APDGreen Conversations: Eco Provocation- re-thinking our practices

Provided by Imogen Ross

By Imogen Ross

APDGreen Conversations has been catching up with the many exciting conversations happening across Australia and the world about environmental issues and production design. In this Quarter’s newsletter, theatre designer Imogen Ross sums up a few different perspectives from APDG designers and freelance production creatives who are actively championing environmental initiatives across film, TV, live events and live performance.

“A global ecological awakening is underway; one that calls for a new philosophy for theatre production that promotes more environmentally conscious, holistic, interconnected and symbiotic ways of making. With a global pandemic enforcing a pause in our practices and changing our ways of communicating and collaborating, we are at a unique moment in time that provides an opportunity to rethink the way we produce theatre now and into the future.

How can we seize the potential that this new era of uncertainty and environmental focus demands?”

[Call out for Papers; Theatre and Performance Design, Autumn 2021, Ecoscenography, guest edited by Tanja Beer. https://www.tandfonline.com Retrieved from http://sustainablepractice.org/category/ecosencography/]

There certainly has been a lot going on this year. During the months of COVID-19 lockdowns here in Australia, many of us in the APDG became actively engaged in learning from one another online, commiserating about the sudden shut-down of our various projects and attending numerous zoom meetings and international webinars with colleagues and peers around the world. Despite the shadow of sudden unexpected underemployment hanging over us all, it was exciting to be ‘in the room’ with so many bright minds and hope-filled design studios. The positive side of the pandemic was that it brought so many designers across the globe together to chat and share ideas.

The APDG hosted several such initiatives. One conceived and curated by designer, artist and creative producer Anna Tregloan happened every Friday lunchtime for many months, allowing live performance designers from around Australia to meet up for an informal zoom to chat, laugh, cry and touch base with one another. Meeting online regularly helped to relieve the mental stress of being in lockdown and after a couple of months, Anna suggested that participants focus on specific topics to deepen the conversations and build on group knowledge as we moved forward together.

One of the regular topics that came up was about personal environmental sustainability; different ways in which we can work towards zero carbon in our own design practises, and what practical tips and experiences could be shared or promoted. Sustainability is something that designers have been consciously incorporating into their practices for many years, but the overall feeling from these lunchtime discussions was that the bigger picture sustainability practices from the production companies have been eroding not developing in recent years. There is a sense that our industry is ‘treading water’ rather than moving boldly forward. Many of the Friday lunchtime participants were lighting and sound designers which pushed the topic into important discussions about energy usage, tools, hardware, and concentrated on practical approaches taken by venues and production companies in recent years.

None of this ‘green thinking’ is new. A green design policy initiated by the Sydney Theatre Company back in 2007 has assisted production teams reduce, reuse and recycle across productions.Their sustainability focus has been in the areas of energy, water, waste, Green Design (supply chain and theatre production). Supplier Guidelines assist designers consider ecological choices of their products and processes at the pre-design stage and throughout construction, and they employ environmental stewards within their production management teams. Sadly, the STC remain one of the few theatre companies in Australia to have the vision and the funds to continue to champion environmental responsibilities so pro-actively.

Anna Tregloan reminded me of an initiative she was involved with in Melbourne in 2012 called Greening Our Performance – an alliance of performing arts companies and individuals such as Australian Circus and Physical Theatre Association (ACAPTA), Circus Oz, Theatre Network Victoria, Tipping Point Australia, Malthouse Theatre and Lucy Guerin Inc who were striving together to reduce our industry’s carbon footprint and make the theatre industry more sustainable. They came together to share ideas, information, and solutions for reducing the use of resources such as theatre equipment, by running workshops and seminars.

The Greening Our Performance Alliance aimed to :

  • Support each other in an endeavour to change the way we do things 
  • Reduce our resource use;
  • Offer information to enable us to create and implement sustainability plans;
  • Share resources and ideas;
  • Develop and share innovative solutions;
  • Encourage realistic and sustainable commitment from participants

One of the APDG designers who attended the Greening Our Performance seminars, later referencing the ideas and issues in her paper An Introduction to Ecological Design for the Performing Arts was Dr. Tanja Beer; a theatre designer and performance design academic whose chief area of applied research is in theatre sustainability and Ecoscenography.

