Global Networked Ecoscenography: Creating Sustainable Worlds for Theatre Through International Collaboration

Tessa Rixon*, Ian Garrett**, Tanja Beer***

Abstract

Historian Yuval Harari refers to civilization as a fiction we agree to. Conversely, we can look at “fiction,” “narrative” or even “performance” as an effort to (re)create and redesign civilization. In Performance and Ecology: What can Theatre Do? Carl Lavery highlights the ecological potential in the work of Karen Christopher and Sophie Grodin, which requires artists to be open to each other and more-than-human materials. We attempt to extend this approach through a Global Networked Learning initiative between York University (Canada), Griffith University (Australia) and Queensland University of Technology (Australia) which aims to train emerging ecoscenographers to explore more-than-human collaborations across vast distances. This visual essay documents the process and outcome of the design student responses to the plays of the 2021 Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) project, in partnership with a professional global EcoDesign Charrette focused on the 50 plays of the CCTA. The remote studio setting is structured as a series of collaborative workshops on EcoScenography, which invite the students to create seed design concept for exhibition at the World Stage Design Festival in Calgary in August 2022. As ecoscenographers, we are deeply committed to reducing the environmental harm of our field, both in academic and professional settings, including the creation of infrastructure to leverage the benefits of international cooperation without the significant impacts of travel. This is true both as an accessible opportunity for students and as an example to the global performance field to consider distance collaboration, particularly as it connects to touring and arts related travel. These are significant considerations regarding ecological impacts, costs and accessibility, as well as the more immediate considerations of the COVID-19 pandemic where Canada’s borders are limited to essential travel and Australia is not allowing travel in or out of the country while day-to-day life has returned to an almost pre-pandemic mode of social interaction. This course is an attempt to overcome these challenges to share our climate of attention, first with one another and then with the global design community.

Keywords: ecoscenography, theatre design, theatre ecologies, sustainability, World Stage Design, design pedagogy

Collaborating Within a Climate of Attention

Theatre and performance design has experienced an ecological turn as the field grapples with twin challenges of climate crisis. First, we must continually ensure our designs’ visual, aural and tactile elements work to strengthen a performance’s contribution to the climate crisis conversation. Second, we face a growing need to upend centuries of established design practice by pursing new methods to reduce waste, connect to communities and reflect the ecological demands of our current society. The expanding field of ecoscenography—coined by Australian designer and researcher Tanja Beer—seeks to reconfigure performance design through the lens of ecological thinking. Ecoscenography, as a practice and design methodology, not only impacts the design product, but it also wildly challenges standard modes of creation and development.

We three authors represent design and performance programs at Queensland University of Technology (Australia), York University (Canada) and Griffith University (Australia). Our collaboration grew from equal parts passion and concern over the future of scenographic training and practice in light of the climate crisis. In an attempt to understand pathways forward for performance design within tertiary education and professional practice, we set out to create a global, cross-institutional ecoscenographic design project. This project, in partnership with a range of international organisations and leaders in the field of sustainable design, sought to provide emerging designers with alternative modes of creating designs for text-based theatre. Between October 2021 and February 2022, twenty students across the three institutions engaged in a global classroom of hybrid guest lectures, workshops and iterative design presentations. Working both separately and in small teams that spanned all three institutions, students crafted design responses to five-minute plays created as part of Climate Change Theatre Action’s (CCTA) 2021 playwriting project. These seed concepts were then presented by The Centre for Sustainable Practice as part of the World Stage Design Festival in Calgary, August 2022. 

