Theatre designer Zoë Atkinson, took the time to chat with us on her thoughts about Sustainability in her life and practice.
What do you understand sustainability to be?
Thinking about the past and the future beyond the cycle of our own lives. This requires that we don’t put ourselves in the centre of all things, and that’s tough for a society which has been recently defined by economic rationalism. The bedrock of capitalism is individualism. It’s been hugely damaging to our sense of community and our environment. It’s a mindset wherein the individual has all rights and few responsibilities, and it has to change.
Is sustainability an issue that informs your performance making? How So?
(Interpreting this question on a practical and technical level)
I now think about the possible repurposing of materials that are used in sets I design. Even if I know a set is unlikely to be used again in its original context (ie that a show will not be remounted or toured), I’m mindful that the materials used could be ripped apart and repurposed.
I’m currently very happy that the set I designed for New Zealand Opera’s Flying Dutchman is being recontextualised by Opera Queensland for Don Giovanni. That sort of mental gymnastics is beyond me, and I declined the contract – I can’t actually conceive of a finished design that I’ve intended for one purpose being reimagined for another – but I am delighted that another designer might look at the tools of that set, and find other ways to give them meaning.
I’m also currently working on The Black Rider for Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera, and the whole set is clad in recycled cardboard, much of which is replaced nightly. The canvases we’re using for our scenic artwork (and there are a truckload) are in many instances second hand. I’d like to strive for these types of approaches wherever possible.
(A bit tongue in cheek but also a bit serious):
In terms of my own sustainability, I also think about my practice as a series of performances which are all a part of an ongoing conversation. I’m not really interested in creating new relationships at the moment; just drilling into and expanding the ones I already have. I think this is the most sustainable use of my mental resources at this stage in life!
If you include sustainability themes in your work, do you think they have any effect in changing people’s attitudes, understanding’s or behaviour?
I think we’re outrageously privileged to have a voice. We need to be careful what we say with it, and we need to understand how to listen. People feel overwhelmed by the sorts of environmental shifts that we’re experiencing at the moment. As artists we’re good communicators. We understand how to convey urgency but also hope. This is a key component of drama; we have a real need to be at our most eloquent right now.
What about your personal life? Do you do anything special day-to-day? (Use public transport instead of single occupant car, for example; never charter private jets, etc.)
I signed up for plastic free July and have not touched a disposable plastic bag for a long time. I’ve also switched to shampoo and conditioner bars instead of bottles. The number of plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles I was going through was criminal. I’ve never been in a position to charter a private jet but I wouldn’t dream of doing it, anyway. I reread this paragraph and burn with the how paltry the effort is. I mean “have not touched a disposable plastic bag for a long time”. Christ. I know that I need to do more.
Where do you see yourself in twenty years? What do you think society will look like then?
I hope that society will look like my ten year old son’s vision: there will be solar powered electric cars that won’t be privately owned, so everyone can turn their driveway and double garage into a place for trees. (For starters)
Sometimes I feel bleak about the future but the day you become a parent you sign an unwritten contract that forfeits despair. I have to feel good about the future and I have to exert all the skills I have to make that future better.
Image by Natasha Pawlowski