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Wanderings and Wonderings of a Mudlarking Designer

I’ve spent a lot of time during lockdown, wandering along the foreshore of the Thames, moseying about in the shingle and the mud, with no fixed goal other than to gently pick through the washed-up items of curiosity that the Thames so readily spews out with each turn of the tide. And you get a real mixture – lots of lovely things: fragments of blue china, smoothed coloured river glass, hundreds of old clay pipes from the Victorian smokers. And you find a lot of rubbish, which is depressing. But even the rubbish is interesting. Each item is unique, aged, mysterious; displaying fragments of detail and life which carry so much identity and story.

It’s got me thinking more so than ever about the materials we create our designs from and how that ties into the idea of sustainable production design. At the moment we are used to the status-quo of building from the new; from steel and fresh wood, and layering it will all manner of plastics, adhesives, pastes and paints, many of which are damaging our environment in all sorts of different ways, and render the set build impossible to recycle after the run finishes.

I’ve been wondering about designs which are based in found objects, recycled items, and sustainable materials. We know that it’s likely production budgets will be smaller when we return to work, and maybe one way to look at this is that cheaper design could go hand in hand with eco design. There’s been talk of a guerrilla style approach to making work – low budget and wild, akin to the radical Arte Povera Movement of the 70s. An approach that is unconventional, a little nerve-wracking but certainly an exciting one. And we could fuse this new approach with sustainability. Could it be a play about consumerism told from inside a cathedral of washed-up plastic bags? Or a piece about fast fashion where dancers emerge through curtains of stitched together thrown-away clothing, and wearing it as well?

We need time to experiment with new processes, and we need builders and makers open to collaboration and new methods of working. We need companies to be open to radically different approaches, and as designers we need to lead this thinking and inspire the teams we work with.

These are just a few small ideas, part of the much wider fight to rejuvenate production design into a sustainable field of work, but I’m excited about the possibilities. I was inspired by chatting to Jess Bernberg and Joshua Pharo, who are two of a collective of brilliant lighting designers within the ALD currently involved in putting together a set of guidelines for lighting and video designers to work to - a ‘Green Code of Practice’.  I think as set and costume designers we should be thinking about something similar, a new code of practice that we could sign up to, that then tells people you are committed to working in the most sustainable ways possible on all the shows you create.

I’ve begun a small document with ideas for green ways of working, it’s only short, and the ideas roughly put together, but maybe a start in putting together something a lot weightier. I’d love it if this turned into a collaborative working document, and fed into a bigger dialogue between lots of designers. Let’s join the voices hoping that cultural renewal and reopening will be a sustainable one, so that the art form we know and love will have a place rooted in a new greener world. Can we make Scene Change instrumental in the fight against the climate crisis? 

Link to working document - Ideas for Eco-friendly and Ethical Set and Costume Design:

Frankie Bradshaw

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