“Ours is a wasteful industry unless you think outside the box”
Designers want to be more environmentally aware and to choose sustainability over expend-ability, but often our choice of design materials can go directly in the face of environmental sustainability. Imogen Ross recently caught up with APDG member Renée Mulder to discuss some of her designs for Sydney Theatre Company [STC]. The STC has for a long time been seen to be promoting environmental sustainability measures throughout the building and within its different departments but sustainability measures can be difficult and expensive to maintain, particularly with individual designers wishing to make their mark.
“Some of the productions I have designed for STC would not have been possible without recycling, reuse and readaptation. Luckily the STC has a sizable back catalogue of stock which makes this possible. For smaller companies like Griffin, it is often hard for them to provide this ‘resource’ to designers as they cannot store the same amount of stock after shows have bumped out.”
During her three year stint as resident production designer [2012-2014] at STC, Renée was able to move between departments, and develop ongoing discussions with the different production teams.
“It was an intensive experience”, she says of the residency, “I was immersed in the company, witnessing builds, absorbing knowledge and understanding the pressures on all teams. I was made aware of what was available and I was willing to take on other people’s ideas and collaborate. Each time a designer has the opportunity to work within the same company, the process gets better and better.” As a freelance designer, Renée now works for many independent theatre companies across the country, returning regularly to create shows at the STC.
Renée studied first as an interior designer before completing her design degree at NIDA under Peter Cooke and Michael Scott Mitchell. She recalls that many of her interior design projects were about retro-fitting existing spaces, teaching her to think cleverly about the re-use of objects and space. When at NIDA, the students were taught to pull as much as possible from stock and utilise what was available, adapting base materials and re-cladding what was there already. This environmentally and economically sustainable model of thought-full upcycling continues in Renée’s professional practice.
“After graduating, the common path for many designers is working within independent theatre co-ops which everyone knows have NO money! This is the next training ground as every decision is so driven by budget. In my experience however, it is often the director’s strength of vision and the strength of the writing that can enable a designer to minimise.”
Renée has collaborated on several shows with Lauren Makin; a production manager and STC’s environmental sustainability coordinator. A strong advocate for ‘green design’, Lauren likes to remind designers that there is a difference between presenting ‘a design’ and having a strong vision for the production that can cope with compromise.
“A design should not be dependent on money. It should be dependent on imagination and the resources you have access to.”
When asked to elaborate, Renée replied that though she starts a design process with very deliberate decisions, she allows for the vision to shift, incorporating other’s collaborative ideas and budgetary constraints to push her designs. “Sometimes this process makes my ideas richer and more layered than before”, she explains, “ I am totally up for spending the money where I need to, but I try to invest in things that are really important – the things in my vision I do not wish to compromise on. In this regard, it is important to work with a production manager who understands a designer’s vision and helps fight for it.”
When designing Banging Denmark (STC 2019), Renée worked closely with Lauren to make the set fit the small budget; using a lot of existing flats from stock. They were re-clad, repainted and after the production finished, these same flats went back into stock. The same show sourced hundreds of photocopy boxes to create blocks and seats. The result was a great looking show that had a very small carbon footprint at the end.
“Many of the things we design at STC would not be possible without conscious recycling and re-use of stock. So many of my decisions come down to cost.” says Renée, “It nearly always comes down to the Budget vs Environmental Impact. Some directors will hold a vision that is non-negotiable, so in these cases, I don’t frame the use of something as re-used but as ‘found’.”
The Beauty Queen of Leenane (STC 2019) needed a climbable hill, an outdoor landscape surrounding the rotating cottage – something completely out of the budget according to STC’s head of construction Boaz Shemesh. Luckily, the Head of STC Scenic Art, Neil Mallard and the show’s resourceful Production Manager, Kate Chapman were able to source several skip loads of polystyrene chunks and large strips of astro turf heading for landfill after a film had wrapped over at Fox Studios. They used these free materials to create the ‘hill’ in question, solving the potential budget blowout and in the process, helping Fox Studios reduce their carbon footprint. Many of the larger styrene chunks have now been kept in stock by the STC for future use and the excess and offcuts were sent to an Australian polystyrene recycler – IS recycling. [https://is-recycling.com.au/]
To offset the use of polystyrene in the floor mound, it was then proposed that a product made of compressed sugarcane called Caneite could create the stone walls of the hut – after a sampling process of carving and painting – it looked perfect. This choice of materials meant that the walls could be easily recycled at the end of the production’s life.
In 2018 Renée was costume designer (APDG member David Fleisher was set designer) for The Harp in the South parts 1 & 2 with over 200 characters to create period costumes for. Both Renée and Lauren agree that a show of this size and scope was only possible because the STC had such an extensive wardrobe stock available. Head of STC wardrobe Scott Fisher confirmed this, saying that “ 60% of The Harp in the South came from existing stock. It was a brilliant use of what we have got here. Renée Mulder is absolutely brilliant both in sets and costume – she seems to be able to think about the stock as she is designing. The Harp in the South was a mammoth show with multiple cast members – there was no way we could have made all those costumes.”
Renée received both a Helpmann Award nomination and a Sydney Theatre Awards nomination for Best Costume Design for Harp in the South in 2019. In the same year she won Best Costume Design for Top Girls (also at STC) in the Sydney Theatre Awards.
As a final thought, Renée was asked how her experience working at STC with a focus on environmental sustainability had impacted her design processes moving forward:
“ I now know to ask more questions when I begin to design for a new company, to investigate what we can re-use and what stock they have. This is often the starting point for me.”
Imogen interviewed Renée Mulder and Lauren Makin by Zoom on Wednesday 20th May 2020. Many thanks to Brett Boardman, Daniel Boud and the STC for letting us reproduce STC production images.