It wasn’t just another assignment, it was more like a mission. Code name: Operation Theatre and Compost. My charge was to investigate how America’s theatres were responding to the globe’s most pressing problems: toxic waste, overpopulation, acid rain, the greenhouse effect and other imminent ecological disasters. Last March, armed with a pen, paper (recycled) and a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, I set out on what would be the first of three fact-finding junkets.
In the course of my travels over the following six months, I stumbled over an interesting trend: a move toward blending ecological theatre—plays dealing with some aspect of our failing ecosystem—with environmental theatre or “theatre of place”—productions grounded in a specific landscape or locale. In particular, performances at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass., the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and Dell’Arte Players Company in Blue Lake, Calif., exemplified this trend. All three institutions could be said to be “thinking globally, acting locally,” sifting through the toxins in their own backyards.
For theatres in America, this is new ground. The Western tradition in the performing arts is not marked by a great concern for the environment. Drama and dance have been far outstripped by the visual arts, which have a strong history of focusing on nature and promoting ecological ideas. Nineteenth-century painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, for example (as Robin Cembalest points out in the summer 1991 issue of ArtNews), depicted the American West as a vast landscape rapidly falling under the yoke of human industry. Today, this concern with people’s relationship to nature has exploded into a major movement in the art world, fueled by sculptors such as Nancy Holt and Dan Peterman who use garbage (or even entire landfills) as a medium; landscapers such as Patricia Johanson and Mel Chinm who “biologically restore” urban lots and waterways; and photographers such as Michael Nichols, Robert Glenn Ketchum and David Maisel who capture impressions of vanishing species and wildernesses, as well as disturbingly beautiful images of wastelands like strip mines and leaching ponds.
In Western drama, the theme of humanity’s alienation from its natural surroundings is at least as old as As You Like It and as contemporary as Julie Taymor’s Juan Darien, but playwrights in this century have been noticeably silent on the question of ecology, even after the 1962 publication of Carson’s landmark environmental tome Silent Spring. Only very recently, since the words “Chernobyl,” “Exxon Valdez” and “greenhouse effect” have forced their way into our vernacular, have we seen unabashedly ecological works on the scale of Steve Tesich’s The Speed of Darkness and Martha Clarke’s Endangered Species. In 1991, two conferences helped to spread the green word: the first annual “Earth Drama Lab” sponsored by San Francisco’s Life on the Water in May and June, and Act Green’s “Theatre in an Ecological Age,” coordinated by Seattle’s Theatre in the Wild in November. And with the Merrimack Rep, Contemporary Arts Center and Dell’Arte’s recent productions, eco-theatre seems to be coming of age.
Why the delay? First, perhaps, because of a lingering distrust on the part of American playwrights and directors toward “issue-oriented” theatre. At some point in this country’s love affair with art for art’s sake, “politics” became a dirty word in theatrical circles, and many theatre artists still find the idea of “adulterating” their art with eco-politics unpalatable. Second, I would point to a more recent phenomenon: a certain sense of futility that seeped into the theatrical world in the 1980s, a sense that theatre can’t change—let alone save—the world.
How valid are these attitudes, and how are they changing? These are the questions I was mulling over while I packed my bags.
Dateline: Lowell, Mass., March 23, 1991
Carpooling into town late in the afternoon, we are slowed by a driving rain. Water washes down the city’s narrow, curving streets, and swells the canals, reminders of Lowell’s past industrial glory. Historically, water has been this city’s boon and its bane: In the 19th century, while the Merrimack River was powering the turbines that were lining the pockets of Lowell’s industrialists, it was also filling with human waste, endangering its citizens.
Today Lowell is struggling to reinvent its identity in the shadow of its industrial past. One of its largest mill complexes—Market Mills—has been refashioned into an attractive brick historic park, with exhibits on water power, early laborers and machines. But increased tourism hasn’t been enough to lubricate the city’s rusty economy. As I drive through downtown in search of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, I pass the beautifully renovated brick facade of the Mack Building, which now houses the Lowell Heritage State Park Waterpower Exhibit: It has been closed indefinitely due to lack of state funds.
The Merrick Repertory Theatre prides itself in taking an active part in Lowell’s drive to redefine itself, a process which logically begins with a critical reexamination of the city’s past, dirty water and all. In this spirit, freshman artistic director David G. Kent staged a version of An Enemy of the People last March which openly invited comparisons between the tainted waters of Ibsen’s imaginary Kirsten Springs and Lowell’s real-life waterborne typhoid epidemic of 1890-91.
