CfP: Performance Climates Expanded Scenography Panel

Call for papers, presentations and provocations

PSi ‘Performance Climates’ Expanded Scenography Panel

Conveners: Ian Garrett and Tanja Beer



In recent years, scenographic practice and performance design have increasingly moved beyond the theatre towards greater forms of hybridity. Traditional theatre spaces and contexts are being rapidly replaced in favour of participatory experiences, transdisciplinary practices, urban interventions and community platforms that also engage with social and environmental issues. Possibilities are expanding to use scenographic strategies (i.e. spatial, narrative, dramaturgical, performative and multi-sensory) as a way of engaging with the world beyond the theatre. In responding to the ‘Performance Climates’ conference theme, this panel seeks to consider our embodied and spatial relationship to global issues and provoke new forms of permeability and transdisciplinarity. We ask: Can scenographic methodologies and practices play a role in revealing ecological complexity – provoking emotional connections that elucidate the concept of environmental and social cohesion and resilience? The aim of the panel is to present an international group of hybrid researcher/creators exploring the boundaries of projects that problematize scenography and performance, and its relationship to greater ecologies and environments.

We welcome papers that intersect with the expanded realm of scenography and the Psi ‘Performance Climates’ theme ( including: performance, architecture, visual art, choreography, dramaturgy, new technologies, multimedia and community practice. We will be working towards an edited publication on this subject. Depending on interest, our aim is to set up a small symposium-like session on this topic.

If you would like to join us, please get in touch or submit a short abstract and bio to Ian Garret and Tanja Beer by Sunday the 13th of December.

Participants Confirmed:

Ian Garrett, York University (Toronto, ON, Canada)

Tanja Beer, University of Melbourne (Australia)

Gwenyth Dobie, York University (Toronto, ON, Canada)

Sydney Skybetter, Skybetter & Associates, Harvard, Boston Conservatory (Providence, RI)


Photo credit: Nick Roux (The Peoples Weather Report, Arts House 2014)

Ecoscenography: The Paradigm and Practice of Ecological Design in the Performing Arts

IMG_0682As the deadline of handing in my PhD draws closer, I’m excited about uncovering the potential of Ecoscenography. Here, I share a short summary of my research and the possibilities of contributive practice in the performing arts. 

Contemporary ecological concerns bring with them an opportunity for innovation; to rethink traditional practices and forge new approaches that not only strive for sustainability but also push intellectual and creative boundaries. My PhD research investigates the emerging paradigm of ecoscenography – a movement that seeks to integrate ecological principles into all stages of scenographic thinking and production in the performing arts. The thesis explores the potential of ecoscenography through a series of creative works projects that incorporate ideas of ecological thinking, community engagement and contributive practice.

A major focus is the notion of ‘positive legacies’. Moving beyond recycling and efficiency, my research seeks to investigate a more hopeful paradigm, one where scenographic practices are capable of generating positive and far reaching rewards. In my thesis, I ask: 1) how might designers engage with communities to play a central role in social and environmental advocacy and celebration?; 2) how can stories of place be communicated through scenography?, and; 3) can we create designs that not only enrich our audiences, but our communities and environments as well?’.

IMG_9096 - CopySince starting my candidature, a selection of my creative works have developed under the banner of The Living Stage – a global project that combines stage design, permaculture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance spaces. Part theatre, part garden and part food growing demonstration, The Living Stage considers ecological principles and environmental impact as opportunities rather than constraints: ethics that can illuminate, and be integral to aesthetics. At the end of the performances, my 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. As each living stage evolves out of a direct response to the localities of site, ecology and community, no project is ever the same.

TheLivingStage_climbing_the_edible_stageSince making its debut at the 2013 Castlemaine State Festival, The Living Stage concept has travelled to Cardiff and Glasgow (UK) and continues to generate interest and inspire other projects around the world. New creative teams have emerged, taking local ecological ideas to engage communities and create positive legacies. Each project is unique, but share clear commonalities: the celebration of multisensory elements, effective and multi-level engagement with audiences, and a legacy that exceeds the celebration of the project through performance. Through projects like The Living Stage, the investigation of ecoscenography has provided me with the opportunity to embark on a new course – to reimagine and cultivate stronger relationships with communities and ecosystems, and to invest directly in their future.

