#13: Ecoscenography: Conversations on Sustainable Theatre Design and Production
In an age of increasing environmental awareness, we need a new philosophy for performing arts production that not only acknowledges and mitigates our impact but also harnesses ecological and creative potential. The emerging concept of Ecoscenography or ecological design for performance provides a glimpse into theatre making in a climate changed world. At the heart of Ecoscenography is the notion of exploring new environmental aesthetics and artistic paradigms that provide a captivating vision for the future of the performing arts across a diversity of contexts.
My guests for the January discussion were leading ecological designers and theatre makers across Europe, Britain and Australia to discuss how sustainability has transformed their practices. The panellists included Silje Sandodden Kise from Norway, Tomáš Procházka from the Czech Republic, Andrea Carr from England, and Imogen Ross from Australia. The aim of the conversation was to examine Ecoscenography in practice, including the challenges and opportunities that an ecological approach to theatre production brings. These discussions were based on my recently published book: Ecoscenography: An Introduction to Ecological Design for Performance.
To gain an understanding of the current ecological turn in the performing arts, each guest was invited to share a glimpse into their work before the wider discussion began.
Andrea Carr is an eco-scenographer, artist, performance maker and facilitator. She is the co-founder of Ecostage online initiative. Her work has been included in World Stage Design 2017 in Taipei, The Society of British Theatre Designers’ Staging Places exhibition at the V&A in London, 2020, and has been selected for inclusion in World Stage Design 2023 exhibit in Calgary. Andrea’s practice explores imaginative ways to open up conversations and bring vitality and creativity to ecological and social themes. This ambition has been realised through the initiative of the ecostage platform. Ecostage is an online platform and go-to place for performing arts practitioners with the aim of building a collective momentum for intersecting ecological principles as well as sharing inspiring case studies, resources and galvanising community connection. Andrea’s work not only considers the principles of the 7 R’s which includes refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink, reimagine and regenerate, but also makes space for fostering more-than-human well-being. A key part of her approach is to “find what makes your eco-heart sing” as opposed to simply asking “what makes your heart sing”. She argues that this specificity in questioning emphasizes the interconnectivity between creativity and planet-human well-being.
Much of Andrea’s practice entails working with recycled materials in a closed-loop process and creating exquisite sculptural costumes and eclectic artefacts that are designed for longevity, re-engagement and/or re-exhibition that extends their lifespan long after the performance event. A highlight of her work is the UK production of Stuck by Hoax Theatre which explored the cultural paralysis around the changing climate through a subterranean landscape. Using abandoned festival camping equipment as a valuable resource, Andrea incorporated a materials-led process to designing soft clown-like costume sculptures and scenery to depict a world of ecological collapse.
Tomáš Procházka is a Czech performer, director, puppeteer, musician and improviser, sound artist, teacher and journalist. He is founder of performance group Handa Gote research and development and a member of many musical projects in the field of free improvisation. He is the artistic director of theatre Alfred in the Courtyard in Prague and a teacher at the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre of the Prague Theatre Academy. Tomáš’s work with Handa Gote Theatre often depicts absurdist utopian or prehistoric societies where humans live in peace with their environment. Here, language is deconstructed and re-explored anew through puppetry, live cinema and physical theatre with a focus on staging rituals that promote a sense of healing. Handa Gote’s work has traditionally been focused on the use of new technologies. However, more recently, the group gave themselves the challenge to only work with analogue equipment such as old film or slide projectors as well as handmade microphones upcycled from plastic drink bottles.
Handa Gote DIY approach to theatre-making embraces readily available ‘behind the scenes’ equipment such as lighting rigs, microphone stands, staging tools, cables, furniture, scotch tapes as part of the performance aesthetic. Their work is always site-specific to the theatre space and performances often begin with an empty stage that is then transformed through the gradual accumulation of everyday objects brought in by performers, including empty packaging, as well as broken and used things. Along with exposing the inner mechanisms or workings of the theatre production, technicians, lighting designers and musicians are also revealed as a crucial part of the show’s aesthetics. Here, revealing the labour of illusion-creation is an essential and active part of the ecological integrity that lies behind the theatre experience.
Imogen Ross is a designer, teacher, visual artist and maker of things. Her theatre designs have toured Australia since 1994 and she often builds her visual stories by working closely with diverse communities. She currently runs the Green Conversations series for the Australian Production Design Guild, where she interviews designers promoting sustainable choices for live performance and screen across Australia. Imogen’s work is incredibly diverse. She has built extraordinary sets and costumes from an array of found objects and reclaimed materials and always ensures that these elements are re-circulated after the production ends. This includes everything from using recycled cardboard boxes to depict the psychological trauma of the Jewish diaspora to creating a welcoming garden environment for an Iraqi-Australian food and storytelling event.
