Lyon Opera’s ballet company when I was invited to join an internal working group on sustainability. Believe it or not, I never heard of sustainability beforehand. All these issues and stakes connected to one another made so much sense and were deeply challenging our routine. They were really opening up new horizons.

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

Sustainability is an evolving concept. It has challenged the economy for the last twenty years through the concept of corporate social responsibility. In other words, economic activities only make sense if they prove to be socially useful – if they contribute to a more inclusive and ethical society. A favourable climate, a well-preserved (and possibly restored) biodiverse environment and resource availability are all prerequisites for such a society. Instead of understanding sustainability as the intersection of three circles (economy, social & environment), I prefer to represent it as the inclusion of these circles, from economy (the smallest one) to environment. Lastly, I think it is clear for most of us that sustainable development is a cultural issue. We need to rethink our values to forge new narratives, among which frugality will probably be a major one. This creates a fourth circle and I would represent it as the bigger one, as culture (in its anthropological sense) has an impact on nature. On a more personal level, frugality would probably be the best word to translate sustainability, but I am still far from it!

Can you tell me about some of your recent work on the OSCaR project? How is it proposing a new approachto Opera production?

OSCaR was born from the conviction that the Opera industry needs collective action and capacity building to make substantial progress in eco-design, and that Europe is in a strong position to produce significant results in this area. OSCaR is the very first step in a long journey towards circular economy in the Opera industry that focuses on the lifecycle of set design, manufacturing and management. It includes seven partners and is co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. The project includes finalising a state-of-the-art review of (eco) set design practices in European Opera Houses, which should be published in the first quarter of 2021. It will also include an exploration of the management processes involved in the lifecycles of opera sets. The outcomes of these two inquiries will be shared with the technical (and production) departments of European Opera Houses. Hopefully we will be able to set up more collaboration opportunities to deepen the research and development on a few specific topics.

Can you tell me about the EDEOS tool? How does it work in practice? What are you hoping to achieve with the tool and how does it compare with other tools such as the Julies Bicycle IG tool?

While OSCaR is a collective circular economy exploration project with eco-innovation at the core of its vision, EDEOS is an eco-design tool that has been developed by the Lyon Opera for its own needs, the first version of which has already been operational for one year. Both initiatives contribute to the same quest from two different perspectives. EDEOS is a footprint calculator for stage sets which assesses four categories of potential damages, including: climate, human health, ecosystems and non-renewable resources. Based on manufacturing scenarios, calculations are made during the set design concept phase, which makes EDEOS a real decision-making tool. As well as calculating the footprint of set designs, EDEOS also measures key indicators of eco-design, such as the percentage of reused or recycled elements used in scenic manufacturing. Eco-design indicator values are calculated before the set is constructed, as well as considering what happens to the sets afterwards based on manufacturing scenarios. This includes identifying the impact of construction methods on the quality of materials.

The present version of EDEOS consists in two Excel spreadsheets: one calculator and a database. The database includes all the supplies and technical solutions that are referenced by the set workshop of the Lyon Opera. The impact values associated with the supplies are calculated through a lifecycle analysis (LCA). The implemented lifecycle analysis methodology (LCA) is called IMPACT 2002+, and the database used for impact calculations is called Ecoinvent. They are both extensively used by LCA experts. So far, half of the supplies referenced by the Lyon Opera workshops have gone through an LCA process and our first task is to complete the database.

As I said above, EDEOS is a decision-making tool. Its purpose is not to have a very precise value of a set design footprint but to improve eco-design practices by making better informed decisions. I don’t know comparable tools in the French cultural industry, nor abroad actually, but I could have missed something. By ‘comparable’ I mean, a decision-making tool that is more than a carbon calculator. Julie’s Bicycle IG tool is an auto-assessment tool of a cultural organisation’s environmental policy, on three stages of its implementation: commitment, understanding and improvement. Its purpose is different than EDEOS.

What has been the industry’s response to the tool so far? Has the response been positive or have you also been met with resistance?

To date, EDEOS has only been used by the Lyon Opera and has been designed to answer the needs of that organisation, with a database that includes its own supplies and impact data. Nevertheless, EDEOS could provide a good foundation for a shared industry tool, which could also include cinema and exhibitions. We have already introduced EDEOS to different communities in France and abroad and so far, they have shown a real interest. We are still in the process of presenting the tool to get more feedback, and are planning to test it with a few opera houses during the first half of 2021. This testing phase requires an appropriate organisation, because just leaving EDEOS in the hands of other users might be counterproductive.

In her speech at World Stage Design in 2013, eco-arts scholar Wallace Heim argued that the time will soon come when theatres will need to justify excessive and unsustainable behaviour – when ‘those who want massive spectacles, world tours, and blazing lights will have to openly justify and account for those technologies and excessive and exceptional drains’ (2013). What do you think about this argument? Do you think carbon budgets will be an inevitable part of our future? How have you seen carbon budgets used in your work? Can you give an example?

I think she is right. When I started to work on sustainability at the Lyon Opera about 10 years ago, I thought that within 10 years the French Ministry of Culture and local governments would include sustainability criteria in their funding decisions. We are not quite there yet but things are speeding up. Something is interesting about this speeding up: industry professionals are asking for it, including small companies. The impact of touring is really questioned now and when you talk about touring, you are talking about your business model, which makes sustainability finally strategic. It is the same with private sponsorship, which is also financially crucial for certain organisations and is ever more challenged by ethical questions. I don’t mean that we should totally waiver the option of touring, but probably reduce it and learn how to do it differently. Once again, for me it is about shifting from excess to moderation or frugality. I guess that at some point audiences themselves will ask for accountability. So, specifically, I think that we will come to having environmental budgets (whether strictly carbon or not) in assessing our projects and making decisions, just like we do with money. I believe that resource wise we’ll have to do with less, so we will need to set limits in absolute values. I have not seen such budgets in the cultural industry so far, which is consistent with its slow adoption of sustainability, but I couldn’t say that nobody has done it yet.