For more information about The Living Stage projects see link below:

Ecology & Theatre-Making (by Creative Carbon Scotland)

This post* comes from Creative Carbon Scotland who run ‘Green Tease’ arts and sustainability events every month. A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the Edinburgh Green Tease about the latest Living Stage project with Eco Drama’s Emily Reid and Edinburgh based designer Mona Kastell. Here is their lovely summary of our work.

This Edinburgh Green Tease was led by Eco-Drama, the schools-touring programme of the Whirlybird Theatre Company. Their aim is to use theatre, music, storytelling and creative workshops to engage, entertain and inspire people of all ages to care for our natural world. Director Emily Reid, alongside Set Designer Tanja Beer and Assistant Set Designer Mona Kastell, came to discuss their latest production Uprooted, which features Scotland’s first ever Living Stage.

The Living Stage is exactly as it sounds: a stage composed of living plants. It is recyclable, biodegradable, edible and created from locally found and reclaimed materials. Tanja Beer, author of this wonderful idea, has travelled all over the world working with local permaculturalists and theatre-makers to create living sets. Since its debut at the 2013 Castlemaine State Festival in Australia, the project has only grown (no pun intended) and has since travelled to Cardiff where it was part of the Trans-Plantable Living Room and now into Scotland.

The Living Stage for Uprooted was created as part of Eco-Drama’s ‘Out to Play’ programme, working with four Glasgow primary schools to design, grow and build the living theatre set. Having seen that many of these inner-city schools only have concrete playgrounds, the idea of a touring garden developed to give the children a chance to experience the natural world. They were involved in designing aspects of the production (plants growing out of a toilet proved particularly popular) and they planted the first seeds in March 2015.

Of course there are many challenges to creating a Living Stage and touring it in a sustainable manner. They’ve successfully tackled this latter problem by becoming the proud owners of an electric car and ‘The Magic Van’, which runs entirely on repurposed vegetable oil (the best stuff comes from Indian and Chinese takeaways by the way – chippy oil has been used too many times). Some of the other challenges include having stunt-doubles for some plants which have active performance roles (so that they each have a time to recuperate) and ensuring that there is enough time to be sustainable.

Timing is key in any sustainable production. 80% of a product’s sustainability is locked in at the design stage, with the earliest stages of the design process having the greatest influence over its environmental impact. Careful planning is needed and sufficient time granted to locate sustainable components and, in this case, to grow the plants needed in the production. Gardening is arguably the slowest of the performance arts and cannot be rushed – a sunflower doesn’t care when you’re supposed to go on tour, it will bloom when it pleases!

The final challenge is deciding what to do after the production has finished. The Living Stage is a ‘Zero-Waste’ set so nothing will be thrown away or discarded. Rather, it is going to return to one of the schools which helped plant it and be installed as a permanent feature – turning an ugly metal fence into a thing of beauty. It will be in a public, and therefore unprotected, space but the hope is that, because the community helped to create the garden, they will have a deeper connection to it (and a desire to care for it) than if it had merely been dumped upon them.

*This blog was originally posted on

See more images of Uprooted here

Wheat Paste and Other Sticking Points (By Isobel Hutton)

This post comes from Australian set and costume designer Isobel Hutton who tells us about her experience working with Big Green Theater in New York*. I first met Isobel a few years ago when I started my research into ecoscenography. Since then, Isobel has taken her passion oversees to explore opportunities with like-minded eco-individuals.

I recently had the pleasure of working on Big Green Theatre, which is an independent co production between Superhero Clubhouse and the Bushwick Starr Theatre. BGT is a unique project described as an annual eco-playwriting program and green theater festival celebrating environmental education, sustainability in the arts, and community enrichment. Fifth-grade students from Bushwick schools explore environmental topics with environmental experts, and then are guided in writing original eco-plays. Finished plays are then fully realized at The Bushwick Starr Theater during Earth Week, produced with an ensemble of professional actors, directors, and designers. Originally what drew me to this project was the holistic approach to theatre making where content, process, and production are connected to complex environmental problems. What I discovered was how challenging it is to produce a set and an ensemble of costumes wholly sustainably without compromising on ones ethos.

The design premise of this project was to have as little environmental impact as possible, therefore to use as little materials and resources in the most sustainable way. This was a huge mind shift for me, coming straight from working on a very commercial and hugely extravagant TV show, with a wealth of resources and money. I found myself automatically thinking “Oh we need blah blah, why don’t we just go and buy some?”

