Environmental ethics and artistic practise: can they speak the same language? What does environmentally careful design look like?

This is the text I prepared for the above panel, at Making Theatre Green, at the National Theatre, London, 6th June 2022. What I actually said was inevitably a little different, but this version is clearer to read than a transcript with all my ums, errs, omissions and mistakes!

When I was around 12 or 13, I dug out my old Playmobil figures and made scale model sets for them. They’re quite close to 1:25, actually! I first painted the back wall of the school hall for a show when I was about 15. An early starter, you might think?

Well. According to a newspaper clipping my mum found the other day, I got a brief write up in the Harlow Star, aged 10, for saving up my pocket money to plant trees. 

And, frankly, it escalated from there.

So… I’ve been involved in environmental campaigning longer than I’ve been designing shows. But the crazy thing is how, until a few years ago, I totally compartmentalised the two.

Why did it take so long for me to bring these two obsessions together?

Well, that question is, in a way, the same question as the one before us now. I didn’t see the two things as compatible mainly because of a fear that I’d be making everything from yoghurt pots and loo rolls.

I was wrong, of course. I may have initially got involved in activism for ethical reasons, but I have been paid back in creative revelations.

Now, I’m sure amazing things can be done with yoghurt pots and loo rolls. In fact, I recently backlit old plastic water bottles set into board to mimic light-bulb lettering. Looked pretty cool, if I say so myself. But environmentally careful design is far more exciting than that.

Most interesting for me, I think, is materiality. How I’m now confident to start a design process not with a top-down artistic vision that others then must struggle to realise, and which can only be as green as accurate realisation allows, but, for example, by poking around in a reclaimed wood yard in Croydon

Because being true to materials – and indeed to the reality of the making process – speaks to an aesthetic truthfulness that, in the end, I believe, leads to better, more truthful work.

I’ll come back to that, because now I want to talk about the collective journey many of us designers have taken together.

In my case, this is through the Society of British Theatre Designers and Ecostage. But these are just two among a growing ecosystem of organisations and individuals currently responding to the terrifying and urgent crisis of social, economic and environmental justice we find ourselves in.

Part of me would now like to boast for a while about the SBTD’s Sustainable Design Group: the carbon literacy training we’re developing, the hands-on testing of “eco” materials we’ve been doing, the meetings to learn from people inside and outside the sector…

But you’ll have to get in touch to find out more because, instead, I’ve been finding out from some members of the group how working ecologically has been a creative breakthrough for them. 

I’d actually like to ask all our members this. I think it would make a great blog post, if anyone from SBTD comms is out there listening!

But for now, if you think working with waste is a limitation, ask Andrea Carr about Stuck, where she gathered discarded camping kit after Reading festival and made an amazing set and costumes from it. After washing it.

If you think being green limits your inspiration, ask Alison Neighbour about the profound influence of place and landscape on her work. 

And while today shows us there’s no reason, if we put enough time in, for a full-scale show here in the Olivier not to be entirely green, talking to other working group members reminds us that magic can happen in other ways too. Ask Sarah Booth about how a perfect conjunction of place and season led to delighting an audience of kids by gathering 150 fallen maple leaves for them to find. Ask Jessica Curtis about creating a literal garden for a project.

Ecological thinking teaches us that the best answers emerge from a multiplicity and diversity of voices. Work for kids, work made in the Brecon Beacons, is just as central to this journey as any other.

And when those on the panel have spoken I hope we’ll hear from many others, especially the quieter voices in the room. And those of you watching online. 

This conversation makes no sense if it’s exclusive. 

You’ll notice I’m not just talking about sustainability. I’m talking about ecology, and to be ecological is – fundamentally – to reject the lies that isolate us. To admit our profound connectedness – to nature, to our bodies, to the microbiomes that inhabit us, to each other, our societies, our planet. 

If we can deny our connectedness, as so many western models ask us to do, then we can exploit nature, ignore each others’ suffering, push our bodies beyond their limits. We can end up where we are today.

Once we stop that lie, we have to face up to the enormity of what Western civilisation has done. But the flip side of that is how we find purpose, and meaning, and a profound philosophical basis for our art.

Which brings me Ecostage.

This is even easier to talk about without going off topic. Creativity is one of its seven guiding principles. 

Although Ecostage is for everyone, and all sorts of people from across the performing arts are involved, the driving force behind it has always been designers. That’s true of the original 2015 Ecostage Pledge and its more wide-ranging reincarnation today. 

Is that because our artistry is so bound up with practical, material and technical concerns? Maybe. Ecostage is very much about synthesis; of ideas and practice, of sustainability, well-being and creativity.

Ecostage’s aim is to put ecological thinking at the heart of performing arts practice. There’s a website, with a set of guiding principles for practitioners, an updated pledge and a range of resources. There’s a community you can join, and we’re now developing an offline presence, such as workshops. My colleague Andrea Carr is also here today. We’d love to tell you more.

The principles are at the heart though, and I very, very quickly want to look at one aspect of how they address creativity: the two-way relationship between nature and art that ecologically-minded creativity offers us. 

On the one hand, Ecostage asks us to ‘engage creativity and play as tools for change, and dream up new possibilities together.” We can bring our creativity to bear on our search for a more ecologically balanced world. 

On the other, we can “let Nature nurture, inspire and teach us”. Being open to a more ecologically balanced world can in turn, drive our creativity. 

Environmental ethics and artistic practise don’t just speak the same language, their relationship is symbiotic. In fact, Will Reynolds, another working group member, told me how weirdly out of date it now feels to conceive of making art that doesn’t engage with the world in that way.

So that’s what the last few years have taught me. That there’s a direct line from thinking about where we source our timber to how we carry an audience with us.

There’s also an argument for theatre’s bigger social role, and how we can help shift the wider culture… but that’s definitely going to take me over time! 

What strikes me here and now, however, is how, collectively, we’re part of an artistic movement as well as an environmental one. If you step back you can see it clearly.

By thinking ecologically, by admitting our profound connectedness, we have to start being truthful about how we exist in the world, even when it’s uncomfortable. And what better qualification for making theatre could there possibly be than that?

Photo: Cece’s Speakeasy at The Albany, Deptford. Set made from reclaimed wood.
Photographer: Suzi Corker

Artistic director: Zena Edwards
Musical director: Eric Appapoulay
Set, costume and video design: Paul Burgess
Associate designer: Carly Brownbridge
Producer: Lisa Mead

Full credits: https://applesandsnakes.org/project/ceces-speakeasy/

4 thoughts on “Environmental ethics and artistic practise: can they speak the same language? What does environmentally careful design look like?

  1. Thanks for your transcript Paul. I thought that you were very clear and put your points across well. Both you are Sadeysa were very approachable and sincere in your delivery

      1. Hi Paul. No problem, I’m sure we’ll catch up at another event soon. Perhaps at a SBTD event.
        Also, I am now at Mountview College lecturing full time, so perhaps we can organise a talk by you for our students at some relevant point in their scheme of work and when you are available and it’s convenient for you?
        Chat soon

      2. I hope so! As you say, maybe at an SBTD thing. I’ll be at ABTT too, if you’re going to be there? And I’d be very happy to talk to students as and when it fits with the course.

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