No Plant Grows The Same
The Beginnings of a Working Group
On the 14th of February, the SBTD organised a roundtable event at the V&A, as part of the Staging Places : UK Design for Performance exhibition residency there which ran from 24th July 2019 – 13th March 2020. The provocation for the discussion was ‘How can we practice more sustainably?
It is a question that many industries are asking and it is shaping society as we head into a 21st century that is being characterised by climate change, the production of waste and the destruction of biodiversity.
How can theatre reconcile with this and produce ambitious work that does not come with an excessive environmental cost?
The Sustainable Design Group
The roundtable discussion covered topics such as procurement, education, budgetary and timeline implications, implementation, and existing case studies. The discussion led to the establishment of the SBTD Sustainable Design Group.
Soon after the event, the UK lockdown occurred and theatres around the country closed. It was a difficult time for the industry but it felt important to treat the pandemic as an opportunity to think about new strategies. This strange intermission in 2020 could be the ideal time to plan for the future.
The Sustainable Design Group has been meeting regularly on Zoom and it has been a positive and productive discussion. Everyone has a wealth of different interests and expertise that gives the meetings a mosaic of varied perspectives. The working group has several functions including network building, researching good practice, working out ways to engage with other disciplines, and developing resources that designers can use to think and act more sustainably. So far we have been developing four projects, outlined in more detail below.
“Diversity, metamorphosis and innovation are at the heart of theatre.”
Carbon Literacy Training
Educating current and future designers with the tools and the confidence to be able to talk about environmental issues is going to be vital in communicating sustainability within the industry. We have been looking at carbon literacy training, specifically for theatre designers, so that relevant, practical and creative questions can be voiced and answered.
A Guide to Sustainable Materials
We have also been looking at building a guide to sustainable materials. We want it to act as an encyclopedia of sustainable alternatives that designers can have at their fingertips to avoid the extra time needed for researching and procuring sustainable products. We also want it to be an educational resource because there are sometimes materials that are good for the environment in one respect (such as having a low carbon footprint), but bad for the environment in another way (such as not being able to be recycled easily). We want to equip designers with the ability to assess different materials and make informed judgments on their material choices.
We have also been collaborating with Ecostage. This was established in 2015 by eco-scenographers Tanja Beer, Andrea Carr, Alice Hoult and web designer, Samuel Overington. It is now being re-envisioned, and members of the SBTD Sustainable Design Group Andrea Carr, Mona Kastell, Ruth Stringer and Paul Burgess are leading this evolution. They are looking to re-launch the project in September.
“How can theatre reconcile with [the climate crisis] and produce ambitious work that does not come with an excessive environmental cost?”
Sustainable Scenes Studio
We also run a monthly event called Sustainable Scenes Studio. A designer presents a past or future piece of work and explains some of the opportunities, constraints, lessons and strategies they took to produce sustainable theatre. It is a lively, creative discussion and we have created this event to make sure that sustainability and artistry go hand-in-hand.
There is an open discussion with the presenter to pull together ideas and alternative, creative ways of designing sustainably. The next event is at 6:30pm BST on the 13th of July. It is a great way to get involved with the group and all are welcome. The link to access the event can be found here.
Towards a Green Theatre
There seems to be a real willingness within the theatre industry to become more sustainable with growing networks around the world discussing sustainability in the arts, environmental themes becoming more present in theatre productions and events, and innovations being made in the broader fields of sustainable and ecological design.
However, despite this enthusiasm, there is not a straightforward answer as to how we can practice more sustainably within theatre design.
A product manufacturer can use the same raw materials and the same making processes, meaning one sustainable change would change the whole process. But in theatre, every show is different. It has to be different. It has to be diverse and in a constant state of renewal.
The history of theatre is a kaleidoscope of variations. Diversity, metamorphosis and innovation are at the heart of theatre. They are at the heart of all art. The live nature of theatre is designed to be mortal. It is born when the show begins and then it dies when the actors bow. The design process almost needs to start from scratch each time.
Of course this is not the only way to define theatre and these aspects of theatre are not barriers to sustainability. They are opportunities to think about the art form in different ways and make bold, creative and brave new worlds on the stage.
We are continuing to develop new projects and events, to grow this community and welcome everyone with an interest in the intersection between theatre and the environment.
Our next Designers Drinks event at 18:30 on the 9th of July will have a focus on the theme of sustainability. If you would like to come along, details can be found here.
The environmental crisis is a vast, interconnected issue and there is not one perfect answer to how can we practice more sustainably; but many varieties of imperfect answers feel more like nature and they feel more like theatre.
“Educating current and future designers with the tools and the confidence to be able to talk about environmental issues is going to be vital in communicating sustainability within the industry. ”
Hamish Muir , 26th June 2020
Hamish Muir is a researcher at the Bartlett School of Architecture and has consulted on creative strategies for making sustainable theatre to the UK industry. His design-based PhD is about developing sustainable and ecological theatre production. Hamish is an independent artist and playwright. His production studio, Arctic Lion, produces sustainable theatre experiments. (https://www.arcticlionart.co.uk)
You can also find out more about Andrea’s work on the Staging Places website https://stagingplaces.co.uk/designers/andrea-carr/