My own experience of Sustainable theatre design.

Updated: 6 days ago

I have been brought on board to work as the designer for Hopstoch Theatres new production of 'Plop! in the ocean', a play that holds a strong message about looking after our planet and educates about ocean pollution. Its important therefore that this project's design and creation is completely and entirely inline with the sustainable message it is spreading. Right down to the very last detail.

I have been a set design graduate for 3 years now, in that time I've slowly built an awareness alongside my peers and much of the rest of the world about the shifts we need to make in our own lives to save our planet. It makes sense then does it not to have made similar shifts in my work life too, bringing sustainability to my Set Designs at the same deliberate and conscious pace.

Hopscotch has provided the creative team with time for research and development well in advance of the show, this blog will follow the design process of 'Plop!' and our thinking behind this new piece of sustainable theatre. In this post I will reflect on the sustainable element in my practice leading up to this point. While i acknowledge there is some way to go with this, its interesting to see how it is slowly shaping my work for the better.

I'm going to be completely honest and admit that the first reason this shift unintentionally happened was because I left uni and would accept something like - a free ticket to a gig - as payment for a set design. This was great fun, but it just meant I had to be creative in the materials I used (or mostly found) in order to create something extremely cheap. Otherwise it would mean that i was basically paying more than my ticket in material costs plus my time, which was still usually the case. It did feel good to be working in this way though and seemed as though it was actually a selling point for the work.

My first venture into this arguably more sustainable set design was for my brothers ep launch at the Glasgow School of Art, It was entirely made from left over materials except for one paper printed sign. The design was made up of 3 collapsable tree’s made from scrap wood and twin wall plastic and I was really pleased with how interesting they looked in those unusual materials. I soon realised that sometimes working with what you had around you lead to much more interesting designs than what your, keen to be perfectly curated, mind could come up with…

Coincidentally it was this design that caught the eye of Hopscotch theatre when looking for a designer for their production of 'Spring-y' so i guess it was in the end a very worthwhile project if not an immediately profitable one.

Professional theatre work and sustainability

I have, in my opinion, been lucky to work on small scale productions - the kind where the designer also fills the role of the carpenter, scenic artist and sometimes costume maker. I think this is lucky because working with a company like Hopscotch, has allowed me to continue to work in this way, messing around with materials and using what is immediately to hand. Its given me a much better understanding of what materials are out there and how the build process can in turn inform your design for the better. This way of working allows you to be more economical with your materials and altogether more conscious about how you work and I like to think it has shaped my design approach and style for the better by seeing the life in objects that have already lived.

In recent work for the Tron theatre creating 'Ali the magic elf' I had another chance to practice what I was preaching in terms of the fun in found materials. The roof of the elves workshop in this set was made of suspended bike wheels saved from the scrap at a local bike shop, these materials were not only so effective at conveying whirring cogs and magical parcel pulling machines, kind of Heath Robinson inspired but they were also completely free and saved from a dump.

There was plenty of other touches to this show like a workbench made from scrap wood, a floor re-used from another show, toys for the shelves made of plywood offcuts and a completely re-used set of lapland costumes re-dyed by the brilliant Nicki Brown. These parts were not only environmentally friendly but helped give the show a lovingly, elf made, magical feel. The set was stored by the Tron and re-used again this year which was a really exciting feeling as all too often the sets created in theatre are skipped) However before I blow my eco friendly trumpet there was also plenty of unsustainable aspects like the spray paint I used on almost all of the props to colour them or the small magic tricks probably shipped half way across the globe due to time constraints ... i still have a lot to learn.

With all of this in mind I recently read an article in the guardian about placing sustainability at the heart of the creative process and it made my slightly less deliberate, if still considered move to working in this way feel justified and exciting - it also made me think about effectively using this idea out with the stage and imbedding it into the creative process from the very beginning. Something Hopscotch are helping facilitate in this project which is really exciting.

" A set designed on the principles of low impacts - reclaimation, upcycling, repurposing and low wattage – can save money, sure, but it also brings new dimensions to design and artistic insight, before the production process has even begun."

Jumping off from this article my next post will be looking at and learning from other designers, makers and companies that are working in this way already.

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