Temporary Communities in the Era of Climate Change

This piece first appeared in May 2017 as part of The Lark's blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." 

There is the sort of community that establishes by individuals living, working, and playing together over many years. And there is another sort of community which is temporary, one that forms fast, usually in the wake of a crisis or unusual circumstances, that suddenly bring strangers together.

Both sorts of communities are necessary in the era of climate change — and by this I mean our time, the current moment, which includes unprecedented amounts of carbon in the atmosphere as well as unprecedented numbers of informed and activated people.

Some of my favorite theater is made by companies of artists who do things together for decades or lifetimes. But it is this second sort of community — the fast-forming, temporary sort — that feels critical in a time of constant change and uncertainty. In the wake of the 2016 election and in the face of massive humanitarian and environmental crises, we are watching temporary communities rise up like never before, reflecting a collective understanding of the immediate need to come together in order to resist.

Since founding Superhero Clubhouse in 2007, temporary community-forming has been my practice, though for most of those years I didn’t know how to embrace it as such. Though I’ve always called it an open-door collective, my original dream was to have a group of artists who chose to commit for the long term, to build the company with me, to devote their careers to a collective vision. In an attempt to achieve this dream, I would apologize to my collaborators when I didn’t have enough time or space or money, ensuring them things would be better in the future so long as we all just stuck together.

Now, I do not apologize. Never in twelve years of living in NYC have I had “enough” time, space, or money. And never have I created a show with the same group of people. The makeup of my community has ebbed and flowed. Some artists (and scientists) did help to build the company with me; some are still around after a decade. I have a co-director and we are working toward a collective vision, and we have a large group of core members who are proud and supportive and helpful. But most of our collaborators are naturally devoted to their own visions, and so they flow in and out of this open-door collective, causing restarts and a lot of trial and error. That’s the whole point.

My dream has shifted: now I want to know how eco-theater can serve the world not only by engaging people in complex environmental questions, but also by providing an arena to practice temporary community-building. I’ve been doing it unconsciously for a decade; now I’m doing it with intention.

In a workshop we run called the Lab, a mixed group of art- and science-based strangers gather in a room for several hours in order to immediately and creatively respond to questions of climate change. They’re there to practice collaborative eco-theater, but they are also practicing the act of fast community-making in the face of a crisis. Prompted by research, individuals are thrust into groups and asked to make something meaningful in a very, very limited amount of time, without a dictated creative process. The Lab begins with a presentation of research, and soon we give instructions to each group: Decide what you collectively care about. Articulate a question to which you do not have an answer; a moral dilemma or trade-off inspired by the research (we call it the “impossible question”). Turn this question into fiction for the purpose of engaging others to think for themselves. Evaluate your process. Lab participants are often eager to continue collaborating with their newly-established community: “What’s next? Where do we go from here?” These are great questions, and with any luck they will lead to that other sort of community. But the Lab is intentionally temporary, and so we intentionally disperse.

In this year's Big Green Theater, our annual production of kid-written eco-plays we make with The Bushwick Starr, we placed our students' brilliant eco-plays within a framework of temporary community-building: A group of strangers walking down an NYC street, stopped in their tracks by news they encounter on their phones, come together in order to work through the big questions that arise as a result of the news, and to take solace in togetherness. Only in moments of acute crisis do people tend to halt what they’re doing and commune with strangers. I'm thinking about 9/11, Superstorm Sandy, and the recent presidential election, as examples. When envisioning this year's Big Green Theater production, I wondered what it would be like if we treated the crises wrought by climate change — acute, localized crises like hurricanes but also chronic crises like ocean acidification and environmental racism — with a similar sense of alarm. Our student playwrights certainly don't shy from turning distant problems into high-stakes scenarios. When a sea wall disrupts two generations of turtles trying to lay their eggs further up on the beach, the turtles rally and grab their sledgehammers.

In the Viewpoints training, every new improvisation is a practice in forming a temporary community. At first, individuals bump up against each other, disoriented by the physical, emotional, aesthetic, and experiential differences between them. But very soon, something settles, the choices being made onstage become complementary, and the improvisation starts to feel rehearsed. Even in moments of chaos or confusion, the participants are listening to each other, appropriating ideas, finding moments of unison while also allowing the uniqueness of each individual to shine through. No matter how many times I've watched or participated in these improvisations, it still surprises me how fast our hyper-social species creates culture.

What makes theater such a successful arena for the practice of temporary community-building is the act of making something together. When we collaborate in a theatrical process, even over the course of a few hours, we contribute to a movement beyond simply adding our bodies and voices to the masses. Making theater requires our personalities, our opinions and experiences. A play is an expression of the community that made it. Even when this community disbands, the impact of the process sticks around, altering our way of being with strangers in the world, helping us to feel connected to and responsible for something larger than ourselves.

Culturebot: conversation with Eva Peskin

Originally published in April 2016 on Culturebot by Eva Peskin.

Culturebot’s Eva Peskin sat down with Jeremy Pickard, founder and Captain of Superhero Clubhouse (SHC), a collective of artists and scientists working at the intersection of environmentalism and theater, about their upcoming performance of Big Green Theater, as well as SHC’s work making eco-theater and the role theater plays in resisting climate change.

Big Green Theater opens with a benefit performance on Friday, 4/22, at The Bushwick Starr, with free performances on Saturday, 4/23 and Sunday, 4/24.

**********************************************************************************************

EP: Very broadly, I would like to talk about the role of culture and culture makers in what is a real crisis. I’m interested in values, and value, and the role art plays in that, and I’m curious in especially this process, versus your other projects, how you see that operating. But before we get into all that, can you share what is Big Green Theater (BGT) and how it relates to Superhero Clubhouse’s (SHC) mission?

JP: BGT is a program that was conceived by The Bushwick Starr (BWS) and developed over the last six years with BWS as producers and SHC as makers. The original idea, which is still in tact, is that we bring environmental education to school-aged kids through playwriting. And what that has blossomed into is a program where we work with fourth graders, fifth graders, and this year we did a workshop with teenagers. The program has a trifecta of goals: to expose kids to the foundational tools of playwriting and the foundations of environmentalism. Another goal is to allow kids to find a medium of expression, to find their voice, and to hear the weight of their words. Often the kids won’t know what that means until they see the play. And the third goal is to enrich the community. Partnering with the community is something that is very important to the BWS, and is certainly one of SHC’s values as well.

The program has two parts: the first part is the classroom session. For three months, after-school, three days a week we work with 15 fourth and fifth graders. And it’s a cumulative process—each week a different presenter or a different experience introduces them to a different environmental topic. Our sort of über-topic this year was the biodiversity crisis and the sixth extinction, and last year it was climate change, for instance. This year we started by going to the Natural History Museum and they learned about biodiversity, generally speaking, and then we learned about climate change, and about insects, and then we had some presenters come in to teach about local fish and the relationship to extinction here in New York — particularly sturgeon, there’s lots of sturgeon plays that came out of that — and also birds. A guy from the local Audubon Society came and talked about local birds and their relationship to temperature change and climate change.

As they’re learning this, they are also writing rough drafts in different pairs and trios of students. And after this first part of the program, they get to choose which of those first drafts they want to see developed and ultimately produced. In this second part of the class of the classroom sessions, they are taking workshops as well. They had a rewriting workshop with playwright Chantal Bilodeau, who is a climate playwright, and a songwriting workshop. This year Julia May Jonas came and did a songwriting workshop and then wrote music based on the kids ideas and lyrics. And then they had design workshops with the designers for SHC. Then they come to BWS and they hear the final drafts of their plays read by the actors who will be performing them, and then they take a break for three and a half weeks while we rehearse, and then they come back to see their plays performed.

The whole process is very holistic. When I talk about eco-theater, when I use that term (which is just a made-up term), what I mean is a set of values. But practically speaking, I mean a holistic approach. In this case, BGT exemplifies this holistic approach to theater, in that they are plays that are one hundred percent connected to scientific, or environmental information. Our first production rehearsal begins with a presentation from a scientist — this year, a biologist who introduced our cast and crew to the topic that the students learned about, so we can be working upon that idea. So our whole process is rooted to these questions and ideas, and is very green — we compost and offer reusable containers to people — but then the production itself, the building and designing, is all deeply green. (It would be another conversation to talk about that word, and I’m using it because the program is called Big Green Theater, not because I like using that it, and I usually don’t.) But, all of the set, costumes, props are found or recycled or sustainable in some way. If we purchase fabric, for instance, it’s probably local hemp (but usually we don’t). Every year our lighting designer Jay Maury, who works at BWS, experiments with more and more efficient lighting. He uses BGT as sort of a laboratory to then install new systems into BWS itself. And I think BWS is probably the greenest theater in New York, just as far as wattage — electricity being used throughout the season. That’s my guess, maybe that’s not true…

EP: That would be really interesting to find out.

JP: Yeah, it would be, and Jay’s a good person to talk to about that. So, for instance he helped us make a solar panel for JUPITER which he’s now implementing for BGT. So some of the lights will be powered by solar panel, but the rest of the lights are homemade, domestic products, or made in his 3D printer, and they’re all LEDs, maybe some fluorescents. So in the holistic approach to theater-making around the values of environmentalism and environmental practices are best exemplified in BGT, mostly because we have the time, resources and people to do it. But certainly that is the case for all of the work we do through SHC.

SHC’s mission allows us to feature a multitude of different initiatives that are ever evolving, but to distill them a little bit, BGT is one of them. And if BGT expands or evolves, it will be under the initiative of education, and how theater, matched with a more traditional education experience, is transcendent and ultimately more beneficial and offers students arts in school. And we’ve been making these Planet Plays for a really long time, and when we’re done making them, that initiative is eco-plays for adult audiences. And then our other initiatives is theater for young audiences, but made by adults. These are pieces that we have in our repertoire that we can offer if a school asks us to do something. And then also we have this Lab, something we’ve been doing every other month for the last two years. It’s a workshop that brings together environmental experts and theater artists to practice collaboration. It starts with an environmental presentation, and we end with a performance at every workshop. This fall the lab is expanding into a fellowship. It might not be like this in the first year, but we hope it will be an academic year-long program in which a select ensemble of half theater artists of different disciplines and half environmental experts of different disciplines will come together once a month. That fellowship will culminate in an original production, probably around issues of climate change, which they will build together. Our thought is that will become the way in which we make work down the line…

EP: Yeah, because how many planet plays do you have left?

JP: Well, we’re making Pluto over the course of the next year, which is technically the last, but we’re going back to some of the ones we made drafts of in our early years, before we knew what we were doing — or, I shouldn’t say that! Just when we were more youthful. But we’re going back and re-making some of those. For instance, we made a couple drafts of Venus in early years, and the early version doesn’t work as much anymore for the planet play series as it has evolved. So we’re going back and totally making Venus again from scratch, and now it’s going to be about climate refugees and migration.

EP: So is that in response to issues that are more present now than when you started?

JP: Yeah. When I started SHC, nobody was talking about this stuff, not much. I mean, environmentalism has been around forever, and artist have been working with it forever. But climate change, in particular, and the complexities of our global ecosystem — this was before An Inconvenient Truth. I was playing around with this stuff, and I didn’t know anything about climate change, and I’m slow reader and a bad researcher. So, to me, what has been my education has been years of making things in partnership with people smarter than me. And, most importantly, scientists. And then, of course, obviously it’s become a worldwide issue. It’s in the paper every day, there’s a lot more to read now, there’s a lot more exposed, there’s a lot more information. And then something happens like the Syrian refugee crisis and immediately we start hearing about its connections to climate change. Then we go, oh, this was an issue we were speculating about, and a lot of experts had been speculating about this being an inevitable outcome of climate change — a mass migration of people. But now we’re seeing it, it’s not foreign, it’s not fifty years from now, it’s here now, we should be making a play about it.

***

EP: It feels like, or I hope that, we’re moving from this personal responsibility model, to a more systemic responsibility model. Our idea of how to be good citizens used to be, like, recycle! And we know that’s just the tiniest little drop of what we actually need to be doing. And then you think of theater as an institution that doesn’t necessarily perceive itself — and I’m not trying to just pick on theater any group, any industry, we’re just starting to be able to think about how we are implicated in climate change in all the different places that we operate. Something I love and respect about SHC is that you demand to operate in a particular way, and there is an aspect of any theatrical undertaking that is a sort of socialization project, or a world-making project. In making a piece of theater, you’re making a world for the people doing it. And you are demanding that it be made in a way that is responsible — I wonder what limitations you’ve come up against? What would your dream eco-theater experience be, versus what are the consistent limits you’ve had to negotiate.

JP: Well, first of all, I don’t think there’s such a thing as preaching to the choir with these issues. With this, it surprises me time and time again how I think that I know as much about something as the people around me are going to know, when the fact is we all know various things at varying levels. And regardless of that, we’re inundated with so much that to sit in a theater and have time to be with these questions, that’s not preaching to the choir, that’s time and space and community.

EP: For processing

JP: Yeah. And part of that is that I’ve yet to have a process where everyone involved is like, “Oh yeah, I know all this stuff, I get it, I understand the complexities, we can just jump in.” And often, I’m one of those people being like, “Oh, right, I don’t know this!” And so I think we are all still sort of stumbling in the dark a bit, and so part of the dream eco-theater process is one in which (and I think this maybe fellowship will lead toward this) theater artists and environmental experts find common ground that we all have a basic understanding of. I think we’re all still in that slowly-waking up phase: oh, this is what we need to say, this is how we should be saying it. That’s what I see when I see other people playing around with eco-theater, I usually see something kind of similar, as far as the approach, the message, the questions, whatever. I feel like that’s just a problem of time and cultural knowledge. So that would be part of it — we would have this baseline place so we can innovate. We don’t need to worry so much about understanding the facts. That’s true for the kids too.