The problem with this thought process is you’re not thinking about where that resource is coming from, how environmentally friendly is it, is it local or has it a large carbon footprint, do we need to buy something new or can we use something we already have or second hand? An example of this was when I was charged with the task of making some fabric props. I was shown to the 60 year old sewing machine owned by the theatre, given a bag of fabric leftover from the making of the costumes and a list of props to make. The first hurdle was getting the sewing machine to work but also when I ran out of fabric, I initially didn’t realise I couldn’t just go shopping and buy more because everything had to be sourced sustainably.

I learnt many things on this project, about artistic process and ways to minimize a productions materials and resource usage. However I also realized how much I still have to learn and what a long road I have ahead.

Recycle + Upcycle

I find there is frequent confusion around the terms recycle and upcycle. I didn’t know the difference until recently myself! Recycle is the practice that takes an item and targets it for reuse, returning it back to the cycle of daily contribution to society, rather than discarding it to the trash. Upcycling is described by some as reusing a material without degrading the quality and composition of the material for its next use. In this way upcylcing is considered more sustainable because the material is moved back up the production chain instead of recycling which just prolongs a materials life cycle, before it inevitably ends up in the bin as something else.

The foam used to build the main structure of the set for BGT was a great example of upcycling. It came free as leftovers from another art project and as long as it was kept clean and free of contaminants, it could be returned to the manufacture to be broken down and remolding back to virgin foam again. For this reason, we had to be careful what we used to hold the foam together and to hold the fabric covering over the top. Hence I spent many hours making over 20 gallons of wheat paste which we used as our primary adhesive. The problem with wheat paste however- comprising of only flour and water, is that it doesn’t preserve. So half way through our build week, the set designer and myself found ourselves elbow deep in fermenting goop that smelt like vomit with a tinge of peppermint oil*.

There are always shops and companies that either sell or give away recycled materials to the arts. Most of the fabric used for the set and costumes of Big Green Theatre came from these kinds of places. The interesting thing about them as a materials source is you never know what you’re going to find. This can be a blessing and a curse, depending on the design…and your frame of mind.

I believe recycling and upcycling are a great way to expand your repertoire and knowledge. Thinking outside the box is key, as this pushes you to consider objects and materials in an abstract way; what can I repurpose to get my desired aesthetic?

* This blog was originally posted on Isobel’s own website:

* *To keep the mice from eating the set!

Beyond the Skip: The Art of Resourcefulness (by Alice Hoult)

FullSizeRenderSet and costume designer Alice Hoult kicks off our first ecoscenography guest blog series with her journey of resourcefulness. I first met her at a Julie’s Bicycle sustainability event in London in 2013 and we have since joined forces on an ecological initiative that we will be launching in the coming months (watch this space!). Alice’s commitment to rethinking unsustainable practices is infectious – she gives you hope that we can all do our bit to inspire change. I can relate so much to her story.

I started thinking about ecoscenogaphy a couple of years ago. It came as a fairly sudden realisation – the feeling that there was something not quite right in my creative practice. Growing up, I always had a strong affinity with the environment and have increasingly become more conscious about reducing my impact. However, in the past I’ve felt that my eco-mindedness has had to take a backseat when it came to my working-life.

I was confronted with this realisation whilst working on a theatre production a couple of years ago. Leading up to tech week, it became apparent that we would need to build a large MDF ‘wall’ on stage in addition to the set that I had already designed. I ran up to the director and production manager and firmly protested this decision but they simply looked at me like I was mad. You see, I’d tried so hard to utilise the lovely exposed-brick wall and concrete floor of the theatre in my design (and in doing so, avoiding the creation of unnecessary waste). I realised that while my mind had already jumped ahead to the disposal stage of the set, no one else’s had.

Unfortunately, we did end up throwing the newly constructed wall in a skip at the end of the production. This left me with a bitter taste: I would never incur such wastage in my personal life, so why should I have to in my professional one? It got me thinking about how and why these things happen in theatre – the time, financial pressures and the desire to please seem to be the main ones, plus the fact that no one wants to be a ‘No’ person. This prompted me to do some research – to find other designers out there thinking the same things as me and also doing something about it. Finding a community of like-minded designers has made me more confident to speak up about my own eco values. It doesn’t always work out, and it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of the many inevitable failures. Change is incremental and we must accept that it’s a long path to sustainability for an entire industry. Even so, I believe that the best change starts from the ground up.

