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Llynnau Mymbyr

Snowdonia National Park

About 12 months ago I found myself in the stunning Snowdonia landscape on Egin; a residency organised by National Theatre Wales and Natural Resources Wales which invited responses to climate change. I was one of 13 artists on the residency and after several visits in the local area to gain insight into the National Park’s own unique experience of climate change, we were settling in for the first of four Climate Conversations featuring guest artists and speakers, this one centred around the theme of ‘Land.’

Dr. Aaron Thierry, ecologist and campaigner, wasted no time in relaying the situation: ‘we are now at the beginning of the 6th era of mass extinction, this one brought about by human activity. Ultimately, the survival of our civilisation and all other organisms is at stake: and if we don’t figure this out really quickly then we’re in a real mess. We need artists to engage with this because people are not listening to scientists. We need these stories to be told.’

I didn’t know where to start. Or rather, how to continue. I have spent years following my instincts: designing sets with an eye on what existing materials might be to hand, trawling charity shops and online for second hand costume items. This suddenly felt like nowhere near enough, and I didn’t know what to do.

Fortunately Aaron concluded with a moment of hope; a call to arms: ‘I have an invitation to you all: Step up, be part of this moment and use all the skills and the background and your unique experiences to make your contribution to this moment.’ The time is now.

I love the theatre ecosystem: a community of multi-skilled individuals working together to create exciting, engaging and relevant stories. We are interconnected - both with one another and with the wider sphere of those who join us as spectators and participants. There are, however, parts of our ecosystem that are not working as they should, and lockdown has served as a huge magnification of some of the problems we face, and passively accept, on a daily basis. The ecological choices I make in my personal life don’t always carry over into my work: I’m a definite convert to shampoo bars over plastic bottles, but will also have a hand in creating thousands of plastic molecule scraps whenever I need to do a bit of poly carving for a set.

I know many of us have been reconsidering our practice in relation to sustainability, and we would not be doing that if there were not an issue to be considered. However much we might argue there are more damaging industries out there, we cannot deny that performance creates its share of ecological issues, made uncomfortably visible by the overflowing skip during a get-out, and the boxes of unopened, unused flyers that are scrapped at the end of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We need to acknowledge that theatre is not a bubble: it is part of a wider ecosystem that with our own everyday practice we can choose to nourish, or to neglect.

So, with a deep breath, I have continued my journey of ecological performance making. With the stories I tell and the materials I use, I consider the purpose of what I make, and whether I am being the change that I want to see. And I don’t always get it right, but that’s a necessary step in my learning.

It is easy to feel disparate. When push comes to shove, sustainability is so often side-lined in favour of time and budgetary constraints (I include myself in this). Without initial conversations on the potential of a sustainable project brief at the outset, we do not know who else on a project acknowledges its significance. Quite simply: where do we even start when considering sustainability in performance?

With this in mind, I would like to introduce you to Ecostage, an initiative that aims to unify the ecologically-minded in the performance industry: designers, directors, stage managers, marketing and collaboration departments - anybody who has a view to be more sustainable in their field. Originally conceived by Ecoscenographers Tanja Beer, Andrea Carr and Alice Hoult, I have been part of a team to re-envision it for 2020.

Andrea, Paul Burgess, Mona Kastell and myself, recently joined by Hannah Myers and Michaela Field, have been beavering away over lockdown to formulate a practical Ecostage website that presents guidelines for working ecologically in performance. This includes building a thriving and supportive community by looking at the whole theatre model in relation to inclusivity, global perspectives and the wellbeing of ourselves and others. We want to make Ecostage a useful tool in applying ecological thinking to any stage of the performance sector, including resources and inspiring case studies as well as the option to publicly commit to working sustainably in the Ecostage Pledge, thereby having your ecological values publicly recognised and acknowledged.

We are currently at the stage of crowdfunding for Ecostage to pay for a website builder, hosting, and other costs such as exploring how we can expand the initiative. Ecostage’s focus will grow to include an educational platform: short courses, mentorship and upskilling in collaboration with academics and hands-on practitioners. With a constantly evolving review process, Ecostage will be able to change with the times and contribute to a flourishing future. We have been working voluntarily on the project, and are passionate about the effect it could have on boosting ecological practice across the industry. Ecostage is not a list of commandments: there is no ‘expert’ in the situation we find ourselves in. It is a place to go when you feel ready to explore ecological practice, and you can be early on in that journey or have been considering it for years. You can be an individual, or part of an organisation. You can work on huge tours, regional work or fringe productions. Ecostage unifies us, and offers practical guidance for anyone in the arts sector to apply to the climate crisis.

You can read more about the Ecostage project on the crowdfunding page. There’s also a holding page for our website where you can download a copy of our press release. If you feel you can, please donate what you can to the Crowdfunder, or help us to spread the world amongst your networks and social media channels - any support is gratefully received. It feels so right to be doing this now: to seize the opportunity of lockdown; to make a stand together and pledge to change performance practice for the better. What future will we be in for if we don’t take this opportunity?

Ruth Stringer

Theatre Designer

Interventions on the Landscape

Plastic dress made by Ruth Stringer

Choreography and performance by Vikram Iyengar

Photo by Steve Peake

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