***

EP: Something this work makes me think about is the value of storytelling, and I know that’s something that’s very important to you. It’s very important to tell stories around this stuff. But it also makes me think of the way that we are socially coded to tell stories in a certain way, like about good versus evil. It’s definitely partly from human history — we’ve always told these kinds of stories — but it’s particularly coded now in a capitalist, industrialist framework, which is the undercurrent of most of climate change. And so that’s a layer in the way that even kids understandhow to tell stories. I wonder if you think about process as a story, and how we might be getting at other kinds of storytelling that might resist the late capitalist human…ugh. I don’t know how you do that!

JP: Two things: first, sort of the simple story structure, before the process-as-story, the fiction itself. The thing that drives me nuts about popular, animated movies trying to make strong female characters is that it’s usually just the same shit, the same story, and it’s like, “Look! This is a Strong Female Character!”

EP: And that person is succeeding by a definition of success that is not resisting or changing the world, actually, and even by succeeding it’s making the world even more what it already is.

JP: In a similar way, when you see disaster movies, or movies that kind of come close to issues of climate change, there’s still a formula and a code that we’re still locked to.

EP: We can’t imagine a new way of having culture and being together, we just redo it after everything has been wiped away. That’s what I got out of Jupiter, that we don’t know how to really do something different.

JP: That’s definitely something that we talked about a lot with that piece. And there’s a little bit of flaw in that, because we hoped the ending would be more open and hopeful, and I think most people had that response — the ending of that play was that we’re doomed to repeat ourselves. It’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just a moment of, “Oh, that’s one step away from what we were thinking, but yeah…” We’re locked in. And to me, this is an issue of time. I think actually, the root of climate change, of all of our environmental problems, is our perception and experience of time. And that’s also a problem of our storytelling, sort of in reverse. Chantal, who led our rewriting workshop, wrote a series for Howlround last year, and in her intro she said something that stuck with me. She said you can’t write plays about climate change, they have to be climate change. I think what she means by that is that it’s not an issue, it is. That’s the world we live in. To me that’s maybe an open doorway towards what are our new stories, and what are the ways we tell them. That’s also why it’s sort of annoying for me to say I make eco-theater. It’s nice because it gives me a set of limitations, it’s helpful for a lot of reasons. But really, it’s not a thing, it shouldn’t be a thing. 50 years from now we should look back at the plays made between now and then and go, “those were plays from the era of waking up to climate change.” Not that they were about climate change, but that they were from this time. And I think that requires so many different things — including understanding how we are complicit in it, or connected to the web that is the reason why it happened, to understand what we’ve inherited, most importantly, our consumerist culture, our tendency towards convenience and laziness in ways that our ancestors maybe weren’t so much. Or maybe they were, but regardless. now we are able, in the more privileged parts of the world, to make a choice about that. Those are things that are really interesting to me: are we able to, and how do we break out of our sense of time? And are we/how are we able to break out of our sense of laziness, for lack of a better word.

EP: Yeah, you think about what are the apparatuses through which we experience and tell stories? Because for most people it’s not theater, it’s not live. It’s through television and mass media, mostly. So even the mechanisms through which we tell/experience stories are really convenient, and sometimes rich and complex and really interesting, but they are not supporting a different value system on a functional, social level.

JP: That brings me back to BGT! To me, theater is not something that is necessarily what you put on stage, but the fact that it is in this environment. Theater is context, to a certain extent. What’s neat about these kids is that they’re appropriating all these different things from the stories they know, mostly coming from pop culture. So, from Star Wars, from Disney tv shows, from cartoons, from online, from slang and colloquialisms, from what they hear their parents talking about. And they think cinematically, because they haven’t had this experience with theater before, and I don’t have a problem with that. Because what happens when we go down that route is that we put it on stage, and because it’s theater, it’s something new and transcends all of that. It’s like a different story. Even if we were to take a tv show word for word and put it in the theater, I don’t think it would necessarily be a very good play, but it would be its own thing. There’s something about that that’s really interesting with the kids. It’s part of the reason that I think theater is such an important tool in fighting the environmental crisis, by which I mean changing our value system, changing our culture, changing how we be together—that’s the context of theater. That’s what we’re doing there.

EP: I’ve had this feeling for a long time, and not to say it’s not happening already, but on as large a scale as we can, we need to rediscover the value of theater. And theater itself needs to rearticulate its value.

JP: What I’m interested in is for people to consider the complexities, to live in questions. That’s what I want — a society of people who live in questions…Really what it’s about is consciousness, because that’s what changes culture. But it’s tricky, because when you say we’re making work about these issues, most people that come to us interested in that specifically have a passion about activism. And I have no problem with activism, but I don’t think that’s theater. I don’t think that’s how theater can function best. Maybe we use the word theater to describe activist events, Bread & Puppet is an example, and I’m not saying that’s not theater. But theater, in the way that I’m defining it, is not activism. It’s a place where we commune around a question so we can think about it more. So we can go away and have it be more a part of our consciousness, and thereby allowing us to be more comfortable with questions and complexities beyond that one particular question. That’s what’s tricky about it. It’s hard for me when we do a lab — like, our lab in December was on extinction and people were crying. And I understand, man, we’re talking about fifty percent of the world’s species dying, many of which we hold dear to our hearts…

EP: We do and we don’t though

JP: Exactly. And that’s the point! Let us cry, but not while we’re making theater. Or fine, cry, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about us wondering, why are we crying yet we also do all of these things — we’re crying while we are living in this structure. Granted, we were born into it in this country, this excessive capitalistic, individualistic cowboy community. We didn’t choose that, but we are a part of that, and we think that way, and it’s hard for us to break away from it. And so to go back to your question about how are we telling stories and what stories are we telling, I think that’s a red flag for me when we make work. If we’re making work upon tears, it’s not going to be the kind of eco-theater that I want to make.

EP: I always feel that the people for whom theater is the most useful are the people who are making it, so I’m trying to think of as many different ways as I can to have the process be what I’m spending the most time on, and be the actual part and parcel of the thing, because that’s where you get a truly different experience of time. And I think SHC has a very unique sense of process, in terms of using different drafts, and returning to things — it seems like a more anthropological scope of time.

JP: And also, process is the thing that I think is impossible, that we’re chasing after. If we’re working upon our ideals or our values, then we’re chasing after that process that we will never really find. The reason why it’s impossible is because it’s the microcosm of the larger society trying to make stuff. It’s impossible because we happen to have consciousness, we happen to like to make things. And we like to make stuff together, but we’re also fiercely individualistic, with very different tastes, very different interests, very different approaches. And yet, we’re trying to make something together and trying to get along with each other. And that encompasses everything — the moments where you’re like, this means fucking nothing, all I’m doing is for naught. And sometimes you’re doing all this work for one moment, when I have more people who I don’t know, usually, who are meeting this, and I don’t know what that means. To a certain extent, if that’s the metaphor, the audience doesn’t make any sense. It’s like you have a town or a community that makes this really unique thing, and then this other community comes to it and they’re like, I have no idea what this is, I’m not a part of it. It’s not actually like this [meshes fingers together], which is strange.

EP: That’s a really great metaphor, it is really strange. I guess it gets back to the point of how are we telling stories and who are we telling them to.

JP: And for.

EP: And how are we including the people who are receiving them in the process, which is really hard.

JP: So, for instance, part of the success of BGT is that their families are really proud of them, and the school is really proud of them. The other students are like, “Whoa, you wrote that play?!” Building on that, we’re going to be doing this project called The Living Stage in partnership with University Settlement in the coming year, and we’ll be working with this community of seniors at the Meltzer Center in the Lower East Side, and also kids, both building this living stage — a permanent public performance space that is also a community garden. So we’ll be making that with this community over the course of a year, but then also we’ll be making a performance to premier in that space with them. And similar questions come up in my head when I envision what this will be like. It’s sort of BGT-like, but what’s neat is that they get to have a voice in creating the structure, the space itself, so that’s interesting. Who owns the space, and is the space the thing?

EP: And since they are the ones witnessing the whole process, it’s clear who the piece is for. It makes me think that we have a quite colonial perspective on audience-ship, which I’d never thought of before. This idea, “I’m going to watch this and it’s going to mean something to me!” or “It’s supposed to mean something to me!” But really, it’s important to be witnessing things made by and with your people. It’s about decentralizing and de-homogenizing our structures of storytelling.

JP: Yes!

 

Where is the Hope?

Originally published in April 2015 on HowlRound as part of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, a series of blogs curated by Chantal Bilodeau. Be sure to read the other blogs in the series; they are all wonderful.

Where is the Hope?

Yes, information is necessary; many people still do not know or accept the facts about climate change. Yes, empathy is necessary; through compelling characters and stories, we offer essential alternative perspectives.

But in the face of global catastrophe, hope is key to positive change—real, tangible hope that empowers people to come together rather than burden them with weariness. Locating, communicating, and celebrating this sort of hope while making art on a topic as daunting as climate change is incredibly difficult, but without it, we risk passively holding a mirror up to nature instead of using the mirror to start a fire. 

In the early years of Superhero Clubhouse, I often fell prey to the feeling of outrage as I learned the extent of climate change; thus, many early drafts of Planet Plays spiraled into despair. Now that I have replaced outrage with a more comprehensive understanding of climate change, I am determined to find hope in every project, and to make the hope present, active, and universal.  

My work focuses entirely on eco-theatre. With my company, Superhero Clubhouse, I take a holistic approach to theatremaking where content, process, and production are connected to complex environmental problems. Our long-term project is a series of nine Planet Plays that examine the world in the context of climate change. Independently, the plays probe specific topics such as waste, water, and food, but when put together they form a new mythology for our changing world. Like all of Superhero Clubhouse’s eco-theatre initiatives, we construct the Planet Plays using three essential tools: impossible questions, limitations, and hope. 

Early in the process of making an eco-play, after a dose of research, my collaborators and I generate an “impossible question”—one that is extremely difficult to answer, even for an environmental expert. For example, in EARTH (a play about people), our question is, “Should we have children?” This is a question that sparks a provocative conversation about overpopulation, but is impossible to definitively answer personally or communally. Allowing the question to be “impossible” steers my collaborators and me clear of didacticism and oversimplifications of science, and also leaves room for audiences to grapple with an environmental issue on their own terms. 

EARTH (a play about people), with actors Dan Lawrence and Adam H. Weinert. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

EARTH (a play about people), with actors Dan Lawrence and Adam H. Weinert. Photo by Jill Steinberg.

After forming our impossible question, we place temporal, narrative, physical, and scenic limitations upon ourselves. For example, in our first-draft production of MARS (a play about mining), we told an epic story that spanned years and planets in a tight seventy-five minutes, in a LEED-certified performance space with nothing onstage but bodies and voices. These limitations were directly tied to the play's content and question, which were inspired by the history of Appalachian coal mining. Creatively pushing up against boundaries is nothing new; it's how most independent theatre artists make work, especially when confronting a small budget. But by re-appropriating the word "limitation" and using it in an environmental context, we are also experimenting with how people might use and respect precious resources in the world at large. 

MARS (a play about mining). Photo by Brian Hashimoto.

MARS (a play about mining). Photo by Brian Hashimoto.

It is the third tenet of eco-theatre— hope—that is perhaps the most challenging part of our process. In the early years of Superhero Clubhouse, I often fell prey to the feeling of outrage as I learned the extent of climate change; thus, many early drafts of Planet Plays spiraled into despair. Now that I have replaced outrage with a more comprehensive understanding of climate change, I am determined to find hope in every project, and to make the hope present, active, and universal. 

We are currently in the midst of creating JUPITER (a play about power), a duet inspired by Frankenstein and energy policy. JUPITER's protagonist is a young tycoon who overhauls the entire energy system on Earth before retreating to the planet Jupiter. His enforced vision promises to halt climate change, but demands costly sacrifices from all citizens. 

We have formed an impossible question: "Should we impose radical societal change for the greater good?" And we have instituted several limitations: sixty-minute run-time, only two performers, only acoustic instruments, and (eventually) an entirely self-sustaining lighting design. 

But as we develop our script and story, it is proving difficult to pinpoint the hope. Our protagonist needs humanity to succeed by pulling itself up by its bootstraps; but as the artists, in order to honor our impossible question, we need audiences to be left wondering whether or not—and to what extent—imposed environmental action is effective and ethical. Therefore, we need the character to fail, offering both sides of the power coin: positive progress vs. playing god.

Having an environmental policy expert as a creative collaborator helps our process by way of devil’s advocating. Jonathan Camuzeaux, who works at Environmental Defense Fund by day and as a musician by night, is stalwart when it comes to our environmental dramaturgy. As ideas snowball, Jonathan keeps us tethered to the facts. Because he is an expert in examining systems of change, and understands cause and effect at an economic and political level, he is not satisfied with simple solutions. He holds a global perspective on humanity that is neither fatalistic nor naive.

In all of our work, collaborating with environmental experts is a priority, and I find it helps with identifying real hope. Where I am an idealist, scientists are pragmatic, and often objective enough to challenge my ideas on the basis of research. Though it’s probably far from a “peer review,” the feedback I receive from my environmental collaborators is both challenging and constructive. Their ideas focus on how a shift in story or staging might better allow our impossible question to highlight a real-world conundrum, rather than how we can better sentimentalize the situation. I know few climate scientists who spend their grant money wallowing in despair; their presence in our process reminds us that to be curious is to be hopeful, and that our job is just to keep asking questions.

One big hope lies in humanity embracing the fact that the future is going to be rough. Theatre, if we choose to let it, can offer a safe place for communities to confront this truth, and to talk about climate change not as a bleak apocalypse but as a catalyst for the construction of a better world.

