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!