This interview took place on the Woirworung land of the Kulin Nation. I acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants and traditional custodians of the nation and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.
Earlier this year, I chatted with Tanja Beer about ECOSCENOGRAPHY and how it provides a revolutionary, all-encompassing approach to improving sustainability in theatre. Tanja is a pioneer in this field and gives lectures globally on the topic, she also started the Facebook group and global movement ECOSCENOGRAPHY.
You can also see more of Tanja on Pigfoot Theatre’s digital series Lockdown Greenup live on Facebook this week.
My work focuses on ecological design for performance, or what I call, ‘ecoscenography’. I’ve been working as a set and costume designer for 20 years, but in the last five, I’ve been moving out of the theatre into public spaces. I now work in what is known as ‘the expanded field’ of scenography, which I describe simply as ‘stage design that has left the building to intersect with daily life’.
I started having difficulty [with theatre] about ten years ago. Within my personal life I was trying hard to be a good ‘eco-citizen’ – recycling, composting and considering my carbon footprint. I’ve always been passionate about ecological and social issues, but somehow theatre gave me the license to do things I would never do at home.
One moment that felt [significant] was watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2005. That was a wakeup call for most of us that climate change is happening. For me, it was like; “I’m just a stage-designer, what can I do?”. I felt a strong sense of helplessness at the situation.
I was working at the Melbourne Museum as an exhibition designer at the time, and they had just brought in a new sustainability policy. The whole team was on board, from the carpenters to the curators. The general attitude was “Yeah let’s do this”.
As part of my job, I received a manuscript about sustainable materials and processes. It was like opening Pandora’s Box of information. I thought: I can’t go back now. I had become aware of too many things. But when I started Googling ‘Theatre design and sustainability’, one or two random websites came up (mostly in America). I thought, “This is crazy. Why aren’t we talking about this? Our industry, it’s unique, but so is exhibition design and they can do it!”
That’s what prompted me to start my PhD on Ecoscenography in 2011. Based in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, I was lucky to be surrounded by people in sustainability, urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture who’d been thinking about this topic a lot longer than we have.
Theatre is about 30 years behind architecture in terms of sustainable practice. If you look at architecture’s history and trajectory on sustainability, it had similar resistances at the start. No one likes change.
We’re talking about a paradigm shift ultimately and that’s not a little bit of tinkering around the edges, it’s starting to change the way we think about making theatre.
That causes a great deal of tension and friction in people who’ve been doing theatre for a long time and are experts at what they do. But we’re not living in a time that we can be complacent anymore and I think everyone’s waking up to that.
Because it’s worked so far they’re like, “What’s the difference?”
Exactly. I don’t know if we’re going to change the old guard, but the next generation of theatre-makers and designers aren’t going to stand for it. It’s a slow process, it won’t happen tomorrow. But it will happen.
When I started talking about sustainability, people were very resistant. They said it’s “expensive, boring, time-consuming, limiting” – they had all these negative connotations attached to it. Somebody even said that “theatre and sustainability don’t mix”, so that’s common rhetoric too.
If we’re moving into a new world [their attitude] seems to imply we just shouldn’t have theatre in the future, if we can’t change it to keep up with the changing world.
Yes. It’s not surprising because in our broader society we tend to see sustainability as a problem to solve rather than an opportunity. There’s a tendency to see sustainability as an arduous and painful process, rather than, “look at all the awesome things we could do”. We need to change this mindset if we are to move forward.
Sustainability is about ecology, society and culture. These aren’t separate. We used to talk about sustainability being environmental, but if you want to get people engaged, then you have to change hearts and minds – and that’s cultural.
Ecoscenography is essentially about bringing performance design into an increased awareness of broader concerns around climate change and ecological issues. The latest thinking in sustainability is all about positive contribution: not only mitigating and minimising impact, but creating positive environmental and social outcomes – essentially giving back.
That’s the challenge of shifting how we think. It’s about thrive-ability. It’s about asking the question, “can we create designs that not only enrich our audience but our community and environment as well?”. That’s what I am calling for in the future of our field.
Could you tell me more about your upcoming Ecoscenography book?
Ecoscenography: an introduction of ecological design for performance (Palgrave Macmillan 2021) is based on my PhD research which I completed in 2016. In the book, I argue that 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.
What do you see as the most significant negative impact the arts currently has on sustainability?
Waste. The highly specific nature of stage design means we have a high turnover of materials (sets and costumes). Toxicity is another impact that is often overlooked in how we treat costumes, sets and props and too often are a health and safety issue too.
What are the biggest hurdles companies face in their transitions?
The biggest hurdle is shifting from our linear ‘take, make, dispose’ attitude to more cyclical ways of working. This means moving beyond Opening Night as the “be all and end all” to appreciate the making and unmaking of our practices. How can we give value to every stage of the process? That’s a key focus of my book.
What were the most surprising things you found in transitioning your practice?
I like improvising and allowing things to evolve in my design process, so I think ecoscenography has been liberating for me because it makes space for serendipitous opportunities. I enjoy finding, reusing and making something extraordinary out of the seemingly ordinary. A central part of my work is about respecting materials and acknowledging their implications in the wider world.
The last one is more of a personal one, do you have any outside-of-your-field or industry sustainability tips that you recommend to people? What’s your composting situation?
I lived in an apartment in South Yarra for a year with no composting options. I have trouble sleeping at night when I don’t compost. So, I ended up freezing my bio-waste and each week I’d pack it into a small portable suitcase and travel by tram to deposit the contents into the University’s community garden. It didn’t smell because it was frozen so nobody knew it was in there which I found quite amusing. It was literally my dirty little secret! I see composting is a political act of defiance against the neoliberal structures that underpin our modern society. It is also a great start in understanding and appreciating circular systems.