EARTH rising

9/16/14

At 10am the rope is released, the horn blasts, and the ferry is off. It's only an 8-minute ride, but it has become a necessary moment of exhale and check-in. Everyone who will take part in the day's rehearsal is together, floating in a void that is no longer the city and not yet Governor's Island. It allows us to begin rehearsal on time, and with clarity. 
In Studio B of Building 110 on Governor's Island, we hug. We train a little, in Suzuki or clown. We read a scene made by an artist in a far away city. One of my co-directors, Harry Poster or Hannah Wolf, leads a discussion about the scene, how it fits into the larger story of our play. Sergio Botero, a Columbian environmental scientist at Rockefeller University and a performer in EARTH, connects something in the scene to research he is familiar with: "This city is a hot topic right now, because of the drought: either it will become a leader in the way it revolutionizes food and water technologies, or else it will collapse." We get on our feet, and start to create.

The 20 people working with me in the studio are some of my favorite artists in NYC. There are new superheroes, and some I have known and worked with for years. They are each bold, independent, multi-talented generators. Together, we are a medley of languages and cultural knowledge (both artistic and geographic). Where there are differences, we celebrate. Where there are confusions, we try to articulate. Now, at the end of our second week, the ambitious nature of our experiment-- the amount of material, the amount of unknowns, the amount of “cooks in the kitchen”-- is beginning to cause anxiety, and sometimes frustration. As in the world, much of our process is about trying to get along, to meet each other, to find common ground. It is my job to keep us together, and there are days when I am better at this than others.  But when we step away from the pressure of the studio and board the ferry back to the rest of our lives, an ease takes hold again, as we gain perspective from the nebulousness of the harbor. Long ago, the estuary below us teemed with life. Not so long ago, the skyscrapers in front of us remind us of the other end of the human spectrum: nature, but also innovation. We are tiny, destructive, miraculous cosmic mutations.   

At home, I Skype with my sister in Australia. She is nearly 8 months pregnant, and one of EARTH’s Satellite Artists. She shows me her latest sonogram, and dares me to find the face. I scan the terrain of the photograph as if decoding a topographical image from the Mars Rover. Finally a face appears, with strange sunken eyes. “It looks like one of those Magic Eye pictures, doesn’t it?”, she says with a mix of wonder and pride. She still seems surprised to be a mother. I’m still surprised that she is a mother.  

_________________________________________________________________________

10/7/14

Carl Sagan, whose Voyager Golden Record project inspired EARTH's process and structure, was known for his trademark combination of skepticism and wonder. He was a sober researcher and an outspoken critic of "psedo-science", yet he spent his career on the somewhat quixotic quest to find alien life. The Voyager Golden Record (VGR) was a serious project led by some of the world's leading experts, yet it was arguably the most romantic endeavor that NASA has ever funded. Created in a short amount of time with scant resources and no internet, the project was imperfect, subjected to the limited knowledge and personal interests and biases of the handful of experts on the VGR team. And yet it stubbornly exists, if only as a gesture, somewhere outside our solar system. 

For me, the VGR is not so much a representation of humanity's greatness as a symbol of our imperfection. The items included on the record-- music, sounds, greetings in different languages and images of Earth-- are impressive and moving to peruse, but they don't intrique me as much as the process that went into creating it: the record that was strapped to the Voyager spacecraft was the result of a small group of people attempting to gather something global and tether it to themselves.  

Like the Golden Record, we approached our September development of EARTH as an imperfect time capsule, an attempt to make the global personal, using the people, time and materials available to us. For me, this not only meant filling the process with some of my favorite artists in the world (literally) and making space for them to express their personal relationship to questions of population, but also making space for my own personal journey.

One prominent piece of our set was a battered, squeaky recliner that I have had with me since birth; my mother nursed me in this chair, and I've dragged it with me from high school sleep-overs to college parties to my New York apartment and now onto our stage. My pregnant sister, who was first represented in our initial EARTH showing last June when she revealed the sex of her baby live (via Skype; she lives in Australia) in front of our audience, has since written a letter to her unborn child-- a time capsule of sorts, describing her hopes, fears, and the state of her mind and body at 34 weeks pregnant. In September, we staged my sister's text as if her adult daughter, sitting in the battered recliner, was reading the letter for the first time. 

After the September performance, my parents hosted a picnic on the lawn across from our studio, a delicious meal made entirely with vegetables from their garden or from the Syracuse farmer's market. During the week leading up to the performance, as we prepared EARTH, my mom prepared our food: harvesting, chopping, grilling, calculating, measuring... following receipes and following her gut... worrying and dreaming and looking forward. Without knowing it, my mother became a Satellite Artist; her response to my prompt ("Hey Mom, make us a picnic to celebrate EARTH") added to our exploration of population without comment, but with food. Cooking unwittingly became a piece of theater, and my mom's art became part of the show.  

At the same moment, my dear friend Anne Zager (an original co-conceiver of EARTH) was in Minneapolis, being a doula for her friend's birth. The baby could have been born any time in mid-September. In fact, he was born on September 20, the same day as we birthed EARTH. 

The environmental and political questions associated with population are tremendously complex; the personal questions are equally complex. It was moving to me, this September, to get amongst all the complexities and grapple with them alongside my family, and the extraordinary artists and audience I keep bragging about. The questions are not easy; nor was our September process. With Superhero Clubhouse, I am always interested to explore how theater (process, content and production) can be a laboratory for how we might live in the world. EARTH's content revolved around the topic of population, yes, but our process was also about collaboration and limitation. How do we get along despite differences, in the name of creating something bigger than ourselves? How do we collaborate when-- as is typical in NYC-- so many of our ensemble members are not available to rehearse every day? How do we communicate across borders of language, deadlines, time zones and internet restrictions? When we are not in the same room, when we are not on the same page, when we need different things, how do we move forward? International summits on climate change ask a lot of the same questions. So far, these summits have produced stalemates and frustration-- but also, progress. As Andrew Revkin stresses in his recent NY Times article on the People's Climate March, and as Anne Bogart writes at the conclusion of her seminal book A Director Prepares, we must act now...and also, we must be patient. Summits are happening. People are marching. Perspectives and paradigms are shifting, and we are slowly starting to work together.  

In this regard (and in many others), our EARTH development process was a big success. It wasn't perfect, but it was an attempt, a step forward, a microcosm of global change. We have learned an immense amount, both from our collaborators and our audience, whose attention and feedback were essential. And now, upon the foundation of this year's experiments, we move forward, heading towards a premiere in NYC at the end of 2015.  

Perth, Australia is a mining town with development on the rise, record-hot summers and an environment at risk thanks to climate change and a shortsighted prime minister. But in a few weeks, my niece will be born there, which makes me smile with wide eyes. I am filled with sobriety and wonder, gravity and hope. 

The April Experiment

For the entirety of April, I'm not throwing anything away. That means no trash and no recyclables; nothing disposable. 

WHY?

Other than to raise awareness and to celebrate Earth Month, the purpose of my experiment is to discover whether or not someone like me-- a young, poor, busy, concerned artist living in NYC-- can significantly reduce his waste stream without too much hassle. I want to evaluate what challenges are legit and unavoidable, and where I'm just being lazy. 

 

RULES

1. I am composting food scraps and continuing to use recycled toilet paper.

2. I can use packaged products that were already in my kitchen and bathroom before I started the experiment.

3. Any time that my experiment is unsuccessful I will save my trash for study. 

4. If I have no non-disposable option, or if I cannot afford the non-disposable option, I will not deny myself basic needs for the sake of the experiment.

UPDATE

I'm a week into my experiment, and so far I've had moderate success. In general, cafes, restaurants and bars are happy to comply with my unusual request for food without napkins, straws, wax paper, or disposable cups and utensils. Thwarting the habitual triple-bagging at stores is as simple as whipping out a reusable bag. Once or twice a week I buy groceries at the Greenmarket in Union Square, and if I stick to a budget and shop around, I don't spend any more than I would at Trader Joe's for equivalent meals (less, if you consider the environmental cost of TJ's growing and shipping procedures). In rehearsals, we make edits to the original script in pencil and on computers, and other office work has remained within my laptop and phone, so I haven't had to discard any paper. I bring light items in my backpack to help me: reusable water bottle, reusable coffee container, tupperware, camping spork, foldable plastic plate/bowl, small towel and handkerchief.

I find I am gaining awareness of my habits, consuming less frivolously/eating moderately, having interesting conversations with strangers and getting better at planning my day in advance. 

But I keep stumbling over the little things that are easy to neglect: gum wrappers, Band-aids, bags of discount apples at the Greenmarket, toilet paper tubes, the magazine subscription I forgot to put on hold... 

NYC is a disposable city. Even with our recent recycling upgrades (we can now recycle nearly all plastics, including take-out containers and yogurt cups) and trial composting in Brooklyn, we're a city of 8 million people on trash overdrive, and I am no exception. It's so easy for me to cheat; the systems around me are set up for convenience, not sustainability. Also, I am extraordinarily busy in April, when we mount our annual Big Green Theater Festival at The Bushwick Starr (see above), and my mind is rightfully preoccupied with things other than trash. The experiment can easily feel burdensome. My goal for the coming week is to find joy and ease in it, while staying practical. Stay tuned!

                                                                       My waste so far, minus compost.

                                                                       My waste so far, minus compost.

                                                                     "Ugly Roots" at the Greenmarket.

                                                                     "Ugly Roots" at the Greenmarket.

4/7

Bought flatbread at Greenmarket stand. Woman running stand handed it to me without paper. Unprompted, she expressed hope that the city is on the brink of big cultural change re: waste-- believes a ban on plastic bags is inevitable, etc. 

4/9

Went to Kickshaw in Astoria for a meeting. Have been to Kickshaw numerous times and I know they offer cloth napkins, real plates, silverware and glassware, so my guard was down. Tea came with bar napkin between cup and saucer; sandwich came with wax paper underneath.

4/11

Treated myself to a doughnut at Dun-Well in Bushwick. After offering to hand me the doughnut by using two spoons (in lieu of tongs, and in the face of disposable wax paper and rubber gloves, as is customary), the barista and I talked about NYC's strict Health Code. I'll admit, it was the first time I've really thought about this challenge. PS- Foolishly ordered the PB&J doughnut and I didn't have my towel with me, so I juggled oozing jelly and spent the rest of the afternoon with a sticky beard. 

Asked panini maker at Greenstreet Salad to give me panini to-go in my red fold-up plate-bowl thing. He, and the cutomers around me, seemed fascinated by this object. He said it made him think of Greenbox, a start-up that offers pizza boxes that fold and tear in such a way to avoid having to use paper plates and tupperware storage.

Went to a party for Blessed Unrest. Almost bought a bottle of beer, but caught myself. Instead, used my collapsable camping cup and drank scotch. 

4/12

Saw a friend's play, came home with a paper program. Not sure how to categorize this... I collect programs (have since college), yet I am still accumulating something disposable, which is against my rules. This issue of paper programs is a continuous conundrum for me: SHC never prints programs, and I ultimately believe it to be a wasteful tradition, but as an audience member I appreciate having something tangible from a performance to take home with me. Will continue to ponder. 

                                                        Scotch in a collapsable cup. 

                                                        Scotch in a collapsable cup. 

                                               I wonder how this experiment is going.

                                               I wonder how this experiment is going.

4/14

Took my 5-year-old friend to the pediatrician. A doctor's office is a trash-slap in the face, for sure: when a room needs to remain sterilized, waste is inevitable. Would I be able to conduct this experiment if my job required me to throw away as much plastic, paper and medical supplies as a doctor does every day? Health is important, making our mountains of medical waste a massive conundrum. 

4/15

At Thai restaurant, thinking about how deep this goes. Most of the ingredients in front of me originally came in packaging, and in boxes shipped from far away. There is likely so much waste accumulated before I even sit down to eat. Am I cheating by eating at restaurants? Am I cheating when I buy unpackaged produce from the grocery store?  Should I consider the waste created by the people I exchange goods and services with? When I sit down in a Thai restaurant and there is a paper napkin already pre-set in front of me, am I cheating by putting the napkin on my neighbor's table? (The answer to the third question is "yes"). 

4/16



A nasty illness came on quick.

The worst time for me to get sick.

I have a hankie, but I know

There surely won't be just one blow.

At home, a t-shirt will suffice,

But on the train, that's not so nice.

To tissue, or not to?

4/17

Needed vegetables, and no time to shop at Greenmarket. Stopped in Bushwick grocery called Hana Natural. In the entire store, the only products without packaging were tomatoes, potatoes, onions, ginger and bok choy. Bought some of each. Couldn't help but feel like the little stickers on the fresh fruit were taunting me.  

4/18

Cleaning a bathroom, pondering cardboard toilet paper tubes. These poor little guys inevitably get thrown in the bathroom trash can, instead of recycled with their fellow cardboards. Are we doing this out of convenience, or somehow convincing ourselves that the tube actually is trash? The neglect of toilet paper tubes was an initial inspiration for URANUS (a play about waste), the first in our Planet Play series. In the play, cardboard tubes are used to represent William Herschel's famous telescopes. 

                                         A familiar scene: fresh produce, wrapped in plastic. 

                                         A familiar scene: fresh produce, wrapped in plastic. 

                                       The only products in the store without packaging.

                                       The only products in the store without packaging.

4/19-4/26

This week presented two big challenges to my April experiment: illness and techThe days leading up to our Big Green Theater performances (Today and tomorrow only!) were brutal: long, late hours, and I'm sick as a dog. On top of that, I performed Don't Be Sad, Flying Ace! on Tuesday morning to a group of middle school students in the East Village, so my body has not had a chance to recover, and my responsibilities were great. Such a week and state of health demanded:

-Medicine (in plastic bottles and little cardboard boxes with excessive paper instructions)

-Increased toilet paper. As much as I have tried to use only cloth and other materials to blow my nose, the clogs are constant and I have needed to use TP on many occasions, or else snot all over my cast, crew and fellow subway riders. I prefer TP to tissues because A) less packaging B) it's already in my bathroom and C) I usually don't need an entire tissue. 

