• APDGreen Conversations: EcoScenography – linking sustainable practises across international borders

By Imogen Ross

APDGreen Conversations is a Live Performance initiative that actively champions environmental actions made by Australian production designers working across film, TV, live events and live performance. In this Quarter’s newsletter, theatre designer Imogen Ross looks at the growing interest in sustainable practises at World Stage Design (WSD) and the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space (PQ), and chats to QLD-based academic and theatre designer Dr Tanja Beer about the inclusion of Ecoscenography as one of the three core pillars of WSD2022 and its role as an official partner of PQ2023’s Knowledge Platform.

“Ecological thinking is a world view with philosophical underpinnings. It is relational, supportive, non-competitive and collaborative.” – Tanja Beer

Over the last decade, across the globe, performance designers of all kinds have been sharing their knowledge and building relationships with one another with the goal of reducing theatre’s carbon footprint and to foster sustainable theatre practices.

Ecological thinking has been growing slowly and surely with early champions like Associate Professor Ian Garrett’s Centre for Sustainable Practise Julia’s BicycleWe Are Albert and many other environmentally-conscious designers spearheading international discussions about changing the way in which our industry designs, constructs and then deconstructs our work. One internationally-recognised promoter of sustainable and ecologically-responsible design and creative thinking is Dr Tanja Beer.

Dr Tanja Beer is an ecoscenographer, community artist, educator and researcher who is passionate about co-creating social gathering spaces that accentuate the interconnectedness of the more-than-human world. A practicing performance designer and theatre maker, Tanja also holds a PhD in Ecoscenography from the University of Melbourne, and is currently Senior Lecturer in Design at Griffith University in QLD. These days Tanja’s work increasingly crosses many disciplines, often collaborating with landscape architects, urban ecologists, horticulturists and placemakers to inspire communication and action on environmental issues.

Dr Tanja Beer

Imogen Ross: I had a chat with Tanja about her work last month and began by asking her to define what Ecoscenography is all about?

Tanja Beer: I came up with the idea of Ecoscenography back in 2012 when I was starting my PhD research into ecological design for performance. Back then, there were very few designers exploring the topic. However, I was able to tap into a growing movement of theatre makers advocating for sustainability, including Ian Garrett from the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts who became the first Assistant Professor in Ecological Design for Performance in 2012. The CSPA views sustainability as the intersection of environmental balance, social equity, economic stability and a strengthened cultural infrastructure.

Ecoscenography essentially became a shorthand for ‘ecological design for performance’ (which was a bit of a mouthful to say!) and made it more specific to our field than ‘eco-design’.

Like ecology, scenography is concerned with inter-relationships – the interactivity between architecture, light, sound, bodies and the senses; a metaphor for the ‘ecosystem’ of total theatre experience. I proposed that a combination of the two terms ‘ecology’ and ‘scenography’ suggested something more comprehensive and far reaching than the purely metaphorical. To be ‘ecological’ means being concerned with the wider effects of scenographic production, to consider how it affects and relates to the broader ecosystem (beyond the theatre). It entails incorporating principles of ecology to create recyclable, biodegradable, restorative and/or regenerative performance spaces. This is intrinsic to ecoscenographic practice.

IMOGEN It appears that the growing ‘creative expansion’ of ecological thinking is being highlighted at major international design events like WSD2022 and PQ2023?

TANJA Yes, It is so heartening to see WSD2022 and PQ2023 promoting sustainability across their platforms and programming. I am really hoping that over the next few years we will see this movement grow exponentially and ecological designers across the world being forefronted and celebrated.

IMOGEN: What are the differences between these events for performance designers?

TANJA: The Prague Quadrennial and World Stage Design are the two largest performance design events in the world, both bringing together top established and emerging theatre and performance creators to showcase their work and exchange knowledge through formal exchanges (such as workshops and exhibitions) and by creating informal opportunities for generations of voices to find each other through social interactions. Both events are held on four-year cycles with two years always separating the events (similar to the Summer & Winter Olympic Games!). PQ is always held in in the Czech city of Prague whereas WSD is hosted by a new country every four years on a different continent; each edition under the leadership of its parent organization OISTAT (International Association of Scenographers, Architects and Technicians – www.oistat.org), a long-time partner and collaborator of PQ.

LEARN MORE ABOUT OISTAT

IMOGEN: So to put it simply, WSD is a designer-focused exhibition, in which the exhibits are submitted by individual designers from around the world – including stage, costume, lighting and sound design, and PQ is generally focused on nation-based exhibitions of international performance design and contemporary scenography.

TANJA: The different focus of the events means that diverse designers often attend. For example, I am currently on the professional jury for WSD2022 and have noticed a large representation of designers from Asia which has been awesome to see. For Ecoscenography to be represented at both events is an incredible feat for me – it feels like recognition of many years of hard advocacy work, international campaigning and collaboration with many of my fellow eco-colleagues who have been there from the very start. I am so grateful for the international eco-theatre scene that has fostered such an inclusive, supportive and generous environment for our field to grow.