An Enemy of the People is a favorite of adapters and updaters because it depicts conflicts which have become even more acid since its writing in 1882. Today, it reads as an eerily contemporary play about pollution, the unpopularity of dissent and the gap between rich and poor. Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, who is ostracized from his community for publicizing the presence of infectious organic matter in its supposedly “curative” springs (the town’s prime source of income), could be any one of a number of latter-day whistle-blowers: say, Rachel Carson or Ralph Nader. Like them, Stockmann is a “troublemaker”—a conscience that questions our best image of ourselves.
In its haste to remake itself in its best image, Lowell might have forgotten one of the darker episodes from its past were it not for the efforts of MRT education and publication coordinator Helene Desjarlais. Desjarlais stumbled upon parallels between Ibsen’s beleaguered Kirsten Springs and her own city’s turn-of-the-century water problems as she researched the scarcely remembered typhoid epidemic in old newspaper articles, medical records and minutes from the Lowell Water Board.
In a six-month period in 1890-91, 452 people in Lowell (population 77,000-plus) were stricken with typhoid; 106 of them died. The Massachusetts State Board of Health dispatched biologist William Sedgwick to the area, who found that several of the city’s water sources were contaminated with typhoid-infected sewage, including the Merrimack River, from which Lowell drew its drinking water, and the canals, whose water was piped into the mills for washing. The fact that there was human waste being dumped into the same water used for drinking didn’t surprise anyone in the town, but Sedgwick’s news about harmful bacteria did. At that time it was widely believed that running water purified itself.
Here, the stories of Kirsten Springs and Lowell diverge, for while Dr. Stockmann’s discoveries were met with an official hush-up, Sedgwick was given the full support of the city government, which took immediate steps to inform the public and build new wells. What emerged from Desjarlais’s research was a disturbing, yet flattering, portrait of 19th-century Lowell responding to a water crisis of its own making.
Back in this century, armed with Desjarlais’s files, director Kent went to the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission and made a pitch. He wanted a grant which would allow him to set An Enemy of the People in “a small New England mill town,” circa 1890, and to install a concurrent exhibit at the Patrick J. Morgan Cultural Center based on Desjarlais’s findings. The commission bit, coming through with $26,000 for the production and $2,000 for the exhibit, “Lowell: A Friend of the People.”
A large chunk of the funds went to the design and construction of Gary English’s striking set for the production—a flexible interior space over-shadowed by a towering water wheel, stage right. The wheel evoked the era of industrialization in general, while calling to mind the particular resource which both powered and polluted Lowell. Water imagery saturated the production, most obviously in a wash pitcher and bowl which occupied a central position in the Stockmann family home.
As with the set, the references to Lowell in the play itself were largely metaphorical. The characters were dressed appropriately for New Englanders at the turn of the century; some place-names were changed: Kirsten Springs became Clearwater Springs, and so in. But in the main the audience was left to make connections for itself as it took in English’s waterwheel and read up on the typhoid epidemicin a program insert.
A more radical adaptation might have named the Merrimack River and one or two of Lowell’s famous mills; at most, it would have made a point that the city is still, 100 years after Ibsen, struggling to clean up its waterways. But Kent had his reasons for not overemphasizing the parallels between the play and Lowell’s history of pollution: “This play is about more than dirty water,” he explains. “It’s about the physical and spiritual health of a community.” In his view, narrowing the play’s focus to a single issue would have been reducing a complex work of art to a political tract or a news article.
This refrain—“art first”—was to become familiar to me in the course of my travels. But Kent invoked it first, and most comfortably. Directors I spoke to later, though repeating the line as if it were well-rehearsed, seemed more ambivalent about its practical application, as they pushed the boundaries of their art more aggressively toward activism.
Dateline: New Orleans, La., June 14, 1991
The chatty driver of the airport shuttle I take into the city is quick to point out one of New Orleans’s stranger sights: cemeteries covered inch-for-inch with above-ground tombs, perfectly aligned, silvery-white boxes stretching off into the horizon. The water table is so high here that bodies can’t be buried underground; anything you put down into the earth floats right back up.