-Take-out. On the eve of our first early morning school performance, my production team and I are up all night putting finishes touches to our technical elements. My attention was needed everywhere, and I did not have time to leave the theater to get food. I chose to go in on a delivery of Indian food, which of course came in hard plastic take-out containers, paper bag, plastic bag, plastic utensils wrapped in plastic, paper napkins, aluminum foil... the list goes on. It was jarring and frustrating, to suddenly be stuck with a bag full of plastic, taking up more space than all the trash I've collected over the past three weeks. 

I was also faced with a conundrum this week:

There is waste being created by the production that I am ultimately responsible for. We build our productions sustainably, and there will be little thrown away at strike, but the process of making our world includes using a certain amount of disposable building materials. Big Green Theater is my full-time job in April; shouldn't I be including production waste in my experiment? Shouldn't I be saving the scraps of tape, hot glue, velcro wrappers, screws, paint, cloth, wood, etc. the way I am saving napkins and wax paper?

On a brighter note:

Beginning to appreciate frequenting the same neighborhood food joints. Having lived in a residential neighborhood of Queens for nine years, and being someone who likes variety, I've never really had local haunts. But this time of year, the four-block radius surrounding The Bushwick Starr becomes home. The salad place, the coffee shop, the perogi deli... now they don't give me strange looks when I whip out my red foldable plate-bowl. Instead, they ask me how my experiment is going, and I give them an update. I recognize something important here... a tiny glimmer, but it's blatant: culture shifts by strangers having conversations about something new. 

And on the best note:

I am incredibly proud of this year's Big Green Theater production. The plays are hilarious, epic, touching and completely worth seeing. My cast and crew are on point, and The Starr is glowing with joy at the increasing success of this unique and beautiful program. I truly hope you'll come join us today or tomorrow. More info here

                                                               Medicine fail + my trusty red plate-bowl. 

                                                               Medicine fail + my trusty red plate-bowl. 

                                                                      Late-night Big Green Theater build.

                                                                      Late-night Big Green Theater build.








            


On Eco-Theater

(Originally published as part of the Artistic Innovation blog salon curated by Caridad Svich for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Six years ago I wrote a play about waste, assuming it would be a singular jaunt in environmental themes; now I collaborate with climate scientists, run an eco-playwriting program for Brooklyn 5th-graders and am beginning work on the seventh in a series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays.  I am searching for a new model of theater, not because there is a need to reinvent the wheel, but because I believe that a holistic approach—uniting concept, content, process and production around the tenets of ecology—is my best chance at making a difference in the world.

To paraphrase Anne Bogart, making theater proposes a model of how we might live in the world; every production is a microcosm of society at large, an arena where a community of individuals gathers each day and attempts to make something together.  What we make and how we make it depends on what is invested and what is valued.

I choose to value sustainability, not only because I want to use my art to ignite environmental conversations, but also because every definition of the word “sustainable” implies endurance, discipline and creativity.  Inspired by the resourcefulness of children (and the definition of eco, which means “house”), I call my theater company a Clubhouse, because I want my organization to remain grassroots, non-profit, community-driven and playful.  I continue to fill this figurative Clubhouse with a gaggle of artists and environmental advocates who flow in and out of membership at will.  I call them superheroes, as I do anyone who is working for the betterment of the Earth.  Together we make eco-plays, practice green production, gather as a community and talk about sustainability.

To be sure, it’s all an experiment.  Eco-theater didn’t exist a decade ago (it still sort of doesn’t); therefore there is no precedent, not to mention I’m making it in an age when irony has all but killed old-school political drama.  Thankfully I have more interest in dance than I do old-school political drama; nevertheless, a dense and didactic discussion is the first impression most folks get when they hear the term “eco-theater.”  This misconception is one of many obstacles that I have yet to fully overcome.  I am not an authority, merely a scientist in the field, asking questions, continuously trying and failing.

Writing about eco-theater, I am struck with a conundrum.  On one hand, I do not wish to preach, for who am I to tell fellow artists what the content of their plays should be, or that it is their duty to recycle building materials?  Other than encourage, all I can do is my work.  But I also want to be as effective as possible, and theater artists who actively practice sustainability are the extreme minority.  It occurs to me that if I actually care about making an impact on the world, I can’t be the only one doing it.

Tangible, Green Theater

Tanja Beer is an Australian eco-designer, in both philosophy and practice.  She has constructed expansive sets that can fit into a single backpack, created worlds out of ready-made backstage equipment, transformed old plastic into acrobatic silks, and suspended hundreds of local apples (which she then donated to children’s charities).  Currently, Tanja is tackling one of eco-theater’s great obstacles–the theater space itself—by designing and constructing living stages.  Built from things like donated vegetable crates and inspired by the agriculture of the area, her living stages are half actors’ playground and half community garden; indeed, engaging with the community is a major goal.  Locals help Tanja grow and tend the plants that become the stage walls, the set, the props and the refreshments.  Audiences are welcome to eat from them before the show starts, after which point the space becomes an interactive theater, where performers climb, tell stories and eat.

In reference to how we make artistic decisions in directing and design, we often say that the needs of the play trump all. This is an important rule, and honoring the playwright and maintaining a consistent vision are values many of us share.  But if we also value sustainability, and the needs of the play demand that we make artistic decisions that negatively affect the way we live in the world, which value is trumped?  In other words, what is our global responsibility, as people who use energy and materials to make temporary experiences? If an author values the preservation of trees but her publisher cannot use recycled paper, how does she publish the book?

The ethical conundrums are as big as the environmental ones, and I’m not about to answer them.  We are free artists; there is no law preventing us from using foam core and luan and spray paint, curtailing the amount of water and chemicals we use laundering costumes, or capping our electricity use while we tech long shows with old lights.  But there are also few incentives (economic or otherwise) supporting more efficient approaches; it is still cheaper and easier to throw an entire Broadway set into one dumpster than it is to hire multiple crews to sort, recycle and store what is salvageable.

Assuming these incentives are slow in coming, we can problem-solve in other ways.  I’ll take a good guess and suppose that most Broadway productions are designed with the dumpster in mind.  To green a production without an added economic burden requires a decision to consider sustainability much earlier in the process.  To quote Tanja’s website: “Just as an experienced stage designer generally designs with budget limitations in mind, I have also begun incorporating an environmentally responsible approach to the way in which I create work.  This begins early in the design process, and is integrated into every aspect of the procedure; from the development of conceptual ideas, to the realization of the design concept, to the manner in which the finished product is disposed of.”

In the big-budget world, this kind of pre-production planning requires intense cooperation between the artistic team, the producers and the owners of the theater itself.  But, as Broadway’s extraordinary eco-designer Donyale Werle has proven, even if this level of collaboration is not currently attainable, a designer with a commitment to sustainability can still make waves on her own; since design is where green values are first seen and most easily understood by those to whom green theater is a new concept, perhaps designers are the ones best equipped to lead the charge.  Certainly the NYC theater community thinks so, as they have honored Donyale with several awards in recognition of her innovation.

It is also not up to the rest of us to wait for big-budget theaters to create a precedent.  Talking with Tanja Beer over tea last month, I came to understand that her designs are not complicated or expensive, nor do they lack artistic merit or require artistic sacrifice.  Instead, they are cheap, easy and affective, offering new possibilities in the rehearsal room and unique visual storytelling to audiences.  What Tanja offers by example is a practical model of design that could be approached by anyone, from carpenters volunteering at their local community theater to resident designers at regional houses.

Imagine a regional or off-Broadway theater devoting an entire season to green production.  Think of how many ingenious designers would meet the call-to-arms with immense creativity and pride, something the theater could brag about, audiences could wonder at, and American Theater Magazine articles could promote as game-changing.  Imagine the college theater programs that would follow suit and how many future professionals would grow up knowing creative green solutions not as cute anomalies or fashionable trends but as increasingly standardized ways of making theater.

My long-time collaborator R.B. Schlather describes designing with my company as a process of “creating maximal images through minimal means”.  He focuses on one central design choice that can solve many problems and communicate a great deal.  For instance, in our dance-theater event MARS (a play about mining) that we premiered at Center for Performance Research (a LEED-certified dance space in Brooklyn) in March, everything onstage was white, including the recycled Tyvek suits worn by the entire 25-person cast; this created a “blank canvas” effect, which simultaneously allowed audiences to project their imaginations upon the stage, illustrations to be projected against the back wall and for the play’s theme of development vs. destruction to be highlighted.  In SATURN (a play about food), R.B. evoked the contrasting worlds of city and farm with a carefully curated selection of used chairs.  In both productions, the choice to work with minimalism kept things green, but it also put more attention on the bodies and voices of our multi-talented performers, whose athleticism and physical storytelling prowess were qualities I celebrated and sought.

Minimalism is not the formula for making green theater, however.  My other regular designers, Michael Minahan and Preesa Adeline Bullington, build epic and magical worlds for our annual Big Green Theater Festival.  Michael and Preesa are by now expert scavengers, gathering as much from sidewalks as they do from Materials for the Arts, Build It Green and Craig’s List.  Together with Jay Maury, whose ambitious lighting designs are made entirely of LED, fluorescent and household instruments, our designers transform The Bushwick Starr Theater every April with as much creativity and skill as any of the non-eco-designers that grace the Starr each season.

Of course, determined designers require an encouraging and flexible director.  I begin rehearsing Big Green Theater with a ground plan, but I know that it might change depending on what my designers are able to find.  I do not see this as a problem or sacrifice, but an opportunity to keep my actors on their toes and all of us brainstorming.  When our rehearsal room promises variability, it becomes more akin to a laboratory, where change is inevitable and trial/error is god.  I have found that actors are swift to embrace this type of process, even if it means more work for them: when the entire production team is working toward a larger, unified goal, good artists rise to meet it.

Connecting Everything

Undoubtedly, theater artists can be leaders in the global environmental movement; by visibly valuing sustainability in our production practices, we ally environmentalists and proclaim that our relationship to the natural world is something worth talking about.

But I have the insane tendency to reach for the next rock before I’ve secured a firm foothold in the place I’m standing.  To me, green theater production is only one part of eco-theater.  I am interested in how all aspects of theater making might connect to my sustainable values. In ecology, it is impossible to isolate one species in an ecosystem without considering the many other species and natural forces that act upon it.  So I want to consider and connect everything in my theatrical ecosystem, from script to strike.

As Anne Washburn shows us so magnificently in Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, theater in its purest form is how we began, and it is what we will return to—especially, in the case of Mr. Burns, after a catastrophe such as an electric apocalypse.  When all the screens are turned off, when all convenience is gone, everyone becomes a theater artist, building a new society out of the stories that remain.

I believe eco-theater is ultimately about defining and articulating new mythologies for a tumultuous and changing world.  As the climate becomes more unpredictable, as drought and severe storms throw what we love into precarious positions and as basic necessities become increasingly more threatened, the status quo under which we’ve been making plays for so long will shift, and so will our stories.

Already, our changing environment is changing us.  Though we are not writing plays in drought-afflicted Mongolia where the effects of climate change are more immediate and visible, we are writing plays on laptops powered with coal from ancient American mountain ranges now permanently destroyed, we run from our day jobs eating take-out made from factory-farmed meat and high fructose corn syrup, we stay awake to write by drinking imported coffee in Styrofoam cups which we immediately ship in inefficient trucks to overflowing landfills, we print our scripts with paper made from old-growth forests now nearly extinct.  Ecology is the silent conflict at the heart of our days.  Can’t it also be at the heart of our plays?

At least, this is the question I am asking myself.  Not all artists feel agenda-driven, but I do.  I feel responsible to use my art form—an art form particularly good at stimulating change of thought—to address the most pressing and alarming issues humans currently face.  The environmental science community is eager for artists to be the harbingers of a cultural revolution, in which the tree-hugging minority evolves into a policy-shifting majority. Theater artists have the influence of intimacy and the power of imagination. We may not be able to directly change government, but we can change minds, person to person and community to community, simply because we are engaged in the most primitive and intuitive human meme.  In the 1980’s, homosexuals were being blamed for spreading AIDS on public toilet seats; today there are twelve states where gay marriage is legal.  It is no coincidence that Angels in America was written in between.  So yes, I feel responsible.

But mostly, I feel inspired.  I’m passionate about nature, and I see a bounty of theatrical possibilities in ecology.  There are endless human stories waiting to be told about our relationship to the natural world.  There are legends and scandals and disasters not yet unpacked onstage.  There are big, controversial questions without answers, and big, positive people rousing hope.  Imagine characters based on Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Julie “Butterfly” Hill, the less famous but no less charismatic scientists working to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, or the nameless individuals making daily decisions that unwittingly affect my way of life.  The need for cheap fuel, the price of food, the ownership of land… theatrical conflicts inspired by real ecological ones are suspended in front of me like swelling fruit, aching to be plucked.  I stroll through the woods or browse the news, and I see a lifetime’s worth of playwriting fodder.

How far might I go with connecting the playwriting process to my sustainable values?  Can I write shorter plays for shorter techs and runs, thereby significantly decreasing the electricity, heat and AC usage?  Can I splatter disclaimers on my proposals, demanding green design and efficient production houses?  Can I back up these demands by demanding more from myself?  Perhaps I mimic another constant seen in nature, waste nothing, by recycling my words and stories ala Chuck Mee.  Or write fewer, better plays ala August Wilson, plays that never quite disappear but continue to be rewritten and improved as the world changes.  Once I ask the question, once I decide that my values will directly influence not only what I write but also how I write it, the possibilities pour forth.

