Melbourne School of Design student Tanja Beer has garnered worldwide attention with her PhD project, The Living Stage, which will exhibit at the prestigious Prague Quadrennial and the V & A Museum in London later this year.
Tanja credits the success of the project to the innovative ideas in sustainability presented by her supervisor, Dr Dominique Hes.
“A lot of my PhD is taking in her ideas around contributive practice which is all about shifting the field into something that is more about resilience and thrive-ability. Basically, I’m taking these very contemporary ideas and implementing them in theatre.”
Prior to commencing her PhD at MSD in 2011, Tanja had spent fifteen years as a freelance set and costume designer. A field, she says, which is roughly thirty years behind architecture in terms of sustainability innovation.
“It wasn’t until I dabbled in the world outside of theatre that I got exposed to sustainability ideas in design,’’ she says.
“Sustainability in theatre is quite a niche field and it’s in its very early stages. It’s only in the last five to ten years that we’ve actually started to have discussions coming out of the theatre community that address sustainable issues.”
Like most highly innovative projects, The Living Stage was formed after Tanja began asking some pertinent questions about environmental impacts:
“Can a stage be grown? Could the community be involved in its growth?”
“More generally, could she design a stage that simultaneously enriches the audience, the community and the environment?”
The Living Stage was an experimental project to answer these questions, and has become the world’s first recyclable, biodegradable and edible performance space.
First exhibited at the Castlemaine State Festival in 2013, the stage itself wasan amphitheatre made of large apple crates, set up in a public park.
But working with a living entity did pose some unforeseen issues.
“We had one of the hottest summers in Melbourne in 2013. We thought we were doing a really fantastic job because we’d set up this separate space to do the permaculture, all hooked up to full water tanks and an irrigation system which meant we wouldn’t need to get water from the town. But it didn’t rain for six weeks so the water tanks ran dry and we had to then attach to the town’s mains.”
After Castlemaine, the same concept was then implemented with a new community group in Cardiff, Wales, for the World Stage Design Congress, which is how it came into the radar of the likes of The Society of British Designers who selected the work for the UK contingent of The Prague Quadrennial.
The Prague Quadrennial, showcased every four years, is the biggest stage design congress in the world, whowcasing the most innovative ideas in set design to a global audience. Handpicked from some 140 or so applicants, images and the film of The Living Stage will comprise Tanja’s exhibit along with 22 of Britain’s top stage designers. After that, it will move to the V&A Museum in London.
For Tanja, the global attention means that she’s achieved her initial goal.
“It was really important for me to branch out of the little world of theatre and embrace these bigger ideas. The idea of architecture is so expansive these days, and it’s been really inspiring to see how social, environmental, indigenous community planning, all these different elements can be brought into a practice like stage design.”
Banner image: Philippa Knack