This is a good metaphor for the entire region, where the earth, long abused, has begun to spew back excesses of man-made poisons it can no longer absorb. A portion of the Gulf of Mexico half the size of Lake Ontario is so polluted it is technically “dead.” More than 600 abondoned toxic-waste dumps litter the state. And the corridor of petrochemical plants that line the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge has so thoroughly contaminated the population there that the area is commonly referred to as Cancer Alley.
One survivor of Cancer Alley, a 69-year-old Louisianian named Amos Favorite, was a key collaborator in the Contemporary Arts Center’s June production of Heiner Muller’s Despoiled Shore/Medeamaterial/Landscape With Argonauts. CAC theatre director Julie Hebert interviewed Favorite last May. Using his story as a jumping-off point, she then adapted Muller’s work, originally set on the shore of a German lake, to reflect the toxic realities of life along the lower Mississippi.
Amos Favorite, a lifelong activist, currently heads a grassroots anti-pollution group in his native Ascension Parish, a 296-square-mile rural district in Cancer Alley which sustains 18 big-name chemical companies, including Triad, Borden, Vulcan and Shell. In addition to producing petrochemicals for such things as fertilizers, herbicides, paint, gasoline and plastic, these plants manufacture 196 million pounds of pollutants a year, all of which ultimately find their way into Louisiana’s air, water and land.
According to a 1990 Environmental Protection Agency report, Louisiana releases more toxic chemicals per square mile than any other state—10 times the national average. In the past 14 years, Favorite has lost nine family members—uncles, aunts, cousins and nephews—to cancer. He believes the two statistics are related.
Proving a link between chemical emissions and cancer rates is no easy task—particularly since the big chemical lobbies naturally oppose the funding of any studies which may be damming. Favorite’s neighbors in Ascension Parish, mostly poor and working-class African-Americans, can’t compete with the titans of the chemical industry—companies which are courted and tax-subsidized by the state. As Richard Miller, a policy analyst for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union told the environmental journal Buzzworm, “What’s happened in Louisiana is that the chemical companies have taken the place of the old sugar cane plantation owners and are now the new masters.” Favorite, who worked those plantations as a youth, concurs: “We’re all victimized by a system that puts the dollar before everything else. That’s the way it was in the old days when the dogs and whips were masters, and that’s the way it is today. We got stuff in the water and air we can’t even see that can kill us deader than we ever thought we could die.”
Favorite, a tireless worker with a colorful tongue (“I been through the hatcher with this. It’s time for things to change.”) inspired CAC’s Hebert to mount a production that dealt not only with the region’s damaged ecosystem, but with the class conditions and economic realities that have allowed pollution to flow unchecked into Cancer Alley. She found the perfect medium in Muller’s three-part play-poem. Written between the late 1950s and 1982, it is a sort of theme-and-variations treatment of the legend of Jason and Medea. Despoiled Shore sets the scene in an urban wastescape and foreshadows Jason’s ill use of Medea; Medeamaterial depicts the lovers at the moment of his betrayal; and Landscape With Argonauts leaves Jason wandering in a garbage-strewn landscape of his own making, waiting to die.
Muller’s imagistic script invites directors to interpret is as they see fit, and Hebert rose to the invitation. Commissioning futuristic, nightmarish sets from visual artist Douglas Bourgeois, songs blending Muller’s text and new lyrics from Mark Bingham, video works by Tom Richards and Marta, and choreography by Deborah Slater, she turned the sometimes obtuse text into a multimedia extravanganza. One particularly popular addition was the Friendly Travelers, a New Orleans-based gospel group who performed Bingham’s songs offstage.
Throughout, Hebert presented Medea (played by Amandia White, a black woman) as a symbol for the earth, and Jason (played by white actor Douglas Rye) as her colonizer. Once the colonizer has “despoiled” the earth—that is, forced Medea to betray her family for his own gain, bedded her and abandoned her—she fights back, destroying his new lover, his children and, ultimately, the colonizer himself.
The message is clear to New Orleans audiences—perhaps too clear for fans of Mullerian mystique. But at this point in Hebert’s career (having returned to her native Louisiana from California in 1990 to take leadership of the theatre wing of the CAC), she is less concerned with pleasing the aesthetes in the audience than she is with reaching a broader segment of the community. “Working in and for a community has always been an important part of my agenda,” Hebert says. “This piece would’ve looked very different in San Francisco than it does here.”