And then, when I go into a rehearsal process, I ask myself similar questions: can I echo my plays’ ecological themes in the way I direct?  Often I approach answering this question by defining physical limitations for my actors. For instance, in URANUS (a play about waste), I had the actors generate a series of gestures that they could recycle.  And then we took it a step further: halfway through the play, the entire staging of the first half was physically rewound, even as the text of the second half progressed forward.  Intellectually, the play’s story asked questions about entropy and cycles; the actor’s movement asked the same viscerally.

I like to use limitation in as many ways as possible.  For MERCURY (a play about poison), a piece that was devised collaboratively with my cast, our poverty caused us to rehearse in a very small room.  Instead of feeling forced to cope with the room until we were able to stretch our legs in a larger space, we took advantage of the limitations it provided, allowing the space to influence our setting and staging.  Based on the history of the Danbury, CT hatting industry (the cause of rampant mercury poisoning in western CT as well as in the brains of many hat makers), we set the play in a cramped, one-room hat shop, typical of 1780’s New England, and allowed the constraints of size to compliment the mad mental journey our protagonist was to take.

Theater is poor, but I feel better for it.  As artists, we understand that great innovation often comes from great limitation, yet we spend an immense amount of energy fighting for limitless resources.  Ecologically, we lost this fight long ago: we now know there is a limit to things like trees, clean air and fresh water.  Today, environmentalists fight to protect the things we still have and to find creative ways of using them.

When I create a play, it’s as if a new species has been born.  I feel obliged to nurture it, and see that it coexists with the other species.   For this reason, I produce my plays in drafts, mounting full productions before the play is finished growing.  A fully produced first-draft may be clunky, but it makes the second-draft much better.  This approach also allows me to keep up with the changing world: I’ve produced two drafts of VENUS (a play about energy), but I’m ready to scrap them both and start again, because I’m not convinced the existing drafts are properly serving the questions of alternative energy—a vast, heated topic that changes every day, as fuel prices fluctuate and new technologies are invented.  When the entire Planet Play series is complete, the nine plays (each between 60-90 minutes in length) will connect to each other in theme, character and chronology, like an ecosystem and a mythological family tree.  And like ecosystems and mythology, there will always be room to grow.

Time will tell how eco-theater will fit into the fold.  It rightfully hovers between the science community, interested primarily in education and outreach, and the theater world, interested primarily in truth and beauty.  There are certainly kinks to work out, but I’m confident they will be, especially considering the trailblazing being done by visionaries like Tanja Beer, Donyale Werle, The Civilians (check out their Next Forever Initiative), the Broadway Green Alliance and TCG's own Caridad Svich.  I hope their work signals a movement; I’m giddy to see what a new breed of resourceful and enterprising eco-artists will come up with.  In the meantime, I’ll keep experimenting.

Searching for the Sweet Spot

(originally published on the site Artists and Climate Change on April 11, 2013)

The subversive songstress Nellie McKay says, “You want people to care.  I like the idea that music can get into people’s minds, hearts and souls.  Then, maybe slowly, a lyric will cause them to start rethinking their lives and choices.”

In the five years since I began working at the intersection of theater and environmentalism, my struggle to find ways to ignite public discourse while maintaining the integrity of my medium has led me to understand the importance of mixing cerebral information with an emotional experience.  Simply informing a plugged-in audience does not necessarily make the kind of cultural shifts our world is desperate for; but art can meet this challenge head on, providing visceral outlets to interpret research and ignite change.  I call this outlet the “sweet spot”, a place where empathy and intellect co-mingle in such a way to seem synonymous to an audience.  Successful “sweet-spotters” like Nellie McKay are proof that finding it is both fruitful and possible, but it’s certainly a hard spot to hit; after five years it still feels like I’m wrestling a finicky squid.  But through collaboration, I’ve begun to find answers, inching ever closer to that elusive sweet spot.

MARS- Haven

Collaborating with other artists

I recently premiered a show called MARS (a play about mining), the sixth in a series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays I am in the process of creating with my company, Superhero Clubhouse.  I call it a play, but MARS was really a multi-disciplinary performance event blending dance, live music and graphic art to tell an allegorical story inspired by the history of Appalachian coal mining.  The intention of all the Planet Plays is to create new mythologies in order to offer fresh perspectives on important ecological conundrums; in the case of MARS, we were interested in energy extraction and the seemingly inevitable destruction of land and culture that accompanies human progress.

Though I often incorporate music and movement into my productions, MARS was the first time I’ve had a choreographer and composer working beside me from the beginning, not to mention an illustrator and a graphic novelist.  The many mediums, both sensual and intellectual, made for a very effective fusion of feeling and thinking.  The music was a unique blend of sci-fi and Appalachian folk, evoking a mood that was both familiar and strange; the dancing was personal and emotional, allowing us to communicate internal conflicts without words; the images assisted the storytelling in literal and abstract ways, providing an anchor for time and place; the text existed as both poetry and exposition.  In the end, people seemed moved by the visual and aural world, and provoked by the ecological questions that were raised in the narrative.

BGT'12-Plankton

Collaborating with kids

Each spring, I work with a group of fifth-graders at Bushwick’s PS123 on a project called Big Green Theater Festival*.  It’s an eco-playwriting program my company created in partnership with The Bushwick Starr Theater, and it’s awesome.  Part 1: students write eco-plays inspired by presentations given by guest scientists and other “eco-experts”.  Part 2: my company of adult artists mounts a professional, green production of the students’ plays and performs it for the school and the public during Earth Week.

Fifth-graders are incredible eco-artists.  They weave the parts of ecology that they connect with into stories that are at once funny, sad, weird and thrilling. In one of this year’s plays, a newlywed breaks up with her husband because of his obsession with shark fin soup (a traditional and controversial wedding dish in Chinese culture); the husband, in turn, dives into the ocean and joins a dance-off against an army of sharks in order to win the right to kill a shark and make his own soup.  With near effortlessness on the part of our young playwrights, the sweet spot was found: the audience cares about the characters, laughs at the situation and thinks about shark fin soup.

Fieldtrip Cabaret6

Collaborating with scientists

Each fall, my company is commissioned by PositiveFeedback and Columbia University’s Earth Institute to create a site-specific performance in collaboration with climate scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). Because we perform the final product on the LDEO campus (where some of the world’s most important climate research is done) for an audience of families, educators and scientists, this project is a prime opportunity to seek the sweet spot in an arena where the stakes are high and outreach from artists is sought after.

To many people outside the scientific community, the work of climate scientists seems mysterious and exclusive, like Willy Wonka locked away in his factory (except instead of chocolate, the experts inside are experimenting with particles, rocks, trees, ice, invisible gases and other things that don’t taste good). Humans relate best when they feel included and empathetic.  To someone only encountering results and not the process or people behind those results, earth science can seem removed and impersonal. Persistent scientist stereotypes (namely emotionless old men in lab coats proclaiming the apocalypse) only work to widen the chasm between human story and science.

A play, on the other hand, is a human story; it exists to be inclusive, to be seen by as many people as possible. Like science, a play searches for truth, but its fictional nature allows it to be expressive and personal in ways science cannot.  A play has the ability to open the gates and bring the scientists out into the streets.  So for last year’s LDEO performance, we tried just that.  Working with seven female climate scientists and incorporating original songs, movement, poetry and storytelling, we made a piece called Field Trip: A Climate Cabaret.  Rather than working allegorically, we focused on revealing the essence behind the lives and work of these seven extraordinary women, portraying them as curious, creative and flawed individuals who ask questions, go on adventures and make discoveries.

Time will tell how effective Field Trip is as either a play or an outreach tool– we’re currently seeking opportunities to expand and remount it– but I consider our day of performances at LDEO last fall a “sweet spot” success.  Some of this success I attribute to the cabaret medium in which we were working; as Nellie McKay says, “Music makes the cerebral accessible, the subconscious hummable”.  But of equal impact were the words and ideas of the scientists themselves. Through the context of theater, we gained an understanding of their work, which was fascinating, but we also got to hear their perspectives on why they do what they do and how they see the world, which was inspiring. We learned to care about science, as if for the first time.

Green from the Get-Go (May 2012)

(originally published on NY Innovative Theater Foundation's May blog, "Greening Your Production")

Image

As a self-proclaimed eco-theater artist, I am overjoyed at the steady greening I see in the NYC theater community.  From Off-Off companies designing with entirely recycled materials to the Broadway Green Alliance replacing marquis bulbs with LEDs, there is immense progress.   Indeed, (NY Innovative Theater Foundation's May) blog is proof that NYC theater is both innovative and principled.

But I wonder how much greener we could be if sustainable thought began earlier in our creative process...

Image

I am privileged to work for The Bushwick Starr once a year, heading their annual Big Green Theater Festival.  The festival begins with a 3-month teaching artist program in which 5th graders write eco-plays (that is, plays inspired by environmental topics).  The program culminates around Earth Day, when the students’ plays are given a professional production at the Starr using only green theater techniques.

5th graders are incredible eco-theater artists.  They simultaneously possess wild imaginations and sophisticated processing skills, making them innately excellent at absorbing environmental information and then turning their newfound knowledge into wonderful storytelling.  They write ambitious adventures without censorship, yet remain practical about how such plays might translate into green production.  Because on a playground they are accustomed to improvising their make-believe with whatever they have around them, their written stories are huge but their expectations are not; they assume an audience’s imagination will do most of the work.

Can we adults take a tip from a 5th grader, and reduce our reliance on resources without sacrificing our big ideas?  Can this sort of green thinking start at the very beginning, when ideas are still germinating?  As we write or devise new work, can we begin by giving ourselves rules-- not only for story, theme and character but also for production?  This might mean considering, from the very first page of a script, what we’re asking production teams to build, what sort of space we’re demanding our plays be performed in, and how long we expect energy-intensive lights, heat and air conditioning to stay turned on.

Image

Image

When I write adult eco-plays, I give myself limitations: I try to write for a nearly bare stage, I omit lighting cues and major scenic changes, and though my aesthetic is often epic, I strive to stay within an intermission-less 90-minute run time.  These limitations don’t make me feel limited; on the contrary, by prioritizing bodies, voices and imagination, I find I can challenge myself, my collaborators and the medium of theater in new ways.  Additionally, I have found that these types of early-considered limitations encourage actors to become more virtuosic, directors and designers more innovative, and audiences more engaged.

As a director, I try to apply the same principles when I am considering how to bring a script to life.  Once the ten student plays of this year’s Big Green Theater were in my hand, I spent countless hours with our designers (Michael Minnahan, Preesa Bullington and Jay Maury) developing a design that would allow all of the plays to exist within the same world, and a concept that would result in the whole becoming greater that the sum of its parts.

Image

So we came up with a set of rules-- literally a set of rules: using one of the students’ plays (aptly titled Clean Up The Park) as a frame, the set became a littered park, and the action of the evening was cleaning it up.  The nine (more fantastical) internal plays were stories the characters told each other as they picked up and organized garbage.  The actors created gestures inspired by the act of cleaning, and then recycled and reused those gestures throughout.  The plays became the reason for cleaning, and the cleaning the reason for the plays.

Of course, the set, costumes, lights and rehearsal practices were as green as can be, the program paperless, and the performance space carbon-neutral.  When it was finished, the action-packed evening of plays was less than an hour long.  The Starr’s rooftop hydroponic garden was open, and the refreshments were local.

I wonder what would happen if every theater space and company in NYC thought green from the very start.  How quickly green the status quo!  How brilliant the citywide problem solving!  With greener values embedded earlier in our processes, could the rigor of our sustainable practices rival the already enviable caliber of our creative innovation?

Image

All production photos by Sue Kessler.  Actors pictured: Danny Gardner, Flakoo Jimenez, Tina Mitchell, Katey Parker, Monica Santana & Sam Traylor

Dissecting the Frog (March 2012)

There was a moment in my youth when curiosity got the better of me and I stomped on a frog. It was an impulse, really.  I was 6 or 7, standing alone in the driveway of my childhood home on a hot summer day.  Though central New York state is notoriously cloudy, my memories of summer are all bright blues, greens and yellows, and the images evoked are bucolic: my mother on the lawnmower, the tranquil sound of my sister splashing in the pool, the wind in the branches of old oaks, the feeling of cherry tree bark on the branch I hung from, my father and his tools.  When I think of beauty, my mind immediately returns to those nearly-naked days bounding about my parents’ 4-acre property brimming with imagination, unabashedly creative.

C&J (kids), Carpenter's Brook
C&J (kids), Carpenter's Brook

I was standing in the middle of a mural drawn in sidewalk chalk.  The asphalt of the driveway expertly absorbed the heat of the summer sun, and standing on it in bare feet provided a sort of meditation.  Taking a breather from my flights of fancy, I would spend time simply following the flow of my thoughts while the driveway warmed my callused pads.

So this little frog hopped beside me, and I stomped on it.  I was curious.  I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside, sure—but I also wanted to know what I was capable of.  Would the frog just bounce a bit, nearly unaffected by my scrawny lightweight foot, and hop on annoyed?  If not, what exactly would happen?

It was the first time I had deliberately caused violent harm to something in nature other than an insect.  And as soon as the green and red goo had settled, I remember being struck by two seemingly contrasting feelings: this is very beautiful, and this is very wrong.

It was the latter which sent me running for my mother’s arms.  But now, as an adult artist, I wonder about the part of me that saw beauty in the splayed guts of that frog.  I don’t think I was advanced enough to objectively appreciate the composition of a three-dimensional living being turned flat and colorful.  I think it was the act itself—my act of destruction-- that turned me on.

It’s fair to say that humans value beauty— I would add that beauty is often what makes us happy.  But destruction can also make us happy.  A child spends an hour building a tower of blocks, and then knocks it down with glee.  Is the instinct to create and appreciate beauty the same as the instinct to destroy?  Can destruction itself be beautiful?