This project drew on existing notions of ecology within theatre practice. In particular, we were inspired by Karen Christopher and Sophie Grodin of Haranczak/Navarre (U.K.) and finding ways of unlocking what they term a “climate of attention” within our networked project. Writing in their contribution to Performance and Ecology: What can Theatre Do? the pair propose a climate of attention is a state of openness,

in which the senses are calmed and sharpened. Listening is tuned so that speaking or acting do not blot it out. It entails a kind of circular breathing of the senses, we are sensing and hearing simultaneous with being active, listening and telling intermingled . . . We are suggesting that we are part of an ecosystem along with the elements of the place around us and the ideas we become aware of in it. We define the place around us as the world in which we imagine ourselves to be . . . We are not so much making work on the subject of ecology as we are activating an ecosystem through the way in which we go about working.

Christopher and Grodin 238

Within such a climate of attention, collaboration between agents and objects seek complex answers to questions. Collaboration allows influences “at play in the world around us to affect the direction of the work we makem,” as practitioners amble around “trying and testing where we are in relation to each other, our surroundings and our current interests as well to the material that we bring to the moment” (242). This testing gives way to patterns and combinations; a wave of ideas that fluctuate; an undertow of momentum and gentle layering which slowly builds to outcome (242).

Christoper’s and Grodin’s broad notions of ecology in creative practice asks artists to be open as human beings and, importantly, open to the potentiality of more-than-human materials. It offers an understanding of collaboration grounded in ecological understanding that is essential in contemporary investigations of sustainable theatre design. Our intention throughout this project was to activate an ecosystem in which emerging undergraduate designers could interrogate performance design practice through collaboration and ecological design thinking.

Ecoscenography

Our studio ecosystem was grounded in ecoscenography. Ecoscenography calls for new approaches to theatre production that overturns traditional production models by integrating an ecological ethic into the philosophy, practice and production of performance design (Beer “The Living Stage” 18). Born of Beer’s investigation into sustainability in theatre design and her notion of the “living” stage, ecoscenography has spread fervently through the field of theatre and performance design. Through a radical shift from the traditional linear production mindset to one of circular design thinking, ecoscenography promotes new modes of celebrating and engaging with community and environment. An ecoscenographic framework is grounded: the “3 C’s”—co-creation, celebration and circulation. Beer (Ecoscenography 115, 116, 122–23) describes the three stages as follows:

Co-creation
. . . a form of engagement where theatre makers align themselves with place—to open up to the “worlding” of collaboration that takes into account co-extensive histories and futures across venues, communities and materials. . . .
Celebration
Ecoscenography nurtures the performance season not as an endpoint, but as a vibrant and highly visible celebratory mid-point in the creative process. We celebrate the emergence of the show, and we celebrate the stage as a platform for the meaningful communion, connection and crosspollination of culture and ideas. . . .
Circulation
In ecoscenography theatre materials and ideas are not mindlessly discarded, but considered as potential resources for sharing and co-creation beyond the production. . . . Designing with circulation in mind allows theatre makers to consider how set and costumes may be dismantled and shared for reuse. Circulation becomes a form of contribution, which involves seeking out opportunities—ways of sharing, collaborating and engaging with the world’s potential.

Aims

We sought to understand how an ecoscenographic framework—within the climate of attention of the studio classroom—could lead emerging designers to explore new approaches to theatre design ecologies. We aimed to connect students more deeply to their local communities through a practical design challenge, while also testing how a globally networked classroom could lead to awareness and action on climate crisis. This global collaboration was also the first application of the ecoscenography framework within a classroom setting, and the 3 C’s were used to scaffold the students’ design processes. Finally, the project trialled a new mode of collaboration between the CCTA and multiple partner educational institutions as a means of producing seed concepts for the future climate change anthologies.  

Process

The project—dubbed the EcoDesign Charrette—was officially housed by York University’s Globally Networked Learning (GNL) program. There was a variety of study programmes involved from the three institutions, with some students volunteering, some enrolled for course credit and some undertaking the work as part of a practice-led Summer Research Intensive. From October to December 2021, students from all three institutions met via Zoom weekly from their homes or on campus, depending on the state of lockdowns and restrictions in each country. The program began with a series of guest talks on ecoscenography (Tanja Beer, Australia), practitioner-led discussions of allyship in action (Hunter Cardinal, Canada), digital scenography (Tessa Rixon, Australia, and Ian Garrett, Canada) and conscious approaches to costume design (Kristen Ahern, United States). Alongside the students, a small group of international, professional designers also took part in the project, led by Triga Creative’s Alex Lord and Michelle Tracey. Finally, both groups took part in a Ecoscenography Reading Group series hosted by Tanja Beer in partnership with the PQ Knowledge Exchange Platform of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.