For Hebert, getting environmental message to New Orleanians means finding their theatrical language, appealing to their own sense of place. “New Orleans is not a big theatre town. It’s a food-drinking-music town,” the director explained to me one night over a bowl of turtle soup and a Dixie beer. “The most popular form of playgoing here is dinner theatre, because you can eat and drink while you’re doing it. The only way we can compete with that”—or, for that matter, with the boozy human drama that unfolds nightly on Bourbon Street—“is by bringing music into the theatre. That’s why we wanted the Friendly Travelers to work on this show with us, and its been great. They’ve brought a whole new group of people into the CAC.”
Another way Hebert localizes her vision is by collaborating with homegrown artists, each of whom brings along her or his own constituency. Some of them, such as composer and musical director Bingham and visual artist Bourgeois, had never worked in theatre before joining the Despoiled Shore team. The cast, though comprised of experienced local actors, contained many new faces for CAC as well—faces of various ages, types and races. Even the sets were painted by a nontraditional crew: prison inmates and deputies who belong to Orleans Parish’s Prison Art Program.
Despite the unflinching commitment she brought to this project, when asked if she would follow up Despoiled Shore with another locally relevant piece of eco-theatre, Hebert faltered.
“I’d love to be able to do a piece more directly about Amos Favorite,” she said. “His story is so extraordinary. But it’s also very complicated.”
She explained that many families in Ascension Parish are dependent on the chemical companies for jobs. So although it’s easy for theatre professionals and other outside activists to condemn what’s going on, the people who live there “have a very difficult choice to make: Is my son going to go without food today, or is he going to die of cancer when he’s 18?” Hebert knows firsthand about difficult choices: Her father works for one of Louisiana’s oil companies; both her mother and aunt have had cancer.
In Lowell, the Merrimack Theatre Company sidestepped such ethical dilemmas by focusing on an ecological disaster that was 100 years old; however, if MRT had adapted An Enemy of the People to reflect the current state of the Merrimack River, things would have become, as Hebert found in New Orleans, “complicated.” Later, when I visited the Dell’Arte Theatre Company in Blue Lake, Calif., I saw just how sticky things could get when artists question an industry—logging, for instance, or electric power—which feeds, clothes and houses their audience.
Hebert, meanwhile, has temporarily removed herself from the fray. “After finishing this project,” she said last June, “I feel like I want to step back and do something totally abstract. Environmental activism is important to me, but”—then came the refrain—“theatrically is the bottom line.”
Dateline: Blue Lake, Calif., Sept. 19, 1991
I am driving north through Humboldt Country at night when Interstate 101 suddenly turns into an obstacle course. I swerve to avoid big chunks of redwood, remnants of the forest that is being hauled, tree by tree, south to San Francisco. Driving on carefully, I finally reach Blue Lake, population 1,200 six hours north of the Golden Gate.
A small town with a school, a firehouse, a mom & pop grocery and the infamous Logger Bar, Blue Lake looks to be halfway between Nowhere and Anywhere, USA. But in the past 15 years, it’s been put on the map by the success of one local institution: the Dell’Arte Players Company. This four-member, actor-managed troupe has made its home here in a drafty old Oddfellows Hall since 1977, developing its own style of issue-oriented physical theatre and passing it along to others under the auspices of the Dell’Arte School (founded by Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and Jane Hill in 1974).
The actors of Dell’Arte—Michael Fields, Donald Forrest and Joan Schirle—and resident director Jael Weisman write and perform much of their own material. This year, they completed a project that’s been in the works since 1979: the Redwood Curtain Trilogy, subtitled The Scar Tissue Mysteries, a stylistic blend of slapstick, agitprop eco-theatre and dimestore detective novels.
In the 13 years since the first installment of the trilogy was introduced, the rugged Pacific landscape cradling Humboldt County has suffered tremendous change. The salmon that used to carpet the bottom of the Mad River have been depleted, the redwoods are dwindling, and many of the people whose livelihoods have depended on fish and trees—Native Americans, loggers, millworkers—now find themselves jobless or, worse, homeless. Stresses like these could tear apart any community, but they’ve proven particularly damaging to this already dangerously polarized one.
