We are delighted to have a feature about our 2015 production Uprooted in the Society of British Theatre Designers Magazine ‘Blue Pages’. The full article that was published can be read below!
Creating Scotland’s First Living Stage by Tanja Beer and Mona Kastell
Eco Drama is a small children’s theatre company based in Glasgow that combines theatre making with ecological thinking. Its artistic director Emily Reid is passionate about creative learning projects that strive to embed sustainability and ecology at the heart of the experience. Her work is all about using theatre to inspire a greater awareness of the natural world and embracing ecological stories and environmental impacts as opportunities rather than constraints.
This summer, Mona and I were fortunate to work with Eco Drama on Uprooted: a unique theatre production for children and families, fusing live performance with living plants. The show was originally inspired by Emily’s desire to create a travelling garden that could brighten up many of Glasgow’s concrete playgrounds. The play featured three characters (suitably named Plum, Lily and Basil) amongst a curious world of plants in an enchanting tale of kinship and home, told through music, movement and multi-sensory storytelling.
My role as ecoscenographer and theatre designer on Uprooted was to help create Scotland’s first ‘living stage’– a recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance space that combines permaculture with stage design. The Living Stage is a global concept that I developed as part of my research in ecological theatre design. Part theatre and part garden, the project collaborates with local permaculturists to build ‘living’ stages that are specific to site and community.
Eco Drama’s Living Stage was created as part of Eco-Drama’s ‘Out to Play’ program and involved working with four Glasgow primary schools to design, grow and build the theatre set. Mona came on board as my assistant designer and ‘local knowledge’ to help create the set and costumes for the show. The idea was to also pass on my ecoscenography experience to a local designer, who could then continue to learn and develop these skills long after I left.
As well as working with permaculturist Katie Lambert to grow the stage, Mona and I also sourced locally found and reclaimed materials to create a space that would showcase the greenery. Sourcing things for the production quickly turned into an adventure – a scavenger hunt for finding the beauty in all things rejected and discarded. Having two pairs of ‘designer eyes’ meant we could find twice as many possibilities in the rubbish heap and rejoice in our discoveries together. There is a special thrill that comes from finding pre-loved things and bringing them back from obscurity. Giving a forgotten object another ‘life’ on stage is an excitement that I don’t get with conventional shopping.
Touring a set with living plants is no easy feat. Mona and I endured multiple get-ins in the pouring rain, not to mention the lugging back and forth of two truckloads of precarious plants and set items between rehearsals. I was so relieved when Mona decided to jump on board as stage manager and braved touring the ambitious design. Leaving my set with another designer – who not only understood the specifics of the touring construction but also the integral aesthetics of the design – was a much needed advantage.
After Uprooted finished touring, The Living Stage was returned to one of the schools who helped plant it. Installed as a permanent feature in the playground, the set turned an ugly metal fence into a beautiful space for future gardening and storytelling. Sharing this experience with another designer was very rewarding. Mona and I both knew the challenges that went into creating such an ambitious design and the long journey it had been on. After months of preparation and touring, the stage had finally found a resting place, a ‘home’ amongst the children who helped plant the first seeds. It was wonderful to see the children embrace their new playspace and to know that the set would continue to be used for many years to come.
Uprooted was a project close to my heart because it combined ecological practices with theatre design. While sustainability is something I naturally do in my own practice, I never really made a statement of it. When I work on a theatre project, my first stops are charity shops, scrapyards, skips and local shops and trying to reuse as much as possible. High street shops and online shopping are my last resource but this probably started with the challenge of having small budgets before realising the substantial waste in the industry.
Tanja designed the show with reclaimed objects that we found during our shopping trips. It was good to introduce her to my favourite local places and find 2nd hand objects and set pieces that the actors and director could devise a story from. It was quite different from the traditional ways of designing from a model box. I was particularly impressed by the ‘zero-waste’ set and how it was repurposed to create a permanent art installation in one of the schools. It let the children appreciate the lifecycle of the plants and also to avoid another theatre set being forgotten in storage.
Working outdoors for most of the project was lush and made me feel connected to nature and people – much nicer than being stuck in a black box for days. I garden at home on my balcony and it was lovely to actually do it as part of the design. I learned a lot of gardening tips from Katie, the permaculturist on the project. This included the chance to create the planted hats for the performance which everyone was excited about. The biggest challenge was to keep the plants stable and lively enough for each show.
When the show was ready to go on the road, I jumped at the offer of being the project’s stage manager. I wasn’t ready to let go yet. Transitioning from my role as assistant designer to touring as stage manager was quite particular. Suddenly the relationships changed and I was telling the designer what I needed! But I am glad I did it. At first I was hesitant about spreading my skills too much, but it showed me how the design works while touring and how sometimes we don’t see things until we are on the road. I definitely mastered the art of the drill fixing bits and pieces on the set! It was a big set to be touring for such a small company and the performers were very helpful and essential to the setting up of the stage. For example, to help with the get-in, we created a colour and number-coded system for each plant to find its place on set for the whole tour. Each performer would set their own corner of the set as they had the best knowledge of the plants that they were performing with.
This way of designing sets with found objects (rather than working from a preconceived plan or idea) gave me back my confidence in set design. I intend to make a point of sustainability when I next work with other companies, stating my wish to reduce waste and hoping they will embrace the change.
Mona: I was taking a short course on model making during the project and ended up making a model box for the project after the set was built. This was quite unusual as it wasn’t needed for the project itself (but a good exercise in any case).
Tanja Beer Biography
Tanja Beer is a scenographer and performance maker exploring the intersection between performance and ecological design. Her projects seek to re-think traditional design practices and re-interpret materials to embrace the possibilities of ‘ecoscenography’ – a movement that integrates ecological principles into all stages of scenographic thinking and production. Tanja has more than 15 years professional experience, including 60 designs for projects in London, Cardiff, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Vienna and Tokyo. She has received numerous grants and awards, and was recently ‘Activist-in-Residence’ at Julie’s Bicycle (London).
Mona Kastell Biography
Mona Kastell is a theatre designer with a strong interest in social and ecological conscious design. She creates exciting visual concepts through a collaborative approach, integrating sustainable set design as part of her work, and is questioning the boundaries of costume as starting point for performance. Based in Edinburgh, her work includes collaborations on stage, street and physical theatre, experimental work and dance. Mona facilitated the Uprooted project to be a part of the ArtCop Scotland exhibition in Edinburgh during the Pairs UN Climate negotiations last November.