Where possible, practical experimentation was incorporated into the programme. Canadian-based company Écoscéno’s Marianne Lavoie led a hybrid workshop on reusing and repurposing existing design components within SketchUp, while Griffith and Queensland University of Technology students experimented with digital scenographic techniques in-person in Brisbane, Australia. Most activities remained online, however, to ensure equal access and contribution to participants.

In late December 2021, students presented an interim design concept to the entire cohort, allowing them to receive feedback from fellow students, professional designers, the three academic leads and Triga Creative. From this point onwards, weekly meetings focused on individual student progress, divided into separate institutions, where appropriate, to allow us to give feedback on our individual students, based on their assessment models and engagement mode(s). However, to encourage collaboration and a broader range of feedback, we continued to meet as a group online to discuss and share concepts. This mode continued until late February 2022, when the focus shifted onto finalising the poster designs for World Stage Design.

The global, networked nature of our collaboration was essential to not only bridge divides between the project partners—especially by connecting the work of the CCTA to emerging designers—but also to present the students with global perspectives on climate crisis theatre and design. Our emerging designers were encouraged to consider each stage of the ecoscenographic framework in their making, while also placing a particular focus on the role of place in their design responses. This visual essay captures a small fraction of their collaborations.

Fig. 1. Ecosceno “Reuse with SketchUp” workshop hybrid workshop led by Marianne Lavoie (Griffith and Queensland University of Technology, or QUT, in physical attendance in Brisbane, QLD, with York collaborators and workshop facilitators via Zoom). Australian students meet in person and introduce themselves via Zoom to their Canadian colleagues. York students via Zoom, present in a Brisbane studio. Image credits: Tessa Rixon
Fig. 2. In-person projection experimentation with Australian students. Hybrid guest workshops included Conscious Costumes by Kristina Ahern. Peter Keavy’s concept render for The Oysters by Miranda Hall. Australian student Maisie Crosdale’s shares her interim design in person and via Zoom. Purely virtual collaborations and design feedback. V Jowsey’s experimentation with melting coconut oil for What We Give Back by Madeline Sayet. Image Credits: Tessa Rixon, Peter Keavy, V Jowsey
Fig. 3. Michelle Hair’s sketch in progress for Book of G by Nelson Diaz-Marcano. Maisie Crosdale’s experimentation with recycled materials for Last Bee Flying Over the Sky by Pat To Yan. Michelle Hair’s experimentation with recycling soft plastics for The Book of G. Image credits: Michelle Hair, Maisie Crosdale
Outcomes

The EcoDesign Charette project engaged a total of 37 designers (eleven QUT, sixteen Triga, three York, seven Griffith) and produced 50 seed concepts (fifteen QUT, twenty-five Triga, seven Griffith, three York). At the time of writing, we are in the final stages of preparing to exhibit the outcomes as part of World Stage Design’s Middle Sister programme Ecoscenography. The exhibition featured the final seed concepts on individual large-format posters, with each designer elaborating on their process and how their work adhered to the three ecoscenography stages of co-creation, celebration and circulation.

Guiding our students towards the final presentation at World Stage Design 2022, Christopher and Grodin’s climate of attention became a prescient reminder of how both product and process need to be reconsidered within an ecoscenographic framework. The three stages unlocked a particular focus on the ecosystems which we, as designers, are a part of: both in actuality—the “place” and the “ideas,” as Christopher and Grodin suggested—as well as the attentive, mindful ecosystem that our studios can become as we shift our practice from linear wasteful production methods and towards cyclical, celebratory design.