Luckily, I’ve meet some really inspiring collaborators. Director Poonam Brah, actress Dina Mousawi and I started 3Fates Theatre a few years ago. Our style is born out of a DIY aesthetic where we mix high-tech and low-key materials, objects and imagery. Through our productions I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with found objects, reclaimed and recycled materials. For example, the set for our last scratch performance was built out of blue plastic milk-crates which we borrowed from local groceries and returned the next day for collection by the milk delivery company.

I’ve found that resourcefulness and eco-consciousness often go hand-in-hand. For example, I was once given the task of creating an entire library set for a community project in Peckham with Time to Change (a charity who works with mental health issues). Borrowing library furniture from local schools and buying books from local charity shops saved us a large portion of our budget. After the show, some books were given to cast and crew, while the theatre used the rest to make a library of their own in the corner of their bar area. Nothing went in the bin!

FullSizeRenderNonetheless, I’ve found that things can also swing wildly from success to failure. For example, I recently designed a show about the life of the painter and poet Khalil Gibran. The idea for this set was that a simple timber construction (made to look like artists canvases stacked together) could also become a projection surface. During our London season, everything went swimmingly: I hired fine-artists to make the stretchers for the canvases which were also given back to them after the production for re-use. All great (!) until the show proceeded to tour various Gulf States a number of times. The Gulf is possibly the hardest place in the world to make people care about the environment (It’s all tiny plastic bottles and air conditioning…don’t get me started!). Unfortunately, the set was so simple to build that the producer decided to build it afresh in each venue rather than spend money transporting it. I’m uncertain as to which is better…

I’m beginning to find a way to balance my ecological values with my creative professional role. There is still much to explore. A group of eco-conscious designers (Tanja Beer, Andrea Carr and Bethany Wells) and I are working towards creating a pledge – a sort of ‘eco-stamp’ to help theatre practitioners to more effectively communicate their desire to work in an environmentally conscious way. I’m also excited about our next 3Fates project which is about the River Thames. It is still in its planning stages but the starting point for my design will be to try and source as much of the set as possible from the river itself.

I think that incorporating sustainability into the planning stages of my work has helped me define my creativity further, rather than placing limitations on it. I’ve always had an innate desire to make work that comes from the world around me. Using found objects and recycled materials also chimes with my own personal aesthetic.

When it comes to stage design, I have no idea if I have a ‘style’ or not, but I always try to strip away from extraneous objects, ideas and materials during the creative process. I want everything that passes in front of the audience’s eyes to be loaded with meaning, carefully chosen and essential. The opportunity to play with the expectations of audiences – that gap between the audience and the stage into which the audience pours their own imagination – is what fascinates me most about performance-making. And I’m learning as I go that innovative and exciting ideas don’t have to cost the earth.

Alice Hoult is a set and costume designer based in London. She is a founding member of 3Fates theatre company, currently developing work with the National Theatre Studio, London, and with whom she took part in the Copeland Fellowship at Amherst College, Massachusetts USA. Their shows RETURN and To Close Your Eyes is to Travel have been seen at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Aat international Theatre Festival (Amman, Jordan) The Yard Theatre, Tara Arts and Rich Mix in London.

The Path To Sustainability

JIM-DENEVAN-02People often ask me how I became interested in sustainability and design, and what triggered my decision to commence a PhD on the subject. Looking back, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single moment. Was it seeing my set thrown in a skip one too many times? Or perhaps feeling physically ill after using several cans of enamel spray paint to change the colour of a prop? Or watching several native trees being cut down solely for the purpose of stage decoration? No doubt each of things played a role.

warm_in_winter_05However, like many designers, my interest in sustainability has grown out of an increasing appreciation of the scale of the environmental challenges our society faces.