Ecoscenography is an expansive term that includes theories and practices that bring an increased awareness of broader ecologies and global issues to performance design. Tanja is currently a Senior Lecturer in Design (Spatial/Interior) at Griffith University and her work increasingly crosses many disciplines, often collaborating with landscape architects, urban ecologists, horticulturists and placemakers to inspire communication and action on environmental issues. Her most celebrated project is The Living Stage: a global initiative that combines spatial design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible event spaces. A recent article by Tanja in Sustainable Practice [see http://sustainablepractice.org/category/ecosencography/] reiterates:

‘Performance designers all around the world are showing us how aesthetically compelling environmentally-focused work can be, both in and beyond mainstream theatre. And importantly, audiences are taking notice. Sustainability with a capital ‘S’ is here. Emerging designers and directors are speaking out against unsustainable practices and their voices are being heard. The power is shifting. The age of theatre as a place of eco-provocation, innovation and leadership is here.’

For those interested in the intersection between performance and ecological design practice, Tanja has set up the Ecoscenography Facebook page as an internationally-accessed hub to generate dialogue, share ideas, links, events and articles about ecological thinking in performance making. Ecoscenography’s objective is to build a strong community of performance makers and designers around the world who are passionate about bringing more ecological awareness into their work. 

If you wish to follow her work more closely, Tanja’s latest interview is with Thierry Leonardi the Lyon Opera Ballet General Manager from 1995 to 2015 and the sustainability officer of the Lyon Opera from 2008 to 2015.

During his interview, which focuses on the need for frugality and accountability, Thierry says:

‘Sustainability is an evolving concept. […] We need to rethink our values to forge new narratives.’

I first met Tanja at the 2013 OISTATT World Stage Design Congress in Cardiff

where she presented The Living Stage and we ardently discussed the need for designers to actively participate in developing sustainable methodologies within their own practices. Tanja was working closely with Julie’s Bicycle in the UK as an ‘activist-in-residence’ while researching her Phd and suggested I look them up. Though our live theatre situations are slightly different here in Australia, Julie’s Bicycle is a great ‘starting’ website to direct your live event producers to when beginning conversations with them around environmental stewardship and shared responsibilities, moving forwards. 

(Please see the article ‘Visionary Spokes’ for more information about Julie’s Bicycle and their suggestions for developing meaningful and productive sustainability discussions.)

In May 2020, Tanja, Lauren Makin (Sydney Theatre Co.) and I sat in on late night conversations via Zoom with Simon Daw representing the Sustainable Design working group from the Society of British Theatre Designers and Ian Garrett, director of The Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts in Toronto along with set, lighting and set designers from around the world. The purpose of these conversations was to engage designers and theatre makers on different ways to create a relevant up-to-date Green Eco-Materials Guide for the live performance industry.

The first guide created was The Green Theater Choices Toolkit  originally created by Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company with their then Artistic Director Seema Sueko in partnership with Brown and Wilmann’s Environmental LLC in 2008 [https://www.bw-environmental.com/] adapting BWE’s ‘green methodology’ to current theatre practises. 

Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company was founded in 2004 as a community-focused, socially-conscious, Equity theatre company. Since their inception, they made a commitment to represent diverse voices on stage, pay local San Diego actors Equity wages, health and pension, and focus on serving their community. 

In recognition of how the theatre industry is consistently creating toxic waste with each production, and as a natural extension of  their socially-conscious principles, Mo`olelo developed a greening initiative in January 2007. 

You can find Mo`olelo’s well researched Green Theater Choices Toolkit  and share with your construction workshops. In the  guide, different construction materials are described and rated from 0 – 4; Four being the best eco solution and Zero being the worst. 

Julie’s Bicycle also has a Sustainable Production Guide presented as a series of checklists, for each role in the production process, separated into pre-production, production, and post-production. The chapters in the guide cover:

  • Production Management
  • Lighting
  • Sound and AV
  • Set Design, Scenic Art and Construction
  • Wardrobe and Stage Fabrics
  • Cast
  • Communications and Marketing

The conversations with The Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts and the Society of British Theatre Designers ended with individual designers looking into what materials and resources could be researched and promoted, as every country has its own environmental guidelines to adhere to.

Australia does not currently have a Green Guide for Theatre, Film and Live Events, but I know of several independent groups that are working towards generating sustainability guides for our industry and plan to have guides and websites ready in 2021/2. The APDG is developing a set of environmental protocols to promote across both screen and live performance within the guild.

We want to know what you are doing in your design practise and your work places.


If you are interested in adding your professional design voice and suggestions to an APDG Sustainability Protocols working group, please send an email to Imogen Ross or contact Rebecca Whittington to offer your assistance or to find out more.