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

Being an absolute necessity, frugality might become a cardinal value of our future societies. I would not be surprised if these societies also develop an aesthetics of moderation. Artworks will probably address more extensively impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss etc., if only through the social, economic, political and geopolitical consequences of these changes. If I am more specific, I guess there will be less excessive productions and touring of theatre, cinema and exhibitions. In other words, the lifecycle of productions will slow down, like our own lives maybe. Our relationship to art/theatre/cinema works will also change, and hopefully we will not be mere ‘cultural goods consumers’ anymore.

Ecological design futures: Ecoscenography in the age of climate change

The Living Stage Lorne, 2018

In 2014, I published an article in the Blue Pages entitled, “Green Is the New Black”[1], highlighting the opportunities that sustainability can bring to the performing arts. I wrote about the possibilities of ecological design that were already emerging, including bicycle-powered shows, edible stages and body suits that captured kinetic energy. At the time, sustainability and theatre was a fringe phenomenon. While stage designers all over the world were beginning to heed the call of environmentally-conscious practices, the performing arts as a whole was proving slow to embrace the challenge.

With the global climate crisis taking hold and the global pandemic enforcing a pause in our practices, times have certainly changed in 2020. The topic of theatre and sustainability has rapidly moved to the fore. We are seeing more and more artists and organisations using the stage as a platform to talk about climate change and being pro-active in considering how theatre is made for the benefit of humans and nature. Sustainability has emerged as a significant part of many high-profile platforms both in programming and practice.

Climate change theatre is emerging as a genre in its own right. In 2019, in my home city of Melbourne alone, every theatre organization appeared to have at least one ecological work on show or in development. It was an exciting and welcome change.

The Living Stage Lorne, 2018

Yet I can’t help thinking back to the time, not so long ago, when the word ‘sustainable’ was met with glazed eyes or even disdain in theatre circles. A time when many of us were forced to do sustainability ‘undercover’, subverting the status quo with what little means we had. A time when our only choice was to frame sustainable decisions around budgets and aesthetics in order to get them across the line.

Ultimately, I moved outside of the theatre building to pursue change. There were too many barriers and pitstops for many of us who were attempting to go down the sustainable path. It was lonely being out there on the curb. Our sustainable practices (even when done ‘on the downlow’) were an inconvenience for most theatre companies, directors and stage managers. We wanted the ‘s’ word to be celebrated, not a ‘conversation stopper’ or a hidden practice that was kept behind closed doors.

In stepping outside of traditional theatre, I was free to imagine new modes of practice and aesthetics – those that demonstrated how sustainability could be inspiring, provocative and celebratory. I wanted to show that stage designers could be contributors and change agents. To push against those long held assumptions of sustainability: that ecological design is expensive, boring, time consuming and limiting of high-quality aesthetics. I wanted to demonstrate that the mixing of theatre and sustainability could contribute to what I believe will be the next great wave of artistic activism – shining a light on environmental injustice, provocating for change and re-awakening environmental stewardship as a core human ethos.

The Living Stage Lorne 2018

It was the last of these aspirations, in particular, that prompted me to start The Living Stage project in 2013. The Living Stage is a global ecoscenography project that combines stage design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, edible and biodiverse performance spaces. Part theatre, part garden and part food growing demonstration, The Living Stage is a celebration of what is possible when we embrace the potential of ecological practice holistically. At the end of the performances, living stages are returned to the communities that helped grow them. Physical structures become garden beds and community spaces; plants become healthy food; and waste becomes compost.

Since making its debut at the Castlemaine State Festival (Australia) in 2013, the concept has travelled to Cardiff, Glasgow, Armidale, New York, Lorne and Melbourne. As each living stage evolves out of a direct response to the localities of site, ecology and community, no project is ever the same. Yet they share clear commonalities: the celebration of multisensory elements, effective and multi-level engagement with audiences, and a legacy that stretches on long after the final performance.

Render of The frst Living Stage in Castlemaine, 2013

The Living Stages are only a small example of what is possible when we embrace ecological potential. I am a strong believer that sustainability makes us better designers. Performance designers all around the world are showing us how aesthetically compelling environmentally-focused work can be, both in and beyond mainstream theatre. And importantly, audiences are taking notice. Sustainability with a capital ‘S’ is here. Emerging designers and directors are speaking out against unsustainable practices and their voices are being heard. The power is shifting. The age of theatre as place of eco-provocation, innovation and leadership is here.


The Living Stage Castlemaine 2013

For more information about Ecoscenography, see my recent talk with Aberystwyth University here.

[1] Beer, Tanja (2014). “Green Is the New Black”. Blue Pages: Journal for the Society of British Theatre Designers, no. 1: 14-16.

Photos: Tanja Beer & Gisela Beer

Call for papers: Theatre and Performance Design Special Issue on Ecoscenography (Autumn 2021)

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I am excited to announce a call for papers for a special issue of the journal, Theatre and Performance Design, Autumn 2021, on Ecoscenography!

A global ecological awakening is underway; one that calls for a new philosophy for theatre production that promotes more environmentally conscious, holistic, interconnected and symbiotic ways of making. With a global pandemic enforcing a pause in our practices and changing our ways of communicating and collaborating, we are at a unique moment in time that provides an opportunity to rethink the way we produce theatre now and into the future. How can we seize the potential that this new era of uncertainty and environmental focus demands?