A social faultline runs through Blue Lake and, more significantly, through the nearby population center of Arcata. For the past couple of decades, Arcata has served as a magnet for hippies, New Agers and other big-city refugees—so many of them that it’s known as the place “where the ’60s meet the sea.” The influx has brought organic vegetables, crystals, hot-tubbing and rabid environmentalism into a town that was once all red meat, chainsaw art, hunting and logging.
An ongoing tug-of-war for control over the region has resulted, with a loose coalition of loggers, superpatriots, sports fishermen and the U.S. Forest Service pulling to the right, and an even looser one of students, artists, environmentalists and alternative lifestyles pulling to the left. Though the division between the two camps is not always clear-cut (for instance, the region’s Native Americans often support logging in general while opposing specific projects that might endanger sacred grounds), it is entrenched enough to make it hard for Dell’Arte to find an audience without taking sides.
“We try to bridge the gap between the two poles,” director Weisman says. “Because the actors live here, they have a more complex understanding of local issues than an outsider would.” The evolution of that understanding—as well as the maturation of Dell’Arte’s performing style—can be seen nowhere as clearly as in the Redwood Curtain Trilogy.
Intrigue at Ah-Pah (1979) was the first full-length play that the ensemble collaboratively researched and wrote. Half slapstick, half murder-mystery spoof, it is broadly comic treatment of a deadly serious issue—the decimation of the salmon in Northern California. The plot unfolds around a tough-but-tantalizing private eye from Eureka: Scar Tissue (so named for the comely little scars on her cheek, her chest and one can only imagine where else), a character created by Joan Schirle. In this episode, Scar heads up to Ah-Pah Creek for a fishing vacation, only to stumble onto a plot (orchestrated by a developer and a sleazy utility official) to drive Native Americans from their fishing grounds and clear the way for the damming of Northern California rivers. Sleuthing around, she encounters a half-dozen eccentric locals, a decidedly “fishy” informer named Deep Trout, and countless corpses with arrows sticking through various parts of thier bodies. Originally performed outdoors on a colorful, portable proscenium designed by Alain Schons, Ah-Pah has perhaps been Dell’Arte’s most accessible piece, as well as its most controversial. It was created during the height of a nasty battle over Native American gill-netting rights in California, and when it was first performed, a member of the state legislature publicly censured Dell’Arte for using federal CETA funds for so-called political purposes. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fracas, Ah-Pah attracted large audiences on tour, making a name for Dell’Arte throughout the state.
When next we catch up with Scar Tissue, in The Road Not Taken (1984), she’s hit rock bottom. Having lost her investigator’s license in a frame-up, she’s hanging out at the Logger Bar, drinking too much and lifting her skirt for any guy who’ll cut her some coke in the men’s room. But pretty soon a murderer’s afoot, and Scar can’t resist pulling herself together for the thrill of the chase. With the aid of another scarred and lonely soul, Vietnam yet Leonard James (Forrest), she traces the dirty doings all the way to the door of the U.S. Forest Service, which is conspiring with local timber companies to build a secret logging road across Native American burial grounds, accessing some of the region’s last remaining old-growth forests. Pretty dark stuff for a comedy, especially considering the play was based on the story of an actual road, the Gasquet-Orleans, or “G-O” Road, the subject of a conflict that went all the way to the Supreme Court in the late ’80s. (The construction of the road was ultimately prevented by the passage of a Congressional Wilderness Act.) Still, The Road Not Taken is as wickedly funny as Intrigue at Ah-Pah, and perhaps even more impressive for the subtlety of its characterizations and its imaginative use of stage “magic”—music, lights and small-scale models which afford long-shot views of the action.
The most recent addition to the saga, Fear of Falling (1991), departs from its predecessors in a number of ways. First of all, no crime is committed—no murder, no kidnapping, not even a simple case of poaching. That’s not to say there’s no mystery, as Scar, recently married to a wealthy San Francisco philanthropist, snoops around the rich and famous to discover how a blue-blooded socialite managed to “fall through the cracks” of the city and wind up homeless. Confronted by the harsh realities of life on the streets, Scar’s concrete facade begins to crumble, showing us a human interior that she kept hidden in Ah-Pah and Road. Based on extensive interviews with Humboldt County residents, Fear of Falling expresses their fears and uncertainties about the future.