Reflecting on this collaboration, we became conscious of two clear shifts caused by the ecoscenographic framework within our students’ practice: firstly, by connecting students deeply to local community and spaces, there was a revitalised approach to recycling, waste reduction and sustainable practice. Secondly, there was a fascinating shift away from traditional text- and even space-based design responses and, instead, deep engagement with materiality. This, in turn, led to very open, performative retellings of their initial playscripts.

Before elaborating on these general observations, however, we wish to present a portion of the student outcomes. The following eleven seed concepts demonstrate a shift towards ecological thinking. The main “hero” image from each design has been included to portray the overall design concept, and we have woven in sketches and ancillary images throughout to hint at the depth of the student work. Finally, students were asked to reflect on how the ecoscenography framework itself informed their design process and product. This first-person perspective is grouped below into the corresponding “C” of ecoscenography.

Fig. 4. Seed concepts from Michelle Hair (costumed designs and final visualisation render, left); Maisie Crosdale (performance image, quote and bee puppet closeup, top right) of Queensland University of Technology; Michelle Hair, Kathleen Schultz and Kelly-Jane Nou, as well as Connor Williamson (final visualisation render, floor plan sketch and detail sketch of moss-covered set objects, bottom right) of Queensland University of Technology, Griffith University, York University respectively. Image credits: Michelle Hair, Maisie Crosdale, Kathleen Schultz, Kelly-Jane Nou, Connor Williamson
Co-creation

My design uses local waste materials (corflute and rubber tyre pieces) to create the performance space. These waste materials are unfortunately readily available in many locations across Australia. The design has been kept minimal to reduce its impact as it tours around the nation.

Kelsey Booth (Queensland University of Technology) Molong by Damon Chua. Figure 4.[[1]]

In an ideal world, I would have this performance staged in collaboration with the Billion Oyster Project in New York City. This organisation works to restore the harbour by recycling oyster shells and creating artificial reefs. Their facility on Governors Island has large mountains of Oyster shells which are bleached in the sun and later returned to the harbour to grow more oysters which filter the water.

Peter Keavy (Queensland University of Technology) Oysters by Miranda Hall. Figure 4.

An audience activated piece, participants are inducted into the venue to explore, unbeknownst to them, a two-way mirror with a live camera capturing their reactions to prompted questions from the When text. As the audience moves onwards into the venue, they are met with various visuals of themselves projected onto the native architecture of the space, as well as sheets of transparent plastic made from melted discarded soft plastic collected as rubbish.

Monique Roy (Queensland University of Technology) When by Wren Brian, Figure 7.[[2]]
Fig. 5. Seed concepts from Kelsey Booth (final seed concept model and quote, top); V Jowsey (visualisation render, bottom right); and Peter Keavy (design detail close up and visualisation render, bottom left, and sketch of Oyster costume, background) of Queensland University of Technology. Image credits: Kelsey Booth, Peter Keavy, V Jowsey

Our design for Dream Remember brings attention to the history of Paronella Park [Queensland, Australia]. Audiences will be surrounded by a natural environment that celebrates restoration and sustainability

Michelle Hair (Queensland University of Technology), Kathleen Schultz and Kelly-Jane Nou (Griffith University), Connor Williamson (York University) Dream Remember by Hannah Cormick. Figure 5.

Each group of generation Z community members will participate in workshops during the design and construction process to learn about sustainability and what they can do in their own homes to make small but meaningful changes. Giving youth the opportunity to create something they can be proud of—an example of what they can do if they set their mind to something.

