After the Curtain Falls

An essay by Hamish Muir

One of the key issues with the production of waste in theatre productions is that as soon as the curtain falls on the final performance, the set, the props and the costumes instantly become valueless. They no longer have a purpose and are simply the remains of theatre, like a molted snakeskin. Unless the performance is going to be brought back at a later point or go on tour (which can pose constraints regarding storage and transport), the scenic materials need to be disposed of as quickly and cheaply as possible. Many theatre makers have faced the eventuality of having to dispose of large amounts of scenic material that cannot be recycled or reused no matter how willing they are to act more sustainably.

What can we do about this situation? How can we help theatre practitioners make less wasteful choices and devise a plan for disposal that is pragmatically possible to implement, without adding costs or compromising on artistry? The answer potentially lies at the beginning of the production rather than the end. The pursuit of a regenerative or circular economy aims to design out waste at the conceptual phase. This is a creative opportunity for theatre. If we regarded a set design that produces waste as an example of poor design, we could come up with interesting and unexpected solutions that seek to overcome this. Would there be a way to design a set so that the waste materials from one production can be fed in as raw materials for the next? How would that affect the way the set design looks and the way the set design is received as a work of art in a time of climate crisis?

The circular economy has been discussed and adopted to some extent in industries such as product design and manufacturing. Waste materials are avoided either by using raw materials that do not produce waste by-products or by reusing the waste by-products as raw materials. It is easier to apply this philosophy to products that are mass-produced as the same by-products are created. For instance, a car manufacturer will use the same materials for many car units and so the type of waste created will be the same in each case. Whilst there are some materials that are used regularly in theatre, such as ply board, MDF, steel frames, and canvas, the by-products in theatre are more irregular and so harder to predict, which makes it harder to plan for.

On some level, a circular economy in theatre is a utopian fantasy. The notion that the nutrients of one production will be sufficient for another to grow out of could create a diminishing cycle of worn materials and derivative ideas. Consider the following thought experiment: a theatre company restricts themselves to devising productions (stories, characters, themes, sets and all) purely based on the old scenic materials and other waste by-products from a previous production. This cycle is iterated many times, each production inspired by the previous one. Would this evolve into a fruitful mode of practice that has one hand in the past and one in the future or would it simply produce a theatre of ruin, a theatre of rubbish?

There are some theatre makers whose practices speak to the spirit of this experiment. Jasper Deeter established Hedgerow Theatre Company in 1923 in Pennsylvania. The repertory company developed a seasonally driven craft and lifestyle that was site specific and used local materials – often from previous productions. Building kitchen gardens and servicing the whole site were part of the performance process. They learned together from previous productions. They used stock settings, mirrors, collapsible furniture and some permanent structural frames. Deeter was motivated by being anti-Broadway more than being ecologically conscious and the work at Hedgerow is not a model for all theatre but the ideas around site-specificity, linking theatre and climatic seasonality, and self-sufficient food production as performance are intriguing. The practice of repertory performance could be reinvented as a form of sustainable theatre.

Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow Theatre in Story Time

More recently, Sarah Levinksy’s Plastic Island (2012) used waste from a previous show as the raw material for its scenography. Levinsky employs ‘scrapheap improvisation’, where she looks to reinvent objects as a design and engineering challenge. Levinksy starts first with the physical material as a means to inspire work and the performance is then sculpted from there.

Plastic Island by Sarah Levinsky, 2017, Photo by Rachel Ferriman

There are other examples of performers who have directly used waste as part of the performance, such as Sarah Vanhee’s Oblivion (2017), which featured Vanhee unpacking waste that she had accumulated over a year.

Even though production waste can be reinvented in these ways, how many times can the waste be reused? There is still a question of what happens next. The circular economy can create a frustrating cyclical debate. There has to be a consideration of how the set is used after its initial reuse - and the use after that. And so on… There are a few ways that a designer can work around this.

Design for post-use

Researcher and theatre-maker Tanja Beer has been a pioneer of a regenerative approach to set design, which she terms Ecoscenography. She takes inspiration from design theories like Braungart and McDonagh’s cradle to cradle philosophy and Bill Reed’s writing on regenerative design. Beer’s practice involves improvising with material and using the act of theatre to rejuvenate wastelands. Her acclaimed work The Living Stage (2013) created a community garden over the course of a theatre production. Once the production run finished, there was a newly cultivated green space as a consequence of the theatre. This is similar to the works of Agnes Denes, such as The Living Pyramid (2015). Beer’s theatre was both an act of theatre and an act of conservation. The production increased the social, economic, and environmental value of the site. Beer gave the set design a different purpose and baked the idea into the conceptual phase of the production. When The Living Stage was finished, the performers left but the garden remained.

The Living Stage - concept and set design by Tanja Beer

There have been other performative and activist artists who have sought to say something directly about the environment by producing an act of conservation.

Buster Simpson’s practice, which he calls The Purge Series, was started in 1983. Simpson creates limestone pills that he throws into rivers. The sculptures have a protestation intention to do with the protection of rivers. But they do more than that. The limestone in the sculpture acts pharmaceutically, in that it balances the pH levels of the river. This means the sculpture is a case-in-point that has a simultaneous metaphorical purpose and a literal regenerative function.