A critical foundation to Imogen’s work was her role as Co-Master of Wardrobe with Jenny Tiraman for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 2003. During this time, Elizabethan techniques of staging from the 16th and 17th Century (without the use of modern equipment, dyes, tools and sewing machines) became the primary mode of elevating the authenticity of the production. This included restructuring and altering many of the incredible historic garments found in stock. The experience had a powerful impact on Imogen, who saw how one could galvanise a community around an extraordinary and seemingly impossible vision. While the approach was met with some critique, Imogen likened the experience to the difference between the cheap chocolate that you get at the local supermarket and Belgian handmade chocolates: they both look like chocolate but the taste in your mouth is totally different. This experience was also articulated by the actors, who highlighted how being on stage in traditionally made clothing (which had been hand sewn and hand dyed) completely transformed and enriched their performance.
Silje Kise is a Norwegian freelance scenographer, costume designer and theatre maker. She has been working since 2008 across a variety of genres, including theatre, dance, music based and cross-disciplinary projects. Silje loves to explore new materials, such as plastic waste, pine cones or discarded linens from asylum resource centres. She believes that everything can turn into scenography.
One of Silje’s foundational works in Ecoscenography was Sustain, a spectacular multi-venue immersive musical experience which premiered at the Bergen International Festival, in Norway in 2017. The hauntingly beautiful visual-aural design was created entirely from plastic waste, including instruments, sets and costumes, to highlight overconsumption, and the unforeseen effects of plastic waste and consumer society.
Since working of Sustain, Silje continues to explore sustainable materials and strategies in dynamic ways. Recently, she created a design for a touring production that travels by train, with the entire set and costume elements transported in a couple of suitcases. The design includes a striking garment made out of pinecones which Silje collected over a year to also enhance the sound of the production.
Silje’s site-specific design for another work, The Hammock Concert was a direct result of the pandemic restrictions. The concert took place in the forest, with audiences lying in their own hammocks where the natural environment took centre stage.
While Silje works in many experimental contexts, she is also committed to integrating ecological practice in more traditional theatre venues. Much of her work for larger organisations includes using less resources but to maximum effect. While this can be challenging, Silje takes great pride in sourcing materials from other theatre organisations or productions and making use of existing costumes from stock with impressive results.
While the range of work showcased by the guests was incredibly diverse, they also demonstrated distinct similarities, such as: taking pride in being resourceful and finding joy in creatively repurposing found objects and recycled materials. These ways of working were celebrated as an essential part of the scenographic process and experience. Beyond interrogating unsustainable ways of doing things, Ecoscenography is seen as an adventure – one of active discovery. In summary, an ecological approach to stage production is one that is authentic and resourceful, where the happenstance of finding real materials, and embracing their character, textures and stories take precedence and the power of pared back storytelling is king.
Andrea and Imogen credited their childhoods as being influential to their foray into Ecoscenography. As children, they were encouraged to cultivate a state of curiosity and imagination with the world that surrounded them. This child-like spirit has allowed them to engage with the improvisational nature of found materials, especially as young artists who had little money or means. Their early ventures into theatre making demonstrated how inventiveness comes from using fewer resources and it is often surprising how little is needed to transport an audience into another world.
For Imogen, design school rapidly became a place of unlearning the serendipitous place-based skills that drew her to theatre in the first place. Instead, as Imogen explained, “designers were expected to ‘be fabulous’” and working with discarded objects and recycled cardboard simply did not fit a theatre institution’s vision of ‘high budget aesthetics’. This mantra of ‘fabulousness’ and ‘constantly creating anew’ stood at odds with the humble magic of theatre – the power of one person on stage, standing in the light of a candle, transporting an audience into another world. Imogen describes Ecoscenography as a process of slowly ‘undoing the training’, to go back to who she was when she was eight years old, to capture that essence of magic in her theatre making.
For Silje, it was the plastic material that she worked with on Sustain that sparked a passion for sustainability. Sourcing her design elements from plastic ocean waste was where she learnt to really embrace the opportunities of discarded materials as a creative resource. After this, Silje felt that she could no longer go back to the way she used to make theatre, despite the challenge of incorporating this approach into more traditional performing arts venues.
Tomáš explained how his sustainable approach to theatre making came more from economic necessity and learning to work with existing materials and found objects in response to budget constraints. It was also a reaction against mainstream theatre productions that he felt were prioritising a decorative rather than an authentic approach to scenography. As a performer, Tomáš wanted theatre materials to be more true to life than the purpose-built scenery he saw on stage.