Michelle Hair (Queensland University of Technology) Book of G by Nelson Diaz-Marcano, Figure 5.[[3]]
Circulation
Fig. 6. Seed concepts from David Wotherspoon (floor plan and render, left); Khoa Tran (visualisation and game design, top right); and Erin O’Shea (final seed concept model and quote, bottom) of Queensland University of Technology. Image credits: David Wotherspoon, Khoa Tran, Erin O’Shea

The corflute itself can be used as tree guards for local revegetation projects in the communities we visit. But beyond the physical materials, my hope is that this performance becomes a space for facilitating conversations about our response to climate change, deepening community connections in the process. 

Kelsey Booth (Queensland University of Technology) Molong by Damon Chua, Figure 4.

The audience takes some material [coconut oil] with them. This allows the core theme of reciprocity to carry on after the performance.

V Jowsey (Queensland University of Technology) What We Give Back by Madeline Sayet, Figure 4.
Fig. 7. Seed concepts from Josephine Reid (composite visualisation of water spectrogram and participant engaging with audio performance, frequency patterns and spectrogram imagery, left) and Monique Roy (visualisation and composite render of interactive projection installation, right) of Queensland University of Technology. Image credits: Josephine Reid, Monique Roy
A Revitalised Approach to Recycling, Waste Reduction and Sustainability in Live Performance

An ecoscenographic approach requires careful mitigation of the waste normally produced by traditional performance design processes. By focusing on collaborative creation and the circulation of materials back into the community post-production, students were forced to change their design thinking. They had to forgo traditional approaches, accrued from years of study within their individual institutions, and find alternative means of sourcing, using and recycling physical components of their design. It was not an option to simply dispose of the production waste—students needed to plan for its reuse from their initial design conceptions.  

This constraint produced a variety of designs that performed multiple functions. QUT student Erin O’Shea’s design for Nicolas Billon’s The Penguin collected polystyrene foam from local businesses to construct a large-scale maze which doubled as a performance space and interactive exhibit (figure 6). Upon completion of the season, this polystyrene construction shifts to a gallery and is slowly consumed by the ingenious mealworm, which is capable of garnering nutrition from this environmentally hazardous material. Another multi-function design was evident in Michelle Hair’s community-based response to Nelson Diaz-Marcano’s Book of G (figure 5). Designed in collaboration with regional Australian youth communities, this design uses scrap construction materials to form not only a performance space but also a small structure that can remain in the community as a bus stop, shelter, book exchange or more.[[4]] These two designs—and others like it from the cohort—demonstrate how an ecoscenographic approach challenges the artist to deeply engage with the lifecycle of materials and, in doing so, consider how their creative product can benefit the communities in which they exist.

More-than-human Materials

In adopting an ecoscenographic framework, students’ understanding of and relationship to materiality shifted. As well as a deeper engagement with space and place—and the natural materials located within the sites of each work—we noted that each designer carefully investigated the cultural, social, economic and political nature of the physical and aural elements that comprised their seed concepts. Many chose materials that raised questions about waste and consumption—tyre rubber, polystyrene, corrugated plastic, discarded home items and building products—while others queried the potential of objects as more than simple tools for human manipulation. This interrogation went beyond what we would normally observe in a traditional design process.

The power of materials as performative objects also emerged, especially in seed concepts that moved beyond traditional stage designs and into open responses to the stimulus text: coconut oil sculptures slowly dissolving in the heat of the Queensland sun: dripping, shapeshifting images, faceless businessmen melting away beneath their suits (V Jowsey, What We Give Back by Madeline Sayet, figures 2 and 4); discarded drink cans upcycled into bees, created by child participants who then enact a performance under the careful direction of a facilitator (Maisie Crosdale, The Last Bee Flying Over the Sky by Pat To Yan, figure 6); the literal sounds of water composed to resemble human speech patterns, enabling non-human entities to “speak” the dialogue of the chosen play through a one-on-one audio performance work (Josephine Reid, How To Hold Water: a Spell for Adaptive Living by Erika Dickerson-Despenza, figure 7).[[5]]

These designs played off the agentic potential of materials to speak to the issue of climate crisis and provide some interesting avenues for future investigation into the space between ecoscenography and New Materialist approaches to design (drawing on ideas such as Karen Barad’s agential realism (2017) and Jane Bennet’s (2010) vibrant matter). In these responses, we witnessed the potential of ecoscenography to radically shift the designer’s focus from merely “What can I do to these materials” to “How can I work with these materials.” This mindset encourages designers to carefully consider the unique qualities of each material, not only for re-use or re-cycling but also for what the material itself could add to the scenographic response.

