DR TANJIA BEER
Ecoscenographic Futures: Exploring the potential performance design of a climate changed world
The current ecological crisis calls for a new philosophy for theatre production that promotes more ecological (holistic, interconnected and symbiotic) ways of doing things. Related industries, such as architecture, product design and fashion have already shown us how a sustainable ethic can create exciting new processes and aesthetics. However, we are yet to fully grasp what a socially and environmentally conscious approach entails for the performing arts. The ephemeral and specific nature of theatrical work means that most set and costume designs are only of valued for the duration of the performance season – often a matter of days or weeks – before they are discarded. Designers are trained to work towards Opening Night. How we ‘get there’ or what happens to our sets and costumes after the production ends is often neither a priority nor a consideration. Our focus as scenographers has typically been to create ‘experiences of impermanence’ – often extravagant spectacles with little regard for the prevailing permanence of unwanted remains (seen and unseen) which persist long after the event.
As the world enters a new age of increasing environmental uncertainty, considering sustainability in the performing arts will not merely be a question of morality and ethics, but also necessary for the industry to continue to be a contemporary and relevant art form. In her speech at World Stage Design in 2013, Wallace Heim argued that the time will soon come when theatres will need to justify excessive and unsustainable behaviour—when ‘those who want massive spectacles, world tours, and blazing lights will have to openly justify and account for those technologies and excessive and exceptional drains’. With the increasing urgency of ecological issues, Heim predicted that theatre practices and aesthetics will change (whether by legislation or by choice) and that this needs to be embraced as an opportunity, not as a limitation.
Responding to Heim’s call, this paper provides an introduction to Ecoscenography; a growing neologism that I use to bring scenography into an increased awareness of broader ecologies and global issues. Exploring literature across systems thinking (Meadows 2008), biomimicry (Benyus 2002), the ecological worldview (Hes & du Plessis 2014) and ecomaterialism (Cohena and Duckert 2013; Alaimo 2010), I consider ecological approaches to scenography that are inspired by cyclic patterns found in nature—ways of working that daw upon 3.8 billion years of life-enhancing conditions.
Unlike typical theatre productions where the performance season is precedent, Ecoscenography is comprised of three stages that are considered equally fundamental to the aesthetic consideration of the work—co-creation (preproduction), celebration (production) and circulation (post-production). Foundationally, this is about reconsidering our dominant ‘creation to dispose’ mentality to realign ourselves with living systems design, where the artistic ‘outcome’ becomes one of ‘further becoming’ that extends well beyond opening night. By highlighting examples of practice from across the world, I suggest that Ecoscenography provides exciting opportunities for designers to explore new materials, processes and aesthetics that enhance the social and environmental advocacy our field.
Dr Tanja Beer is an ecological designer and community artist who is passionate about co-creating shared spaces for the benefit of humans and nature. Originally trained as a performance designer and theatre maker, Tanja’s work increasingly crosses many disciplines, often collaborating with landscape architects, urban ecologists, climate scientists, horticulturists and placemakers to inspire communication and action on ecological issues. Her most celebrated project is The Living Stage: a global initiative that combines stage design, horticulture and community engagement to create recyclable, biodegradable, biodiverse and edible event spaces. Tanja has a PhD from the University of Melbourne and is a Senior Lecturer in Design at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Australia. Tanja’s pioneering concept of Ecoscenography has been featured in numerous programs, exhibitions, articles and platforms around the world. Her monograph on Ecoscenography: An Introduction to Ecological Design for Performance was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2021.