Ecoscenography builds on contemporary reconsiderations of performance design, where creative and environmentally conscious processes align to become a fundamental part of the scenographer’s ideas, practices and aesthetics. Imogen defines Ecoscenography as one of continuous learning that allows her to question, rather than make assumptions about material choices or design processes. An ecological approach to scenography is about being environmentally conscious at every step of the design development: to consider greener alternatives to making theatre which prioritises creative reuse. Having eco-discussions early in the design process and holding the entire team accountable for the project’s sustainability ambitions is also essential for ensuring eco-responsibility across and beyond the performance season. A key part of Imogen’s work is to consider how theatre materials will be re-distributed responsibly after the final performance.
At the core of Ecoscenography is the notion of bringing a more circular approach to theatre production. Instead of focusing on Opening night or the performance season as the endpoint, Ecoscenography reconceptualises theatre production through the three C’s – co-creation, celebration and circulation. ‘Co-creation’ (or pre-production) implies ways of using local, serendipitous, place-based solutions in the making of the work; ‘Celebration’ (or the performance season) is about using the stage as a platform to showcase sustainability and test out new ideas; and ‘Circulation’ (or post-production) is about taking the afterlife of theatre materials and ideas into consideration. This means that Ecoscenography includes practices of co-creation, celebration and circulation as part of its total aesthetic outcome.
A central part of Ecoscenography’s circular framework is to draw attention to the interconnection of natural systems and human design, where engaging in ‘acts of care’ is seen as an important component of theatre practice. Andrea describes this as a soothing approach to designing – a way of responding positively to the overwhelming reality of the climate crisis in a small but meaningful way. She relates this to Arnold Mindell’s notion of a ‘deeper democracy’ which asks that we make space for all the voices, including the quieter and diverse voices in the room, and that we acknowledge all the small steps in the process. This means we also need to recognise the socio-ecological inequalities at play. Repositioning ourselves in relationship to each other, and to the more-than-human, and understanding how we as individuals are affected and co-relate to the collective or the web of life is fundamental to Ecoscenography.
Silje, Andrea, Imogen and Tomáš all highlighted how working with a sustainability ethos had a positive effect on their processes and aesthetics. Limiting technology in Handa Gote’s work opened up new ways of working for Tomáš which facilitated a more hand-made or craft-like aesthetic. For Silje, the opportunity to explore performance design as visual dramaturgy has been crucial to her own investigations into Ecoscenography, especially when working in a site-specific way. In Ecoscenography, the decisions around the staging of the work are what becomes important, and these dramaturgical choices also correlate with the ecological decision-making around the project.
Many of the artists spoke about the challenges of minimising waste in an industry that is constrained by tight timeframes, small budgets and lack of storage. The ‘time, space and money problem’ means that it is often easier to throw resources in the bin rather than re-housing them. As discussed in the Show must go on/off line discussion “A Green Deal” for Performing Arts, gaining an understanding of the ecological integrity of particular materials, resources or construction methods is crucial. Generating a database of sustainable resources and methods as well as incorporating ecological thinking into the start of the design and construction process is integral to shifting these conversations and practices more widely.
Taking a more mindful approach to the way we make theatre, one that considers the ecological integrity of production processes is crucial to activating change. This includes shifting the emphasis from the designer as problem solver to one where all theatre artists, institutions and funders are part of the solution. A large part of this transformation will be to employ sustainability managers and create more facilities or resource centres where things can be stored and reused effectively. These changes will not only provide more eco-efficient sourcing opportunities for the performing arts but will also help generate new jobs for the sector.
Perceptions of sustainability in theatre production are slowly changing and the assumption that an ecological approach to performance making restricts practices and limits high quality aesthetics is finally being turned on its head. The underlying spirit of this movement is one of opportunity. Enforced sustainable practices infer the negative; they suggest unwelcome constraints. On the contrary, it is essential to consider how the coming decades can be framed as the time of potential, an era when theatre artists rise to the challenge of what it means to bring an ecological perspective into their work, not because they are forced to, but because they embrace the transformative potential that it brings. Related industries, such as architecture, product design and fashion, have already shown us how an ecological ethic can reap enormous rewards. The work of Andrea, Silje, Tomáš and Imogen demonstrate that Ecoscenography is not only possible, but also incredibly beautiful and inspiring. There is already more than a whiff of revolution in the air. Sustainability with a capital ‘S’ is finally here. The time is now to seize the potential that this new era in the performing arts brings.