One thing the locals are not uncertain about is Scar Tissue: When the trilogy was presented in full in September, they came out in droves night after night to cheer her on. No question it was her they were coming to see, no matter how intriguing the mysteries, how funny the stage business, or how hot the controversies surrounding the plays. As Scar, Joan Schirle has the ’40s gumshoe routine down so pat that it can only be described in period terms: She’s got moxie—not to mention great gams. She’s the kind of woman that visits the beauty parlor to get the powder burns washed off her hands. The kind whose “every scar itches for trouble.” At one point, dressed all in black except for a white tie and suspenders, she leans toward the audience and growls, “It ain’t easy bein’ a private dick in Eureka, California.” She hooks her thumbs in her suspenders, pulling them out from her chest. “Double-trouble if you’re a dame.” Snap, go the suspenders, square on both breasts. Beat. “Ow.”
While Schirle vamps as Scar Tissue, her colleagues Fields and Forrest dash from one supporting role to the next, changing costumes faster than runway models. Both are actors of tremendous physical and emotional range, and every scene they play with Schirle prods her into some new comic or dramatic territory. With their support, as the trilogy progresses, Scar’s person grows steadily stronger.
By the end she takes on such dimension that people in the audience refer to the detective as if she’s real—and not only real but theirs, Humboldt County’s own local heroine. Dell’Arte regularly holds “talk-backs” after its performances, giving audiences the opportunity to stay and ask questions or make suggestions. At least half of the comments I heard in two separate discussions started with the words, “I don’t think Scar would…” or “I kept waiting for Scar to….” The people of Humboldt County obviously feel proprietary toward their “private dick,” a fact that speaks well of Dell’Arte’s 15-year struggle to integrate itself into this community.
In Weisman’s words, “This is one of the true regional theatres in the country, in that it springs out of this place and these people.” When he and his collaborators were researching Ah-Pah, they camped at Ah-Pah Creek, interviewing Department of Fish & Wildlife biologists, Native American gill-netters, and sports fishermen who opposed the gill-netting. (They later performed it at the Requa reservation and were paid in volumes of illegally netted fish, which had to be smuggled off the premises.) For Road, they made a pilgrimage to the half-finished G-O Road, basing their characters on people they met there in the “high country” and at Blue Lake’s Logger Bar. Fear of Falling entailed the most intensive community contact; aided by a $68,000 Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Arts Partners grant administered by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, the troupe and its local presenter (Center Arts at Humboldt State University) organized four roundtable discussions with local business people, timber workers, environmentalists, politicians, journalists, government employees and artists, soliciting proposals for plotlines, characters and settings. They also visited “The Weeds,” a homeless encampment outside of Eureka, an expedition which “put us all in a turmoil,” Weisman says.
Heavy company-community contact goes a long way toward educating audiences and making them feel involved, but the benefit is not all theirs. “Let’s get this straight,” Forrest asserts. “These people have changed us. It’s not a one-way thing.” Laughing, he adds, “We’ve become more redneck.”
Schirle says, “I came here in 1976, and back then I was a rabid environmentalist. I didn’t believe in cutting down a single tree. Since then, I’ve learned to look at things in a less simplistic way.” The ensemble, accordingly, has had to modify some of its ecological opinions in response to its pursuit of “theatre of place.” Fear of Falling clearly reveals those compromises: It portrays, very sympathetically, an unemployed tree-faller, and, very unsympathetically, a filthy-rich band of big-city dilettantes who dabble in environmental activism merely for show.
Ecological themes are nothing new to Dell’Arte; both Whiteman Meets Bigfoot (1980) and the company’s 1987 production of The Bacchae explored them in depth. Still, echoing MRT’s Kent and CAC’s Hebert, director Weisman stresses that for Dell’Arte, “theatricality comes first.”
The day after I’ve seen the Redwood Curtain marathon—all three plays of the trilogy in a nine-hour blitz—I take a trip up to the redwood forest. Wanting to stretch my legs a little before the long drive back to San Francisco, I decide to go for a short hike. Tourist season is past; the parking lot at the trailhead is empty. I set off on a gradual climb, accompanied by midnight-blue Stellar’s jays, who hop along and poke through leaves at the sides of the trail.
About a half a mile in I stop, for no reason, and am stunned by a sudden silence. The forest seems suspended in some state of prehistoric hibernation. There is no wind. The redwoods, so slender at their bases, look too tall for themselves, and the sun streaks through their upper limbs in brilliant shafts, like some Hallmark evocation of God. I sit down on the trail and close my eyes, listening to the silence.