This special edition of Theatre and Performance Design will examine the emerging practice of sustainability and ecological thinking in scenography. Related industries, such as architecture, product design and fashion have already shown us how a sustainable ethic can create novel processes and aesthetics. However, we are yet to fully grasp what a socially and environmentally conscious approach entails for the performing arts. ‘Ecoscenography’ is an expansive term that includes theories and practices that bring an increased awareness of broader ecologies and global issues to performance design. In this special issue, we are interested in how sustainability is being embraced in performance platforms across the world. How is ecological thinking evoking new materials and processes for theatrical design? How are practitioners and scholars critiquing and enhancing the social and environmental advocacy of our field? And what new aesthetics are being revealed? Beyond the necessity of energy and waste reduction, this special issue is interested in what an ecological approach to scenography does – how it influences our ways of thinking, and working – as well as how it might be defined within and beyond the performing arts. It calls for a new preoccupation with the agentic capacities of the field not only in terms of the ‘worlds’ that we create for audiences but also the ecological, social and political consequences, impacts and messaging behind our work.

Submissions are invited on, but not limited to, the following topics:

• Sustainability in theatre production, set, costume, lighting, sound and projection

• Theatre design and the circular economy

• Sustainability in theatre design education

• Sustainability in a digital performance culture

• Performance and Ecology

• Environmental advocacy and performance design

• Climate change activism and urban scenography

• Ecomaterialism and material ecologies

• Ecological approaches in expanded scenography

• Ecological approaches in theatre architecture.

The editors also welcome interviews with designers and architects as well as visual essays. In the first instance proposals should take the form of a 300 word abstract to be submitted to editorial associate Nick Tatchell at tpdjournal@arts.ac.uk by 12th October with accepted articles due in full by 12th May 2021. Articles usually range between 6000-8000 words.

The Living Pavilion wins Award of Excellence

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Photo by Isabel Kimpton

The Living Pavilion recently received an Award of Excellence (the highest award available) in the category of Community Contribution at the 2020 AILA Vic Awards!!!

The Living Pavilion (1-17 May 2019) was an Indigenous-led temporary event space that took place as part of CLIMARTE’s ‘ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE’ Festival at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville Campus. Part celebration, part horticulture demonstration and part living lab, The Living Pavilion was a platform for revealing and celebrating past, current and future ecologies as well as hosting events and performances by local Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders, artists, knowledge-sharers and scientists. It featured a landscape design of 40,000 Kulin Nation plants and a program of 40+ events that celebrated Indigenous knowledge, ecological science and sustainable design through participatory arts practice.

The Living Pavilion was the seventh iteration of ‘The Living Stage’ project, a global initiative by Tanja Beer which combines horticulture, sustainable design and participatory arts to transform urban spaces into accessible, equitable and thriving ecological and social gathering places. Sustainability is a key part of all Living Stage projects, which includes the desire to enhance the connectivity and integration of more-than-human places in response to climate change, social inequity, food scarcity and biodiversity loss. Its sustainability mandate has been one of not only mitigating environmental impact, but also of contributing positively to socio-ecological systems where possible.

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Photo by Sarah Fisher

Part event space, part garden and part exhibition, The Living Pavilion was a call for First Nations perspectives, histories and culture to take centre stage in the face of increasing ecological uncertainty. Over three weeks, the temporary landscape design of over 40,000 Kulin Nation plants transformed an unspectacular University thoroughfare into a haven of biodiverse gathering spaces, Indigenous artworks and ecological soundscapes before being incorporated into permanent landscape works across Victoria. Situated as part of the ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE festival, a key aim of the project was to engage people of all ages and walks of life in the cultural and ecological significance of the region’s native flora and fauna in a fun and accessible way.

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Photo by Isabel Kimpton

The Living Pavilion aimed to forefront and celebrate landscape architecture as an expansive and transdisciplinary discipline that is capable of opening up unique cultural and ecological opportunities that can be shared across communities. The project engaged over 300 participants and experts across Indigenous knowledge systems, landscape architecture and design, ecological science, sustainability, horticulture, visual arts, theatre, music and sound design to showcase how diverse collaborations can sow the seeds of community vitalisation and environmental stewardship.

A key innovation was the use of artistic, participatory and multisensory design elements and programming to illuminate the hidden stories and cultural connections of the University site. For example, the design featured more than 60 exhibition signs (led by Barkandji researcher Zena Cumpston with Ngarigo landscape designer Charles Solomon) which articulated many of the plant’s cultural, nutritional, technological and medicinal uses from an Aboriginal perspective. Another highlight was the reclaiming of Bouverie Creek through a mural design by Yorta Yorta and Gunnai artist Dixon Patten which aimed to ‘daylight’ the waterway piped underneath the site. Sound was also an integral part of transforming the urban thoroughfare into a lush oasis which included several outdoor speakers that recreated past ecologies of the site (e.g. frog calls, creek flowing) as well as the voices of Mandy Nicholson and The Djirri Djirri Dance Group singing in Woi Wurrung language. More information about the project can be found here.

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Photo by Tanja Beer

The team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which the project took place, the Wurundjeri peoples of the Woi Wurrung language group, part of the greater Eastern Kulin Nations. We pay our respects to Wurundjeri Elders, past, present and emerging. We honour the deep spiritual, cultural and customary connections of the Traditional Custodians to the landscape and ecology of the land on which The Living Pavilion was located. We acknowledge that this land, of which we are beneficiaries, was never ceded and endeavour to reflect and take consistent action to address this harmful circumstance. We are especially grateful for the contributions of many First Peoples involved in our project and their generosity to share their culture and knowledge with us. We would like to extend our thanks to all our collaborators on The Living Pavilion, including the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub (CAUL) of the National Environmental Science Program, THRIVE Research Hub (Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning), the New Student Precinct of the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, CLIMARTE’s ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 Festival, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA), Ecodynamics, Next Wave, Place Agency, BILI Nursery, 226 Strategic, Graduate Student Association (GSA), Garawana Creative, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Sustainability Team @Unimelb.