The Purge Series by Buster Simpson, 1983 - present

Set designer and artist Jason deCaires Taylor has produced art installations underwater that act as artificial reefs and encourage marine life to remain in territories that are becoming unstable. His work The Silent Evolution (2011) features 450 human figures made from marine-grade cement. This shares some similarity with Robert Smithson’s land art Spiral Jetty (1970).

However, this sort of principle cannot suit all forms of theatre and it is only effective when the intention of sustainability is aligned with a theme or message about the environment. How could a traditional production of Shakespeare embody sustainability at the conceptual phase?

Design for Engagement

The way that the set is produced could be re-imagined. Theatre could engage with other systems, cultures and industries.

The site that the production is taking place in could be considered more. There are many examples of site-specific theatre that utilise existing environments and have a dialogue with that environment, but the production could dig further into the local ecosystems. There may be resources or businesses in the immediate vicinity to the theatre that would find the waste from theatre a useful raw material in their own operations, or there may be businesses that would aid in the making and disposal of the set. For instance, some set materials, such as furniture, could be rented or borrowed.

Theatre could engage with communities in new ways. Imagine if a children’s theatre production sent a colouring-in page alongside the ticket and asked if the finished page could be brought to the show so that the set can be constructed out of all of the completed images. The audience would create the set. The colouring-in pages could then be returned as a souvenir. This would add an interactive element to the production that would involve the audience in a new way.

There could also be an opportunity to work with graduating students of product design, interiors, architecture or expanded design fields. Instead of displaying work in a degree show, students could showcase their experimental pieces of furniture or interior design on the stage. The role of the set designer would be about curating objects rather than designing new objects from scratch. It would mean emerging designers receive exposure and the theatre production gets to use high quality and exciting pieces of contemporary design.

One of the criticisms of theatre is that it never fully engages with the issues it discusses. A show might communicate powerful social, cultural, or environmental messages but the impact may not ripple beyond the auditorium and out into society.

The way that the set is designed and used before and after the production could engage with the real issues that are being explored on stage. A show about education could donate the set materials to a school, either as a work of art or as materials that could be used in art activities. This would align the themes and the issues that the play explores.

Design for Disassembly

A more pragmatic way of looking at this issue is to simply make sure that the set is easy to dismantle into its constituent materials. For instance, using fastening joints rather than nails, bolts or screws would mean that materials could remain in the form they were when purchased. There wouldn’t even be a grain of sawdust created.

Modular and collapsible designs may imply that the set is simplified but there are creative opportunities. Modular elements can be moved easily meaning the set can take on different forms within the show. Flat-packed sets could be built during a show to perform alongside the actors, or a canopy mechanism, like an umbrella, could suddenly fold out revealing a new scene.

John Byrne’s set design for The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973) is a good example of a collapsible set. It is designed to act like a pop-up book. As the pages turn, a new structure emerges out of the crease. It holds several different scenes that collapse back into the book. This means that when it comes to transporting the set, it can simply be folded up like origami.

Design for Strike

Method statements are often required for the construction of a set but it is not so often that they are used for disassembly (unless there are significant health and safety risks). Time is valuable and a production team cannot spend a long time thinking about a thorough plan for the strike, but keeping a record or specification of the scenic materials may help to find a use for the set after the show has finished. For instance, if a list of materials were created early on in the process, then it would be easier to sell or donate the materials through an online market place. Alternatively, a break-down of the set materials could make it easier to involve a recycling company who could be pre-arranged to pick up set elements on the day the show closes.

Alternatively, the strike could be part of the theatre production itself. Whenever an old building is torn down, it often attracts a crowd. It is a form of spectacle. Theatre could play with this idea and produce dramatic forms of disposal - a literal behind the scenes tour. It could be staged as a theatrical auction or it could be a form of sculpting (de-sculpting perhaps?). If some of the set materials were consumable, could a set design be ritualistically eaten?

There is not one route to find ways of reducing waste in theatre but it is an opportunity to ask new questions of what a set design can do. The points I have discussed may have other environmental implications. For instance, the submersion of Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptures required heavy machinery and so the embodied energy of the installation will have increased because of this. But I hope that some of these examples will inspire ambitious works that not only help the environment but also create new and exciting forms of theatre. Now is the time to strike.




Agnes Denes’ portfolio -

Artworks for Change: Jason deCaires Taylor portfolio -

Barry B. Witham, A sustainable theatre: Jasper Deeter at Hedgerow (2013, Palgrave Macmillan).

Ecoscenography ‘The Living Stage’ -

Herman Prigann, Heike Strelow (ed.) Vera David (trans.) Ecological Aesthetics – Art in Environmental Design: Theory and Practice (2004: Birkhauser).

John Byrne’s set for ‘The Cheviot’ – 3D models -

Sarah Levinsky “The Performance of Leftovers”, in Performance Research, 22:8 (2017: pp.68- 76)

Tanja Beer, “Saved from the Scrapheap” in Performance Research, 22:8, (2017: pp. 107-114)

Tanja Beer “Ecomaterialism in Scenography” in Theatre and performance design. 2:1/2 (2016: Taylor & Francis: pp 161-172).

Tanja Beer’s portfolio -

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