The people of Dell’Arte, I think, are brave. Here they are out in the middle of a dying wilderness, trying to shore up their community and rescue the planet all at the same time—even though the two are often at odds with each other. Like Julie Hebert in Louisiana, they’ve learned that working people often can’t afford the luxury of environmentalism. And yet in the long run they know no one can afford the alternative. Dell’Arte has challenged itself to construct a vision that somehow reconciles these irreconcilables, without any assurance that this is possible.
There are those who would consign Dell’Arte’s work, as well as Hebert’s and perhaps even Kent’s, to the realm of the “merely political,” denying it the status of art. Granted, these productions deal with powerful forces exploiting the earth and the people on it in order to consolidate more power—and that is flatly political. But does that make the work less artistic?
When it comes to eco-politics, the feminist maxim has to be turned on its head: The political is the personal. Public policy which decides the fate of the globe, of life itself, hits us at the very core of our being. As the theatre professionals I interviewed have found, eco-politics is inextricably linked to personal issues of community, race and class. Artists who synthesize the theatrical with the eco-political are creating a vision of survival that is more than just art, more than just politics. They shouldn’t be pigeon-holed or ostracized. And they shouldn’t have to hide behind the art-for-art’s-sake motto, “theatricality first.”
The question remains, can theatre save the earth? Well. Greenpeace is theatre. Television news is theatre. Why should “real” theatre consider itself any less potent a force than these? The myth of the “artist as outsider” is strong in this country (almost as strong as the myth that art and politics don’t mix), but it’s obsolete. In our fragmented, postmodern society, there is no single center to be outside of. All artists are integral to some community and, within its bounds, can be as effective as they choose to be.
Take a lesson from Lowell: Theatre can inform. From New Orleans: Theatre can advocate. From Humboldt County: Theatre can serve as a meeting place; it can work to heal distressed communities.
Can theatre save the earth? I don’t know. But from sea to polluted sea, I’ve seen it trying.
Clean Up Your Act
“Printed on recycled paper.” Those four little words that say so much are showing up on more and more programs and press releases at theatres across the country. But clean-up efforts don’t have to stop there. As Jon Cummings pointed out in his article “How Presenters Can Help Protect the Environment” in the June 1990 Association of Performing Arts Presenters Bulletin, arts facilities should examine the ecological impact of every aspect of their operations:
Like most public gathering places, arts facilities have done more than their share to help put the planet in the precarious state it’s in. We produce untold tons of waste paper every year, in the form of subscription brochures thrown in the trash and programs left on the auditorium floor; we use vast amounts of energy every time we turn up the house lights; we serve refreshments in non-biodegradable styrofoam cups, not to mention the paper and plastic cups that never get recycled. And this doesn’t even take into account the everyday wastes we produce in the office.
Cummings urges presenters to raise their green quotient by taking the following steps:
- Get an energy audit of your facility; many utility companies will provide these free-of-charge.
- Use paper efficiently. Print brochures on uncoated paper that’s recyclable—or better yet, recycled. Set up special trash boxes for patrons to deposit programs after performances.
- Encourage your cleaning staff to separate trash—paper, cans and bottles—for recycling.
- Control your concessions. Sell drinks in cans or bottles, or, if necessary, paper cups—never styrofoam. Again, make separate trash cans available for recyclable materials.
- Properly insulate your facility.
- Know your paints and cleaning chemicals. Substitute benign ones for toxic ones when possible; dispose of dangerous substances properly.
Local recycling agencies can supply more specific advice regarding what and how to recycle. They can also inform you about any city or county programs that are available to address the needs of artists and institutions. For instance, in New York City, the department of cultural affairs and the department of sanitation jointly oversee Materials for the Arts—a program which helps private and governmental offices “recycle” paper, paint, fabric, furniture and electronic equipment by donating them to nonprofit arts organizations. The department of cultural affairs also operates a set recycling hotline (212-966-8658), which organizes the collection and redistribution of reusable set elements.
Finally, learn to think green, starting with a trip to your local library or bookstore. Along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962)—the book often credited with instigating the environmental movement in the ’60s—there are a number of recently issued volumes which can help you cut through the haze of facts and figures surrounding the environment:
- Andrew Dobson, ed. The Green Reader: Essays Toward a Sustainable Society. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991.