Project Team and partnership credits:

The Living Pavilion was a co-production and collaboration with Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub (CAUL) of the National Environmental Science Program, THRIVE Hub (Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning), the New Student Precinct of the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, and CLIMARTE’s ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 Festival. The Living Pavilion’s major horticultural and design partners were Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) and Ecodynamics. Other partners of The Living Pavilion included: Next Wave, Place Agency, BILI Nursery, 226 Strategic, Graduate Student Association (GSA), The Living Stage, Garawana Creative, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and Sustainability Team @Unimelb.

Producers: Cathy Oke, Tanja Beer & Zena Cumpston

Associate Producer: Jeremy Taylor (New Student Precinct)

Lead Researcher: Zena Cumpston

Indigenous Advisory Team: Charles Solomon, Dean Stewart, Zena Cumpston, Mandy Nicholson, Maddison Miller,

with additional support from Greenshoots Consulting, Murrup Barak and Wilin Centre,

Jefa Greenaway, CAUL Hub’s Indigenous Advisory Group and Rueben Berg

Original concept (The Living Stage) and Lead Designer: Tanja Beer

Assistant Designers: Pia Guilliatt, Camille Greenfield, Zongjing Yu & Zachariah Dahdoule

Design Coordinator: Ashlee Hughes

Contributing Designers: Zena Cumpston, Steph Beaupark

Signage: Illustrations by Dixon Patten of Bayila Creative, research and words by Zena Cumpston, design and production by 226 Strategic.

Graphic Design (Program): Dixon Patten of Bayila Creative (Principal) and Rachel Pirnie (UoM)

Program Partnerships and Events Manager: Cathy Oke

Programming and Event Assistant Managers: Jeremy Taylor, Rachel Iampolski, Skylar Lin, Amelia Leavesley, Marley Holloway-Clarke,

Anita Spooner and Paris Paliouras

Communications Managers: Isabel Kimpton, Nicole Mustedanagic, Leah Hyland, Sophie Hill, Cathy Oke, Kiah McCarthy and Alice Tovey

Communications Strategy and Social Media: Isabel Kimpton

Horticulture design and Propagation Team: Nick Somes, Jeff Beavis, Randall Wee, Adrian Gray, Charles Solomon, Zena Cumpston, Chelsie Davies, Kate Hogan

The Living Pavilion Student Ambassadors: Gabrielle Margit Lewis, Jane Chen, Chelsea Matthews, Victoria Tabea Seeck, Lucia Marie Amies, Mimmalisa Trifilò and Rachel Iampolski

Horticulture Coordinator: Jenny Pearce

Site and Plant Maintenance: Milton Perks

Wayfinding Design and Materials: Helaine Stanley and Andrew Hubbard, 226 Strategic

Research Team: Cristina Hernadez Santin, Tanja Beer, Zena Cumpston, Rimi Khan, Luis Mata, Kirsten Parris, Christina Renowden, Rachel Iampolski, Leila Farahani, Eugenia Zoubtchenko and Blythe Vogel

Financial Management: Angela Bruckner and Siouxzy Morrison

Site Support: Tevita Lesuma, Suzanne Griffin, Louise Ryan (Graduate Student Association), Rob Oke and Lewis Mcleod

Information Booth: Kay Oke, ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE 2019 festival crew

Soundscape: Mark Pollard, Alex Beck, Trev Dunham, Lachlan Wooden and The Faculty of Fine Arts and Music (Interactive Composition students)

Co-design Creative Development Workshop Contributors: Judith Alcorn, Margaret Bakes, Steph Beaupark, Tanja Beer, Chelsie Davies, Christina Chiam, Zena Cumpston, Harriet Deans, John Delpratt, Marita Dyson, Michael Ford, Lisa Godhino, Adrian Gray, Cris Hernandez, Joe Hurley, Leah Hyland, Sophie Jackson, Ryan Jefferies, Bronwyn Johnson, Kate Kantor, Alex Kennedy, Amelia Leavesley, Meredith Martin, Luis Mata, Patrick Mercer, Sue Murphy, Cathy Oke, Jenny Pearce, Eleanor Percival, Anne-Marie Pisani, Ian Shears, Robert Snelling, Jeremy Taylor, Alice Tovey and Katie West

University of Melbourne and New Student Precinct Contributors: Georgie Meagher, Alex Kennedy, Mal Abley, Chris Frangos, Tim Uebergang, Dominic Napoleone, Dani Norman, Danny Butt and Mark Gillingham

I’m writing a book!

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The Living Stage, Castlemaine Sate Festival 2013. Scene from Produce, created and performed by Creatability and Born in a Taxi.

I have some news! I’m writing a book! Yes! A book on ecoscenography!

CALL OUT for cool sustainable design projects!

I am looking for examples of people doing great stuff  in the world of sustainability and the performing arts that I can feature in my book. So, I’d love to hear about any projects people are doing around the world that are worth a mention. I really want to celebrate the exciting range of work that people are doing — everything from tiny theatre projects to massive spectacles, in both conventional and expanded practice. Especially projects that are not always celebrated the way they should be or from different parts of the world often not recognised in the Global North or English speaking context (note: this is not the time to be shy about spruiking your own work). Looking for examples across the whole spectrum of set, costume, props, lighting and sound.

Ecoscenography: an introduction of ecological design for performance

Sustainability in theatre production is the topic of my forthcoming book entitled, Ecoscenography: an introduction of ecological design for performance (Palgrave Macmillan 2021) based on my PhD research at the University of Melbourne which I completed in 2016. The monograph examines the emerging concept of ‘ecoscenography’; a neologism that I use to bring performance design into an increased awareness of broader ecologies and global issues. In the book, I argue that the current ecological crisis calls for a new philosophy for theatre production that promotes more ecological (holistic, interconnected and symbiotic) ways of doing things. Related industries, such as architecture, product design and fashion have already shown us how a sustainable ethic can create exciting new processes and aesthetics. However, we are yet to fully grasp what a socially and environmentally conscious approach entails for the performing arts.