I was always passionate about environmental issues. At certain times in my life I worked for environmental charity and advocacy groups, and became involved in a variety of community engaged projects. I tried hard to be a good environmental citizen in my day-to-day life; buying food from local suppliers, taking public transport, turning off lights and recycling. Yet when I walked in the theatre these basic practices went out the window. Theatre, it seemed, gave me a licence to do the things I wouldn’t do at home. Perhaps it was because I was never taught to critique my practices in the theatre from an environmental perspective, or query the consequences of my design. Decadence wasn’t questioned in my era of design education, and in fact it was encouraged if the budget would allow for it. We were trained with the end result in mind. How we got to opening night or what happened to our sets and costumes after the production ended was simply not a priority.

warm_in_winter_02And then about 6 years ago I had the opportunity to work as an exhibition designer at the Melbourne Museum (in my home state of Victoria, Australia). The job came with a unique selling point: a team of environmentally conscious graphic, interior and industrial designers who were keen to put sustainability at the heart of what they did. While the design studio was still in the early stages of implementing a sustainability plan, the atmosphere was alive with possibility and activity. This was a completely new world for me, and one that profoundly changed my perspective.

warm_in_winter_03Part of my job at the museum was to conduct research into sustainable strategies and products – a challenging task for any designer, especially one with no prior knowledge or experience in this area. It was here that I caught the research bug, because once I started, it was like opening a Pandora’s box. By the time my job at the Museum ended and I returned to stage design, I had already become acutely aware of the disconnect between my values and my actions. Suddenly I had lots of questions about the materials, products and life-cycle of my sets and costumes. I realised that despite only scratching the surface on the sustainability agenda at the Museum, I already knew too much. I couldn’t go back.

warm_in_winter_01At that time, there wasn’t much available on ecological design for performance. I clearly remember searching the web, desperate for information, and being somewhat dismayed at the lack of resources on the subject. While I found mountains of material on environmentally sustainable practice from other design fields, there seemed to be a gaping hole when it came to theatre. Why weren’t we thinking about the consequences of what we design? Why had I only started to question it myself now? This questioning sparked a series of investigations into my own practice and finally the commencement of my PhD on the paradigm and practice of ecological design in the Performing Arts in 2011. And here I am, more than 3 years in, still riffling through the Pandora’s box of challenges and opportunities that ecological design presents.

But of course I’m not the only one who has caught the sustainability bug. Theatre has come a long way since the early days of my sustainable research in 2008. Today, there are many initiatives around the world that focus on sustainability and performance.

warm_in_winter_07There are amazing people all over, doing small things with big ideas, and starting to change the way we make theatre. There is a whiff of revolution in the air. Take the 2013 World Stage Design Congress as a case in point. Even just 6 years ago, it would have been unimaginable that the Congress would have its own sustainability section. But sure enough in Cardiff that is exactly what they had.

Seemingly small steps such as these are in fact giant leaps for this burgeoning new field, and it is intensely exciting to be a part of it. It is true, there are plenty of challenges ahead. But my hope is that the Performing Arts will ultimately accept environmental sustainability as a key value, and that “ecological design” will one day be synonymous with “good design”. Design that is in tune with our values, and considers its relationship to our environment and future. It might seem utopian now, but we are definitely on the right path.

warm_in_winter_06My first project investigating ecological design for performance was for “One is Warm in Winter and the Other Has a Better View” with Platform Youth Theatre in 2009 (shown here). The design featured an installation of over 700 apples, the majority of which were suspended from the ceiling. The apples were sourced from local farmers and were donated to the Collingwood Children’s Farm after the season ended. Care was taken to avoid the use of glues or toxic substances in the hanging and preservation of the apples; instead apples were strung with fishing line attached to screws that held the apples securely in place. After 10 days in the theatre, a lovely apple scent developed and filled the space, creating a surprising multi-sensory layer to the production

Theatre Photos: Sophie Neate

This post was originally published as part of Julie’s Bicycle blog posts.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Ecoscenography Book List (Part One)

For those of you wanting to learn more about the ideas behind ecoscenography, here is a short list of books that I recommend to get started. These are the 5 key texts (many from broader fields of architecture and design) that have inspired me personally to embrace a more ecological ethic in my work. They focus on hopeful and motivating ideas that encourage positive action in a world of often challenging circumstances. Many will be available at local libraries. Enjoy!

