Sustainable Design and the SBTD

Paul Burgess

Photo 1: 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo credit: Simon Kane

Up until recently, being an ecologically-minded performance designer was a fairly lonely business. While there are a few groups engaging with sustainability across the theatre industry and beyond, such as SIPA, Julie’s Bicycle, Culture Declares Emergency and of course Staging Change, there wasn’t a forum specifically for designers and the specialist knowledge they require. That’s now changed. As part of its recent exhibition Staging Places at the V&A, The Society of British Theatre Designers held a series of free and open roundtable discussions on various topics, including sustainable theatre design. This led to a group of us forming a working group, now known as The Sustainable Design Group, to act as a hub for designers wishing to work together to make their work greener. We’re no longer on our own.


For those who don’t know, the SBTD is the national professional association for theatre designers. Founded in 1975, it carries out a wide range of activities such as working with the unions and sister associations like the ALD to campaign for better contracts, representing UK performance design abroad at events like the Prague Quadrennial, providing practical support like advice and insurance, mounting a major national exhibition of UK theatre design every four years, and organising meetings and social events around the country. Since the foundation of our working group a few months ago, it can add campaigning for sustainable design to that list. You can find out more on the SBTD’s freshly revamped website at www.theatredesign.org.uk.


Operating under the umbrella of the SBTD, The Sustainable Design Group has been meeting regularly on Zoom, and is currently focused on creating a database of materials, organisations and other useful info, investigating training (which we hope to do via the Carbon Literacy Project), and analysing case studies to try and understand what the opportunities for a greener practice might be. If you’d like to get involved, please feel free to drop us a line at sustainability@theatredesign.org.uk. While the group is primarily intended for SBTD members, some of our sessions are open to all and we’d love to hear from anyone interested. That said, if you’re a designer, do please consider joining the SBTD (and if you’re not but you have an interest in performance design, you can join the SBTD as an associate).

Photo 2: Andrea Carr’s design for 'Stuck'. Photo credit: Kasia Rucinska

As it happens, a couple of designers who have been quietly getting on with greening their practices were featured in the Staging Places exhibition. One of the UK’s most high-profile practitioners, Soutra Gilmour, describes her commitment to ‘eco design’ on her website and it shows a very grounded and practical determination to build sustainability into all levels of her work, while a particularly striking example of sustainable practice is Andrea Carr’s design for Stuck, in which set and costumes were all made from discarded camping equipment, gathered (and then very throughly washed) in the aftermath of Reading Festival. Andrea Carr describes herself as an ecoscenographer, a term that that has particularly been promoted by another designer, Tanja Beer, who runs the excellent Ecoscenography group on Facebook, and whose website ecoscenography.com is also a great resource.


Photo 3: Andrea Carr’s design for 'Stuck'. Photo credit: Kasia Rucinska

Andrea, Tanja, and others also set up something called Ecostage; another outcome of the V&A roundtable was that it helped provide an impetus for a much-needed overhaul of this project. Independent, and designer-led, Ecostage centres on a series of pledge points. These aren’t impossible targets. It acknowledges that the theatre industry can’t go zero-carbon overnight. Instead, they’re focused on ways to place ecological thinking at the heart of our creative and working practices. Those who sign up can download the Ecostage logo to use on their websites, email footers etc, to show their commitment. The site also provides guidance and case studies.


The original website, which dates from 2015, currently isn’t working, so please don’t try to sign up right now. But, following the roundtable, a few of us from the SBTD joined up with some of the project’s founders to work on a new version. This should be up and running soon and will be at www.ecostage.online. It will run along the same principles as the original site, with the pledge and logo, but be more rooted in practice and will allow its signatories to share their experiences with each other via a large collection of case studies. News of the revamp is already attracting a lot of interest, not just from ‘creatives’ but from production managers, technicians and many others. The original version of Ecostage attracted practitioners from all around the globe, and we’ll build on this. In the long-term, we hope to get major venues to sign up too. I really hope that the Staging Change community will be part of this exciting journey.


Photo 4: 'The Dumb Waiter' by Harold Pinter. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

It’s not always easy being green, as I’m sure everyone involved in Staging Change knows! I’ve talked to a lot of people over recent months about the barriers that face us. Some people are intimidated by the sheer scale of the problem, others just don’t know where to start. Some people don’t feel well enough informed: I mean, how do you weigh up a long van journey to pick up recycled materials versus getting brand new material locally? Some don’t want to be the ‘difficult one’ in the production meeting; the one who makes suggestions that might add to time and cost. Some start out with good intentions but see their plans discarded in the last-minute rush to open the show. I spoke at an event for production managers just before the lockdown and was struck by how quite a few of these brilliant problem solvers, who have overcome incredible difficulties to get shows up and running, felt intimidated by the challenge of making theatre sustainable.


These problems seem insurmountable when you’re the lone voice in the room. But by bringing together specialist research, experience and training through forums like The Sustainable Design Group, by creating industry-wide communities for sharing knowledge and support like Staging Change, and by making a highly public, internationally-recognised commitment through Ecostage, a green, sustainable theatre industry suddenly seems much more achievable.


Photo 5: 'The Dumb Waiter' by Harold Pinter. Photo credit: Marc Brenner


Paul Burgess is a set, costume and video designer, and artistic director of Daedalus Theatre Company. He is on the committee of The Society of British Theatre Designers, part of the SBTD’s Sustainable Design Group and the Ecostage steering group and a member of the Staging Change network, as well as a Green Party activist. www.paul-burgess.co.uk



Upcoming event: Designers Drinks hosted by the SBTD Sustainable Design Group

9th July 2020, 6.30pm (BST).


As ever, this a great to chance to catch up with each other, and get up-to-date with the SBTD’s latest activities. But this time… with a theme! The event will hosted by the SBTD’s Sustainable Design Group, who’ll give us a quick update on their work before opening up the discussion to get your thoughts on how we as designers can make theatre greener. More info



Information about the photos:


Photo 1: Ace Mahbaz, Nadia Nadarajah and Alim Jayda in Deafinitely Theatre’s British Sign Language production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, directed by Paula Garfield and designed by Paul Burgess. Most the costumes were reconfigured from second-hand clothes: Puck’s jerkin was made from a job lot of 40 old ties found on eBay. Photo credit: Simon Kane


Photo 2: Costume details from HOAX production’s Stuck, designed by Andrea Carr and directed by Lucy Hopkins, touring to the Prague Fringe and various UK venues. As a result of using salvaged camping equipment, the materials budget for the project was tiny, but process took a huge amount of work. Photo credit: Kasia Rucinska


Photo 3: The set for HOAX production’s Stuck, designed by Andrea Carr and directed by Lucy Hopkins, touring to the Prague Fringe and various UK venues. The production gave life new life to 60 abandoned sleeping bags and tents salvaged at the end of Reading Festival, which were used to make both set and costumes. Photo credit: Kasia Rucinska


Photo 4: Martin Freedman and Danny Dyer in The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter, designed by Soutra Gilmour and directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Pinter Theatre for the Pinter at the Pinter season. Costumes were almost entirely hired, rather than bought new. Photo credit: Marc Brenner


Photo 5: Pinter 3, designed by Soutra Gilmour and directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Pinter Theatre for the Pinter at the Pinter season. The set used one box as the lynchpin for the whole season of nearly six months, with minimal set added on top. Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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