The ephemeral and specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only of valued for the duration of the performance season – often a matter of days or weeks – before they are discarded. Designers are trained to work towards Opening Night. How we ‘get there’ or what happens to our sets and costumes after the production ends is often neither a priority nor a consideration. Our focus as scenographers has typically been to create ‘experiences of impermanence’ – often extravagant spectacles with little regard for the prevailing permanence of unwanted remains (seen and unseen) which persist long after the event. Unlike typical theatre productions where the performance season is precedent, ecoscenography is comprised of three stages that are considered equally fundamental to the aesthetic consideration of the work – co-creation (preproduction), celebration (production) and circulation (post-production). Drawing upon literature across the ecological worldview (Hes & du Plessis 2015), systems thinking (Meadows 2008), biomimicry (Benyus 2002), ecomaterialism (Cohena and Duckert 2013; Alaimo 2010), regenerative development (Reed 2007) and others, the book provides an introduction to ecoscenography’s theoretical and practical framework, opening up new processes and aesthetics of theatrical design that enhance the social and environmental advocacy of our field.

Dr Tanja Beer is an ecoscenographer and community artist who is passionate about co-creating social gathering spaces that accentuate the interconnectedness of the more-than-human world. Originally trained as a performance designer and theatre maker, Tanja’s work increasingly crosses many disciplines, often collaborating with landscape architects, urban ecologists, horticulturists and placemakers to inspire communication and action on environmental issues. Her most celebrated project is The Living Stage: a global initiative that combines spatial design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible event spaces. The Living Stage has been realised in Castlemaine, Cardiff, Glasgow, Armidale, New York and Melbourne.

 

 

The Living Stage NYC by Pia Guilliatt

livingstage070817_dylanlopez-25Pia Guilliatt graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in 2017 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) majoring in Design Realisation. She is a set and costume designer and artist with an interest in sustainable and community theatre and is particularly fascinated by immersive theatrical spaces where different artistic disciplines intersect and collide. She relishes in the challenge of working within the parameters of environmental sustainability in her work, from model making and sculpting to costume and set design. It was Pia’s interest in sustainable design that led her to joining me in New York to work on the fifth Living Stage as part of her studies last year. Its just over a year since we were in the US, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to share her post about The Living Stage NYC with you. You can find out more about Pia’s work here.

I have always had a passion for the environment and a strong desire to make a positive impact in whatever area I am working in. I believe that the role of art is to educate and spread awareness about significant social and political issues and to actively partake in exploring solutions to these problems. It is not simply enough make a show about climate change if the creation process is still having a negative effect on the environment through the use of unsustainable materials and wastage. Similarly, the positive message promoted by a theatre piece that explores marginalisation of minorities in society is going to be severely diminished if the show itself is not even accessible to the group of people it supposedly represents.

As I become more and more exposed to theatre culture and practices through my studies in stage design, I have become increasingly aware of its exclusivity and general lack of engagement in environmental issues. I find it shocking, for example, that with all the information we have available about the irreversible effects of climate change, there was no acknowledgement of sustainable materials and practices or waste management anywhere in my production curriculum. For these reasons, I had become increasingly disillusioned with the theatre world and had begun questioning whether I could realistically pursue a design career if it meant sacrificing my passion for the environment. I had no idea that there were designers working specifically in the area of theatre and sustainability and had definitely never heard the term ‘ecoscenography’. So, when I came across Tanja’s work, it was like a breath of fresh air and a revival of my desire to work in this industry. She, like me (only much later in her career) had gone through a crisis of questioning the ethics of her work, which led her to instigating projects such as The Living Stage – a project which combines stage design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible performance spaces. In 2017, I was fortunate to assist Tanja on her fifth Living Stage project in New York, which she created in collaboration with Superhero Clubhouse; New York’s premier ecological theatre company.

dylanlivingstage71017-99The NYC Living Stage was a community project that took place in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in Meltzer Park, a small paved green space that neighbours a Seniors Centre and apartment block, both of which are owned and managed by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Instead of working within the parameters of a script or overriding artistic vision, our aim was to turn the asphalt lined park into a beautiful and thriving space that would connect and celebrate the local community through theatre and performance design.DYL_5446It was amazing to see how much thought went into the communications with the local seniors and children that were engaged in the project, making them feel like they were an integral part of the work, not just passive observers. This turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole experience – chatting to locals in the park, hearing their opinions on elements of the design, getting positive feedback, and sometimes blunt criticism. These brief exchanges revealed fascinating anecdotes and snippets of untold histories.

DYL_5637Tanja’s process relies on reclaimed materials and so is by nature spontaneous and devised. One of our highlights was visiting Materials for the Arts or MFTA (a free reclaimed materials warehouse for not-for-profit arts organisations). MFTA provided us with all of the paint we needed for the floor murals, timber frames, fabric for costumes, smaller prop items and some furniture. It was also where we found our 3500 red wooden rulers that we suspended from the trees in the space. This was the very first element of the design that was installed in the space and became a source of free publicity for the event as an increasing number of people were drawn into the park by the striking scene.

livingstage070817_dylanlopez-14IMG_8174The design also included transforming various items of furniture into vessels for plants. Working with reclaimed materials, while often tricky and fraught with splinters, provided many opportunities for creativity and resourcefulness and these items proved to be both the object and inspiration for many of the design elements. The luxury of a long installation period (over several weeks), allowed us to refine and tweak elements of the design in situ.

