Updated: 5 days ago
what is sustainable design?
Sustainable design refers to the whole process. From keeping it at the forefront of our creative development, the choice of materials we use, how cleverly we use them to minimise waste, wether we could be re-using materials right through to how they are used in performances, how durable they are, what happens to the materials once the show is done and in some cases even what the audience can take away from the show...
After reflecting on sustainability within my own practice I am keen to take inspiration from those at the fore front of sustainable design and the initiatives that are helping theatre move in the right direction.
RE - USE
It is generally accepted that the future cannot sustain waste and that we must look at ways of creating the new and innovative solutions to our unsustainable practice. With the need to produce new sets every year being one of the largest impacts theatre has on the environment many theatre's now pledge to minimise the impact of their activities on the environment through re-using and reducing.
An example of this are the winners of the 'Creative Green Award 2020' .Reading the Unicorn Theatre 's manifesto seems to make a lot of sense. They say 'Our approach in a nutshell: we store set, props and costume whenever we can, so we can reuse and repurpose as we go. We hire, lend and give away to other theatres to reduce the need to buy new. We build flexible, versatile sets that can be used again in different ways.' They also lay out a simple Hierarchy for their design which all elements must go through : items must first be checked for in storage, then to borrow or hire, buying locally, and finally online. In my experience this is true of most of the companies I've worked with.
However while prop stores are a commonality for theatres, storing sets for re-use is often not viable as they require large amounts of storage. This leads to the far to often to the sadly more cost effective disposal of sets once they have finished their run. It's always a sad sight to see the set you've been working on for months being skipped in a matter of hours but the thought that this ending is being repeated world wide is a slightly more daunting one in terms of sustainability.
This is where whole new initiatives have grown around the re-use of sets. In Glasgow , Reset Scenery is a 'non-profit organisation dedicated to providing the Scottish Entertainment Industry with an environmentally responsible alternative to landfill for its unwanted scenery, props and furniture. Founded in 2018 by professional scenic fabricators Matt Doolan and Simon Cook who often felt like they were “building for the skip” due to the fast paced, short production cycles common to the Stage, Screen and Events sectors.' They provide storage to save Sets for resale and hire, responsible clearance for post production strikes, separation of useful materials for rebuilds, and even training to help small scale, community and school groups make the most of resources as well as a carbon calculator to help you manage your companies footprint. Examples of these are popping up all over the world and as well as being a fantastic way to encourage re-use they are a wonderful resource for any designers who can see the soul in lived items.
For 'Plop!' we have pledged to not only consider the hierarchy but use 100% recycled materials, it was important to the brilliant writer , Sarah Mooney, that her story was told with the design fully backing up its message.
Although many devised performances (ones that begin with out a script but rather rely on the performers to create the production) and small scale, small budget performances often inherently rely on reusing or finding materials to hand my first case example is Tony Award-winning musical, 'Peter the Star Catcher'.
This production used recycled materials to evoke the idea of childlike imagination, making do with what you have, which is an idea integral to the musical. Its interesting to see this approach played out on a Broadway scale. The main focus on the set seems to be the proscenium arch which they tour to every venue, on first glace it doesn't look at all out of place against the grandure of any of its receiving theatres but on closer inspection it is created entirely of found or re-used objects items, including children’s toys, old silverware, used rope, buttons, cords, old cooking tools, tin can tops and more.
The producers made a pitch to the various tour venues around the country to contribute reusable items to help build the tour proscenium:
“We started getting boxes sent from all over the country of objects the theaters were collecting,” she said. “So in Denver, which was the city where we first started, they gave us some beer caps – we got boxes and boxes of beer caps. And Seattle sent us wine corks.”
They cleverly catered the materials to the storyline. In one example, incorporating kitchen and cooking utensils for scenes involving a character with food on the brain. From the research stages to the show going on stage, the creation of this set took about 2 years according to Werle the designer, although this seems fairly unrelatable, it is an interesting example of a large scale production working in this way.
Moving beyond simply reusing, my next example project posed the more radical question: ‘Can we create designs that not only enrich our audience, but our community and environment as well?’
The living stage is part theatre part community garden and is brilliant example of exploring a new waste free setting as well as creating a community around your performance.
Created and designed by Tanja Beer alongside a creative team which included 'permaculture designers' demonstrates sustainable principles and impact as an inspiration rather than a constraint. In it's biog it described its ethics as being 'integral to aesthetics' which mirrors my feelings about found objects and sustainability informing my own design for the better. explores the greater take away from the piece by striving to enrich their audience, community and environment.
This idea is something myself and the 'Plop!' creative team have been discussing, how can we best benefit the kids we reach by further facilitating their understanding of the themes in the play. In previous years Hopscotch has created handbooks to go along with their shows with resources the teachers can use to reflect on the show and stimulate conversations surrounding the themes. Much like 'The Living Stage', with 'Plop!' we are hoping to apply for funding to engage with the pupils ourselves through workshops, creating an engaged community in the run up to the show. We are all excited about the possibilities this poses. With the whole experience designed to engage and enrich, leaving a positive environmental and social message.
The living stage is a great example of theatre outside its more traditional setting, for 'Plop!' our show will be visiting the schools directly. Its really great that we can bring work to their door steps when a school trip can pose financial concerns for many schools. However this does increase our companies own carbon footprint.
PIGFOOT THEATRE is a leading uk carbon-neutral theatre company.
Creating shows for a family audience Pigfoot have cleverly injected participatory fun into their way of staying sustainable. The lighitng for their show 'how to save a Rock' (a carbon-neutral comedy about how to still have hope) is powered entirely by bike. Throughout the production, various people would climb on the bike, swapping over to give others a break, which in turn powered all the lights.
This got me thinking about 'Plop!' and our own carbon footprint. Although touring to schools means we don't have a need for stage lighting due to it always being in complete daylight there is definitely room to think about how we tour our production in the most sustainable way... perhaps there is room for offsetting our visit in our workshops, this is a conversation that will be brought to the creative team.
Pigfoot is also very helpfully transparent about their work and encourages other companies to make any small step in the right direction.
This leads me to my next post about the organisations and resources available to help become more sustainable in theatre.