C2C-English_med-e1365807753836Cradle to Cradle – Michael Braungart and William McDonough (2002): This is “the book that changed my life” (yep, this is no joke!). I read it when I first started my PhD and it changed my whole perspective on what ecological design could be. Before I picked up Cradle to Cradle in 2011, I thought ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ was all I could do to combat environmental issues…and then, this book came along and opened me up to a whole new way of looking at the world. While the book is becoming somewhat dated now, it is still an excellent, highly positive and hopeful start to thinking beyond ‘doing more with less in order to minimise damage’. Cradle to Cradle also became the premise for The Living Stage concept. If you could read one book on this list, this would be it!

Continuous_improvement1-384x615The Upcycle – Michael Braungart & William McDonough (2013): Once you’ve read Cradle to Cradle (and are hungry for more), you might also enjoy McDonough and Braungart’s latest edition on designing for abundance. Building on the authors’ former book, The Upcycle talks about design as a tool for positive impact, starting with the idea that “upcycling eliminates the concept of waste”. A Fascinating book with lots of tangible examples that makes you want to get up from your sofa and start making things happen.

41jjT8SapyLEcological Design – Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan (2007): While a little more technical and architectural in focus, this book is a wonderful introduction to the field of ecological design and an excellent resource for those wanting to understand systems-based approaches. Ecological Design is all about enriching the connection between humans and natural systems. Van der Ryn and Cowan’s five ecological principles –Solutions Grow from Place, Ecological Accounting Informs Design, Design with Nature, Everyone Is a Designer, Make Nature Visible – were also used as a guiding structure for The Living Stage design. This book is a much loved (and suitably dog-eared) book on my shelf. The ecological design principles and their application to scenographic practice are also explored in my latest paper: The Living Stage: A Case Study in Ecoscenography.

9781138800625Designing for Hope: Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability – Dominique Hes & Chrisna du Plessis (2015): Fresh off the press, this is a ground-breaking book that continues to inspire me. Designing for Hope introduces the reader to the ‘ecological world view’ and demonstrates ways in which we might begin to engage with positive legacies and abundant futures. The book explores notions of contributive practice, Regenerative Development, Biophilic Design, Biomimicry, Permaculture and Positive Development (all with tangible examples). It asks: ‘How can projects focus on creating a positive ecological footprint and contribute to community?’; How can we as practitioners restore and enrich the relationships in our projects?; and ‘How does design focus hope and create a positive legacy?’. Inspiring!

 71LbfEMQDwLThis Changes Everything – Naomi Klein (2014): A large tome and not for the faint-hearted, This Changes Everything is a must-read for anyone concerned with Climate Change and hoping to understand more about the psychology of denial and it’s link to capitalism. “It is always easier to deny reality,” writes Naomi Klein, “than to allow our worldview to be shattered”. Beautifully researched, passionate and intelligently written, this book is a permanent fixture on my bedside table at the moment.

Growing Stages: A Lesson in EcoZenography?

The Trans-Plantable Living Room (Cardiff)

Comedian W.C. Fields is famous for saying “never work with children or animals”. He never mentioned anything about plants, but perhaps, with a little coaxing, he might have included them too. As a stage designer investigating ecological practice, designing with plants seemed like an obvious place to begin. But with little to no gardening experience, and nightmare visions of botanical armageddon on the day before opening night, designing with plants was a daunting prospect.

Fast forward a couple of years and I can happily report that designing with plants is not just ‘do-able’, but is also extremely rewarding from both a creative and personal perspective. Since 2012, I’ve worked on several plant-based projects under the banner of ‘The Living Stage’ – a project that combines stage design, permaculture and community engagement to create a recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance spaces. Part experiment, part theatre and part garden, the project has had three iterations since its initial inception: first as a portable garden amphitheatre (Castlemaine State Festival, Australia); second, as part of the creation of a Trans-Plantable Living Room (World Stage Design, UK); and third as a sound art installation for The People’s Weather Report (Arts House, Australia).

The People’s Weather Report (Melbourne)

There’s no doubt that each Living Stage project has been a steep learning curve in gardening and ecological practice. Perhaps the biggest challenge was learning to collaborate with nature on its own terms. Unlike most of my other stage projects, I couldn’t ask the plants to ‘hurry up’ or ‘slow down’ or request that the sunflowers kindly ‘hold off from flowering until opening night’. Integral to this shift in thinking was the (sometimes harsh) realisation that nature could not be argued or negotiated with. Instead, I had to find ways to adapt my design to work in synchronicity with nature’s processes. And while this might sound tedious at first, this is also (as I soon discovered) what was most exciting about the work.