IMG_8255Many of the last minute solutions were discovered in this final week – such as the donation of trapezoid timber platforms that we re-configured into an angular stage for the performance. The installation period also became an accidental publicity stunt and an impromptu performance in itself, as seniors and passers began to stop to watch us work. This was evidence of the unexpected joys of community engaged theatre and public art, supporting the idea that its impact can be felt not just during the celebration but also during the making of the event.IMG_8727

The Living Stage was entirely successful in its goal – it brought the residents of the Senior Centre together and transformed an underutilised space into one that was bustling with activity and purpose. Tanja’s spontaneous design process proved a great learning opportunity for me, as I was able to have a genuine contribution to both the design and making process. The project introduced me to a world where the distinction between installation and performance; spectator and creator; and intention and outcome were blurred. The experience allowed me to expand my understanding of theatre arts and rethink my role as designer, artist or creator – opening up opportunities to combine my passion for sustainability with my creative skills and artistic ambitions.IMG_8775

All photos by Dylan River Lopez. A short film about The Living Stage NYC is available here.

 

 

 

The Living Stage (Lorne)

28783400_10156449114241833_2190674368227824009_nAfter an exciting season on the Lower East Side in New York, The Living Stage is returning home to Victoria (Australia) — this time to the coastal town of Lorne. A centre piece of the Lorne Sculpture Biennale, the project will provide a platform for celebrating the town’s vibrant and eclectic mix of flora and fauna, as well as hosting performances by local artists and musicians.

27072903_10156305866841833_7280562264386017950_nFor those of you that are new to The Living Stage, my original idea (conceived during my PhD in 2012) centred on creating a recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible performance space that combined stage design, horticulture and comunity engagement. Part theatre, part garden and part growing demonstration, the Lorne project will feature a portable plant-lined stage amongst a corridor of suspended botanical sculptures.

26904196_10156305173791833_2846022832535417635_nSince its inception in 2013, I’ve been incredibly lucky to see the project grow and take shape over multiple interations. The Living Stage (Lorne) is our sixth project and it is a concept that continues to travel the world. However, as each living stage evolves out of a direct response to the localities of site, ecology and community, no project is ever the same.

26903831_10156305866576833_5365080898599036411_nThe Lorne project has been created in collaboration with Ashlee Hughes, assistant designer Pia Guilliatt and the local community. Lorne residents, Helen Smith and Colin Leitch have been particularly instrumental in procuring soil, plants and objects for the stage, with more than 45 boxes of plants actively growing in preparation for the Lorne Sculpture Biennale Opening on the 17th of March.

The Living Stage will include a series of performances by local artists over the three weekends from 17. March to the 2nd April. I’m super excited to announce our  current line-up for The Living Stage performances: including local musicians and dancers that will respond to the unique space that surrounds them. Information about our artists are listed below:

Saturday 17th March: Mountain Grey (live music) 3-5pm

13391404_1177698585584102_678071114202492654_oImmerse yourself in the heart of the Blues on The Living Stage. Join us in celebrating an appreciation for all things nature through the lyrical poetry of front man Mike Robinson Koss (vocals/harmonicas/lyrics) and his dynamic ensemble. Complete with vintage guitar tones and bluegrass/ragtime style, this local band combines environmental themes with character and pizazz that will have you tapping your feet and asking for more.

Sunday 18th March: Randall Forsyth ‘In search of an acoustic shoreline’ (live music) 1-3pm

RandallRandall has a long history of playing guitar on the south west coast in various incarnations, most notably with the Beachniks since the early nineties. The Living stage provides a perfect opportunity for him to explore a more ambient side of his palette. Drawing on the natural sound elements of wind, ocean and forest, he hopes to compliment the natural soundscape rather than dominate with a series of acoustic guitar loops composed and created in real time. Links to contemporary songs may intercede in the overall context of exploring the tidal qualities and interwoven duality of landfall.

Helen Duncan in The Texture of It by Elanor Webber. Photography by Gregory LorenzuttiEASTER Weekend: 31st March & 1st April: Helen Duncan & Sofie Burgoyne (Dance performance) 9:30-2:30pm (final performance: 2pm)

Two highly skilled dancers will inhabit The Living Stage to grow an original performance piece over a two-day creative development period. Sculpted live during the Easter Weekend, these performers will develop a site-specific, experimental work in response to lush design of living plants. Bring your picnic, kids and your coffee, relax in front of the stage as these performers work hard to create your show. Stop by and have a chat to them and maybe offer some creative ideas. See what has evolved when they perform a final showing for you on Saturday 31st March and Sunday the 1st of April at 2pm.

 

Sponsored by: the Thrive Research Hub (Melbourne School of Design, The University of Melbourne), the Great Ocean Road Coast Committee and Graham Blashki & Evelyn Firstenberg. This project has been made possible by the community of Lorne, including: Helen Smith, Anne Nadenbousch, Colin Leitch, Sue Grant and Grace Nicholls. Assistant designer: Pia Guilliatt. Set builder: Tim Denshire-key. Plants donated by Batesford Nursery, Bushland Flora, Flinders Nursery, Tavistock Nursery, Tree Growers Advanced (TGA), Warners Nurseries, Rhodo Glen Nurseries. 

Photo credits:

Community workshops in Lorne. Photos by Tanja Beer and Grace Nicholls. 

Helen Duncan in The Texture of It by Elanor Webber. Photography by Gregory Lorenzutti’

Aesthetics of Impermanence: An Integration of Phenomenological and Ecological Aesthetics in Performance Design

Seachange_fig 3.1Sea_Change_fig.3.2Sea_Change_fig.3.3While much of my work these days is positioned outside of conventional theatre (in the realm of expanded scenography), my venture into sustainability began in more traditional spaces and practices. My latest academic paper: “The aesthetics of impermanence: an integration of phenomenological and ecological aesthetics in performance design” explores new ideas of aesthetics, using a design that I did for Sea Change at The Place, a contemporary dance venue in London in 2014. This post includes a moderated excerpt and summary from the recent paper. The full paper can be accessed here.