- Earth Works Group. 50 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Berkeley, CA: Earthworks Press, 1987.
- Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Healing the Planet: Strategies for Resolving the Environmental Crisis. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
- Jon Naar, Design for a Liveable Planet: How You Can Help Clean Up the Environment. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. See also:
- ArtNews (New York City), special issue on “The Greening of the Art World,” Summer, 1991.
- Buzzworm: The Environmental Journal (Boulder, Colo.)
The Making of an Eco-Canon
Over the past two years, plays about the environment have proliferated almost as rapidly as the evils that have inspired them. Pollution has worsened, landfills have grown—while the American theatre has stockpiled a repertoire of works which voice protest, posit solutions or simply hold a mirror up to the country’s deteriorating landscape.
You might expect these plays to be romantic evocations of past (or passing) wilderness. But a surprising number are hard-edged, multimedia examinations of the complexities of people’s changing relationship to nature. No neo-Luddites here: These works blend synthesized sound-scores, video installations and state-of-the-art puppetry into high-tech commentary on the fate of the globe.
Miroslaw Rogala’s video opera Nature Is Leaving Us, presented at Chicago’s Goodman Studio Theatre in October 1989, required no less than $200,000 worth of electronic equipment and hardware to tell its cautionary tale. On the other end of the spectrum, Paul Zaloom used household appliances and an overhead projector to create “cheap special effects” in My Civilization, a three-part work developed at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta in 1990 which commented on—among other things—overpopulation and nuclear power.
Other recent performances which might tongue-twistingly be classified as experimental-environmental include the McLean Mix’s In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World, an “aural tapestry” created by the upstate New York duo which synthesizes animal calls with man-made sounds; Thunder Bay Ensemble’s dance-puppet-vocal collage Flight of the Endangered, seen at New York’s Theatre for the New City in 1989; Martha Boesing’s 1991 touring mask-and-dance work, Standing on Fishes, a warning about catastrophes to come; Dance the Dragon Home, an outdoor epic staged by Seattle’s Theatre in the Wild, which follows a modern young woman on a knightly quest for an ecological Camelot; and performance artist Aviva Rahmani’s nine-year collaboration with Maine fishermen titled Ghost Nets.
The monofilament gill nets which lent their nickname to Rahmani’s piece also inspired a family show called The Ghost Net: An Environmental Sea Story, presented by the Grumbling Gryphons Traveling Children’s Theater in West Cornwall, Conn., in September of last year. Increasingly, young audiences are being targeted by environmentally concerned playwrights, who aim to educate as well as entertain. Along with The Ghost Net, the past two years have produced Garbage Is Garbage, a Bill Wheeler-Jan Callner musical for children about recycling which premiered at New York’s Wings Theatre Company; Clean Up Your Act!, a touring show mounted by Costa Mesa, Calif.’s South Coast Repertory in 1990; and the apocalyptic musical 1994, developed in 1990 by the Santa Monica Playhouse’s Young Professionals’ Company.
Eco-musicals aren’t strictly for kids, though. Last August, Atlanta’s Seven Stages featured local musicians in The 21st Century Radio Hour, or Atlantis Calling, a sci-fi farce about urban decay written by journalist and radio personality Boyd Lewis and directed by Del Hamilton. In 1989, the Manhattan Class Company staged a reading of an environmental musical called Birdwatchers, by Anna Theresa Cascio and Mark Hymen; and San Francisco’s Teatro Nuestro toured California towns and agricultural labor camps with Cheyney Ryan’s anti-pesticide La Boda, featuring the popular singing group Sandunga.
And “straight” plays? Perhaps the most ambitious new eco-drama is Robert Schenkkan’s Kentucky Cycle, a tale of destruction and reckoning that ranges over 20 years of “progress” in six hours, first performed at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre Company in 1991. Three other plays have collectively warned of coming global disaster; William Russell’s comedy-drama Safety Zone, presented by ReGenesis at St. Mark’s Church in New York in 1989; Hydropolis, developed by the Organic Theater Company’s Greenhouse Lab in 1990; and Stuart Browne’s Angel, premiered by the No-Neck Monsters Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in 1990. But all these are newcomers in comparison to the granddaddy of environmental plays—Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, which recently received a localized treatment not just in Lowell, Mass. at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, but also at Douglas, Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, under the direction of St. Louis Black Repertory Company’s producing director Ron Himes.
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