The Living Stage (Castlemaine)

As a stage designer, I love nothing more than to see my designs evolve from a tiny sketch into the final physical design. However, nothing beats the magic and exhilaration of planting the seeds that grow into a stage which also attracts an ecosystem of its own. With this feeling comes the satisfaction of creating a design that can be literally consumed by the community; its physical structures may become their garden beds, its plants become their food, and its waste become their compost. In this context, waste is not something that ends up in landfill, but instead becomes a valuable resource.

Working with living systems allows us to see ourselves as part of nature, to experience the environment not as something to tame or control, but rather as an extension of ourselves. Plants have a way of bringing us (if you’ll pardon the pun) back down to earth. By growing things we learn to slow down, to test the moisture of the soil, take pleasure in the diversity of colours, textures and scents, welcome the presence of bees and rejoice in the first drops of rain. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Horticultural Therapy – a form of therapy that uses gardening to improve people’s social, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being – is on the rise. I now regularly use ‘ecoscenography’ to describe projects such as The Living Stage. But I’m starting to wonder; is ecoZenography a more apt description?

Photos by: Valeria Pacchiani, Nick Roux and Gisela Beer. The Living Stage projects would not have been possible without the support of many wonderful people. Please see project links for full credits.

Green is the new black

Imagine this: a performance installation that purifies water, a biodegradable set and costume design printed in 3D, an edible stage that feeds a community, a set design that restores native grasslands…Could this be the future of stage design in an environmentally stressed world?  Absolutely. As a stage designer investigating ecologically conscious design, I believe that working sustainably can encourage progressive thinking and innovation in the Performing Arts.

As a new era of environmental awareness is dawning, I find myself at the turning point of an exciting cultural shift. But I’m not alone. Stage designers all over the world are beginning to heed the call of sustainability, and along the way discovering the potential of ecological practice. In a recent article in The Guardian, Julie’s Bicycle’s Sholeh Johnston highlighted some of the projects that are placing sustainability at the heart of the creative process. From bicycle powered shows, to growing edible stages and creating body suits that capture kinetic energy, it is clear that stage designers are starting to re-think the way we make things from an ecological perspective. As Johnston revealed, a production designed on the principles of low or positive impacts – such as upcycling materials and investigating new energy sources – is also capable of exciting new aesthetics and artistic insights. Gone are the days when being green was considered ‘boring’ or ‘tedious’. Instead, we now are starting to see ecological thinking as a valuable pathway to innovation in the Performing Arts.

Yet, until recently, there has been a perception that environmental sustainability and stage design are not compatible. Stage designers are traditionally taught to serve not to innovate. After all, a stage designer’s priority is on creating a world that supports the dramatic work. It is less concerned with recycled materials or sustainable approaches unless it serves the vision of the piece. Hence, sustainability has not been recognised as part of the designer’s purpose; the view has been that if sustainability doesn’t serve the piece in some clear and tangible way, it has no place. Furthermore, sustainability has often been viewed as yet another limitation on the designer’s already constrained vision. Stage designers work within strict parameters – tight budgets, hard deadlines and the juggling of a director’s desires and expectations. Considering the ecological consequences of our creations has been viewed as just one more limitation to add to the list.

Even with a strong desire to pursue a sustainable agenda, designers have sometimes faced stiff opposition. There has been little support from producers, directors and venues to assist the designer in adopting a more environmentally conscious process, or even outright dismissal of the need.

Early this year, in an effort to overcome this legacy, Julie’s Bicycle hosted two workshops on sustainable productions in Northern England as a platform to discuss the possibilities and constraints of embedding sustainable practices into theatre making. Both the Newcastle and Manchester events were attended by a wide range of theatre professionals and students, and included a conversation with a panel of practitioners who had been exploring sustainable practice for some time. The discussions focused on open resource sharing; on how the theatre community might work together to open channels of communication and spread ecological know-how, to share props, costumes, spaces and storage, and to engage with international artists leading the sustainability movement. Participants were clearly disturbed by the image the ‘skip’ as the final resting place of most theatrical designs, and expressed a strong desire to find new homes and uses for design elements post-production. More broadly, the workshops demonstrated a rising interest in how sustainable practice can create positive outcomes.