As a scenographer working across the fields of sustainability and performance design, the subject of impermanence and its impact upon environmentally responsible practice is both ubiquitous and complex. The ephemeral and specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only of value for the duration of the performance season—often a matter of days or weeks—before they are discarded. Even digital projection and lighting have hidden impacts that extend beyond a stage production. At first glance, the notion of designing for ephemerality while also considering a work’s extended ecological effects constitutes a certain irony—a contradiction of approaches rather than complementary perspectives that can enrich design aesthetics. However, whilst there are challenges to implementing sustainable approaches in theatre production, I propose that considering the impermanence of performance design and its aesthetic and environmental implications opens up exciting new avenues for exploration including new ways of designing for an ecological paradigm across disciplines.

Sea Change | Richard Osborne | Tanja BeerIn the field of the performing arts, considering the longer-term consequences of temporary design is rarely recognised as part of a scenographer’s responsibilities. Short-term decadence is generally not questioned in theatre design education, and is often encouraged if the budget allows for it. Scenographers are trained to work towards opening night. How we ‘get there’ or what happens to our sets and costumes after the production ends is often neither a priority nor a consideration. Our focus as designers have typically been to create ‘experiences of impermanence’—often extravagant spectacles with little regard for the more prevailing permanence of unwanted remains (seen and unseen) that persist long after the event.

Sea Change | Richard Osborne | Tanja BeerTraditionally, scenography has primarily been preoccupied with theatre design’s immediate visual, functional or experiential effects, with little regard for much else. While I propose that considering phenomenological aesthetics is key to any successful design, the ecological urgency of the last decade also urges us to consider the long-term impacts of our work. This entails developing a concern for the ecological impact of our ephemeral designs, including an interest in the often invisible (and more permanent) causations of material entanglement of sets and costumes—across bodies, substances and environments, well beyond the theatre. This shift brings up bigger questions of how we practice—of what it means to design for both the impermanence or ‘momentary spectacle’ of the theatre experience whilst also considering the more permanent and ecological implications of such work.

Sea Change | Richard Osborne | Tanja BeerIn my latest academic paper, “The aesthetics of impermanence: an integration of phenomenological and ecological aesthetics in performance design”,  I cogitate how engaging with both phenomenological and ecological notions of aesthetics can provide a context for ephemeral designs that also consider a longer view of effects. For example, how might the focus of visual and temporal aesthetics in the performing arts be expanded to acknowledge and incorporate a more explicit relationship with ecological values and ethics? Can the quality and success of theatre design be measured not only by the phenomenological or aesthetic experiences it yields, but also by the environmental and social systems to which it relates and contributes to over time? To consider a design’s greater ecological integrity, it is clear that scenography requires an extended aesthetic field that encompasses environmental, social and political advocacy.

Sea Change | Richard Osborne | Tanja BeerIn 2014, I conducted a practice-led research project through the design and development of Sea Change – a short dance piece about climate change by choreographer Richard Osborne – as part of the Resolutions Festival in London. Examining the relationship between materiality, ephemerality, sustainability and/in performance, my aim was to explore the potential of using both phenomenological and ecological aesthetics to guide the spatial design. By synthesising ideas of phenomenological and ecological aesthetics, Sea Change demonstrated how long term environmental considerations can be brought into the ephemerality of scenographic practice and how these two modes of consideration can also bring about a more unified design outcome.

Sea Change | Richard Osborne | Tanja BeerIncluding ecological aesthetics in theatre production and other temporary design practices requires that designers consider their co-extensive relationship with the living world beyond the experiential and ephemeral. This entails a concern for the ‘unseen’ effects of making temporary spaces and implies a kind of interaction with an ‘invisible design’ – that which may not be immediately evident in the making of the work (unrecyclable set elements, flame-retardant, spray paint and $2 shop props) but we acknowledge has causational potential to form a by-product of the ‘visible’ and ‘experienced’ (adding to landfill waste, air pollution and the production of child labour). At the same time, these ‘unseen’ consequences can also be acknowledged in a positive light, where the designer considers the evolutionary potential of a work to contribute to socio-ecological systems. This multifaceted and complex approach to performance design’s ‘aesthetics of impermanence’ remains at the crux of the sustainability challenge and will no doubt require substantial shifts in how we engage mentally as well as practically with the issue.

Sea Change | Richard Osborne | Tanja Beer

The full paper (including a summary of the learnings from Sea Change) can be viewed here.

 

On Expanded Scenography

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Expanded scenography is everywhere. On the streets, in hospitals, at airports, parks and shopping malls and most recently, in the form of knitted pink beanies and protest banners at political rallies. Space ‘performs’ in the everyday, quotidian, and the mundane, providing much inspiration for scenographers both in and beyond conventional theatre. While it could be argued that ‘expanded scenography’ has existed since the beginning of human culture, performance design’s focus on the ‘expanded’ over the last decade has opened up new approaches and artistic insights. Gone are the days when being a stage designer was restricted to ‘working on other people’s shows’ in traditional theatre spaces. Instead, scenography now represents an exciting pathway for imagining and inspiring new realities beyond the confines of the theatrebuilding and its (often elite) audiences (Beer, 2017).

I recently had the pleasure of editing the newest edition of the CSPA Quarterly on ‘Expanded Scenography’ with fellow ecological artists Ian Garrett and Meghan Moe Betiks. Expanded Scenography is an emerging area in the field of stage design that is being increasingly embraced.  But what is it? ‘Scenography’ is already a contested term, with multiple definitions, but essentially one that describes the art of creating performance environments. Since the last half of the 20th Century, the term ‘scenography’ has rapidly replaced ‘stage design’, ‘theatre design’ or ‘set design’ in contemporary performance scholarship, and now represents a progressive field that is moving far beyond traditional scenic illustration and naturalistic representation.