IMOGEN: I read that the theme of PQ2023 is exploring the RARE: art springing out of ideas, materials, artistic approaches, and design practices that connect to the human level from within our differing unique environments. They are calling on performance designers, scenographers, and performance practitioners to use their RARE imagination and creativity to help envision what the world and theatre could look like in the post-pandemic future. How are you bringing Ecoscenographic thinking to PQ2023?

TANJA: In partnership with several international online open-source publications, PQ has created a Knowledge Exchange Platform that will become an online space for sharing essential findings and ideas, promoting an open dialogue connecting practice, research, and theory. Ecoscenography.com is a partner of the PQ Knowledge Exchange Platform. To assist in the curation of this, I have been joined by emerging theatre maker Monique Roy from the Queensland University of Technology.

IMOGEN: How can performance makers who are interested in Ecoscenography engage with your work in this area?

TANJA: For the broader knowledge exchange I suggest going in via the PQ Knowledge Exchange Platform. Read more about here or go directly to my website Ecoscenography.com. The site features content that explores ways of bringing an ecological focus to the performing arts, both in scholarship and in practice. The platform seeks to be a hub for all things ‘eco’ in theatre and performance design, with opportunities to forefront leading practitioners and thinkers that are driving this emerging field into the mainstream.

IMOGEN: I heard that you have launched an Ecoscenography Reading Group in the last month. Is this connected to PQ2023 and WSD2022?

TANJA: Yes it is. The Ecoscenography Reading Group is a new virtual platform for theatre makers who are interested in exploring a variety of articles, books, plays and stories that forefront ecological ways of knowing. The Reading Group events aim to take place once a month, with each session focusing on a specific text (or series of texts) and featuring special guests to help generate dialogue for broader discussion. The reading group has been instigated as part of Ecoscenography’s engagement with the new PQ knowledge exchange platform, and the first two events are in partnership with The Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (CSPA) and The Arctic Cycle’s Climate Change Theatre Action project (CCTA) in collaboration with World Stage Design 2022 (WSD2022), Triga Creative (Triga), Griffith University (Australia), Queensland University of Technology (Australia) and York University (Canada).

IMOGEN: How can designers register to be involved? Is there a cost?

TANJA: All Reading Group events are free and will be made accessible across a wide range of international time zones. The first sessions in September will be hosted by Queensland University of Technology and curated by Monique Roy, with the aim of integrating live and virtual performance readings and discussion. These events will explore contemporary Eco-theatre and Ecoscenography through a discussion of six selected plays. It should be loads of fun!

Please scroll to end of article for more details about how to register and the dates for the next session.

IMOGEN: World Stage Design was postponed in 2021 due to the impact of Covid19 and will now be held in August 2022 in Calgary, Canada. What is your involvement with WSD2022?

TANJA: I am on the international jury for WSD2022 and will also be working on the Ecoscenography submissions for Scenofest with the team.

IMOGEN: What are the embedded cornerstone beliefs or themes of the event?

TANJA: The themes that form the core of WSD2022 are: Indigenous Ways of Knowing, Ecoscenography and Mixed Realities.

IMOGEN: How did WSD2022 come to define these themes?

TANJA: The planning committee was inspired by the landscape of the region. According to their website, between Calgary and Banff National Park, is a mountain known as the Three Sisters. It is a significant landmark to the area with the name and many stories originating with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation peoples. The mountain is made of three individual peaks that share a singular base and extend from the same piece of earth. WSD2022 is also a multi-summit event, like the Three Sisters.

 As per the WSD website, each peak (or sister) has been attributed a different knowledge platform on which the themes of WSD22 are based:

Big Sister – Indigenous Ways of Knowing explores how interaction with land, landscape and storytelling have meaning for Indigenous cultures of today. Canada, like Australia is at a watershed moment in their history where many truths are being unearthed and brought to light, where their history as a settler culture is calling current generations to begin to repair damages and live together in a good way with Indigenous peoples. Scenofest will offer opportunities for professional designers and students to explore the landscape and learn about Blackfoot ways of knowing the land, landscape and storytelling.

Middle Sister – Ecoscenography conjures ideas of ecology, economy, landscape, scenographic theory, and possibility. We are living in complex times, facing climate change, animal extinction, and resource depletion. As artists, creators, and makers, we have been asking, “what can we do to consume less, pollute less, and yet maintain aesthetics that appeal to our audiences?”. WSD is actively encouraging innovation and hopeful exploration of the impossible.

Little Sister – Multiple Realities is in fact, the hardest peak to climb of the Three Sisters mountain. The world of performance design has expanded to include virtual reality, artificial reality, and digital reality. Yet, we are still grappling with contextual and historical realities, cultural realities, and of course as designers, architects and technicians we cannot escape material reality. Multiple Realities allows the exploration of divergent aspects of performance design and encourages engagement with digital methodologies and practices.

The effect of the whole or the trickling of ideas from these peaks to the base of Scenofest will be the thematic connection between all WSD events. As an example, The Sustainable Theatre Project will be a central part of Scenofest activities on the Main Campus of UCalgary. They may host Indigenous Ceremonies or performances which may engage the creators and audience in cultural realities explored through digital expression.