Indeed, the level of commitment from participants at these events was inspiring. Theatre practitioners of all disciplines are challenging old ways of doing things in favour of greener processes and outcomes. It is clear that the theatre landscape is transforming. Larger theatre companies and festivals (e.g. Manchester International Festival, National Theatre of Wales, The Young Vic) are demonstrating that change is possible, and designers with sustainable credentials are becoming increasingly desirable. Organisations such as the Association of Lighting Designers (ALD) have already established environmental committees, while designers and sustainability advocates, Paule Constable, Soutra Gilmour and Donyale Werle continue to prove that being ‘green’ in the high art and commercial sector is not only possible but can reap rich rewards.

In this new age of environmental consciousness, there is nothing preventing designers from being at the forefront of holistic, innovative and greener thinking. This cultural shift presents us all with an opportunity to question and evaluate the ecological impact of our own practices. For environmentally conscious theatre makers, this is not merely a question of reducing our carbon impact; it is also necessary for us to remain relevant and progressive within our art form. My own ecological design projects are as diverse and varied in aesthetics as any design challenge. I have made sets with reclaimed salami netting, edible plants and 3D projections. I have worked in both conventional and non-conventional theatre environments, investigating new technologies and aesthetics. Exploring ecological innovation has opened up new channels for thinking and dreaming. In my mind, the ecological future of stage design is about thriving. It’s a wonderful opportunity that we can only embrace.

This post was published in the Society of British Theatre Designers Blue Pages and on Julie’s Bicycle’s guest blog

Download the Julie’s Bicycle Sustainable Production guide by clicking here.

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Introducing ‘ecoscenography’

Living_StageLike ecology, scenography is concerned with inter-relationships – the interactivity between architecture, light, sound, bodies and the senses; a metaphor for the ‘ecosystem’ of total theatre experience. However, I propose that a combination of the two terms ‘ecology’ and ‘scenography’ suggests something more comprehensive and far reaching than the purely metaphorical. To be ‘ecological’ means being concerned with the wider effects of scenographic production, to consider how it affects and relates to the broader ecosystem (beyond the theatre). It entails incorporating principles of ecology to create recyclable, biodegradable, restorative and/or regenerative performance spaces. This is intrinsic to ecoscenographic practice.

At the very core of combining ecology with scenography is the understanding of the interface, or the connections between living systems and human design. Ecological thinking acknowledges that materiality and environments are mutually-dependent in making beings, things and places – it recognises humans as part of nature’s system, rather than a separate entity to use nature at its disposal. Being ‘ecological’ means integrating an awareness that no decision stands on its own: every choice is intertwined with social, environmental, economic and political consequences that are far reaching and capable of having long term effects. Ecoscenography demonstrates that those consequences need not be negative; that the choices that ecoscenographers make can just as easily achieve positive social, political and environmental outcomes, and that this can inspire new modes of artistic practice and engagement.

Ecoscenography is inspired by ideas of ecological performance outlined above and is not to be confused with the superficiality of nature inspired set decoration or the use of the natural environment as a scenic backdrop. While aesthetics are important, the ecoscenographer is also concerned with the inherent ecological value of his or her design intentions. This means that the quality and success of the scenography is not only measured by its aesthetic outcome, but also by how it relates and contributes to social, environmental, economic and political systems beyond the theatre. While ecoscenography uses ecological thinking to explore new aesthetics and artistic paradigms that are inspired by nature, it is also interested in scenographic practice as a form of activism, used for positive social and environmental change. As a result, the ecoscenographer can easily take on an advocacy role in challenging and bettering performance practice.

The appeal of ecoscenography is that it isn’t  a style, but rather a form of engagement with nature or ecology that is not bound to any particular methodology. It is a holistic approach to considering environmental impacts that is also applicable across a range of platforms, including both high art and community sectors. The ecoscenographer acknowledges that the creative process is not straight forward, but is willing to explore uncharted territories, undergo new measures not only in design but also in personal  and creative development.

While ecoscenography may seem like a daunting concept, this is ultimately where the challenge and excitement lies. Adopting an ecoscenographic approach allows the scenographer to imagine ideas well beyond the performance – to consider how ideas of ‘creative expansion’ can make a contribution to the wider world. Ecoscenography works from the premise that there is nothing more fulfilling than connecting to the living world in a way that is fundamental, positive and inspiring.