Seed concept by Peter Keavy (Queensland University of Technology) for Oysters by Miranda Hall
Conclusion

The EcoDesign Charrette was an experiment in global collaboration across multiple institutional structures and in the application of the ecoscenographic framework to the training of the next generation of designers. The 3 Cs were seen to provide concrete, helpful guidance and even barriers to guide students through what can be a daunting task of responding to a theatrical text in an ecologically conscious way. Rather than stipulate a “tick-box” approach to “sustainability”—which can mean all manner of things depending on the country, company or production—ecoscenography can offer a clear, research-supported design methodology that shifts the artist’s focus onto community and environment.

The global nature of the charrette was essential in creating new connections for our student cohorts. While many students chose to design separately, the joint nature of the workshop process allowed them to sharpen their ideas and test solutions within a diverse group. Furthermore, the global focus of the project highlighted the global nature of the climate crisis, and by investigating practical solutions together, the students were able to discover how theatre design globally can move forward in these uncertain times. This global perspective was paired with a deeply local focus both for the students and for us as educators. Ecoscenography requires a deep, meaningful connection to community—be it for help sourcing or recycling materials, for the co-creation of the work itself or to create works that have meaningful impact for our audiences. We observed that all students demonstrated a rich engagement with local businesses, communities and locations that had not been apparent in previous design projects.

While the final seed concepts found a home at World Stage Design, the impact from this trial application of ecoscenography in the global classroom is only beginning to crystallise. We are slowly witnessing how ecoscenographic thinking is influencing our students’ works as graduates. As educators, we strive to continue implementing our learnings from this trial within our individual climates of attention in Australia and Canada. As collaborators, we look forward to finding future international opportunities to test an ecoscenographic approach to making worlds for theatre and performance.


Endnotes

[1] Refer to the designer’s work in more details here.

[2] Refer to the designer’s work in more detail here.

[3] Refer to the designer’s work in more detail here.

[4] For a 3D tour through Michelle’s design, see here.

[5] For a more in-depth description and sample audio recording of this last example, view Josephine Reid’s webpage here.

Bibliography

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007.

Beer, Tanja. “The Living Stage: A Case Study in Ecoscenography.” Etudes, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–16.

Beer, Tanja. Ecoscenography: An Introduction to Ecological Design for Performance. Springer Singapore Ptd. Limited, 2021.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.

Christopher, Karen, and Sophie Grodin. “On Creating a Climate of Attention: The Composition of our Work.” Green Letters, vol. 20, no. 3, 2016, pp. 237–50. 


*Tessa Rixon is an academic and freelance designer for live performance with a focus in vision systems and content design. She is Lecturer in Scenography in the School of Creative Practice – Technical Production, Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology. In her professional practice, she has worked across a range of dance, drama, music and festival projects as a lighting designer, vision and systems designer, technical coordinator and stage manager. 

**Ian Garrett is designer, producer, educator and researcher in the field of sustainability in arts and culture. He is Associate Professor of Ecological Design for Performance at York University, director of the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and Producer for Toasterlab, a mixed reality performance collective. 

***Tanja Beer is an ecological designer, community artist and Senior Lecturer in Design at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Australia. With more than 20 years professional experience, Tanja has created over 70 designs for a variety of theatre companies, events, exhibitions and festivals in Australia and overseas.

Copyright © 2022 Tessa Rixon, Ian Garrett, Tanja Beer
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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