A great photographer can make images of war, natural disasters, death or heartbreak strikingly beautiful.  A great novelist can do the same with words, and a musician with song.  As a theater artist, I want to know how destruction can be beautiful on stage, and vice versa.

I’m working on MARS (a play about mining), the sixth in our Planet Play series.  Though it’s early in the process, I know that MARS is an all-male cast, that it is mostly movement, and that the movement will fuse dance and fight choreography.  “Fance” (fight-dancing) isn’t an innovation of staging by any means; I’m in the shadow of the apache, the tango, and the Sharks/Jets, to name a few.  But though I’m certainly interested in the representations of war and masculinity which “fancing” can easily evoke, I’m also attempting to explore through movement the violence of mining, and it’s place in our inner and outer world. To be more specific, I want to know precisely what it is that brings men to destroy that which they also find beautiful.  This requires some hefty remembering, and so we are basing MARS on the history of Appalachian coal mining.

In the real world, the actions of both war and mining require the individuals involved to either ignore the destruction of beauty which is required of them, or to tap into a part of themselves that might actually desire to do it.  Are they innate, these desires?  Is a conscience really just a meme?  We are constantly destroying beautiful things, even unwittingly: the act of eating is the act of destroying the beauty of nature, and then gnashing our teeth upon the beauty of a dish cooked to perfection; art attempts to destroy reality, capturing and manipulating time and space.  When was I most honest with myself: in the rush of pleasure upon seeing the frog’s guts, or in the moment of guilt when I ran to my mother’s arms?

It feels like we humans are somewhere in the middle of our evolution from crude primate to enlightened Martian, and this ambiguous location is never more visible than when we shift gears between appreciating beauty and destroying it.  In Cormac McCarthy’s magnificent cowboys-and-Indians novel Blood Meridian, the character of the Judge explains why he meticulously studies and records the world around him moments before destroying it: “Whatever exists...whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent. The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos. Only nature can enslave a man and only when the existence of each last entry is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.”  Was I stomping the frog simply out of curiosity, or because I inherited the desire for dominance from my ancestors?

In Appalachia, untouchable corporations are blowing the tops off mountains, filling valleys with rubble, streams with toxic chemicals and children with cancer.  The rich culture made by the people who settled in the hollows of those mountains—generations of traditional coal mining families—is slowly and systematically being wiped out.  In an area that boasts one of our country’s oldest and most diverse ecosystems, the 500+ mountains that have been mined by this process (called Mountain Top Removal) will now forever look like ragged, lifeless refugees.

MTR
MTR

Perhaps we need coal for a while; I’m not about to suggest we are organized or mature enough as a people to switch over to sustainable energy with the flip of a switch and simply eliminate coal as an option (despite the fact that much of Appalachia’s coal gets shipped overseas, only a small percentage lights American homes, no jobs have been added and all profits go to corporations).  However, for nearly four hundred years we mined coal underground without destroying the beauty of Appalachia.  Now, within a few decades, we have laid waste to a magnificently beautiful land.

Blast!  Am I too easily assuming I know the definition of beauty?!  When I look at images of Mountain Top Removal, is it possible for me to see the destruction as beautiful?  What if there had never been mountains in the first place… would I see beauty in the way that a desert can be beautiful, the way a gritty urban neighborhood can be beautiful?  Does my outrage rely on the contrast of green and gray?  Doesn’t beauty also rely on contrast?  And if so, where does this leave me, as a person who values beauty and as an artist who seeks to evoke it onstage?

Questions without answers are violent and stimulating.  It’s what allows for science and art to exist in the first place.  So that’s as far as I go with dissecting the frog.  For now.

*Come see a work-in-progress performance of MARS (a play about mining) on March 24 at Dixon PlaceTickets and details here.

Thinksgiving (November 2011)

My mother’s arm is in a sling.  Her rotator cuff surgery has incapacitated her from doing things like chopping vegetables, slicing bread, lifting a turkey and opening wine—thus, my girlfriend and I are cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Seeing as how Superhero Clubhouse is about to open SATURN (a play about food), and considering the questions about food that arose from our playmaking research and development, it felt appropriate to set a challenge for ourselves as we prepared the Thanksgiving menu.  So we agreed (girlfriend, grandmother, mother and father all graciously participated) that our dinner would be as locally grown as possible, and we would research each ingredient in order to find out the story behind the food.

My parents’ home lies deep in the agricultural countryside of upstate New York, just west of Syracuse.  Despite all the farms around, most of the grocery stores are stocked with food from distributors, grown with pesticides, chemical fertilizer and/or genetically-altered seeds and shipped from hundreds if not thousands of miles away.  It is a common paradox present in many small farming communities in the US, as of the last few decades.  Only recently, thanks mostly to a few outspoken journalists, particular chefs and stubborn farmers, has anyone, let alone small town locals who live right next door to farms, had much access to fresh, local, sustainably-grown food.

But now that there is more public knowledge (albeit mostly among those who seek it out) about the food in our grocery stores, there is a growing demand for high-quality food grown simply and transparently, and therefore a growing popularity in farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and local options in certain corners of thoughtful grocery stores.  So the conversation is happening, and it allowed my family to meet our challenge with surprisingly little effort.

Here are three dishes (and stories) from our locally-sourced dinner:

-------------------------------------------------------

Dish: Turkey

Ingredients: turkey, herbs, olive oil

Story: The antibiotic/hormone-free turkey was raised eating grass in a pasture on Oink & Gobble Farm (61 miles from store).  It was brought by truck to Wegmans Grocery (13 miles from house), where my parents purchased it and drove it home in a sedan.  The herbs (parsley, sage rosemary and thyme) all came from my mother’s garden in the backyard (0 miles).  The olive oil was already stocked in the kitchen before we made our challenge and so was used, but it did come from an unknown olive grove in Italy (approx. 4,000 miles as the crow flies) and was one of our only exceptions.

Dish: Sweet Potato Spoon Bread (from Heidi Swanson)

Ingredients: sweet potatoes, goat cheese, shallots, butter, whole-wheat flour, eggs, simple spices, Parmesan cheese

Story: The sweet potatoes came from DeMarcos’ Farms (3 miles from house).  The shallots were bought at the Syracuse Farmers Market (18 miles), originally from Caltabiaco Farms (21 miles from market), as was the goat cheese, originally from Lively Run Farms (68 miles from market), and the eggs, from Meadow Creek Farm (68 miles from market).  The butter and flour were bought at Wegmans (13 miles from house), and came from a local dairy and mill.  The Parm cheese, typically shipped from Europe (approx. 4,000 miles) came from Wisconsin (approx. 850 miles); in retrospect an ingredient we probably could have substituted with something more local.

Dish: Cornbread Stuffing

Ingredients: corn flour, parsnips, carrots, onions, leeks, cranberries, eggs, cream, herbs

Story: The produce was purchased from the Syracuse Farmer’s Market (18 miles from house).  The parsnips and herbs came from my mother’s garden (0 miles), the onions from Caltabiano Farms (21 miles from market), the eggs from Meadow Creek Farm (68 miles from market), the cream and flour were bought at Wegmans (13 miles from house), and came from a local dairy and mill.  The cranberries were from Atoka Cranberry Farm (60 miles from store).  We didn’t write down which farm the carrots and leeks came from, but they were purchased from a small stand at the Union Sq. Green Market in NYC before we departed for Syracuse.

Wine/Beer: Gewerstemeiner from Herman J. Weimer on Seneca Lake (70 miles from store), beer selection from Middle Ages Brewery (17 miles from house)

Dessert: Grandma's apple pie with very local apples (we live in the midst of apple country)

-------------------------------------------------------

I challenge you, dear readers and eaters, to answer the following questions for yourself: What exactly did I eat on Thanksgiving?  Where did it come from?  How was it grown?  How did it get to me?

Whether or not you answered with words like “local”, “organic”, “grass-fed” or “I biked to the farmers market” isn’t the point.  I posit that the cause of the current food complexities has less to do with poor choices and more to do with lack of thinking.  Of course, it also has to do with where governments put their money, what regulations allow which harmful practices to exist, and a general lack of public information.  But I’m interested in individuals, and the thought we put into choosing what to feed our families.

So if we’re not thinking about sodium benzoate, the environmental impact of chemical fertilizers running off into our waterways or abused turkeys injected with hormones, what are we thinking about when shopping for our Thanksgiving dinners?

It’s likely we’re thinking about price, quantity and taste.  Not only are these factors valid, they are often deal-breakers for most people (including myself, with a busy schedule and limited funds).  There is no easy solution to this conundrum: fresh food is generally more expensive, harder to get, in need of preparation, only available in season, and rather unpredictable.   Unhealthy food is cheap, addictive, tasty and ready to eat in a microwaveable minute.

The labels on groceries do not tell complete stories.  Simply naming the spectrum of items we are about to put into our bodies gives us neither proof nor peace of mind that what we are eating is good; because we have become so far removed from the source of each ingredient we eat, and because the food industry has done such an excellent job pacifying our anxieties, we spend our meals justifying, defending or simply ignoring, in the name of desire.

I say desire and not hunger because the “we” I am referring to is the small percentage of the world that has access to ample amounts of food.  A stomach gurgle does not signal starvation, and we do not buy a hot dog from a street vendor because we need it.  The Thanksgiving feast is an undeniable luxury, globally speaking.

What we do need is food.  Healthy food.  We need it to live— more precisely, we need it to live without a debilitating assortment of disease and disorder.  And yes, we need food to taste good, otherwise we wouldn’t want to eat it.

The trouble is, we’ve become blinded, unwittingly caught up in a tangled web of industry and media that make it hard to simply eat, or eat simply.  Because so much “food” is manufactured to taste good and be cheap, our inherited bodies tell us: “eat that, its good for you”, and our evolved minds tell us: “buy that, you can afford it”, when really, neither is true.  Poor diets lead to poor bodies, and poor bodies lead to skyrocketing medical bills.

Michael Pollan has written about the stories we are told by industry advertisers, pictures and words evoking quaint, fertile family farms that in reality no longer exist.  Advertisers tickle the old-fashioned farming narrative we hold in our heads, and our trust is sold.

I observe another story being told, in this case by ourselves: infiltrated daily by media, by all the contrasting information we receive from books, news, fashion magazines, Paula Deen, Facebook, and our friends and families, we begin to cast ourselves as victims.  We see the problems, recognize the amount of thinking required to sort through this web, and give up, proclaiming defeat in the name of a short life and a cruel world.

So we either tell ourselves stories of barn raising and horse plowing to convince us that what we are eating is no different from the food of our great-grandparents (in other words, “food is food”), or we tell ourselves stories of exasperation and hopelessness, and rattle around cities like characters out of Beckett, eating whatever is being sold at whichever bodega because we feel there is no other choice available to us.  Or else we tell no story at all.

I am guilty of all three narratives.  I long for the by-gone days of family farms so that I didn’t have to think so much about food; so I could simply trust that the ones who are selling me food are responsible people, damn it.  And I also have a tendency to give up, justifying the purchase of my packaged snacks with unknown origins in the name of helplessness, because I live in a city and I am always on the go and because I’m only human, damn it.  And I also eat without thought, shoving something—anything-- into my mouth multiple times a day, and there are evenings when, reflecting on the past twelve hours, I cannot remember what I ate.

But I’m ready for a new story.  In my new story, the temporary solution to the food conundrum (at least until government subsidies, regulations and markets meet my demands) is to think.  I am going to think.  A lot.  I am going to think about food.  I want to read about it, think about it, talk about it… and then, I want to eat it.  After all this thinking, I might still need to be frugal in the grocery store.  I might still buy food on the go.  I might still indulge in the occasional fruit from South America or dunk an Oreo.   But secretly, I’ll be thinking about it.  Hard.  I know from history that thinking leads to revolutions, and I know from stories that revolutions lead to changes of mind and heart.  The best stories end with changes of mind and heart.

On Thanksgiving, I’m going to think even harder.  I imagine myself like Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, throwing open the window of my mind, proclaiming to the throngs of neurons: I will celebrate food!  I will honor farmers, appreciate the people, animals and technology that made this massive meal possible! I will remember the 7 billion people in the world!  I will choose my menu carefully!  I will debate, defend, inspire, and inform!  I will tell stories of food!  I will eat slowly; I will eat with pleasure and appreciation!

I have a lot to think about.

The Forest for the Trees (October 2011)

For several years I have been searching for an outlet to address climate change in one of our plays.  It is a phenomenon of immense scale, with well-estimated but ultimately unknown repercussions and variable causality, a topic that remains abstract and overwhelming to many people, literally unbelievable to others.  Especially to those living in more temperate areas of the world, climate change feels very far away.  How does an artist create a human connection to something so vast and seemingly impersonal?

Non-fiction artists are making great strides.  There continues to be a steady flow of documentary films, books, magazine articles, television specials and online publications that can travel the world in a concise time frame and show the startling effects of climate change through a succinct series of images.  These media, at their most effective, get as close as possible to capturing climate change, allowing us to glimpse the forest for the trees.

In theater, the challenge is greater, because plays by nature are intimate, human stories—they work in the micro because the macro becomes too distancing in a theater, and can sever the connection between actor and audience.  In such a human-sized environment, our imaginations just can’t fill in enough gaps to comprehend the scale of the entire ocean, the Milky Way or the radically changing temperature of the Earth and all its massive consequences.

One of my favorite NYC theater companies, The Civilians, is currently working on a piece called The Great Immensity; a fitting title for (you guessed it) a play about climate change.  The Civilians use transcribed interviews and non-fiction text as their script, and they are superb at making their own brand of docu-drama.  I always find their work entertaining and thought-provoking.