Publication previewI use the term ‘expanded scenography’ to acknowledge an increasing number of performance designers working outside of traditional theatre, and whose passion for socio-ecological issues is at the core of their practice. Expanded scenography uses scenographic strategies (i.e. spatial, narrative, dramaturgical, performative and multi-sensory) as a way of engaging with the world beyond the theatre. I like to think of expanded scenography as stage design that ‘has left the building’ to intersect with daily life. The idea of scenography ‘leaving the building’ can be both literal and metaphorical, but the central premise is one of questioning normative practices and re-imagining what scenography is and what it can become. It is not bound to the schackles of theatre buildings, disciplinary rhetoric and formal expectations. Here, the scenographer is seen as both a designer and artist in their own right (as well as a producer, facilitator and instigator of creative work).

Ecoscenography works across both in expanded scenography and ecoscenography, but it is in the ‘expanded’ realm that I am finding myself the most these days. Perhaps, it is because the ‘expanded’ allows me to be free to explore the possibilities of ecoscenography — to create new ways of working that integrate ecological thinking without the constraints of unsustainable conventions of the mainstream. For example, projects like The Living Stage and This is not Rubbish could be described as ecoscenography within the realm of expanded scenography.

8.JPGI hope that one day I can also create ecoscenographic designs in more traditional settings. I want to demonstrate that ecological projects can also take place in the beautiful theatres that first inspired me as a young artist. Regardless of whether designers want to work across conventional or in more expanded contexts, one thing is clear: opportunities for performance designers have never been more diverse and inspiring. I look forward to seeing more scenographers using their theatre training to explore the potential to expand their practice outside of traditional contexts in the coming years.

Our special issue on ‘Expanded Scenography’ features artists who have ventured outside of the more traditional boundaries of theatre-making and performance design to find their own way of responding to the complex problems that haunt us in today. While incredibly diverse, it is our collaborative desire for contributing to the wider world and being part of the political debate as artists in our own right that unites us in this issue. We hope that this publication opens up discussions that reframe traditional perceptions of scenography and introduces new audiences to its potential. The full journal edition can be accessed here.

More information about Expanded Scenography can be found here.

Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography

Happy 2017! I begin my first post for the year with an edited excerpt and introduction to my latest paper, ‘Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography’ (published in ASAP/Journal in 2016). The paper explores the role of the scenographer in seeking out the artistic potential of unconventional materials and discarded objects in and beyond the theatre. The full article can be downloaded here.

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Opening night at the theatre and the stage is awash with colour and spectacle, an awe-inspiring display of set and costume extravagance. Fast-forward eighteen months: this wondrous design has transformed itself into a mountainous ruin, oozing from a gluttonous skip deep in the bowels of the building. These contemporary “theatre ruins’” begin relatively harmlessly, hidden behind dusty staircases and at the back of storage units, crowding corridors and littering dressing rooms. But sooner or later, what doesn’t make it into the recycle bin is cast off to the land of “away,” where skips overflow into leaching landfills, and, inextricably, into our fragile ecosystems. It is here that we encounter the unsettling reality that our arts practices have consequences.

Image result for overflowing skipThe ephemeral and highly specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only valued for the duration of the performance season (often a matter of days or weeks) before they are discarded.  Designers are rarely contracted to consider the impact of their designs after opening night, or to build post-production possibilities into their creative processes. But does it need to be this way? Can the image of the skip as the final resting place of most theatrical designs instead be revised to find another endpoint where creativity and innovation can once again flourish? How might scenographers embrace cyclic rather than linear production processes to rethink the potential of art’s refuse?

Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography explores the role of the scenographer in seeking out the artistic potential of unconventional materials and discarded objects in and beyond the theatre. Here, extending the use of materials is not approached out of austerity but fuelled by a desire for invention and ingenuity—a way of rethinking design in response to ecological values. Moving beyond the transient nature of performance design, I ask whether post-production considerations can become an integral component of the design concept and thereby extend the legacy of the project. I consider how the temporarility of scenic design can be re-examined so that the “end-point” of production is no longer seen as waste, but becomes an opportunity (intellectual as well as material) for continuing the creative process itself.

Central to the investigation is a reconsideration of notions of value in and beyond the theatre. Instead of concentrating on waste reduction through the reuse of objects, the focus of this research is to examine how recycled materials and found objects can generate value and make a contribution beyond the restricted theatrical economy of production. For example, a set designer might seek out the untapped creative possibilities of readily available resources (such as stock items, found objects, and discarded materials), or materials that might ordinarily be rubbished or otherwise devalued, as a means of creating something of beauty and resonance that might also extend beyond the performance event.

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STRUNG performance (This Is Not Rubbish) using reclaimed salami netting, Central School of Speech and Drama, 2014  (London)

Reimagining the Ruins of Scenography begins by introducing the concept of ecoscenography, a practice I define as the integration of ecological thinking into all stages of scenographic production and aesthetics.  Rethinking conventional production processes, I examine contemporary thinking about material culture and agency through the scenographer’s practice of “making.” Using a practice-based research project—This Is Not Rubbish, which began in December 2012 and unfolded in four phases over a span of two years—I explore the journey of material rescued from the landfill and its capacity to create immersive performance spaces and wearable artefacts.

This Is Not Rubbish considers how post-production procedures may be considered an integral part of the scenographic event and its broader artistic project.  The project situates itself in the field of expanded scenography, where scenographic practices are considered outside of “conventional roles and sites of theatre”  to engage with broader issues of social and environmental advocacy. While This Is Not Rubbish was conducted primarily outside of traditional contexts of theatre making (to enable greater flexibility to explore novel ideas and approaches), the essay also considers potential applications of the project to conventional theatre design practices as well.

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This is Not Rubbish, journey of material