IMOGEN: I saw that the Ecoscenography Reading Group is collaborating with several international organisations on the Eco-Design Charrette taking place between September 19th and December 18th this year. Is this design challenge connected to WSD2022?

TANJA: The plays written for the Eco-Design Charrette are an integral part of our first two reading sessions. As per their website, The Eco-Design Charrette aims to fuel participants with the knowledge and inspiration needed to design with an ecological consciousness. Through rapid design seeding and idea exchange, it is hoped that designers can expand how they imagine scenography and its power to change our world. The Eco-Design Charrette is an opportunity to develop Ecoscenographic practices alongside other designers and generate concepts for publication and exhibition with an international reach.

IMOGEN: What is an Eco-Design Charrette? Is it a competition or more of a collaborative challenge?

TANJA: A charrette, in the context of sustainable architecture or design, describes a meeting or open workshop event devoted to exchanging ideas, solving a problem or planning a design with immediate open-loop feedback and a clear deadline. According to their website, this year’s online Eco-Design Charrette is centred on the rapid creation of concepts for each of the fifty Climate Change Theatre Action (CCTA) plays written by a range of international Playwrights. Over the span of the Charrette, participating designers are asked to create a seed concept for at least one of the short plays. Designers must begin their design concept with ecological thinking at the centre of the creative process. In order to support this work and create a context for the cross pollination of ideas, Triga Creative (in collaboration with CSPA, CCTA and the Ecoscenography Reading Group) will host a series of short play readings, design conversations and Ecoscenography workshops online.

All designs generated during the Eco-Design Charrette will be published in a two-part volume by the Centre for Sustainable Practices in the Arts (Books). The designs will also be exhibited at World Stage Design in Calgary in 2022 (WSD2022 Exhibition). The charrette will culminate the global participatory CCTA festival with an online closing celebration during which designers and performance makers will share the work created with an international community.

IMOGEN: There seem to be more and more opportunities for designers who wish to work within an Ecoscenographic context to shine – have you seen many changes over the last decade in this regard?

TANJA: When I began looking into ecological design for performance more than 10 years ago, there were so little designers pursuing work in this area. It really felt like there were only a handful of us internationally. Over the last 2-5years we have seen an incredible growth in designers pursuing sustainability across the globe both in the way it is taught at universities as well as in industry.

The international Ecoscenography community is so generous in its knowledge sharing. We always try to forefront and support each other’s work because without each other there would be no movement. I am so happy to see Australian theatre designers becoming more and more interested in sustainability and making work that is pushing against old ways of doing things. I do believe that the next generation of theatre makers will be holding us accountable for our unsustainable actions. We have a responsibility to advocate for the future of our field despite the increasing challenges that we will inevitably face. I feel that commitment very strongly.Tanja Beer’s forthcoming book Ecoscenography; an introduction to ecological design for performance is due to be out by the end of 2021. It is published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Important Dates for your calendar

WSD22 was postponed in 2021 due to the impact of Covid19 and will now be held on AUGUST 6-16, 2022 in Calgary, Canada.

PQ23 is scheduled to take place in Prague from JUNE 8-18 2023.

APDGreen wants to know what YOU are doing in your design practise and your work places.

In what ways can you be an advocate for change? What ecological obstacles do you face as a designer? 

If you have a project you would like to talk about or are interested in adding your professional design voice and suggestions to an APDG Sustainability Protocols working group, please email to Imogen Ross or contact Rebecca Whittington to offer your assistance, your ideas or simply to find out more.

NEXT CCTA READING GROUP EVENTS

September: Stories of Hope and Action

Wednesday, September 22nd at 8:30pm Toronto time (GMT-4)

Thursday, September 23rd at 10:30 am Brisbane time (AEST)

The September Reading Group will be working with three texts selected from the Climate Change Theatre Action’s 2021 call-out that addresses the central theme of Action (see below). Guest playwright panellists, Chantal Bilodeau (New York, US) and Dr. Linda Hassall (Brisbane, AUS) join the group to discuss the central themes of the play and how they explore environmental action within the arts community on a local and global scale.  

Selected CCTA plays for the September Ecoscenography Reading Group are:

Initiation by Angella Emurwon (Uganda)

A reflection on the past and how our actions have impacted the earth. Encouraging connection to the earth for a hopeful future.

Danger by Yvette Nolan (Canada/Algonquin)

Imagining a climate utopia built around ecological conservation, the sacrifices made to start a new chapter for the world.

Consultation by Dylan Van Den Berg (Australia/Palawa)

Learning from and forefronting indigenous voices through active and deep listening, urging our community to understand the impact of colonization when navigating a new future.

The first session will be held virtually on September 22nd at 8:30pm Toronto time (GMT-4) / September 23rd at 10:30 am Brisbane time (AEST) through a Zoom Webinar platform hosted by The Queensland University of Technology.

Upon registering with the Eventbrite link, you will receive access to the selected plays that will be explored in this session. You are encouraged to have a read through these plays beforehand to engage in the Q&A with the panel and other attendees.

Follow event updates and registration details here: Ecoscenography Reading Group 

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