But when we’re making plays for Superhero Clubhouse, we tend to filter our scientific research more through the lens of allegory and fairy tale than documentary.  What fairy tale could possibly express climate change?

The answer could simply be hiding in the trees.

In this beautiful season, as deciduous leaves start to change color, it’s hard to forget about trees.  Having grown up in New England, autumn to me is analogous with fall foliage; memories are framed in yellow, red and orange (the new year’s school bus, apple picking, Halloween) and afternoons spent cavorting in the woods behind my house.  In fact, it’s hard for anyone not to have a relationship with trees in every season, in city and country, in every part of the world.  The scale of trees is human-friendly; our brains can take them in.  From very early childhood, humans worship and fear trees as benevolent monsters: silent but imposing, nurturing yet alien, their branches welcoming, their forests foreboding.

Perhaps because trees can simultaneously communicate hope and dread, stories involving trees pervade nearly every culture and community throughout history, providing adventure (Dante, Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Endor), rites of passage (Hatchet, Hansel and Gretel) and ritual (Christmas tree); symbolizing life (Japan’s pine, Africa’s baobab), destruction (The Lorax, Avatar, Fern Gully), friendship (The Giving Tree), wisdom (Tolkien’s Ents, Grandmother Willow, Buddha’s Bodhi) and war (Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, The Wizard of Oz’s fighting trees), not to mention the sacred World Tree depicted in many indigenous mythologies (most notably the Norse's Yggdrasil), whose trunk, roots and branches connect the heavens, the Earthen realms and the underworld, literally holding the universe together.

Even before discovering the role of trees in science (read on), researching the role of trees in culture yields rich ideas and inspiration for a potential play about a human relationship to climate change.

Consider, ala Joseph Campbell, this time-honored story structure: an adolescent protagonist finds herself lost in the woods.   She is forced to confront obstacles: strange characters and situations as well as her own innocence, fears, and immaturity.  When she emerges from the wood, she has gained confidence and knowledge; in the traditional sense, she has transformed into an adult.

Human civilization is in its adolescence.  Impetuous, shortsighted youth, we make rash decisions, we are prone to fits of rage and intense boredom, we destroy before we create, we act before we think, we don’t yet know how we fit in with the world we were born into.

In that case, perhaps we humans have only just entered our own proverbial woods, and the disorientation and disbelief we feel in regards to climate change—the sensation that we are alone, that the forest in front of us is disturbingly cloaked and the world we’ve come from has disappeared behind us—perhaps that’s just the necessary first step toward our species’ adulthood.  There’s no turning back, no comforts, no magic to make it all go away; the path is no longer familiar.  Accepting the truth of our situation is scary, but also galvanizing, because the forest surrounding us conceals dangers as well as solutions.

We are not alone, you see: the trees can speak, and they are filled with stories.

On October 1, Superhero Clubhouse presented a family-friendly, site-specific piece at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s annual Open House.   We collaborated with scientists from the LDEO’s Tree Ring Lab, one of the country’s foremost places for tree-centered climate research, to create a short play inspired by their work: the science (and art) of dendrochronology, a.k.a. tree ring dating.

Studying the rings of ancient trees can yield a panoply of information in regards to the history and people of the earth.  By extracting cores from trees of particular age in particular geographic areas, scientists can locate specific geologic events in time, observe historic natural disasters and—most significantly to our present/future climate matters—measure trends of heating and cooling, which in turn reveal patterns of flooding and drought, and consequently tales of cultural collapse.

800-year-old bald cypresses of North Carolina tell the ghost story of Roanoke, tracing the mysterious disappearance of an early settlement to severe drought.  Although for a long time we attributed the disappearance to skirmishes with indigenous people, it was most likely the drought of 1587 that did them in: drought has a tendency to destroy crops, making people hungry, desperate and violent.

The trees of South America tell a morality tale of industrialization that makes an eerie parallel to our contemporary world:  between 810-910, the overpopulated Mayans, living way past their means, slashed and burned the Guatamalan forests so much that they increased the climactic temperature, intensifying an already major drought period which in turn caused mass migration and death.

The trees of eastern China present an epic: between 1638-1878, four entire Chinese dynasties fell as a result of a diminished monsoon season.  Rice patties dried up causing peasant rebellions, societal upheaval, political reorganization, socio-economic turmoil and widespread famine.

Our LDEO collaborator Nicole Davi and her fellow dendrochronologists are currently studying the recent dzuds (severe summer drought followed by harsh winters) that have devastated the animal herds of Mongolia.  By sampling and “reconstructing” trees from all over Mongolia, they are slowly creating a historical map, tracing water flow and developing an understanding of the country’s fertility.  The short piece we made together at the Open House was the beginnings of a similar map, one of culture and expression as well as science.

Trees horde stories of climate change, they hold them between their rings just as they capture CO2 with their branches and stabilize ground water with their roots.  We have only begun to consider the theater that might sprout from such stories, but it leaves me giddy with possibility.  The human-sized fairy tales of trees might allow us to better understand ourselves, and better see the forest.

“If I cherish trees beyond all personal (and perhaps rather peculiar) need and liking of them, it is because of this, their natural correspondence with the greener, more mysterious processes of the mind—and because they also seem to me the best, most revealing messengers to us from all nature, the nearest its heart.”  -John Fowles, "The Tree"

Super-Natural (August 2011)

It’s 5:30am, and I’m mucking out a chicken coop. Others are prying nails from 100-yr-old joists, wheelbarrowing scraps, scything weeds, harvesting vegetables or cutting lumber. I think I have the hardest job, because I have to spend my pre-breakfast hours inhaling stale layers of chicken shit straw. But I am dead wrong.

Three of my fellow SHC members are turning a large heap of compost. It’s their first day here on this simple, 100-acre sustainable farm run by James Graves and Sara Kurak, a radiant couple in their mid-thirties. A few of us have been at it for a several days already (we're here on a work retreat as we develop SATURN a play about food), and we sport our budding farmer tans and novel pride to prove it. But our new recruits have barely brushed the sleep from their eyes, and now they are coming face to face with decomposing horse parts.

Several months ago, a horse named Thunder died of a stomach infection. Full & By is not stamped with labels and certifications, nor does it need to be; all of their business is done through CSA (community supported agriculture): they deal solely and directly with 50 shareholders from the small community surrounding them.  And because James and Sara have no interest in growing bigger, they are able to farm the way they think most “natural”: rotational grazing, organic fertilization, and with two horses doing most of the fieldwork. So it is not an exaggeration to say that the passing of Thunder saw the death of one of the hardest-working and most beloved farm hands.

What do you do with a dead horse? Traditional farming (that is, pre-industrial) produces virtually zero waste; any scrap is either burned for heat, salvaged for the future, fed to the animals or spread on the garden as fertilizer. On a farm like Full & By where both the environment and the harvest are constantly considered, allowing Thunder to become fertilizer seems the most natural thing to do.

But the very act of farming is not natural. The invention of agriculture (around 7000 BC) was the first time the fabric and patterns of the natural world were forcibly and consciously altered to any great extent by a living thing. Since then, what agriculture has evolved into has arguably had more negative impact on the environment than any other human action in history (it is certainly one of the major causes of global warming). Small farms like James and Sara’s aren’t in league with heavily-footprinted factory farms, of course, but the question still arises: Amidst an operation intended to systematize the wilderness, how do you determine what is natural? Where do you draw the line?

To many, Full & By is a paragon of “natural” farming, in that it is a stellar example of minimal-impact, high-quality agriculture (even their water is sustainable: the farm is positioned conveniently between river and mountains, and an abundant natural spring runs directly under the property). Still, James & Sara dominate the land, they raise animals to be eaten, they decide which plants are desirable and which are weeds—processes that could easily be deemed “unnatural”. It could be said that Thunder himself was unnatural: horses were domesticated to work for us, and certainly spreading his remains on a garden for the direct purpose of feeding humans is far from what happens when wild horses die.

Thunder the horse was as close as kin, and we non-farmers relate to this sentiment such that all of the people I shared this story with when I returned from Full & By were mortified—not just that my collaborators were made to spend a morning uncovering rotten horse guts, but that the horse was butchered and composted in the first place.

Is it unnatural to chop up your dead son and put him in the compost? Is it more natural to lock our fertile bodies in giant lacquered caskets six feet beneath the earth where they have little chance of participating in the circle of life? Have we strayed entirely from the natural order of things? Or have our adopted rituals become what is natural?

A similar “natural/unnatural” conundrum arose during our afternoon rehearsal sessions, in which, after long mornings working on a farm, we proceeded to pretend we were working on a farm. Being in the early stages of SATURN’s development, we wanted to immediately capture the essence of our real farm experiences and translate them to the stage, for the ultimate purpose of igniting a larger conversation about food with our future audiences. But while rehearsing, the dichotomy was palpable: just down the road our real farmer friends were returning to their real farm work just as they did every day of the year, and here we were making a dance about it.  Our heads spun a little.

But isn’t this the very nature of art, forging the narrow chasm between fabrication and reality knowing truth lies somewhere in between?  Aren't we artists constantly chopping up, burying and sowing the remains of our ancestors in order for our culture to grow?

Then maybe farmers like James and Sara are modern artists; aware of their ineluctable 21st-century relationship with the natural world, they simultaneously command and cultivate nature because it is the closest they can come to the truth.

Perhaps we need a new definition of "natural"-- a super-natural (!), a route in between the pre-agricultural wild and our ultra-industrial society, a hybrid of contemporary considerations (evolution, the needs of our bursting population, the threat our actions pose to the environment, etc.), something that provides solutions and coexistence.  Whether this new super-natural will be defined by scientists creating meat in petri-dishes, companies perfecting GMOs and governments subsidizing mass-produced crops, or by small communities and dead horses in compost heaps, is unclear. But whatever the new natural, it will likely be groundbreaking, and possibly backbreaking, for farming is just that.

On a side note, we had an extraordinary experience at Full & By Farm, a ripe week full of work, research, rehearsal and the best meals this side of Kentucky. Immense thanks are owed to James Graves and Sara Kurak, their apprentice farmers Tyler Sildve and Emily Jaquish, Tom, Margaret and David Graves and Hannah Kenah.

All the World's a Café (July 2011)

I’ve just returned from a month in Saratoga Springs, NY where I spent another summer with SITI, the theater company that has influenced my work more than any other and that I continue to train with. What is most extraordinary about this rigorous summer workshop that takes place annually on the beautiful campus of Skidmore College is the amount of diverse international artists that gather here, and by default the incredible exchange of ideas that occurs and standards that are set.  More than half of our participants were from foreign lands, and the other thirty USians were themselves rich with varied culture and experience.  We ate, slept, partied and made art together.

Anne Bogart, SITI’s artistic director, speaks often about how theater creates microcosmic societies, proposing ways we might live in the world.  The Viewpoints training method itself is essentially a practice of mini global coexistence:  there are people in a room, these people are individuals with individual bodies, languages, and desires, yet these people must find a way to come together as a group and make something, so that the rest of the world can watch and say “hey, what a great way to live, I think I’ll try that.”

Not coincidentally, the text we used throughout the month both in Viewpoints class and in making short plays called Compositions focused on the conversations and events experienced in cafés (specifically, excerpts from café-centered plays by Chuck Mee).   It quickly became clear that a café is more than merely a place for coffee and cigarettes; it is a gathering place, a place of focus, inspiration and coexistence, a place where big ideas are born and our complex lives are grappled with safely and publicly—just like a rehearsal process, a Viewpoints improvisation and our four weeks at Skidmore.

 

As I write this, I am sitting in a café.  Thankfully sipping iced tea on this typical oven-like July day in NYC, I feel myself confronted yet again with a Big Conundrum: how do you take a microcosm and make it macro?  That is: how do you take the lessons learned from a functioning mini-community and apply it to the much more complex global community?  If all the world were a café it would be easy to negotiate questions of self vs. society, for instance, because the society I am a part of would be small and visible enough to understand, to know my place, to find love, to examine evolution, to harvest the knowledge of others, to start revolutions, to improve…

If the world was a café, there would be a farm in the back that was our sole provider of food, and we would eat what was in season, and it would taste good and be healthy and we would have a more direct relationship with agriculture.  The coffee would come from a greenhouse tree, the tea plucked from our herb garden and the wine and whiskey would grow old with us.

If the world was a café, there would always be music playing.

If the world was a café, we would learn each others languages and marvel at the power of words. We would debate until dawn, until our disagreements were absorbed and respected.  If we fought, it would be without weapons, with our friends surrounding us, to protect the walls and our brains from breaking.  We would break bread.

If the world was a café, we would rearrange the chairs every night and enact stories and play instruments and dance.  There would be celebrations for each new friend that entered, and for each old friend that left.  We would notice the subtle changes of people and time like seasons, and react accordingly.  We would take care of one another.  And when others were taking care of us, we would take care of ourselves (less caffeine, more dancing).

The head chef would change every year.  We’d all get a turn to choose the menu.

It would be simple to power our café from the sun, from water wheels, windmills or geothermal—it’s only one café, after all.  Most of the time we wouldn’t even use electricity, because our windows would be big and our café built to harness passive solar.  Our water and waste would be recycled on a self-contained system.  Computers would only be used for reference and research; most of the news and knowledge we’d need would come from each other, from word of mouth.  The walls would be lined with used books—every book ever written, in fact—and we would read to each other and to ourselves, and make decisions based on the lessons of the past.  All of this would have been decided and financed together, as a group, with the oldest woman and the youngest boy making final decisions and the barista taking minutes.

But the world is much bigger than a café, the problems more complex, the demands more demanding.  How do we take the possibilities of coexistence discovered in a microcosm and apply them to the challenges of the macro?

Perhaps the answer lies in the process of trying to make the micro-community function.  After all, there are very few cafés with such diplomacy and sustainability, much less theater companies.  Individuals want different things, and their needs evolve as they age; audiences want different things, and their needs evolve as the world ages; funding appears and disappears; competition appears and disappears; inspiration is fickle; coffee just doesn’t taste as good when it comes from a greenhouse.  There are immense challenges in forming and maintaining a functioning society on any level.

But if we can’t make a theater company function, how can we ever expect the world to do the same?  When looking at the mammoth problems we face as a global community, it seems essential we figure out how to better coexist in our microcosms and hope that, leading by example, the ratio between micro and macro will gradually become more perfect.  If Superhero Clubhouse can truly become sustainable, can take care of its members, nurturing individual interests while simultaneously forging ahead with the goals of the group, if we can consistently create vital art and bring it to people who need it, if we can become community servants, if I can become a better Captain – only then we can demand such change from the leaders of the world, and offer a living model to our fellow citizens.

It is too typical to feel overwhelmed, too easy to become sunk by the weight of the world on our shoulders, too natural to take care of ourselves first, and too human to give up.  Fear and resignation is what is expected.  But art offers an opposing approach —art defies death and diversity, it strengthens by difficulty and accelerates through endings.  Art is the only place where utopia can truly be realized, because it does not legislate with answers, but rather guides with questions; it is merely a model--a microcosm--of reality.  So then, it is imperative that we figure out to make art together, if we are ever to make a livable world again.

Art is a café.  It stays up late, spooning the dregs from the bottom of the cup, drunk on ideas and flush with discovery.  It declares love and initiates heartbreak, unites friends and confronts enemies, philosophizes and remembers and forgets and rebirths.  It is a place of pleasure and pain, a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And we are all in it together.

Watching My Waste (May 2011)

The theater we make uses ecology as inspiration.  But what does this mean, exactly? We’re about to present URANUS (a play about waste) to the public June 7-11.  The story, staging and design of URANUS are inspired by the greater theme of waste: waste of the human experience, such as deferred dreams, expatriation, abandonment, progress; but also, of course, waste that affects the environment: garbage, landfills, and human excrement.

To better examine why this theme is important, I participated in an experiment—a pledge I made for Earth Month—to produce no inorganic waste for 30 days*.  That means I wasn’t allowed to consume anything that was intentionally produced to be disposable, and then see how it effected my days and my mind.  I’d like to give you a taste of what this experience was like.

-----------------------------------

Pretend I don’t have to work today.  I’m in Manhattan, taking a walk.  In a few hours I’ll be at the theater, to see a play by one of my favorite off-Broadway companies.  But right now I’m just walking down the street.

It’s turned into a lovely day, weather-wise.  The sky has cleared, the air smells fresh, and I feel lighter, even though my backpack is more full, with the addition of my reusable containers, bags, utensils and unpackaged snacks.  Somehow, knowing that I have temporarily disconnected myself from a system that often feels unavoidable, I feel empowered.

Removing something as ubiquitous as garbage from one’s life makes one incredibly conscious of the garbage that other people are producing.  It’s the experience of seeing the world for the first time, with new super laser eyes.  So as I walk down the street, my new super laser eyes involuntarily zoom in on the black plastic heaps on curbsides, the overflowing trashcans on corners, the bits of litter strewn about by wind or the careless.  The two things I observe most profoundly: how much literal space all this garbage takes up just on one block, and how many passersby seem totally oblivious to it’s presence.  Would we perhaps pay more attention if we were made to put garbage in clear bags, our rotting detritus naked and incredibly visible?

I enter the Union Square Green Market.  It’s spring, so there are lots of leafy greens, members of the onion family, root vegetables and apples from the fall harvest, milk in returnable glass bottles, naked bread, etc.  There are bags and cartons being doled out en masse, but luckily I brought my own (small canvas totes, Tupperware for eggs and cheese, plastic produce bags from housemates’ grocery trips), and my methods are very welcome here because it saves the farmers money.

A trip to the Farmers Market isn’t a breeze; it requires planning, you’re limited to whatever’s in season, and it’s more expensive.  But it’s the healthiest, freshest, most local (therefore low-impact) way to eat, and—most pertinent to my experiment—the only source of groceries in which almost nothing is besieged by packaging, so I adjust my diet and budget to make it work.

The food I buy at the market will be my breakfast and dinner for the next few days, but it needs to be prepared, so I’m eating a late lunch out.

On the sidewalk, I wade through hundreds of cigarette butts (when did it become so acceptable and commonplace to throw these little devils on the ground?!), hundreds of free daily newspapers, and several people trying to force fliers upon me: discounts on shoes, Japanese lunch specials, comedy clubs... most of the fliers, I notice, end up on the ground a few blocks down or in the trashcan on the corner.  My super laser eyes next zoom in on the hordes of broken umbrellas strewn about.  We had a burst of heavy rain earlier today, and I’ll bet plenty of the parasols I see were purchased from a street seller only minutes before being turned inside out, snapping a limb, or being forgotten outside a doorway.  I wear a raincoat with a hood, to prevent potential umbrella death.

Scouting an eatery that will forgo their usual procedures and let me use my Tupperware and fork (in the case of messy food) or bare hand (in the case of a pizza slice) is tricky, but not impossible.  No napkin is easy; I merely decline and use the towel I brought from home.  As I eat, I watch the other customers, most of them surrounded by paper napkins, disposable cups, Styrofoam take-out boxes, plastic bags, plastic forks, plastic straws, leftover food—all of which I cannot use, all of which gets tossed in the trash and carted around the city in a giant truck before it is transported to a Pennsylvania landfill and entombed for hundreds of years.  The event of eating lasted ten minutes.

I wonder how many New Yorkers consider life in a garbage bag.  Anything that decomposes still needs oxygen to decompose, and without it—say, if it’s tucked inside a thick black plastic bag and compressed into the depths of a landfill—even the most perishable items can sit for hundreds of years.

Back on the street.  A garbage truck passes me, one of hundreds that drive through the five boroughs of NYC 24 hours a day.  It runs 3 miles to the gallon, produces the most greenhouse gas emissions of any vehicle save tractor-trailers, and headquarters in poor Bronx & Brooklyn areas, bestowing kids in those neighborhoods with the highest asthma rates in the city.  But without the trucks, those black plastic heaps would just keep heaping.

I’m meeting a friend for tea before the show.  I use my reusable hot/cold bottle, which thankfully is accepted without question at most cafés, and shake it to stir in honey and milk.  The tea bag I can compost (the Lower East Ecology Center has a stand at the Green Market where you can drop off food scraps), and if there are no communal bottles of honey and milk, I drink it bitter.  I want a cookie, but that typically means a square of wax paper (used in handling), a napkin to go under the cookie, sometimes a paper plate under the napkin, or a paper bag if it’s To Go.  So I explain my experiment to the barista, who may or may not comply with my request for a bare-hand exchange, which means I may or may not eat a cookie.  My friend has no such rules; she consumes the coffee and the cookie and all the disposables that come with them.  As we sip our beverages, I am nagged with feelings of guilt and self-righteousness, internally tainting my pleasant visit.  After the play, we might have a beer, which may or may not come in a bottle or plastic cup, and include a cocktail napkin, and these feelings might return.  But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to.

My friend and I arrive at the theater, we pick up our paper tickets (unavoidable) and are handed thick glossy paper programs with paper insets (not unavoidable, but I collect programs, and have no intention of throwing it away).  The play is magnificent, but my super laser eyes can’t help zooming in on all things disposable: the scripts printed, script revisions printed (it’s a new show with a big cast) and wooden design materials (no doubt all coming from virgin arboreal forests), the bottled waters and wrapped candy bars in the green room, the packaged snacks and plastic wine glasses at the intermission bar, the paper towels in the bathroom, the throw-away pens, the foam and plastic and cloth and plexiglass used in the set, the spike tape…  When I consider the Broadway equivalent of this modest Off-Broadway production, I get a bit dizzy.

On my way home, I need to renew my 30-day Metrocard.  The machine dispenses a new card; it won’t let me refill my old one.  Machines do not negotiate with social experiments.  I have no other choice but to throw it away.

It’s been a good day, but the empowerment I felt earlier has faded a bit.  I feel small, and I wonder truly what will become of our livable land (when landfills overcrowd), our water (when toxic chemicals in landfills continue leaching into the ground) and air (when unwanted gases continue to be released via the decomposing process) if we continue recklessly consuming and discarding at such a magnitude.

-----------------------------------

Now that my experiment has ended, I am left with a few resolutions (certain practices I want to continue, lessons I’d like to spread), but mostly questions: As Superhero Clubhouse moves forward toward what we hope will be a promising future, how will we retain our past policies? Can ideals be reduced, reused and recycled? Can words and movement?  Can theater lead the way in a crusade to make the arts less wasteful, when by nature a theatrical event is fleeting and inefficient?  Can theater makers from the get-go (starting with playwrights and ending with audience) more profoundly consider all the stuff they plan to use?

And, quite simply: what are we, the people of Earth, going to do about all this waste?

*Exceptions to my “no waste” rule: tea bags (which I composted), toilet paper (which I reduced), items bought by friends and shared with me and the groceries that were already in my apartment before I made my pledge (all of which I declared more wasteful not to use), and what I considered the “nearly-unavoidables”: receipts, stickers on fruits/veggies, gifts and cards sent by relatives, bills, deposit slips, checks, toiletries and tickets.  All exceptions (and any mishaps) I collected, in order to display as a collage at our performances. 

PS- The other members of our Special Task Force (SHC’s core company) also made 30-day waste-related pledges, each unique and inspiring.  You can read about their adventures on our Facebook page (and Like us, while you’re at it!).

Theater Is A Reusable Cup (April 2011)

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance about “going green”.  Having grown up in California living la vida verde long before eco-consciousness became more nationally trendy, he was frustrated with how the small actions of individual consumers had a tendency to become placeholders for real change; actions like switching from incandescent bulbs to CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps), the occasional recycling or buying products with words like “natural” printed on the label seemed to be satisfying people’s environmental guilt, allowing them to feel content that they’d done their part.  In other words, so many neighbors seemed to be saying to themselves: The Earth is in peril, therefore I will buy a local organic tomato, and all will be well. According to this acquaintance—and many others who have expressed similar feelings, including politicians, CEOs, some of my closest friends/family, and me, sometimes—the global environmental crisis can only truly be solved from the top down, from the legislation of government, the regulation of corporations and industry.  Questions arise as soon as you start comparing the small actions of individuals to the immensity of environmental challenges: How can the tiny, mostly imperceptible changes I make in my life curb something as massive as global warming?  What difference does it make in the grand scheme of things if I throw this plastic bottle in the trash?  The meat is in the grocery store whether I buy it or not.  The plane is flying whether I’m on it or not.  And also: why should I have to sacrifice convenience and comfort when I’m not the one cutting down all those trees or poisoning the water?

One might ask similar questions about green theater: How can theater, a medium that reaches relatively few (compared to television, for example) and wastes relatively little (compared to film, for example) be an effective conduit for environmental change?  What difference does it make if we don’t print programs or use high-wattage lights?  The materials are being thrown away whether we use them in our set first or not.  Mercury will still be in the water whether we talk about it in our play or not.  Why spend so much energy and time on something that might be seen only by a few hundred people (if we’re lucky), doesn’t have the power to change a law, and by nature will almost completely disappear after closing night?

These days, this is how I’m answering some of those questions:

Change begins small.  It begins with stories and conversations.  Theater is merely a gesture in the frenzied dance of the millions vying for an individual’s attention, but because it is a carefully constructed, highly conscious gesture, affective on both a personal and communal level, theater has the ability to change minds—in this way, theater is like a reusable cup, the purchase of a local organic tomato, the switch to CFLs, or composting.  To paraphrase what I have heard Anne Bogart articulate on several occasions, the event of theater is a tiny model for a larger functional community, a microcosm of society, an arena in which we might practice—artists and audiences together—how we might live in the world.  It has the power to allow a group of people to consider that which is larger than themselves, even just for one evening.

Therefore, to me, the process of making theater and the content shared with an audience are vital to consider, because they mirror (and sometimes create) the content of our real-world conversations and the way we live in the world.   The same can be said for the content of our little daily decisions—riding public transit or a bike instead of driving a car, declining a plastic bag at the checkout—they reflect our priorities, which in turn create our quality of life.

Art begets discourse.  Discourse creates paradigm shifts.  New paradigms create new memes.  Memes are shared and passed from individual to individual, shaping our culture.  Culture makes demands.  Demands make a system.  A system becomes an eco-system (and by “eco” I mean both economy and ecology, together as siblings). This eco-system, devised by our collective consciousness, is what our governments are hired (by us) to govern.  In other words, as Colin Beaven (aka No Impact Man) would say, we are the system.

Yes, it is essential for our administrations and industries to adopt new policies and drastically change their business-as-usuals; the results of their procrastination or failure to do so are terribly frightening, and there’s not much we as individuals can do about how those with money and power govern the system we live in.  But without the bottom up, without our individual demands, our boycotts, our conscientious purchases, our informed perspectives, our self-empowerment, our mini revolutions, without a new culture of eco-consciousness, we are doubly doomed.

No, the environmental movement is no more about organic biodegradable hand soap saving polar bears than our plays are about telescopes and mad hatters.  The true event (of the play, or the reusable cup) is a symbol of cultural movement, of a new social story being written.  “Going green” in its truest form is about events both large and small igniting a change of thinking.  Through art and discourse, we determine our future.  What will we make?  What will we talk about?  How will we live?

Side note: this is the first of a monthly Captain’s Blog I’ll be writing.  This one’s for Earth Day.  Next month I’ll be chatting about waste, in preparation for our upcoming production of URANUS.  Thanks for reading!